Converting in 14th-century Girona

His story/Her story

The Engraving of the hanukkia (photo credit: CONCHA JAMBRINA LEAL)
The Engraving of the hanukkia
(photo credit: CONCHA JAMBRINA LEAL)
Sílvia Planas, the gracious and erudite curator of the Jewish Museum in Girona, Spain, published a booklet that sheds light on the life and fate of a Jewish woman who lived in 14th -century Girona.
Astruga was born in 1375 to Goig and Jacob Bonjorn. Her grandfather, David Bonjorn de Barri, was a famous scientist and court astronomer from Perpignan who married Esther Caravita, the daughter of an elite Jewish family in Girona.
Esther’s marriage at the age of 16 was not successful, presumably because her husband was an unpleasant man who abused her. Her family rescued her and her young son, Jacob, enabling the two of them to return and live with her family in Girona.
Once grown, Jacob spent time with his father, David, who was living in Perpignan; this enabled him to study astronomy alongside him. He spent time in Barcelona but eventually returned to Girona to continue studying the stars. There he wrote learned books, one of which became a classic work in medieval astronomy; he was employed by King Pere, as was his father. Jacob, and he married a local Jewish woman named Goig, who belonged to a respected family with property including houses and was involved in trade and money-lending.
Little is known about the childhood of their daughter Astruga. The 17-year-old maiden wed an older man named Jucef Falcó. The groom was a widower who had been married to a woman from the eminent family of Rashba (Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret) of Barcelona. He served as secretary of the community and had dealings with the queen. This match was considered to be of the highest order; Astruga herself provided an impressive dowry of some 12,100 solidos (when a perfectly acceptable dowry ranged from 5,000 to 8,000 solidos). We know about this sum, not because their ketuba survived, but because Jucef mentions it in his 1392 will, in which he specified there that if he did not survive the illness from which he was suffering, Astruga was to receive her dowry in full. While this would have been a standard condition for a Jewish widow, this couple was no longer Jewish in 1392. They had survived the violent riots of August 1391 by converting, and were no longer known as Jucef and Astruga, but rather as Pere de Banyoles and Blanca, whose son was then baptized as Miquel.
While Blanca’s name had changed, her lifestyle apparently had not. When her husband died in 1392, she was anxious to remarry, and chose a fellow New Christian as her second husband. Once again, a prestigious match was made, for Ferrer of Montcada (of the Benvenist family) from Barcelona was a court physician. Blanca was concerned about retaining access to her first husband’s assets after remarrying. In order to guarantee this and to prevent her deceased husband’s family from making claims on what she considered to be hers, she turned to the king, John I, for support. The monarch acceded and had a declaration read in public which authorized her financial status and her guardianship over her son, even if she remarried.
It is assumed that this couple continued to observe Jewish practices at home. However, it appears that there were fellow converts who were jealous of Astruga/Blanca and Ferrer.
Although the Spanish Inquisition would not be established for another 80 years, there was a papal inquisition in Aragon that could be alerted to suspicions of heresy. In June 1394, while these two former Jews were vacationing in a spa nearby in Caldes, they were arrested by a local lord who had been informed that they were judaizing.
Blanca turned to Queen Violante, who intervened and arranged for the couple to be released from prison. She claimed that jealousy and hatred rather than religious concerns had motivated the informers. This traumatic experience apparently sufficed to alert these New Christians to the fact that they were in a precarious situation, and that it was time to consider leaving their beloved city. In August of 1494, the papal inquisitors returned with more claims of apostasy, accusing the couple of judaizing and of planning to flee the city in order to continue living their unacceptable lifestyle.
Although absent, the two still had royal backing, for the records show that King John I told the inquisitor not to bother the couple or their son.
Astruga and Ferrar eventually left for Portugal, presumably to return to a Jewish community, as we learn from a document dated 1409. The queen of Aragon was very unhappy to discover that she had been betrayed, and reacted accordingly. She ordered all their property to be confiscated; inquisitors in Portugal might even have been alerted about them. In 1410, the Jewish community in Girona was commanded to read this decree in public.
Meanwhile, the fate of Astruga and her husband remains unknown. Perhaps they managed to successfully escape the far-reaching tentacles of the inquisition, and to live their lives peacefully in a Portuguese Jewish community.