‘Like a cork floating on water’: Juan del Campo on trial

His story/her story: Between 1590 and 1594, the converso Juan del Campo was on trial for judaizing.

La Mancha, Spain Don Quixote style 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
La Mancha, Spain Don Quixote style 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Between 1590 and 1594, the converso Juan del Campo was on trial for judaizing. He was a 50-year-old former storekeeper living on his homestead in La Mancha and married for 10 years to 30-year-old Isabel de Yepes.
Interestingly enough, he was called upon to testify in the trial of a first cousin, at which he mentioned some Shabbat observance and inconsistently refraining from eating pork. Portions of this cousin’s brother’s testimony were then used in the trial against del Campo. The brother testified that he had seen del Campo fast an entire day, ritually wash his hands, and observe Shabbat. Another witness stated that del Campo had taught her and read to her from a book that he kept hidden.
A widow named María de Villaescusa, who was also imprisoned at the time, said that del Campo had invited her to a home where he read from a book about the patriarchs and discussed the meaning of fasting from sundown to sundown.
He also took her to another converso’s home, she said, where she learned about various Jewish festivals. Del Campo had written a prayer on a piece of paper for her, which she was told to learn. While clutching it to her breast, she accidentally dropped and lost it (it was later found by none other than a cleric). She obtained a replacement for this lost prayer from del Campo.
Eventually this witness revealed that the defendant had been a frequent visitor to her home, which also housed her store; he might have been coming to make purchases, but more likely was visiting her daughter, with whom he was having an affair.
Del Campo’s aforementioned wife, Isabel, was not a conversa. In her testimony, she described how her husband washed his hands before praying; he sometimes covered his eyes or face while praying and often washed his hands before eating.
He read from a book of Psalms written in Romance and instructed her, should he be taken to Toledo (to the Inquisitorial Court), to destroy his book, which she did.
Sometimes he removed the blood from meat, but she intimated that this was not proper ritual slaughter. At the end of her statement, she, unlike most witnesses, actually signed her own name.
Another witness pointed out that there were no Christian images in the defendant’s home, while yet another stated that his wife would try to hide her actions whenever she cooked herself bacon or roast pork for breakfast. In the latter witness’s opinion, Isabel had no alternative, because her husband was a “low-down and treacherous” fellow who interfered with his wife’s daily routine.
The inquisitors summoned a former kitchen maidservant who had worked for the couple, but it turned out that she had not noticed any judaizing activities at all. On the contrary, she thought that the cooking of bacon was hidden because del Campo was annoyed when too much food was prepared and then wasted.
The final testimony was by del Campo himself, who dated his judaizing to 30 years earlier, when his maternal uncle initiated him in 1560. This uncle had taught many of his cousins as well. Del Campo observed Shabbat by not working, but often pretended to be doing some sort of work in order to avoid suspicion. He occasionally ate pork despite the prohibition and observed the three festival holidays.
However, when he married Isabel, he ceased his judaizing because she was a pious Catholic to whom these activities would be unacceptable.
Twenty years of living “like a cork [floating] on [the] water” came to an end; this was his description of his life as a crypto-Jew. After he decided to repent and abandon this lifestyle, stability would prevail, for he would no longer be affected by every wave or gust of wind that crossed his path.
It seems that this choice saved his life. In 1591, the court sentenced him to life imprisonment. However in 1594, because he was a model penitent, fasting and praying as instructed, the court reconsidered its decision and commuted the sentence, releasing him from prison and granting him freedom of movement in Castile.
This former judaizer had miraculously maneuvered his way to freedom.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim, who is on sabbatical this year.