The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes


156 Pages


The historical biography of a true Jewish heroine in her day, Gracia Mendes. Born in 1510 in Portugal, the book details this woman's extraordinary personality until her death in 1569 in Constantinople (today's Istanbul). Her life exemplified a perseverance by the Jewish culture to survive and triumph even in the worst of conditions. As a young girl, Gracia secretly married successful Jewish spice trader, Francisco Mendes. But at age 27 she became a widow, yet she went on to raise her children and run the family business all on her own. Her travels led her through Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, Ragusa, and finally to Constantinople, from where the Ottoman Empire dominated former Byzantium territories and offered shelter for battered Conversos (converted Jews). The text recounting the last fifteen years of Gracia's life at the center of the Empire is particularly revealing. Birnbaum's biography has the unique distinction of being the first among many studies to pay tribute to a woman during this period. It is also one of the first titles to pay equal attention to the lives of the Conversos in Christian West Europe and in the Muslim East.



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The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

Marianna D. Birnbaum
  • Publisher: Central European University Press
  • Year of publication: 2003
  • Published on OpenEdition Books: 4 February 2013
  • Serie: Hors collection
  • Electronic ISBN: 9786155053795

OpenEdition Books

Printed version
  • ISBN: 9789639241787
  • Number of pages: 156
Electronic reference

BIRNBAUM, Marianna D. The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes. New edition [online]. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003 (generated 16 May 2014). Available on the Internet: <>. ISBN: 9786155053795.

This text was automatically generated on 16 May 2014.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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The historical biography of a true Jewish heroine in her day, Gracia Mendes. Born in 1510 in Portugal, the book details this woman's extraordinary personality until her death in 1569 in Constantinople (today's Istanbul). Her life exemplified a perseverance by the Jewish culture to survive and triumph even in the worst of conditions. As a young girl, Gracia secretly married successful Jewish spice trader, Francisco Mendes. But at age 27 she became a widow, yet she went on to raise her children and run the family business all on her own. Her travels led her through Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, Ragusa, and finally to Constantinople, from where the Ottoman Empire dominated former Byzantium territories and offered shelter for battered Conversos (converted Jews). The text recounting the last fifteen years of Gracia's life at the center of the Empire is particularly revealing. Birnbaum's biography has the unique distinction of being the first among many studies to pay tribute to a woman during this period. It is also one of the first titles to pay equal attention to the lives of the Conversos in Christian West Europe and in the Muslim East.

Table of contents
  1. Acknowledgments

  2. Chapter 1. Introducing the family

  3. Chapter 2. A short history of the Conversos

  4. Chapter 3. Life in sixteenth-century Antwerp

    5. Gracia’s official entry into the family business
  5. Chapter 4. Gracia in Venice

  1. Chapter 5. Gracia and Jewish patronage in sixteenthcentury Ferrara

  2. Chapter 6. In business with Ragusa

  3. Chapter 7. The Ottoman Empire and the Jews

  4. Conclusion

  5. Appendix

    1. Money, Prices, Values

    2. From Dubrovnik to Constantinople

  6. Select bibliography

  7. Picture credits

  1. Index

    1. Index of places

    2. Index of persons

  2. Liste des illustrations


1Many years ago, when I was writing about the Fuggers, a famous German banking family, I came across a statement made by one of their business agents, Hans Dernschwam, who traveled widely in the Ottoman Empire (1553–55). Dernschwam noted that Jews enjoyed a privileged position under Turkish rule; in particular, the head of one family, a “Portuguese woman,” dared to dress and behave like a European aristocrat, surrounding herself with luxuries and servants.

2I made a mental note to return to that passage and look further into the subject, but I forgot all about it until several years later when I attended a lecture on Renaissance medals. The lecturer pointed out that on one medal appeared the profile of an elegant young woman. Encircling her relief were Hebrew letters and her name was transliterated as “Gratsia Luna.” Could this be the same Portuguese woman whom Hans Dernschwam had mentioned in his diary? Only much later still did I discover that the medal depicts not her, but her niece, who had the same name. The lecturer had erroneously confused the two women and identified the portrait as that of the older one.

