EL LIBRO VERDE DE ARAGON

 

This is a review of a book about a book.  The book at the root of it is El Libro Verde de Aragon, a book believed to have been written anonymously around 1550 to expose the Jewish origins of the elites of Zaragosa and other cities/towns in Aragon.  What makes it particularly interesting to students of Sephardic history is the fact that Jewish origins are exposed mostly in relation to the purported records of the Inquisition.

 

The much more recent book which is the subject of this review is not a book in the literal sense; it is rather a scholarly study, also in Spanish, of the one just cited by Monique Combescure Thiry, a French historian of the period and the region.  The technical investigation is preceded by an essay contributed by Professor Miguel Angel Motis Dolader, an eminent Spanish authority on the place and the times.  Combescure's book is also called El Libro Verde de Aragon, which is unfortunate for a reviewer of it like me, as I shall go back and forth between the two.  I shall refer to the original work as the Libro Verde for short, and to Combescure's work, unimaginatively, as Combescure's work.  Most of my review will focus on the Libro Verde but through Combescure's eyes and scholarship.

 

To set the Libro Verde in perspective one must start with the Papal Inquisition, which was set up in the 13th century to combat various heretics to Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 at the request of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella first in Seville (1481) and later in Aragon.  In the 16th century and beyond Aragon had its share of conversos and converso descendants linked principally to four momentous events: (i) the massacres of 1391, (ii) the Disputation of Tortosa (a Catalan city on the Ebro river), (iii) the venomous preachings of Vincente Ferrer; and (iv) the assassination of  Inquisitor Arbués in the Zaragosa cathedral by conversos in 1485.  

 

The 1391 massacres of Jews started in Seville and spread to other cities.  While Zaragosa was spared, the massive conversions that ensued engulfed that city as well.  The Disputation of Tortosa—a theological debate between the defenders of Christianity and Judaism in 1413-14—was judged to be lost by the defenders of the latter; this gave way to large-scale conversions of Jews, including some rabbis responsible for the loss.  (Such disputations were often imposed and staged by the authorities as a means of forcing conversions.)  At about the same time, Vincente Ferrer (1350-1419), a Dominican preacher and skilled orator, was speaking virulantly against Jews and converting thousands himself.  Rather than bringing relief to the conversos, the assassination of Inquisitor Arbués led to bloody purges followed by increased persecution.  

The above events were happening after the introduction of the laws of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, when even a very distant relation to a Jew or a converso disqualified one from high office or desirable occupations.  Despite this environment, conversos in Aragon as elsewhere had risen to positions of power and wealth through calculated actions.  Conversos changed not only their names but, in time, also their occupations, i.e., they “moved up” professionally and away from typical Jewish occupations, often through arranged marriages into Christian society.  Thus, understandably, converso descendants were not keen on the Inquisition, to say the least, nor were the true or old Christian Aragonese who saw the Inquision as a means for the authorities in Madrid to intrude in their lives and threaten the rights and privileges many of them had acquired through the system of fueros over the years.

 

The Libro Verde is a hand-written document that contains the genealogies of about 100 prominent  Aragonese families belonging to the clergy, the nobility and the middle class, which seeks to identify the ancestors who were accused, tried, condemned and punished by the Inquisition. The focus or target was the converso.  Concerning the color verde, green, there are two possible explanations. First, it was not uncommon at the time for cities to have libros verdes, or green books, dealing with the regulations or official documents bearing on the conduct of daily life.  The Libro Verde appellation of the one we are focusing on here may have followed this practice, although its purpose was far removed from that of the others.  Second, green was the color of the Inquisition: green crosses stood above the execution platform at autos de fé  (acts of faith) events; and the condemned carried tall green candles during the procession.

 

Understandably, the book caused a furor when it first came out in 1550--a furor bred by fear, which mounted with time as copies intentionally “doctored” or modified to hurt an adversary (by showing a manufactured Jewish lineage) began to appear.  It was not difficult to invent Jewish identity, as the genealogies were not supported by any source or documentation  The near-panic soon led the nobility and the powerful of Aragon, converso or not,  to collect the copies; some were burned in an auto de fé  in the market square of Zaragosa in 1622, and the book was officially banned in 1623, although obviously unsuccessfully, as copies did survive.

