His Story/ Her Story: What was his story?

To this day, no one knows whether de Paz was representing his converso brethren in the papal court, was deferring the establishment of the Inquisition with bribes and flattery, or whether he was double-crossing everyone throughout his checkered career.

March 16, 2014 14:14
4 minute read.
Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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After the forced conversion of the Jews in Portugal in 1497, King Manuel promised not to investigate their activities for 20 years; in other words, he would not consider establishing an inquisition (yet). He realized that this group, mostly consisting of Spanish Jews who had chosen to leave their beloved homeland in 1492 rather than convert, would need time to adapt and hopefully assimilate into Catholic society.

The king died in 1521, and when his son, John III, inherited the throne, he dealt differently with the New Christians. This group had attempted to negotiate with the pope in 1515, hoping to prevent any papal initiatives regarding an inquisition. Meanwhile, a New Christian son of a royal physician earned himself a place of honor with the crown through his military service in North Africa. John bestowed upon him the habit of the Military Order of Christ. By 1531, Duarte de Paz set forth for Rome.

What were his intentions? Was he representing his New Christian brethren or seeking to gain the favor of the king? James Nelson Novoa has discovered some of the documents in Rome that deal with de Paz’s time there and his various relationships (see “The Departure of Duarte de Paz from Rome in the Light of Documents from the Vatican Secret Archive,” 2007). As it turns out, de Paz was a skilled negotiator and diplomat who quickly entered the inner circles of Rome’s religious and political world. He was welcomed by the court, as well as by the priests, and privy to inside information. Was he working for the New Christians, or for the king? The papal documents seem to favor the Portuguese New Christians.

In 1532, Pope Clement VII suspended an inquisitorial court, confirming this act with a bull the following year; he also granted amnesty to Portuguese New Christians in 1535. In this same year, the pope granted de Paz safe conduct; after de Paz was physically attacked in the street the following year, Pope Paul III sent orders to care for him. The nature of the attack is still unclear. Some surmise that the Portuguese king was angry with him for negotiating on behalf of the New Christians and ordered the attack, for John III was not pleased with these decrees emanating from Rome. It turns out that de Paz had promised the Holy Roman Emperor a sizable payment from the New Christians, who were withholding half until the aforementioned decrees were enforced. There were complaints in 1535 about de Paz; the New Christians seemed to be denying that he was their representative in Rome.

On May 26, 1536, the Portuguese Inquisition was established while Duarte de Paz was present in Rome. By the following year, one of his main contacts, a papal secretary, had fallen out of favor at the court. He realized that it was time to leave the city, yet the pope protected him, reinstated him into the Order in 1537 and allowed him to carry arms. He seems to have gone to Antwerp carrying papal letters in 1538 that would present him to various heads of state, including the queen of Hungary.

He sought to reclaim confiscated funds of Portuguese New Christian merchants in the Low Countries, and for this purpose, he was granted safe passage and the right to collect these funds. He then appeared in Ferrara, Italy. He is also mentioned in a letter regarding his right to live in Rome and the papal states.

In 1539, he was denounced for conducting secret dealings with King John III and trying to procure money from the New Christians. He seems to have been writing letters to the king, sending him information about New Christians while offering his services to the pope and to the emperor. After all, he was thoroughly familiar with this Portuguese community and had inside information, as he presented himself as a sincere Christian. When his luck ran out, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Ferrara in 1540, banned from the court in Rome and excommunicated; his goods confiscated. The Vatican revoked all his privileges in 1542.

His next stop was the Ottoman Empire, where he decided to return to his Jewish roots but instead converted to Islam. While attempting to reconcile with the king of Portugal and the new pope, Julius II, the trail abruptly ends.

What was his story? To this day, no one knows whether de Paz was representing his converso brethren in the papal court, was deferring the establishment of the Inquisition with bribes and flattery, or whether he was double-crossing everyone throughout his checkered career. ■

The writer 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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