His/Her Story: A 16th-century Judaizer from Castile

This conversa, her husband and four children lived in the village of Cogolludo in Castile, where they worked, interacted with neighbors.

12inquisition (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
María López was a conversa of Jewish origin who witnessed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Her parents and grandparents had lived and died as Jews, but López, already a mother herself in 1492, chose to be baptized rather than leave her native soil.
She was fated to die as a convicted Judaizer, an unfaithful Catholic whose soul was lost to the church because of her heretical activities.
This conversa, her husband and four children lived in the village of Cogolludo in Castile, where they worked and interacted with their neighbors.
However, in 1516, their lives were to be drastically changed. As soon as ample suspicion and corroborating evidence existed regarding a New Christian’s fidelity to Catholicism, the Holy Tribunal considered it its duty to prosecute the alleged heretic. Thus López was arrested and imprisoned in September.
The prosecutor listed nine counts in the accusation, which was based on six different witness testimonies. López was accused of not eating pork or pork products, of removing fat from meat and of washing it vigorously in order to remove the blood, of removing the sciatic nerve from the leg of meat, of preparing Sabbath stew, of refraining from eating fish without scales, such as eel and octopus, as well as rabbit and the like, and of eating meat on Friday and on other days forbidden by the Church.
The defendant vehemently denied all of the charges: She claimed to have eaten pork, although often refraining because of an intolerance for it; she cleaned her meat because it was filthy; she preferred her meat lean but did no special preparation or ceremony; she ate all kinds of fish; if she ate meat on forbidden days, she received permission from her doctor or her priest. Later on in the trial, she declared that she never lit lamps on Friday nights or dressed up in honor of Shabbat, and wondered what was wrong with cooking meat with chickpeas and spices (even if it resembled the Sabbath stew).
The witnesses who testified about her character mentioned that she was very neat and that pork was brought into her kitchen; her son-in-law referred to her as a “stingy woman who didn’t trust anyone!” The cellar that the family owned was not for the purpose of secretly lighting lamps, but for wine, which she, the shop owner, sold. She was seen attending Sunday mass, but the inquisitors knew that this was no proof of loyalty to the Church; a successful crypto-Jew maintained such a façade while secretly observing Judaism.
A number of witnesses were former servants with whom López had tangled for various reasons: Some had stolen, some lived “unacceptable lifestyles,” others had fought with her and yet others had been beaten by her.
This conversa had crossed paths with numerous members of the community.
She and her husband owned real estate; she did not hesitate to evict tenants. They were involved in legal claims and vied for property with neighbors. Those to whom she loaned money disliked her, and she seems to have gotten into a tussle with her husband’s ex-mistress.
López never confessed, but the tribunal was convinced of her guilt; she was subjected to torture on November 24, 1518, but continued to insist on her innocence. Despite her claim that she was a good Christian, she was found guilty and sentenced to death at the auto-da-fé in Toledo on November 30.
When I first read the court proceedings, I wondered if she might have been a serious convert to Catholicism. Though the intricacies of the trial (see my article, “María López,” in Women in the Inquisition, ed. Mary E.
Giles, Baltimore, 1999) are confusing, López remained strong and unbending throughout. However, when her husband was later arrested, he chose an alternate path and confessed. His confession clearly attests to the Jewishness of his wife’s lifestyle and secret observances. The Inquisition had not erred this time.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women.