"The Woman who Defied Kings: the life and times of Doña Gracia Nasi," a Jewish woman leader during the Renaissance: sample chapter
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(shorter sample) Prologue
One wintry day early in 1535, merchant banker Francisco Mendes lay dying in his whitewashed, tile-roofed home near the Royal Palace in Lisbon. It was a pivotal moment for his elegant wife Beatrice, later known as Doña Gracia Nasi, and for their infant daughter, Ana. Not only were they losing a husband and father. The death of Francisco would have larger implications that Doña Gracia, still in her twenties, must have feared almost more than widowhood.
In time, Francisco's death would catapult his spirited, strong-willed young widow to the helm of one of the foremost banking houses of Renaissance Europe. But her inherited wealth would prove as much a burden as a boon. At her dying husband's side, Doña Gracia would have known even then that ruthless courtiers were plotting to seize his estate. Francisco had been a powerful confidante of Portugal's King John III. He had been regularly supplying the crown with indispensable loans. These connections had always shielded her and Ana while he was alive. No longer.
Moreover, if she chose to retain control of her life and fortune and fulfill her political goals, she was well aware that the emotional and social comforts of remarriage, or even a publicly-recognized lover, would be off limits to her for the remainder of her days,. It was a classic 16th century woman’s dilemma and an agonizing prospect indeed.
Doña Gracia's apprehensions were well-founded, as we shall see. Yet with her shrewd intelligence, taste for intrigue and exquisite timing, she was to become more than a match for any of the royal adversaries she would confront during her turbulent life. While steering Francisco's sprawling business interests, she would defy her enemies by spending most of her fortune on a humanitarian enterprise that would engross her more than the profitable royal loans, spice monopolies, syndications and currency arbitrage favored by her husband.
The Inquisition, which would spread throughout the Catholic world, was just beginning its terror, torture and burning. She would become the self-appointed protector and political liaison for its chief targets: the conversos. These were the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who, like her own family, had been forcibly converted to Catholicism in the decades prior to her birth in 1510. These converts were being subjected to ethnic cleansing by Inquisition officials who were making wholesale arrests on the spurious charge that they had relapsed into Jewish practice, whether true or not.
Because the conversos on the Iberian Peninsula constituted a significant segment of world Jewry at this time (the settlements of Central and Eastern Europe were still relatively small or non-existent) her mission was critical. To her, and those in her circles, it looked as though the permanent loss of these tortured souls to Catholicism or death might seriously undermine the future of the Jewish people. Still, to enable these conversos to undertake and survive the arduous journey to lands beyond the reach of the Inquisition was to embark upon a mission of Moses-like proportions. That she succeeded in saving thousands of them underscores her vital role at a crossroads of Jewish history.
Ultimately the conversos, and most of the openly-professing Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, would view Doña Gracia as their unquestioned leader. She would be revered as much for her wisdom and compassion as her capacity to stand up to tyranny; not to mention her willingness to give up her fortune to ensure the survival of this “remnant” of Israel, as her people were called in those days.
Here was a woman who made sure that she was constantly looking out for their welfare as they became a continual stream of frightened refugees, wandering stateless through the mountain passes, walled towns, hostile duchies and muddy roads of Europe.
Here was a woman who would become so furious upon learning that Inquisition officials had burned twenty-three of her people in the Italian port of Ancona that she would organize a shipping boycott that would bring the city to its knees. And when they arrived in the safety of the Ottoman Empire, it was she who supported the building of synagogues and yeshivas that enabled them to reconnect with their ancestral faith. Moreover, in her final years, it was she who would make one of the earliest organized attempts to re-settle some of the refugees on sacred soil, four hundred years before the founding of modern state of Israel.
In her personal life, she would have the courage to stand face to face with Queen Marie, Regent of the Low Countries and sister of Charles V, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, and say she would rather see her only daughter “drown” than marry the disreputable Catholic nobleman the monarchs had commanded the girl to wed. As a patron she reflected the best of Renaissance culture by supporting the creative works of her own people.
