His/her story: The conversa midwife

Beatriz Rodríguez was a professional woman who, through her work as a midwife, had contact with both Old and New Christians.

Nazareth 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nazareth 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Beatriz Rodríguez was a conversa midwife whom the inquisitors in the Archbishopric of Toledo were anxious to convict. Rodríguez was born in Castile in the early 1480s; she and her widowed mother went south to Andalusia and subsequently converted to Christianity in 1492. Her first husband was an Old Christian whom she wed shortly after her conversion; eight years later she was widowed.
After moving back to Castile, she remarried, this time, choosing a New Christian like herself; five years later, it seems, she was widowed once again. By this time, she had at least three children.
This conversa was a professional woman who, through her work as a midwife, had contact with both Old and New Christians. Inquisition records inform us that in 1511 she was caring for a woman suffering from menstrual cramps, grinding herbs to apply to her patient. While in that household, an Old Christian cloth weaver and his servant engaged “the tall conversa” in conversation, intentionally leading her to believe that they were sympathetic conversos. Rodríguez naively chatted with them, maligning Old Christians. She referred to God’s love of the Jews, whom she described as “the apple of his eye.” This information was passed on to the inquisitors, but did not suffice to initiate proceedings against her.
In 1536, this midwife was summoned to the tribunal but was nowhere to be found, for she had gone to Portugal in an attempt to locate her brother. The inquisitors were perturbed by a report they had received concerning an infant’s baptism: When asked if there was water in the home of the newborn’s family, the midwife replied in the affirmative.
Thus the parish priest and the sexton were under the impression that the baptismal waters had already been applied (as would have been done had water been available), and proceeded incorrectly with the rite. It remains unclear to this day as to why she misinformed them. If the couple had indeed been judaizing, this would have been a clever means of collusion to undermine a baptism. However, since they were Old Christians, her rationale remains a mystery; upon her return, the inquisitor again elected not to prosecute her.
Needless to say, the fact that every midwife had the right to baptize an infant whose life might be endangered perturbed clergymen. The illiterate midwives were valued by the community and had access to a degree of power perceived as threatening by the clergy seeking to monopolize sacred power. While the midwives traditionally brought newborns to the baptismal font, the churchmen resented these women because they were involved with activities dealing with life, death and the fate of one’s soul.
In 1550, the inquisitor in Toledo summoned Rodríguez to the court once more, this time accusing her of judaizing, and imprisoned her. After three weeks (and no record of physical torture), the conversa appeared before the tribunal and recounted her personal and family history.
Almost unexpectedly, she confessed that while married to her second husband, the New Christian, she had sometimes honored Shabbat by abstaining from work and wearing good or at least clean clothes, but that she had later abandoned these practices. In her statement, she tried to present herself as ignorant and as having acted irrationally.
The court, however, was convinced that she had been a crypto-Jew for half a century; it sentenced her to life imprisonment and confiscated her goods. Two years later, she was released from prison and reconciled to the Church, but was instructed to remain within the city limits.
Rodríguez had been hounded by the Inquisition and, in the end, shown a considerable degree of mercy, yet she had effectively been removed from her practice.
While the extent of her judaizing remains unclear until this day, the clergy’s goal of neutralizing a successful conversa midwife was achieved.
(For details, see Heretics or Daughters of Israel: The Crypto-Jewish Women of Castile, Oxford, 1999.)
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.