 

We are fortunate that Monique Combescure Thiry has recently published an extensive study of the surviving copies, and I am especially fortunate to have had unusual access to her work and thinking even before her study was published in  2003.  According to her study, there are five surviving versions of the Libro Verde, of which one is an unworthy copy. The documents, all hand written, are found in the national or specialized libraries or archives of Seville, Madrid and Zaragosa.  Over time, there have been three major transcriptions or studies of some of these versions but none as detailed an examination as Combescure's  which contains a meticulous and painstaking comparison of the manuscripts.  The scope of the comparison extended from the ink and the paper to the writing and the style, not to speak of the facts themselves, in order to assess the authenticity and reliability of the texts.  The  manuscripts were found to contain numerous inconsistencies and inaccuracies, some believed to be deliberate, as documented by Combescure.

 

According to Combescure, although the Libro was first available in 1550, some versions or parts of the various manuscripts seem to date from as late as 1600.  Similarly, although the authorship is attributed to a Juan de Anchia, notario del secreto, or legal counsel of the Inquisition, the manuscripts seem to have been written by more than one person.  As for purpose, while the anti-Jewish core motivation is undeniable and explicitly stated at the outset, Combescure  advances the thesis that the objective was just as much political, namely to weaken those opposing the freshly unified Spanish kingdom, especially the Portuguese in Spain eager to retain their privileges and resisting King James III’s policies.

 

Although the various manuscripts had similar objectives, their contents varied.  Each had the same core, namely, the group of genealogies, but different supporting or subsidiary documents, some of which of a clearly extraneous nature. The most comprehensive manuscript, consisting of some 100 folios and found at the Biblioteca Nacional de Sevilla had, in addition:  (a) a group of virulently anti-semitic tracts full of ungrounded calumnious material; (b) an exchange of undated letters between the Jewish communities of Spain and Constantinople, written (if at all) presumably before the mass expulsion of 1492; and (c) a long discussion on the assassination of Inquisitor Arbués in 1485, together with the text of the interrogation of the culprits.

 

Organizationally, Combescure's work starts with an authoritative, nearly 50-page long essay by Dolader of the University of Zaragosa on the (Spanish/Aragonese) Inquisition.  The Inquisition has been the subject of much scholarship across countries, especially in the period just before and since the expulsion edict of 1492.  What distinguishes Dolader's essay are its foundation on Spanish  "primary" sources, its focus on Aragon, its direct quotations from original texts, and the detailed descriptions of the judicial discovery, condemnation and punishment process.  Paticularly incisive are its treatment of the anatomia de una mentalidad, and its detailed description of the estructura inquisitorial, the various punishments and the dramaturgia, or spectacle, of the auto de fe.  It is of particular interest to, and emotionally exhaustive for, one of Sephardic heritage like this reviewer to read the above in Spanish--the very language the suspects  were accused, condemned and punished in.  Dolader's essay reproduces as a byproduct the names of more than 400 Aragonese conversos "processed" by the Inquisition between 1484 and 1515, giving also their occupations, cities/towns of residence, and the Inquisition tribunal's decisions on each.

 

Dolader's essay is followed by a a tedious authentication and juxtaposition of the four extant manuscripts of the Libro Verde mentioned above and this, in turn, by a full, verbatim transcription of the genealogies or claims in each source.  A typical entry would start as follows:

 

Azach Abiaut, judio de Zaragoca, se torno christiano y de el descienden Thomas y Juan Ortigas, hermanos. El Thomas Ortigas fue corredor y fue penitenciado por la Inquisicion y tiene hijos.  El Juan Ortigas, trapero, fue condenado por los inquisidores y fu relaxado y quemado y ubo de su muger, que tambien fue judia, dos ijos y una ija.  Los ijos se llamaron Juan y Gaspar Ortigas. … La ija del dicho Juan Ortigas, trapero  que fue quemado, caso con Miguel de Arguis, y ubieron cinco ijas   [Sic., p. 127]

 

All in all, some 3,000 proper names are mentioned in the Libro Verde.  The index of names in Combescure's work run 55 pages.  While one encounters Sephardic or Sephardic-sounding names like Abadia, Abenmaya, Abuaf, Altaras, Almenara, Alfandari, Perez, Ribas and Salinas, the majority of the names are Christian or non-Jewish names the conversos adopted (were forced to adopy) upon conversion.

