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Teresa’s ‘marrano’ grandfather

· Juan Sánchez and the tainted blood ·

Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Avila in 1515. Her father’s family came from Toledo and her grandfather, Juan Sánchez, was a rich wool and silk merchant of a conversa family (that is, converted from Judaism to Catholicism] who moved from Toledo to Avila at the beginning of the 16th century. The wealth of the house in Avila in which Teresa was born shows that the family had fully preserved its previous economic and social status. In 1485 Juan Sánchez had been tried by the Inquisition of Toledo, accused of practising Judaism and had been condemned to wear in procession for six weeks the sanbenito, the yellow garment of those condemned by the Inquisition. Later the sanbenito was, as customary, hung in the cathedral as a perpetual sign of disgrace.

“Conversos” with the scapular worn by penitents in a 16th-century print

However, Juan Sánchez had sought to be rid of this stain that indeliblymarked his lineage by purchasing a certificate of limpieza de sangre [cleansed blood] and by moving to Avila inorderto have the episode forgotten. Moreover he succeeded, since no member of the family was ever again subjected to trial by the Inquisition, an institution, the Spanish one, that did not easily loosen its hold on those who had passed under its jurisdiction or their descendents.

Until 1492, the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, both Toledo and Avila had been characterized by a strong presence of both Jews and conversos. In Avila during the 14th century the percentage of the Jewish population was close to 30 per cent of the overall population. The acts of violence and the wave of conversions at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th had unravelled the fabric of the Jewish community in most of Spain, both in Aragon and in Castille, and had encouraged a large number of more or less forced conversions. The integration of the converted into Spanish society, very extensive, had however been blocked in the middle of the 15th century by the laws of limpieza de sangre, norms that were introduced for the first time in Toledo itself in 1449 and that barred the access of the “new Christians”, namely, the conversos and their descendents, to universities, religious and military orders and confraternities. This was a true and proper shutting down as regardsthe integration of the conversos, which divided Spanish society between “old” and “new Christians”, subjecting the latter to the constant control of their orthodoxy by the Inquisition.

Juan Sánchez, Teresa’s grandfather, was in fact not only a converso, that is, a descendent of converted Jews. He was also a marrano, that is a converso condemned for having returned to the faith of his fathers. In all likelihood this was a false accusation, as were many others of the kind, as is proven by the successive route taken by Juan Sánchez, bent on recovering credibility as an “old Christian”, and that sufficed to conceal the disgrace of the man and his descendants. Hence his move to Avila, his acquisition of false certificates of cleansed blood and his successful attempt to have his past forgotten. His son Alonso, Teresa’s father, married for the second time Beatrice de Ahumada of a noble lineage of “old Christians”. Teresa’s numerous brothers went to the Americas, as was customary among the descendants of conversos. Her brother Rodrigo died fighting there, so that Teresa considered him a martyr of the faith, whereas her brother Lorenzo became treasurer at Quito in Peru and on his return to his homeland financed the convent Teresa founded in Seville.

The tainted blood was truly buried in oblivion in thatit was only in 1946 that documents discovered in the Valladolid Archives, which mysteriously disappeared until the end of the 1980s, restored the irrefutable proof of the saint’s Jewish origins. The question of how much the family knew about their Jewish descendance and whether it was known by Teresa herself remains open, even though studies on her works tend, behind the veil of the strictest silence on this matter, to shed light on absences and presences, both thematic and linguistic, so as to presuppose the knowledge of it on the saint’s part. Many recent studies have underlined the role of Judaism in her intellectual and religious itinerary: from Rosa Rossi’s fine book to the studies of Teófanes Egido López and of Cristiana Dobner. The subject is henceforth very present in the historiography on Teresa.

But I’d like to mention a more general interpretation of the strong presence of conversos in the religious renewal of 16th-century Spain advanced by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. In his opinion, the influx of conversos in the broadervein of Spanish Catholicism played a crucial role in theological and mystical renewal, almost as if the children of converted Jews had wished, in becoming frontline interpreters of the religious transformation, to introduce into the world that they had entered an uncommon cultural depth and important innovations, even within the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 12, 2019