Confessing voluntarily: A 15th-century Majorcan ‘chueta’

His story/her story: The history of the Jewish community on the island of Majorca as well as that of the conversos, their descendants (known as chuetas) differs from that of the rest of Spain.

October 10, 2013 12:38
3 minute read.
Island of Majorca

Island of Majorca 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The history of the Jewish community on the island of Majorca as well as that of the conversos and their descendants (known as chuetas) differs from that of the rest of Spain. There is very limited documentation from the early period of inquisitorial activity there, but Natalie Oeltjen, who recently received a PhD from the University of Toronto, has uncovered some material that she presented at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem this past August.

Thus, we have access to information about a woman named Escalaramunda Bertran, who offered a voluntary confession to the tribunal in 1488 as well as in 1490. She was not alone in choosing this path; it turns out that over 300 conversos confessed during each of these grace periods and were subsequently reconciled to the church.

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Bertan’s father, Pere Pardo, was not from Majorca, but rather from Valencia; he relocated to the island about five years after the forced conversions of 1391. The Pardo family maintained ties with Valencia while creating new ties in Majorca, as various members married nobility from both locales.

When the penitent appeared the first time in order to confess, she gave the impression of being a well-spoken woman with a strong sense of honor. Oeltjen’s translation of part of her confession includes the following: “You know, reverend fathers, that up until this point I have lived by divine grace in the world honorably, and coming to this examination could not be without much shame; but recalling the well-being of my soul, I have decided to state everything that I have done against the faith, and not to hide any part of the truth maliciously… because I am not liked by many people and I do not want [them] to inflict something terrible upon me.”

She proceeded to admit to having observed the fast of Yom Kippur a few times; she learned this from a Barcelonan Jew since there were still Jews on the mainland prior to the expulsion of 1492 (but after 1435, not in Majorca). Her godmother, also a conversa, had advocated fasting on this day as well.

In her second confession, in 1490, Bertran referred to Jewish prayers as another heretical activity. She had procured a prayer book from Barcelona; it was probably written in Catalan, in Latin script, like the prayer books possessed by some conversos on the mainland. However, most Jewish vernacular texts appeared in Hebrew letters (aljamiado). She recited portions of Psalm 31 in Hebrew, part of which can be found in the Catalan siddur.

She had learned and memorized this from a fellow converso named Vidal Prohencal, who told her that the messiah was yet to come; he claimed to be knowledgeable in Jewish law as well.

Oeltjen points out that the verse recited was one that was traditionally said prior to retiring at night; likewise it was part of the Catholic liturgy, and among the final words attributed to Jesus in the Book of Luke.

All the other prayers were known only in Catalan, although the transcript that is extant is recorded in Castilian. She knew the confession that is part of the Yom Kippur liturgy (and is also recited on the deathbed), and recited it in the first person; her recitation included most of the sins listed in the original. Her instructor had also exposed her to what she described as the “seven psalms in the vulgar language.” She seemed to know part of Psalm 6, also a Catholic penitential psalm, but did not allude to the “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost”; she considered it to be part of her observance of the Mosaic law.

Because the Psalms were available in Christian vernacular editions at this time, the conversos had access to them. As a result, they assumed that knowing these prayers would not raise suspicion, and they felt a special relation to them since they were written by King David.

This conversa attributed her learning to various men, but was exposed to certain attitudes and practices by women. Her godmother taught her about Yom Kippur, Passover and not to believe in painted saints, whereas she learned about other fasts from her mother-in-law. She was fortunate that the court was satisfied with collecting the confessions of hundreds of conversos and reconciling them to the Church, even if some of them, like Bertran, appeared twice to confess what she claimed to remember each time, and were not punished for their sins.

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.

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