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  • False Trials and Jews with Old-Fashioned Names: Converso Memory in Toledo
  • Stefania Pastore

Jews, conversos, Crypto-Jews, “true” and “false” Christians, marranos. Recently scholars have returned to historical themes and problems that forty years ago seemed to have exhausted themselves.1 The long debate over the Spanish judaizers and the epistemological validity of inquisitorial sources opposed Isaac Révah first to Ellis Rivkin, and later to Antonio José Saraiva, and then, almost in the same years, the pioneering work of Yitzhak Baer and Heim Beinart (Baer, Die Juden im christlichen Spanien, A History of the Jews; Beinart, Records of the Trials), was challenged by the provocative The Marranos of Spain of Benzion Netanyahu. Netanyahu reconstructed the history of the Spanish Jewish converts through the rabbinic responsa [End Page 235] and described the Spanish conversos and judaizers as “true” Christians, overturning the traditional perspective which had been accepted for different reasons by both Catholic and Jewish historians. His last book, printed in 1995, on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition followed that path reinforcing those polemics. The debate it provoked confirms the extent to which the conversos remain the object of discussion and at times bitter dispute. Despite the author’s anxiety to demonstrate the ubiquitous and indistinct racism of Spanish society and the complete and total adherence of the conversos to Christian doctrine and his disturbing reduction of the complexity of fifteenth century Spain, with its hybridized and original spiritual movements, to a series of rigid a priori categories, the book has the merit of demonstrating once again that the problem of sources and their use remains key to understanding the first period of the Spanish Inquisition.2

The following discussion returns to these problems, and attempts to demonstrate both the interpretative difficulties posed by inquisitorial sources and the categories they utilize –“true” and “false” Christians– as well as the real possibilities that these sources present, despite the recent tendency among scholars to consider them entirely unreliable. It returns to one of the classic topics in the debate over the origins of the Spanish Inquisition –the trials of Crypto-Jews within the order of Saint Jerome and in particular one of its most celebrated episodes, the proceeding against the prior of the monastery of La Sisla in Toledo, fray García de Zapata, “uno de los judaizantes más famosos que han existido”(Caro Baroja, Los judíos en la España Moderna 300). I believe that the story of his trial, of his successful appeal, and above all of the dense legend that formed around him during the course of the sixteenth century, make him an ideal subject in order to illustrate the complexity of reconstructing the early history of the Spanish Inquisition, in which the usual problems of historical reconstruction are [End Page 236] complicated by censorship and re-readings made during the second half of the sixteenth century. In the case of Garcia de Zapata, as we shall see, lack of attention to the context in which the sources were created and hasty readings of them allowed these censored versions to be elevated to the level of historical truth.

Toledo: Urban Legends and Distant Memories of Trials

In April 1542 the Inquisition of Toledo ordered the arrest and imprisonment of the bachiller Antonio de Mora: a dramatic turn of events had been set in motion by a banal argument. As a guest of the alcalde of the Toledo prisons, Juan de Ochoa, Antonio had attempted to make peace between Ochoa’s wife and a jeweler, who had been arguing over the price of a pair of earrings. Yet, despite his efforts, they had not come to an agreement and the man departed in anger. Antonio de Mora then explained to those present, as though to excuse his behavior, the personal history of the jeweler. He was “un raro hombre”, the grandson of a man who was later described as “de nombre antiguo, de los que agora no se usan” –an eloquent turn of phrase meant to indicate the clear Hebrew origin of his name (“Proceso de fe de Antonio de Mora”). In Toledo he was known above all for the macabre public ceremony in which he...


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