Conversos often obtained impressive positions in Iberian society despite the discrimination that they encountered, whether in the social or legal realm.
A fascinating trial reveals endless details about the life of Juan Ramirez, who lived in Valencia, Granada and Castile.
This proceeding, which lasted from 1512 to 1524, contains over 300 pages. Haim Beinart transcribed the entire document in Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real (1981), Volume 3.
The list of witness testimonies is overwhelming. The statement of a black slave named Isabel spanned six pages; in order to verify her testimony, four prosecution witnesses were asked to comment on her trustworthiness. After this testimony, 28 more appear in the proceedings. However, the defense was not to be upstaged; during the trial, it provided 85 witnesses! Juan’s roots can be traced to a village in Valencia, where he was apprenticed to a converso merchant in the 1450s. This merchant and his family taught Juan how to Judaize with them. His next career choice was tax farming. This means he had accumulated sufficient funds to enter this profession, which he pursued both in Granada and Badajoz, located in western Spain near Portugal.
In March 1487, he decided to confess to his Judaizing activities in the Inquisitorial court in Cordoba, perhaps because he hoped or had heard that the tribunal there might be more lenient with him. His confession was very general; he admitted to apostasy and heresy, and offending the church and Christ, but did not specify particular practices at this time.
Juan was granted absolution, at which time he paid a huge sum to the court – presumably to aid in the war against the Muslims in Granada. Apparently he had moved to the town of Ciudad Real by this time, and was eventually employed as a majordomo
(chief steward) in the household of Cardinal Cisneros. The cardinal sent him to confess once again, despite the fact that his sins had been forgiven by the church.
In this confession, 24 years after his first, he specified his observances: fasting on Yom Kippur, observing Shabbat, seeing candles being lit on Friday nights, wearing clean shirts on Shabbat and eating with the family with whom he was Judaizing.
Interestingly enough, a third confession appears in this huge file, this time presented to the court in May 1513. Previous as well as additional Judaizing activities appear here: belief in the Law of Moses; eating matza; eating food on Shabbat that was prepared on Friday; fasting on Yom Kippur and at other times, and praying; eating “Jewish” meat; observing Shabbat when he could; praying on Friday nights and Saturday mornings from a Jewish prayer book; wearing clean clothes on Shabbat; giving alms to Jews; and attending services in homes where Jewish prayers were recited.
It is surprising to discover that the cardinal continued to employ him. The trial went on for so long that the defendant died before its completion. Beinart noted that Juan’s son, Diego, proceeded to replace his father in the cardinal’s household until his employer died in 1517.
This son also devoted himself to defending his father’s reputation, and was responsible for extending the trial for as long as he could. By means of this tactic, he hoped to prevent a sentence of condemnation. Although the defendant was being tried posthumously, if found guilty, his bones would be exhumed and burned at an auto-de-fé. In addition, his property would be subject to confiscation and his son would lose his position.
In 1521, the committee recorded an odd decision: the defendant would not be condemned, but his goods would be confiscated. Diego and his lawyer did not give up their struggle and eventually managed to bring this development to the attention of the Supreme Council which, in 1524, overturned the decision.
Analyzing this lengthy trial could easily fill an entire book, but even without following it step by step, one realizes that this man and his family fought against amazing odds.
Essentially, a young man brought up in 14th-century Catholic Spain was suddenly initiated into Judaism, which he readily accepted. As he admitted and as noted by the witnesses for the prosecution, he had been serious about his observance, but when considering his options, had clearly decided to change his ways. Juan Ramirez chose to present a voluntary confession in the court of Cordoba, where he was reconciled to the church.
While employed by the cardinal, he seemed to be living the life of a devout Catholic. This employer retained him for years, but insisted he confess once more to his previous sins.
The court attempted to find him guilty, even after his death, but his son fervently fought this sentence and eventually managed to retain the family property and clear his father’s name.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the academic editor of Nashim.