His/her story: A conversa prophetess

Inés was certain Elijah was coming to announce the messiah; Unfortunately, her activity attracted attention of the Inquisition.

Genevieve Terver-Noel painting_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Genevieve Terver-Noel painting_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Women played various roles in messianic movements. Benvenida Abravanel provided financial support for David Hareuveni, while Shabtai Zvi’s wife Sarah believed she was destined to marry the messiah; others actively engaged in prophecy.
In the town of Herrera del Duque in Castile, Spain, a girl named Inés was born in 1488; by the time she was 11, in August 1499, she was enthusiastically reporting her visions.
Inés was the daughter of Juan Esteban and a mother (whose name is unknown) who died when she was quite young. She was brought up by her father and stepmother, Beatriz Ramírez. Needless to say, these years were fraught with trauma and upheaval for the Jews of Spain, who had either been exiled in 1492 or had converted rather than leave their homeland.
This pre-teen conversa began to share her experiences and reported ascending to heaven with her deceased mother, who held out her hand to her daughter and allayed her fears. There Inés saw angels, images alongside the moon and various souls seated on golden chairs; she supposedly returned with tokens of proof of her ascent, such as corn, olives and a letter.
The accounts apparently were extremely convincing. As a result, she quickly gained a following among conversos of all ages. Many young girls were influenced by her, as were older men and women thrilled with the idea that salvation might be en route, providing relief and comfort for those who had unhappily converted.
Inés passed on the instructions received from her mother: Fast on Mondays and Thursdays (fast days dating to the Talmud); give alms; observe Shabbat; wear clean clothes and dress up in its honor; believe in the Torah of Moses. Because Herrera was a center for leather, there were many shoemakers and leather tanners like her father, Juan, who congregated there.
Word traveled quickly in this region (Extremadura), and many leather workers had an excellent excuse to come to the village and hear the prophetess.
Inés was certain that Elijah was on his way to announce the messiah. All believers would be transported by the messiah to the Promised Land. In one version, they would all cross a river that resembled the Red Sea. The young girls were told they would be dressed in white for the journey.
Everything was abundant there; tables filled with bread, fruit and delicacies awaited them. The girls would find young men to marry upon their arrival.
Unfortunately for Inés, this was precisely the kind of activity that attracted the attention of the Inquisition. The conversos, instead of assimilating into Christian society, were being exposed to heretical ideas that would preclude any chance of integration. By April 1500, after eight months of prophesying, the 12-year-old from Herrera was arrested. (See Haim Beinart, “Ines of Herrera del Duque: The Prophetess of Extremadura,” in Women in the Inquisition, ed. Mary Giles, 1999).
Inquisition files reveal an interesting phenomenon. Numerous young girls were tried because they were fasting in the hope of attaining a handsome groom; they were viewed by the Church as souls that could still be saved. Some were extremely young, while others were teenagers. The Holy Tribunal decided that with proper instruction, they could still become good Catholics. The older followers, many of whom had converted in 1492, were seen as incorrigible, for they had reverted to Judaism before even a decade had passed. The Inquisition was far less generous with them and their sentences.
The information available about Inés is not from her trial records, which, unfortunately, have disappeared. While her father managed to flee to Portugal, numerous files of the trials of her converso followers fill in the blanks. Thus by August 1500, she had already been burned at the stake as a heretic, for a conversa messianic prophetess was far too threatening and dangerous for the Spanish Inquisition to tolerate.
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.