The trial of Isabel López

Like mother, like daughter? A 16th century trial on Shabbat observance to dietary laws.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
An earlier column (May 13, 2011) dealt with the trial of a Judeo-conversa named María López. As it turns out, Isabel, her daughter, was also arrested; both trials began on the same day, September 9, 1516. Both mother and daughter lived in Cogolludo, a small village north of Guadalajara, and their lives were closely intertwined.
The list of charges presented to Isabel by the prosecutor for the Inquisition was not identical to that of her mother. Isabel was accused of observing the Sabbath by dressing in holiday garb and joining others to celebrate. The first witness testimony was a bit weak, for it was based on hearsay; the witness was told by a maidservant that Isabel and her husband did not leave the house while dressed up in order not to be noticed. However, a former employee named Madalena reported the presence of numerous Shabbat observers all dressed up for the occasion. Thus the prosecution felt it had ample information available.
Isabel was also accused of praying on Shabbat and other days; two witnesses attested to this activity. A former maidservant testified being ordered to clean lamps and put new wicks in them on Friday afternoons.
The charges moved from Shabbat observance to dietary laws. A witness reported entering her kitchen in 1504, seeing a leg of lamb or beef in Isabel’s hands which she cut “open lengthwise with a knife, cleaned the inside of... with her nails” and threw into the pot to cook. A former maidservant corroborated the report, and expanded upon it: after removing the fat, Isabel washed the meat until the blood was gone. Something unidentified was removed from the leg of lamb as well.
The fifth charge dealt with avoiding the consumption of foods such as pork, conger-eel, octopus, eel and rabbits. The final charge referred to communal meals which included her parents in which a porkless stew with chickpeas, onions and spices was prepared.
Her mother, María, had adamantly denied all charges on January 12, 1517. Isabel also said she had no idea what the prosecutor was referring to. She denied all observances, had not prayed or removed the sciatic nerve from meat or eaten special stews. Once she took one of her daughters to a healer because she was ill; apparently she thought that this might be worth confessing.
ON FEBRUARY 9, the defendant expanded upon her rebuttal: She never observed Shabbat or wore special clothes except in honor of a Church holy day, a baptism or wedding ceremony. She recited the Ave Maria, the Pater Noster, the Creed and the Salve Regina. She had no idea what the sciatic nerve was, but was a clean woman who ate all types of fish and animals. She asked the tribunal to restore her honor and reputation. In August, she stated that the evidence was false and invalid. She was a good Christian; nothing she did was heretical.
If she cleaned her meat, it was because she was meticulous; she never dressed up on Friday or Saturday and had no special lamps in her home.
Character witnesses then testified that Isabel attended mass, went to confession regularly, was clean and well-dressed and even ate rabbits and eel! Her neighbor, also godmother of five of her children, knew she was a good Christian and had smelled pork cooking in her home. (See my Heretics or Daughters of Israel, Oxford University Press, 1999.)
When the council met, its members agreed that the defendant was guilty and should be “relaxed to the secular arm,” but the mayor, a member of the council, felt that submitting her to torture might persuade her to reveal the identity of her accomplices. The churchmen present acquiesced and sent Isabel to the torture chamber where, after three rounds, she revealed absolutely nothing. On November 30, 1518, mother and daughter were sentenced to death. (In a future column, the details of the defense attempts will uncover an additional layer of converso life.) Mother and daughter had judaized together, were arrested and convicted together and faced their gruesome deaths together at the auto-da-fé.
Renée Levine Melammed 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.