MOVIES AND TV
Development funds are now being raised to make "The Woman who defied Kings" into a TV mini series. Contact the author email@example.com for more information, and to participate.
A screen treatment and the movie rights are still available for "Russian Dance." Once again, please contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interested in travel? Some of the topics on this website are also
covered by a specialized English-speaking Israeli tour company out of Jerusalem.
For a listing of their latest travel seminars go to: Ziontours; then click on the Jewish
Historical Seminars tab at the top. Please note that the author is not part
of this company; nor does she provide lectures for them. But she has studied with them.
Suggested questions for press/media interviews: helpful background notes.
Q and A for "The Woman who Defied Kings."
Q. What is this book all about? It is a biography of Doña Gracia Nasi, a 16th century international banker who used her fortune and influence at the courts of Europe to save thousands of victims of the Inquisition. It’s the first comprehensive treatment of her life and is based almost entirely on original documents. Many had never been retrieved from the archives prior to this time. Her life offers important lessons for our own times.
Q. Where was she born and how did she obtain that fortune? She was born in Lisbon, Portugal, shortly after Columbus discovered the New World. Her fortune was inherited. Her husband and brother-in-law, who were rich spice merchants and bankers, left in her in control of their banking empire following their untimely deaths while she was still in her late twenties.
Q. Why is this biography important today? It shows how many of the issues facing business women today existed five hundred years ago. And it is instructive because you can see how one woman dealt with those issues and problems. She was very sophisticated in her maneuvers. It also sheds new light on how wealthy and educated widows conducted their lives in a century that reflects our own, since it was particularly liberal concerning the rights and roles of women. It was the era, one will recall, of Catherine de Medici of France, Elizabeth I of England, Isabella D’Este of Italy, among many others. It also tells us a lot about wealth-building and banking practices at that time.
Q. What were banking practices like in the 16th century? The research shows how surprisingly modern banking practices were back then. The bankers, including the House of Mendes run by Dona Gracia, had already developed a network of agents in various countries who could cash bills of exchange on a regular basis, not just at pre-determined intervals as in the Middle Ages. These bankers syndicated loans and capital. In 1531 they opened the first modern stock exchange in Antwerp. They squeezed monopoly rights out of penniless monarchs looking for up front cash on a regular basis. They utilized maritime insurance. They speculated in currency. Credit was extended and they were able to work out complex collateral deals that took into account the fact that they were not operating in democratic societies. Controls lay instead in personal relationships developed among trading partners that made it almost impossible for any one to continue doing business if commitments were not honored.
Q. Did she ever remarry? No, she could not do so without giving up control of her fortune. But she seems to have had lovers, and I mentioned those possibilities. Even so, she still faced a personal loneliness not uncommon among many accomplished women. She also had to deal with a jealous sister and brother who betrayed her in their own individual ways. Her family was not supportive.
Q. What role did religion play in her story? She was one of thousands of Jews whose families had been forcibly converted to Catholicism about twenty years before she was born. At the time she came into her fortune these former Jews or conversos, were being accused by the Inquisition, which was a regulatory arm of the Catholic Church, of backsliding in Judaism. Doing so was a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture and burning. And they were being harassed whether or not they had been secretly perpetuating their Jewish faith. Today we would call it ethnic cleansing.
Q. How did she save them? She developed an escape network that quietly moved hundreds of them on the spice ships that regularly sailed from Portugal to Antwerp, a major trading port and liberal city in Northern Europe. From there she organized money and safe houses to help them transfer overland, over the Alps, to Venice in Italy where they could board the long-distance sailing vessels bound for the Ottoman Empire; a Muslim area outside the control of the Inquisition. They could not sail from most of the other European ports since the Muslims were fighting the Christian West, much as they are today. Venice operated like a neutral zone, similar to Switzerland during World War II, allowing traffic to flow between the two opposing forces.
Q. Did she have other concerns about their welfare? Yes. Many of them wanted to live as Jews - as she did - having been outraged by their forced conversions. And were anxious to find a way to do so. The only solution was to move them to a region of the world where this was possible. Most of Western European had expelled its Jews decades earlier. Only the Muslim nations were opening their doors.
Q. What else did she do for them? She would regularly confront church officials and monarchs every time they were being harassed. She even tried to create a special area in the Tiberias region of the Holy Land for their re-settlement, a move that some historians have equated with an early attempt at starting a modern State of Israel. She was close to death at the time and the settlements did not survive. The setbacks she faced in trying to establish a Jewish settlement for the refugees on Palestinian soil are similar to today. The local Arabs spread deadly rumors and launched sneak attacks on settlers. And the Christian monks in Jerusalem further scuttled her efforts by spreading their own propaganda at the court of the Turkish Sultan who ruled the area at the time and had the power to pull his support for the project.
Q. How did you do your research? This biography was made possible through the discovery of dozens of unpublished 16th century documents. To research this book, I worked with teams of scholars who transcribed and translated these documents into thirteen languages in seven countries. Gradually, Dona Gracia’s actions came into focus. On one level she was pursuing the Mendez family business, royal loans, spice monopolies, syndications, and currency arbitrage. On another, the pursuit of profits covered her real goal, the preservation of her people.
Q. What did you learn from exploring her life? Dona Gracia is important to history because she shatters the stereotype of how women conducted their lives at that time and offers us a unique window onto the banking practices of the era. She directs an escape network, fends off greedy papal officials, outwits both a covetous king and an emperor anxious to confiscate her fortune, and outmaneuvers a resentful sister willing to take extreme measures. She flees for her own safety from Renaissance Europe to the Ottoman Empire and the protection of Suleiman the Magnificient. Once there, she resettles displaced refugees, reconstructing their lives by sponsoring housing, synagogues, and schools. I found her very inspiring. She wielded power, was hard-headed and calculating, yet business was the tool she used to serve her higher purpose.