In business, her name was repeated so prominently, and in so many documents, as to imply she was not simply the titular head of any enterprise. She ran it. And whenever she found herself in a tight corner, she regularly pursued a number of options simultaneously, rather than rely upon any single course of action. There are lessons here for us all.
Her people fell in love with her daring and regal spirit at a time when the pride of a people – any people – was bound up in the personality and accomplishments of its monarch. She gave the Jews and conversos a sense that they had a leader of substance and style, just like the Christians and Muslims. Her death would be lamented by the great rabbis of her day as equal to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Sa’adiah Longo, a leading poet-scholar in the Jewish world of those times, even admitted that his views of the capacity of women for wisdom and leadership had changed on account of her amazing deeds and strength of character. “All heed(ed) her discipline,” he recalled in Shivrei Lukhot, a collection of elegies published in Salonika in 1594, some two decades after she died. “Trembling seized them (in her presence)... she grew a name like the name of the holy greats.”
If the qualities of a true leader, as has been said, combine an inborn love of power, an ability to penetrate to the origin of all things, organizational skills, a capacity to inspire others, a knack for exploiting the weaknesses in one’s adversaries, then she had them all.
Nevertheless, Doña Gracia would swiftly vanish into the cluttered attic of history. Maybe it was because she was a woman. Perhaps she was too confrontational in an era when appeasement was considered the best option for Jewish survival. She would be remembered only by a few academics who themselves would make only limited reference to her while discussing more important themes. For all practical purposes she would be lost to the great masses of the Jewish people. This would be so even though other women leaders of her day – among them Catherine de Medici of France and Elizabeth of England – would overwhelm the stage on which they strode.
The oversight continued until late in the 20th century when women began entering the corridors of political and economic power in substantial numbers. It was then that they slowly started to rediscover Doña Gracia.
The sum of her days – with their equal proportion of achievement and power, loneliness and personal agonies – resonated with their own. They relished each and every anecdote that demonstrated her refusal to give in to intimidation, whether on account of her gender or her Jewish blood.
Though they possessed mere shards of information, they would use this slim foundation to build her into a folk hero and a spiritual cult figure while yearning to know more.
Consider: in the late 1980's Rabbi Leah Novick of Carmel, California, began introducing business, professional and artistic women to the life of Doña Gracia as part of her regular workshops and meditation sessions on women leaders in Jewish history. Rabbi Leah’s sessions on Doña Gracia, bathed in soft candlelight and cradled by the gentle music of Judeo-Spanish melodies, became haunting evenings. The women – and even the men – said they came to the rabbi’s tiny upstairs office to derive strength from the energies of a “great lady” whom they considered the embodiment of healing, wisdom and love.
I myself stumbled upon Doña Gracia quite by accident while preparing a curriculum in Sephardic history and culture for Jewish congregational schools under a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation. There was an instant bond. As a journalist who had covered the women’s movement in the later 70's and early 80's, I sensed a woman who pre-dated our efforts by centuries. In the early 90's, when I established The Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, Doña Gracia struck me as just the sort of woman I would have been delighted to have had at my side. As a Spanish and Portuguese Jewess with the same heritage as Doña Gracia, I realized that she had possibly saved some of my own ancestors.
Others were becoming similarly intrigued. To the spiritually inclined (and the chroniclers of her day) she was the embodiment of an angel of God brought to earth to fight Satan. To Catholics of Jewish ancestry in the southwestern United States who were just beginning to probe their Jewish roots, she was an inspirational icon. Here was one of their own who faced many of the same conflicting emotions that they were facing today. To lovers of Jewish history she was a revelation, lifting their images of bygone Jewish womanhood off the birthing stool and into the sophisticated salons of Europe just as Michelangelo and Titian were creating their masterpieces.
