Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 9.1 (2005) 27-61
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A Christian Means to a Conversa End
Sharon Faye Koren
In 1499, seven years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the conversa Inés of Herrera envisioned an apparition foretelling the advent of the messianic age and the salvation of conversos faithful to the laws of Moses. Her visions fomented a messianic movement that became especially popular among women, who adopted Jewish rituals in the hopes of hastening their redemption. The Inquisition responded quickly. Inés was arrested in April 1500 and burned at the stake by August. Seventy-seven followers were burned in an auto da fé in Toledo in 1501,1 and the movement was completely eradicated by 1502.
Interesting research has emerged on the Jewish aspects of this movement in the Southern Castilian region of Extremadura. Yitzhak Baer focused on its messianic character as proof of the essential Jewishness of the conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity or their descendants; f. conversa).2 Haim Beinart uncovered many of Inés's followers' inquisition trial records and used these to demonstrate the conversos' deep allegiance to the Jewish faith.3 Most recently, Renée Levine Melammed focused on Inés's many female followers. She reviewed the women's inquisition records, documented their judaizing practices, and presented a detailed social history of the movement.4 Levine Melammed's research offers evidence that conversas in general were far more likely to judaize than their male counterparts. This incongruity is understandable, given the very different roles afforded to men and women in traditional Judaism, in which men enjoyed a more public role in Jewish institutional life, while women were expected to be managers of the household. When Judaism was pushed inside, into the private sphere, women retained such forms of devotion as keeping kosher and lighting Sabbath lamps, thus becoming the transmitters of Jewish piety.5
Retaining Jewish rituals, however, does not necessarily indicate animosity toward Christianity or Christian practice. In his study of Inquisition records from [End Page 27] Soria, John Edwards demonstrates that among the New Christians, conversos were more likely than conversas to be hostile toward Christianity, while conversas were more accepting of Christian devotional practices.6 New and Old Christians were in frequent contact, ranging, as Gretchen Starr-LeBeau asserts, from "from casual acquaintance to friendships and even to marriage."7 The Inquisition sources on Inés reveal fascinating structural parallels with spiritual notions current in the almost exclusively Christian milieu in which she was raised. The content of her vision and her spirituality also echo contemporary Christian mysticism. These similarities point to a belief system that is neither completely Jewish nor purely Christian, but rather syncretically converso.8 Examination of its tenets points to the development of a distinct and separate religious consciousness. Inés combined her Jewish past with her Catholic present to forge a new converso religious identity.
The Structure of Inés's Experience and Its Christian Parallels
Medieval Women's Spirituality
Inés's religious experience parallels the form of spiritual expression most characteristic of medieval Christian female spirituality—visions and prophecies.9 Although Christian women could neither be ordained nor administer the sacraments, they could achieve authority in the Church through prophecy.10 Indeed, Thomas Aquinas allowed that:
Prophecy is not a sacrament but a gift from God . . . And since in matters pertaining to the soul woman does not differ from man as to the thing (for sometimes a woman is found to be better than many men as regards the soul), it follows that she can receive the gift of prophecy and the like, but not the sacrament of the orders.11
Revelations vouchsafed to women were understood to be gifts issuing directly from God—independent of church intervention. Given that women's mystical knowledge was most often infused through the spirit rather than through formal study, many female visionaries were unlearned.12 Their visions, derived from familiar images found in prayers, sermons, public readings...