Double lives and double trials

The story of a crypto-Jewish mother and son: both were condemned in effigy for judaizing, but only she was tried twice and ultimately burned at the stake.

star of david 311 (photo credit: iStickphoto)
star of david 311
(photo credit: iStickphoto)
Leonor González was a conversa living in Ciudad Real, a Castilian village located 70 kilometers south of Toledo, home to numerous crypto-Jews in the 15th century. Most of the conversos tried prior to 1492 were descendants of Jews who were forced to convert during the traumatic riots of 1391. Haim Beinart considered González’s family to be among the most eminent of the judaizers in the Ciudad Real community (see Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real, Volumes 1, 3, Jerusalem 1974, 1981).
In 1483, the central court for Castile was established there; by 1485, 88 trials of judaizers had already transpired.
Leonor and her husband Alonso González de Frexinal had five children: Juan, Leonor, Isabel, Rodrigo (born 1461) and Diego. Juan and Diego were tried later, as was their father, albeit posthumously.
Life had been generally peaceful until the outbreak of local riots in 1474. At this time, the family fled – first to Palma, near Cordova, and then to Alonso’s home town, where they lived a Jewish life, often commingling with Jews as well as conversos. Following her husband’s death in 1483, González and her children returned to Ciudad Real.
She disappeared at this time, later claiming that it was not related to judaizing but was a trip to Portugal (probably to visit a sister there). In the meantime, on January 30, 1484, the prosecutor began proceedings with the defendant in absentia. The list of charges was based on information provided by nine prosecution witnesses. She was accused of observing the Law of Moses and its ceremonies. Her Shabbat observance included lighting clean candles on Friday nights, eating meals prepared on Friday, wearing clean clothes as would a Jew, abstaining from work, and wearing holiday clothes. Other charges dealt with eating matza on Passover and observing the appropriate ceremonies; fasting on Yom Kippur; observing Jewish law; and reciting Jewish prayers.
The defendant was declared a heretic and condemned to be burned in effigy at the auto-da-fé held on February 24, less than a month after the trial began. In 1486, her son Juan, who had offered a confession three years earlier when he was reconciled to the church, agreed to attempt to retrieve his mother from Portugal, and received a certificate of safe-conduct in Seville for the trip. Apparently he miscalculated the quality and quantity of information in the court’s possession and expected her to be reconciled to the church as well.
He succeeded in his mission; his mother’s trial was reopened in Toledo in September 1492. She declared that she was no heretic; while she indeed lit candles on Friday nights, this was no different from any other night. She ate pork and had left town because she’d been given bad advice; the conversa hoped to be reconciled. However, the prosecutor produced four new witnesses who all suspected her of not being a good Christian.
This trial was also quite short, ending a month later with the condemnation of the defendant in person. On October 15, the body of Leonor González was burned in an auto-da-fé in Toledo. Because other members of this family were tried as well, there is a great deal of documentation available concerning them. The fate of her son Juan is ironic: He proved his loyalty to the church following his reconciliation by retrieving his mother, only to see her burned at the stake. He and his family fled to Portugal in 1511; the Inquisition began proceedings against him four years later. We know that he lived in Santarem from 1513 until his death in 1525; he was burned in effigy (posthumously?) in 1527. Both he and his mother had lived double lives, moving in and out of Judaism and in and out of Spain; both were condemned in effigy for judaizing, but only she was tried twice and ultimately burned at the stake.
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.