A new book co-edited by Johns Hopkins historian Richard Kagan offers a rare glimpse into the lives of six prisoners — non-conformists of their time — who got caught in the prosecutorial web of the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition is not an institution
customarily associated with autobiography. . . . Rather,
the Holy Office, as the Inquisition is also known, evokes
the darker side of life — arbitrary justice, racial
hatred, and religious persecution, along with images of
dreary prisons, torture, and human suffering.
On the morning of July 17, 1587, a woman in men's garb was escorted from her jail cell to stand before Lord Inquisitor don Lope de Mendoza. In the Tribunal of Toledo, one of the busiest courts of the Spanish Inquisition, the prisoner swore an oath to tell the truth.
"My name is Elena de Céspedes," she said. "I was born in Alhama and I'm forty-one or two years old."
Céspedes, a former slave of Moorish descent — and sometime tailor, hosier, mercenary soldier, and licensed surgeon — was also known as Eleno. She had married twice — initially, as a girl of 16 to a man who abandoned her after she became pregnant. (Her husband later died, she said.) More than two decades later, and just 15 months before her trial, she married again.
In 1586, living as a man, Céspedes wed 24-year-old María del Caño.
"When I asked for María del Caño's hand in marriage, and it was given to me, I went to Madrid to ask the vicar for a license to marry and post banns" [publicly announce the wedding], Céspedes told inquisitors. "The vicar, who saw that I was beardless and hairless, asked me if I was a capon. I told him I wasn't, and that he should look at me to see that I wasn't."
The vicar and his associates took Céspedes to a nearby house, where they inspected Céspedes from the front. The men testified that the prospective groom appeared to be a man. The marriage went forward, the veiling celebrated in Ciempozuelos.
Yet, after a year, a royal official, acting on a neighbor's tip, arrested the couple for committing "the nefarious crime of sodomy," a capital offense. Céspedes claimed innocence, saying she was male when she married.
In fact, Céspedes would later tell inquisitors that
she was a hermaphrodite, having both sets of sexual organs.
Standing before the tribunal, which charged Céspedes
with sorcery and "disrespect for the marriage sacrament,"
Céspedes would argue that this unique gender status
allowed her to live as a man or a woman — in God's
service, and without the Devil's dark magic.
|"Usually, we view history through the eyes of the elite. Yet it is interesting to see how other people navigated their lives," says Richard Kagan. "This is living history, and it opens up whole new dimensions of the historical past."||
Céspedes' shocking tale was embarrassing to Catholic
authorities in the 16th century. Her case, an example of
social deviance in early modern Europe, was brought before
the Holy Office, which had been created more than a century
before to punish Spanish Catholics accused of heresy
— mostly converted Jews, and later Muslims, accused
of secretly practicing their native faiths. The Inquisition
also prosecuted "Old Christians," like Céspedes
(whose mother was Moorish and father Christian), for
committing "crimes" ranging from blasphemy to bigamy.
The punishments of the accused — an estimated 40,000 appeared before the Spanish Inquisition during its 350-year history — usually ranged from prayers of atonement, to public lashings, exile, prison, or, in the case of heretics who refused to recant, burning at the stake.
During Céspedes' trial, which lasted several weeks, Holy Office judges would press for a confession. And they would try to keep her out of the public eye during the remainder of her lifetime.
Her story, however, has outlasted all of them.
That's because a lesser known aspect of the bureaucracy of the Spanish Inquisition was its penchant for documenting the institution's feared secret trials, including prisoners' personal testimonies that often were recorded, nearly word for word, by inquisitorial scribes. The result: a surviving written record of autobiographies that offer a glimpse into the lives of real people caught in the Inquisition's prosecutorial web.
Richard L. Kagan, professor and chair of the Johns Hopkins History Department, came across the Inquisition narratives back in the mid-1980s, when researching the life of one of the Inquisition's most fascinating victims for his book Lucrecia's Dreams: Politics and Prophesy in Sixteenth Century Spain. Kagan, who teaches a popular undergraduate course in historical autobiography titled Visions of the Self, notes that these examples of social deviance, as well as outright challenges to church or secular authority, are ironically preserved via the official Inquisition records. "Usually, we view history through the eyes of elites, such as kings and queens. Yet it is interesting to see how other people navigated their lives," Kagan says. "This is living history, and it opens up whole new dimensions of the historical past."
In the mid-1990s, Kagan and Columbia University PhD student Abigail Dyer, who had heard of Kagan's work, started delving deeper into such stories. Among other resources, they scoured 400-year-old Inquisition trial records, stacks upon stacks of yellowing rag paper now housed at Madrid's Archivo Histórico Nacional, Mexico City's Archivo General de la Nación, and in regional Spanish archives. The resulting book, Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews & Other Heretics, was published earlier this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Teofilo F. Ruiz, professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), has been following the researchers' work. Kagan and Dyer "look at the Inquisition from rather a new perspective, emphasizing the role of women as victims of the Inquisition, raising questions about sexuality, honor, and shame," Ruiz says.