Late in 1998, there was an art exhibition at the Platt Gallery in Los Angeles. The central piece was an 8ft by 6ft painting of Doña Gracia recently completed by Barbara Mendes, a local artist who had become an Orthodox Jew late in life. Some years ago Barbara became convinced that she was directly descended from Doña Gracia, viewing it as a source of pride and inspiration. No matter that there were no documents to prove it was true. Just a family legend insisting it was so. Her relatives even gave Barbara a symbolic heirloom – a replica of a bronze portrait medal of Doña Gracia’s niece, struck in Ferrara in 1558.
Barbara’s grandfather was eager for her to hold on to it as a sort of sacred trust. That Barbara’s family were indeed descendants of Doña Gracia was also the conviction of her great-grandfather, Henry Pereira Mendes, a 19th century rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York – the first Jewish congregation on North American soil and one that was initially made up of the descendants of conversos. However, since Mendes was a common Hispanic family name taken by many forced converts in 16th century Portugal, and Doña Gracia had no direct descendants, the familial connection may never be proven. But that does not trouble Barbara. She feels a strong spiritual tie. The portrait she painted, on display at the gallery for two months, drew larger-than-normal crowds. Interest was so intense, Mendes recalled, that she found it necessary to develop a lecture to explain why she felt so passionately about creating an artistic impression of this woman.
The time had therefore come to go beyond the fantasizing and make-believe to give Doña Gracia the serious research and study she deserved. To date, there had only been one small nonfiction book dedicated to her life. It was written by Cecil Roth, a British historian, just after World War II. Although limited in scope, it remained the only easily available source of facts.
But how to embark upon such a complex project? Initial research at Yale University’s outstanding libraries soon sent me scurrying to archives across three continents. It was a journey that was as absorbing as anything I have ever encountered. Everything about Doña Gracia lay buried in scholarly journals and among documents with another purpose and classification. The search became addictive. A shred of information from a Vatican source placed side by side with a document from the National Archives in Brussels would suddenly explain a seemingly senseless action; such as Doña Gracia’s eagerness, while in Antwerp, to win the right to visit a pan-European order of cloistered nuns four times each year. Had the holy order become the escape network’s mail drop? Were their convents, scattered across Europe and linked by their own couriers, being used as a web of safe houses?
A commercial document written by her nephew, Don Samuel, discovered in the Ferrara archives, brought new insights into her trading practices. An elegantly-worded letter, dated 1537, from a certain John Hussee to a woman named Lady Lisle, mentioning Doña Gracia’s visit to England and found among the papers of Henry VIII, initiated a hunt to discover who these British aristocrats were and their role in British history and that of the Mendes family at this time. Mention of Doña Gracia in the collected letters of the Papal Nuncios in Portugal led to the discovery of a flamboyant character named Duarte da Paz. He had been sent by family members to Rome to lobby against the coming of an Inquisition to Portugal.
It was an act that in itself brought into question the popular misconception that Jews of those days were passive recipients of their fate.
There was also magic in fingering fading documents that she had watched being prepared, as happened during a visit to an ornate palazzo in Ferrara that currently houses the city’s archives. Or sitting in the vaulted grandeur of the Yale Medical History Library and turning the tissue-thin pages of an original copy of a 16th century medical book written her physician - a copy that she herself might have owned. Or visiting an eminent historian in the outer reaches of Istanbul and delving into the mysteries of Ottoman court life as seen through Turkish eyes.
However, after I had encountered documents in thirteen languages located in seven different countries – requiring a team of scholars to help transcribe and translate them all – and the key characters lurking under a plethora of different spellings and pseudonyms, I realized there was a far more practical reason why her story had never been fully researched. But I persevered, fascinated by an astounding tale of courage and dogged persistence in the face of horrendous odds.
Let her life story – intertwined as it is with her family, her people, her fortune and the hazardous times in which she lived – begin.