His Story/Her Story: A daughter of the Inquisition

Beatriz Alonso explains to daughters why they should observe Jewish law, saying it would bring about the salvation of one’s soul.

Famed artist Francisco Goya’s drawing of an individual prosecuted by the Inquisition. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Famed artist Francisco Goya’s drawing of an individual prosecuted by the Inquisition.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Inquisition trials dealing with Inés de Mérida are somewhat unusual.
This resident of Ciudad Real faced the inquisitorial tribunal in 1513 at the age of 25, and again in 1522.
In what is recorded as the confession of her mother, Beatriz Alonso, in October 1512, Beatriz implicated all of her “daughters,” explaining how she had indoctrinated them in Judaism.
Her oldest two had been taught to observe Shabbat since childhood and to continue after marrying; one had passed away. The younger two, Inés and Lucrecia, had also been instructed to observe Shabbat by wearing clean blouses, preparing food in advance and lighting oil lamps with new wicks at an earlier hour than usual.
It seems Inés’s brother Martín did not Judaize, because Beatriz mentioned that when he’d visited the family four or five years earlier, they had not dared to observe in his presence. When asked if she had explained to her daughters why they should choose this path, she said she had explained that observing Jewish law would bring about the salvation of one’s soul.
When Inés was arrested in March of the following year, she offered a lengthy confession that did not quite match the above statement.
Inés had seen Beatriz observing Shabbat together with her younger sister, Lucrecia, some 13 years earlier, at which time both her mother and sister wore holiday clothes. Sometimes Beatriz would say to her on Shabbat, “Wear a clean blouse, darn you, and take off your dirty skirt!” Consequently, she would sometimes don a clean blouse but not a clean bonnet, because she only had the one on her person; she said Beatriz had always treated her roughly.
She did not always observe with the others; at times she engaged in work on Shabbat, and Beatriz would admonish her: “Stop this, darn you, don’t do anything.” If she persisted, her mother fought with her and hit her with whatever was in Inés’s hand at the time.
In addition, Inés was told to clean the oil lamps on Friday afternoons and to place clean wicks in them; these would burn all night until they went out by themselves. Her married sister, María González, sometimes came to their home on Shabbat day and remained until nightfall, partaking of a meal of lettuce and stews with herbs and meat. This sister would bring her spinning wheel along with flax or wool in order to weave, but would place it on the floor or elsewhere; ultimately, she did not spin or do anything of the sort, but carried it all back home after dark.
Sometimes the mother and her youngest daughter went to María’s on Shabbat, also taking their spinning wheels and likewise returning without having progressed in their work.
Inés did not join them, because she was told to stay at home to guard the house. When they occasionally went to the orchards, they did not want to take her with them either; these excursions might last a few days.
Inés also noticed how Beatriz trimmed her nails and made an indentation in the floor into which she put the clippings, covering them with dirt or throwing the parings into the fire. She also saw her bless Lucrecia and the grandchildren, placing her hand on their heads – not crossing herself, but clearly blessing them. Inés never received such a blessing.
Sometimes she saw Beatriz kneading dough and tossing five pieces into the fire.
The interrogators asked Inés if she had ever seen her family praying, which she had; it had taken place in a certain room, but she had no idea what they were saying or doing. She was also asked whether she had noticed if they had washed their hands prior to prayer, which she had indeed witnessed.
The interrogation reached the crux of the matter: Why had she observed, whenever she did so? Inés declared that she had done so only because her mother had ordered her to, and that she hadn’t known if what she was doing was good or bad until the inquisitor had specifically told her. She now understood that it was bad, but she had been afraid of her mother, who had never provided an explanation as to why she should do any of these things. She was never allowed out of the house, not even to go to mass, and was told she was crazy.
Inés asked for forgiveness, and after two discussions, the council’s final decision in June 1513 was to reconcile her to the church, but to confiscate her possessions and “imprison” her in her brother Juan’s home for three years. Ironically, this seems to be uncannily similar to her experience in Beatriz’s house.
She was recalled in October 1522 on the basis of new evidence the court had received.
By this time, her father had also passed on. This time, the proceedings included a genealogy, which proves enlightening.
In the documents from the first trial, Inés had referred to Beatriz as her mother, and Beatriz had called Inés her daughter. However, it seems that Beatriz was her stepmother and that Inés’s father, Fernando de Mérida, had first been married to Inés de Baños. The chronology here is a bit muddled because Beatriz had described all the children as her own – although she might have been married beforehand, which would explain the presence of the aforementioned older married sister. Lucrecia was Fernando’s and Beatriz’s daughter.
While this mother did not distinguish between Inés and her sisters during her confession, where she claimed to have treated them equally and to have explained why they should Judaize, this daughter had a completely different interpretation. According to Inés’s version, she was mistreated, excluded from activities, confined to the house and told she was crazy.
Interestingly enough, she did marry; her husband, Alonso de Morales, was a cloth weaver, but his name does not appear in these confessions.
Inés had no idea why she had been returned to the tribunal, but gave a short confession, relating that she had made negative statements about the Inquisition some eight years earlier.
For instance, she said that some individuals had been burned at the stake on the basis of false testimony. She then begged for mercy, as she was sorry to have made such derogatory statements.
Witnesses claimed she had also said that some of those tried had been burned so others could claim their estates; the defendant regretted making such insinuations.
That same month, after accepting her confession, the council sentenced her to 100 lashes and expelled her from the region– that is to say, from Ciudad Real and the Toledo.
Twice tried, twice facing the inquisitors, this stepchild whose stepmother had treated her so poorly was not condemned to the stake, probably because she had committed her sins out of fear or ignorance. It is hard to judge whether or not she was limited intellectually, but she did marry and presented sensible statements to the court.
Her stepmother, in the meantime, did not receive such merciful treatment from the court.
(For the original Spanish, see Haim Beinart, Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real, 3: 358 -377.)
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and academic editor of the Nashim journal.