Kagan, who has taught at Hopkins since 1972, has studied and written about various facets of early modern Spain, including the history of women, the architecture of cities, and university and legal culture — remarkable range for a historian. Notes Ruiz: "He can imbed the Inquisition into the broader social context of early modern Spanish society."
For their book, Kagan and Dyer translated and annotated the
autobiographies of six prisoners, five of whom were tried
in Europe and one in the New World. These cases are not
representative of typical Spaniards or Spanish
émigrés of the day but instead reveal the
type of individuals — and the range of social and
religious issues — of concern to Spanish authorities
in the 16th and 17th centuries. The researchers focus on
what is considered the early modern period, in which
medieval feudal societies were replaced by the larger
nation-states that preceded today's political and social
|Kagan, along with co-editor Dyer, researched and translated original 400-year-old trial records.||
"These lives are unusual — they speak of the margins
of early modern Spanish society and of the limits of
acceptable social and religious behavior," writes Kagan,
who co-authored the introduction and analytical essays in
Inquisitorial Inquiries. Kagan notes that such
people, because they often live for decades with their
"crimes" before being brought before the tribunals, reveal
how society did tolerate such nonconformists, at least for
Most of the narratives have never been published, let alone translated into English. In the late 1990s, Dyer reviewed archival records and microfilm, painstakingly transcribing and translating the cryptic shorthand used by court scribes. Dyer, now an independent scholar in New York and a soprano with the Amato Opera company, says she found the stories of 16th- and 17th-century Spaniards to be illuminating.
"Early modern people didn't have as many limits as historians tend to imagine they did," Dyer notes. "Their imaginations were fantastic and they used resources with tremendous creativity."
Consider, for example, some of the prisoners featured in the book: a female convert to Catholicism who secretly serves as a rabbi in Mexico; an Islamic convert, known as a Morisco, who claims he was circumcised against his will (a claim meant to defend him from charges he practiced Islam); and a self-proclaimed prophet who threatens the status quo by predicting the fall of the Spanish monarchy.
In the late 1470s, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had launched the Spanish Inquisition to combat perceived political threats and to unify a nation under one religion. Spain's Jews would later be forced to convert to Catholicism, or face exile. Among the Jewish community, or conversos, who would remain were people known as "Judaizers," converts who secretly practiced Jewish rites to maintain an embattled faith. The Inquisition, which had jurisdiction only over those who claimed to be Catholic, was thus able to target Jews.
Take the case of Luis de la Ysla, born Abraham Abzaradiel in Illescas, a Castilian town near Toledo. Ysla was among thousands of Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 by order of the monarchy. As the authors write: "As part of the great Mediterranean diaspora, Abzaradiel, only eight years old at the time of the expulsion, found his way to Italy, where just shy of his thirteenth birthday, he was baptized [and] converted to Christianity."
After traveling in Italy, Turkey, Egypt, and various countries in the Middle East — and switching back and forth between Judaism and Christianity, depending on the community he landed in — Ysla finally returned to Toledo in 1514. He was advised by friends that he should voluntarily confess his "sins" to avoid arrest. He said he was a committed Christian. The inquisitors "took no immediate action on his case," pending more information.
Before his case was resolved, Ysla reportedly died in prison — just months after turning himself in.
When the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition was authorized by papal bull, it was also just 14 years before Columbus would cross the Atlantic to the New World, spreading the missionary zeal of religious conversion. Spain's imperial expansion and goal of religious dominance, in the Western Hemisphere and worldwide, would lead to other inquisitorial persecutions.
Consider the trial of Doña Blanca Méndez de Rivera, who fled inquisitorial investigators in 1621 with her husband and five daughters. According to her trial narrative, detailed in Inquisitorial Inquiries, the family emigrated to Mexico City. Méndez de Rivera, soon widowed, and her five daughters became the center of a small Jewish converso community in Mexico.
"In 1642 they made the tactical error of welcoming into
their community an Inquisition spy who was posing as a
secret Jew," Kagan and Dyer write. "The Mexican Inquisition
arrested Blanca and all her daughters a few months
|"In a sense, are recent biographies any more truthful?" Kagan asks. "People are essentially trying to say, 'Understand me, understand my life.'"||
While waiting in prison during the 24 audiences, or
appearances, she would make before the tribunal, Blanca was
overheard by inquisitorial spies as she insulted
authorities and plotted to protect Mexican
conversos. She was subjected to solitary
confinement. Finally, after a tearful confession, she vowed
to "live and die as a faithful, Catholic Christian."
She was sentenced to up to five years in prison, and ordered to hear masses, be publicly flogged, and exiled from the "Indies." Three of her five daughters would die in prison.