 

Next in Combescure's work come the texts of the three groups of supporting documents included in the Libro Verde mentioned above. The first two can only be characterized as pure anti-semitic trash consisting of manufactured statements attributed to conversos and fictional events.  One such event refers to a letter allegedly written by the Jews of Spain to those of Constantinople asking for their help as follows:

 

Judios honrrados, salud y gracia.  Sepades q[ue] el Rey de Espan[n]a, por pregon publico, nos haze voluer christianos, nos quita las haziendas y nos quita las vidas y nos destruye nuestras haziendas y nos haze otras auexaciones., las quales nos tienen confuso e inciertos de lo que deuemos de hazer.  Por la ley de Moysen, hos rogamos y suplicamos tengays en bien de hazer ajuntamientos e imbiarnos, con toda breuedad, la deliberacion que, en ello, huuieredes hecho. [Sic., p. 210]

 

Allegedly, the Constantinople Jews offered advice instead of help in return, the main message being [in my words]: teach them a lesson by surviving, even if you have to convert, and when you do, raise your sons to become medicos (doctors) to kill them in turn, clerigos (priests) to destroy their churches, mercaderes (merchants) to drive them from their haziendas  As far as I know, there is no evidence from either side that such correspondence ever took place.   I have argued elsewhere2 that, stylistically, the refrain-like advice is reminiscent of the enumeration of the plagues that befell the Egyptians in the Haggadah, which suggests that the faker may have been a former Jew.

 

The Libro Verde's account of the assassination of Inquisitor Arbues is much more factual.  The assassination attempt took place on September 14, 1485 at close to midnight, while Arbues was kneeling at the altar of the Zaragosa cathedral.3  Arbues was wounded by a blow with a sword or dagger from behind.  He died of the wounds in his chamber two days later.  The assassination had been planned by a group of coversos, some of them in high places, well in advance.4  Rather than relieving the lot of the conversos, the assassination aggravated it severely and with lasting consequences.  Nearly all the perpetrators were arrested and killed after obtaining confessions under torture.  There were blood-thirsty mobs attacking Jews and conversos at will.  These events took place several decades before the advent of the Libro Verde.  The latter did attempt to identify the descendants of the assassins and conspirators and to link them to Aragonese society.  The intention in revisiting the Arbues assassination, however, was probably to intimidate the Aragonese powerful beyond those of direct lineage to the killers.

 

 Combescure is an authority on Arbues.  She has written and lectured extensively on the politics of his assassination and the nearly 400-year delay in his cannonization (1864), but in her work reviewed here, she limited herself to transcribing the Libro Verde's account of the event and its aftermath.

To conclude, the "green" book of Aragon is really a "black" book …of shame, in the line of the anti-semitic writings and edicts stretching from the Visigoths through the Almohads in Spain to Hitler's Germany.  To say Combescure's work on it is not bedtime reading would be a gross understatement.  Besides, Combescure's work  as drafted is not reader-friendly--one of two small criticisms I have of  the book.  Some of the tables and illustrations are not properly titled and their contents, therefore, lack clarity. The other criticism or rather  disappointment is that the wealth of data, including in Dolader's essay, has not been analyzed as closely as one would have liked.  This applies, for example, to the gender distribution of those accused and condemned by the Inquisition among whom  women figure much more than one would have expected.  Did the fact that Jewishness is passed through the mother play a role in this, that is, did this incite the tribunals to go after converso women?  I am not aware that any scholar has looked into  this. 

 

Combescure's work constitutes an important contribution and opens up avenues for further research in this area.  It has been presented at various international book fairs, including in Jerusalem where, one hopes, it attracted the attention and interest of researchers on Sephardic history.  Fortunately, Monique Combescure Thiry herself is kee-ping her interest alive and currently working on another extant version of the Libro Verde.  Her book, co-authored with Dolader, can be obtained by writing to the publisher at:

                        certeza@certeza.com.

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- Copyright © 2007: Moïse Rahmani -