Gretchen Starr-LeBeau

title.none: D'Abrera, The Tribunal of Zaragoza (Gretchen Starr-LeBeau)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.027 08.10.27

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gretchen Starr-LeBeau, University of Kentucky,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: D'Abrera, Anna Ysabel. The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, 1484-1515. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. x, 242. $94 978-2-503-52472-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.27

D'Abrera, Anna Ysabel. The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, 1484-1515. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. x, 242. $94 978-2-503-52472-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Gretchen Starr-LeBeau
University of Kentucky

In The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism. 1484-1515, Anna d'Abrera performs a useful service in turning scholars' attention to the inquisitorial records available for the Crown of Aragon. These records--scattered in the provincial archive of Zaragoza, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, and the historical archive of the seminario conciliar --have long been underutilized, and her sustained attention and comparative perspective is useful.

D'Abrera's first chapter addresses both the history of the inquisitorial archives and the historiography to which she is responding. She reviews the debates, familiar to specialists, regarding the so-called Jewishness of judeoconversos, or converts from Judaism to Christianity and their descendants, and even links the historiographical stands of some of the preeminent historians in the debate, such as Benzion Netanyahu and Haim Beinart, to their personal political histories. D'Abrera is at pains in this chapter to defend the utility and veracity of inquisitorial records against what she feels are the blanket criticisms of Netanyahu, Norman Roth, and Henry Kamen, and argues passionately for the signal importance of inquisition records for understanding the religious beliefs and practices of judeoconversos.

The book's second chapter provides an introduction to the tribunal of the Holy Office in Zaragoza. She clarifies the relationship between the medieval inquisition in Aragon and its modern counterpart as well as explaining the modern court's institutional makeup and early focus on judeoconversos. This institutional focus continues in d'Abrera's third chapter, which explains the procedural changes instituted in the 1480s. She pays close attention to inquisitorial manuals, which is most helpful, and is careful as well to explain the extent and limitation of the prosecution and defense counsel.

The next four chapters are the heart of d'Abrera's book. They are a summary of the Judaizing practices detailed in the records she has examined, including Sabbath observances, holy days, dietary laws, celebration of life-cycle markers (circumcision, marriage, and death), and prayer life (surprisingly, she makes no mention of laws of ritual purity, or mikvah baths). These practices seem largely comparable to those already documented for Castile in this period, with one startling exception: the claim by a few converts that they "whipped and verbally abused" a crucifix (page 185). Because there is no such Jewish ritual, and because it fits so neatly into anti-Jewish tropes of the period, the author needs to be particularly careful to explain the circumstances in which these confessions were made, to allay suspicion that this was a statement made in response to inquisitorial questioning. In general, d'Abrera provides numerous examples of most of these kinds of practices as evidenced by the inquisitorial sources. All of this is in service to her larger argument, that many judeoconversos attempted to live in accordance with Jewish law, and that the records of the Holy Office are an accurate portrayal of those practices.

D'Abrera's final chapter, on the nature of judeoconverso belief, is of necessity a somewhat more speculative chapter, as it attempts to draw conclusions about the religious sentiments of judeoconversos from comments given in testimony or more often reported by others. It is undeniable that d'Abrera has found reports of comments which indicate suspicion of traditional Christian doctrine. This is not surprising, since inquisitorial evidence lends itself more to showing skepticism of Christian doctrine than active knowledge of Jewish doctrine. Yet it is hard to read this chapter without considering John Edwards' classic 1988 article in Past and Present, "Religious Faith and Doubt in Late Medieval Spain: Soria circa 1450-1500" (no. 120, Aug. 1988: 3-25). In that article, Edwards demonstrates that inquisitorial reports of religious doubt are not limited to judeoconversos, but also appear among so-called Old Christians as well. It is, in short, difficult to draw conclusions about religious belief, and even harder to make comments about distinctively judeoconverso religious belief, as opposed to general sentiments indicating an absence of belief.

D'Abrera's close reading of the sources is to be commended, particularly given the challenging nature of late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth-century hands. Yet her focus on fighting out the battle between Baer and Beinart on the one hand, and Netanyahu and Roth on the other, limits the broader significance of her work. This historiographical debate is an important part of inquisition studies. Yet in recent years scholars have moved beyond stark divisions between authentic Jewish practice and genuine converts to Christianity. D'Abrera is careful not to claim that all judeoconversos were secret Jews, but she focuses almost exclusively on religious motivations in resistance to the institution of the inquisition in Aragon, arguing for a cohesive group operation among these converts. Any political dimension these acts might have had has little place here. This is a missed opportunity, since the early politics surrounding the Holy Office in Aragon have been touched upon elsewhere, and an analysis of these trials in light of that political context could have provided a richer understanding of the Inquisition and the Crown of Aragon in those years. More notably, there is not much sense of the possibility of people who existed between Christianity and Judaism, or who maintained different beliefs at different times, or who maintained contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The emphasis on Judaizing practices also fits into a reified image of members of religious communities implied by D'Abrera's argument. This is a shame, because moving beyond arguments about a simple yes-or-no "reality" of Judaizing could have made this a more interesting book. Still, d'Abrera's analysis of these less familiar sources makes it a useful resource.