While the majority of the Inquisition's early victims were such conversos, as well as Muslim Moriscos, Spanish authorities also wielded the Holy Office as a political tool. "Occasionally, the Crown found it useful to prosecute certain individuals who were a thorn in their side," Kagan says.
Miguel de Piedrola was one of the thorny ones. Arrested in 1587, he became one of the Inquisition's most celebrated prisoners. A wanderer and soldier, he discovered a "supernatural gift of prophecy" while he was imprisoned in Turkey. His prophecies, aimed at the wealthy and powerful in Italy and Spain, proved to be uncanny. Then, he predicted the downfall of the Spanish monarchy.
The Tribunal of Toledo arrested him "on charges of false prophecy." At first, he was defiant: "I have spoken to pontiffs, kings, and magnates. . . . Many of my prophecies have come true. I state this clearly because I don't want harm to come to you, as has come to all others who have dared to persecute me."
De Piedrola later pleaded for mercy. Because of his "good confession, repentance, and tears," the inquisitors granted him mercy of a sort. He was ordered to appear in an auto de fe, a public gathering in which the shamed "penitents" were paraded before a crowd. He was forbidden from reading the Bible or further prophesizing. He was also sentenced to a five-year prison sentence.
Inquisitorial Inquiries, while a scholarly contribution to the historical record, also offers a narrative format that qualifies as "a good read." That's partly because it's also designed for students and general readers. As Kagan notes, such autobiographies "get students interested in societies other than their own and help them reconstruct the greater theater of the world with its many different actors — great and small."
Amanda Wunder, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire who is assigning the book in her course Imperial Spain, notes that such stories have been available previously only to professional historians with "sophisticated language and archival skills. This book opens this lost world to undergraduate students and gives them the opportunity to work firsthand with previously inaccessible primary sources."
Kagan presses the boundaries of what constitutes an autobiography — both a literary and historical question. He considers the trial narratives — which were, after all, "forced" by inquisitors with an eye to garnering confessions — examples of "involuntary autobiography."
"We generally conceive of autobiography as a wholly voluntary act," Kagan notes in the book's introduction. Autobiography "tends also to be equated with truth-telling. . . . Yet the first autobiographies were largely confessional endeavors, documents meant to prepare the souls of men and women for the afterlife."
"All might contain an element of untruth or an element of fiction," Kagan says. How different are those, he asks, from the autobiographies of famous people, such as President Bill Clinton, who recently released his story, titled My Life?
"In a sense, are recent autobiographies any more truthful?" Kagan asks. "People are essentially trying to say, 'Understand me, understand that I came from this background, understand my life.'"
When Céspedes came before the Inquisition authorities, she regaled them with a confessional tale over the years. She also explained, in clinical and vivid detail, how she recently injured her male member and had to surgically remove it. "The inquisitors did not find Elena's story altogether credible," Kagan and Dyer write. "But it at least convinced them that she was not guilty of any major heresy."
She was, however, found guilty on lesser charges — allegations of bigamy (since she could not prove her first husband to be dead), fakery, perjury, and mockery of the sacrament of marriage. She was not convicted of sorcery.
"For these crimes, she received the inquisitorial equivalent of a slap on the wrist," Kagan writes. (In a secular court, she would have been charged with the crime of "sodomy" and might have faced a death sentence.)
Céspedes was forced to appear in an auto de fe on December 18, 1588, received 200 lashes, and was ordered to serve 10 years in a public hospital, dressed as a woman. With her history, and fame as a healer, however, she drew crowds and was transferred to an isolated town 80 miles west of Toledo. From there, Kagan notes, she disappears from the historical record.
While the truth of Céspedes' story is unclear, it's possible she used the hermaphrodite story (which tapped then-groundbreaking medical theories about sexuality) to cover the fact that she was a lesbian. "The early modern willingness to wink at sexual transgression, it seems, reached its limit at overt instances of homosexual activity," the authors write.
A more resounding message might also be conveyed through the stories of Inquisitorial Inquiries, Kagan points out. While the Inquisition might seem far removed from a tolerant, modern society — where separation of church and state is the ideal — Céspedes' narrative illuminates at least one parallel: the currently volatile issue of gay marriage.
"The question back then was: 'Does this person have the right to marry this woman?' Based on the Bible, the Inquisition would say: She has no right,'" Kagan says. "Eleno/Elena would have trouble in our own society for the same reason."
In the United States, for example, the president and some members of Congress earlier this year proposed a constitutional amendment "defining and protecting marriage as a union between a man and a woman."
Says Kagan: "Judeo-Christian religious beliefs sanctify certain kinds of relationships and those notions are sanctioned by the state and written into the laws. Yet some individuals are saying that those norms are denying them certain fundamental rights.
"I'm not suggesting we are in an Age of Inquisition," he adds. "But we are not as tolerant and open-minded as we think."
Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.
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