3By that point, however, I was smitten. Who was that mysterious Señora whom Dernschwam had so viciously disparaged? How did her niece come to have her portrait positioned on the medal? How could the lecturer on medals have made such a major error?

4This book is the result of my inquiry into the life and times of that remarkable woman, Señora Gracia Mendes (Luna), who commanded one of the most powerful positions in European trade in the sixteenth century, despite virulent anti-Semitic sentiments that had helped fuel the Spanish Inquisition and that eventually forced her to move with many in her family from Portugal to Turkey.

5I am grateful to the Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, for having provided me generously with qualified and enthusiastic research assistants. I also wish to thank my many friends, who patiently listened and thoughtfully commented, when I kept bombarding them with those fascinating details I had unearthed about my heroine’s long and arduous journey from Lisbon to Constantinople.

6I hereby want to thank Professors Sima Čirković and Bariša Krekić for providing me with information on the trade routes frequented by sixteenth century travelers in the Balkans. I am very grateful to Professor Jascha Kessler for his many stylistic improvements and to Professor Gabriel Piterberg for his expert comments regarding the Ottoman Empire.

7My special thanks go to Dr. G. Patton Wright who helped shape this volume with his many invaluable suggestions.

8The story of Gracia Mendes is dedicated to my late husband Henrik Birnbaum.

January 15, 2003
Los Angeles, CA

Chapter 1. Introducing the family

1This book is about Señora Gracia Mendes (Luna), the wealthy sixteenth-century widow of Portuguese origin who, for many decades, while a practicing Christian, remained a secret Jew. Her career and that of her family spanned the map of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to Italy (where she later openly embraced Judaism) to Turkey and to Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

2Part of Gracia’s family arrived in the mid-1490s in Portugal, where she was born in 1510 and where, at the age of eighteen, she married another secret Jew, Francisco Mendes, a wealthy businessman. The two families were most probably related. The couple had a daughter whom they named Reyna. Following her husband’s death in 1536, Gracia moved her daughter and other members of her family out of Portugal, and after a long and perilous journey, reached safety in Turkey.*

3Whereas much is known about Gracia’s life, her family’s genealogy is less well documented. Although it is generally accepted that her parents arrived in Portugal from Aragon, neither their places of birth, nor their residence in Spain can be assigned to a definite locality.

4In all probability the name “Luna” represents the mother’s side of Gracia’s family. It can be found as a last name in Illueca where in the fifteenth century Christians, Jews, and Moors lived together.1 Located on the northern slopes of the “Sierra de la Virgen,” on the River Aranda in the vicinity of Gotor, Illueca lies 48 kilometers from Zaragoza and 45 kilometers from Calatayud. In the fifteenth century, the village belonged to the Baronate of the de Lunas who also owned the village Arandig and several other smaller settlements. Probably it was Juan Martinez de Luna IV under whom the Luna ancestors of Gracia lived.

5In 1450, there were 21 Jewish families living in Illueca. The number of Jews decreased during the 1460s and 1470s, but increased later to around 30. The community had a rabbi, who also acted as notary. There are no records of a hospital or a Jewish cemetery. In 1453, a Jewish butcher shop, Carniceria de los judios, opened whose owner, among his many other duties, also performed circumcisions. Between 1450 and 1470, an active Jewish congregation developed, with a synagogue and organized tax collecting.

6Although Illueca had a number of Jews, few conversos—those Jews who during the Inquisition had been forced to accept Christianity—can be found with evidence regarding their earlier Jewish names. During the baptismal ceremonies the converso’s Jewish name was dropped. Frequently, the so-called New Christian received the name of one of the señores of the region, who stood as the New Christian’s sponsor.

7A record from 1432 mentions a certain Jaime de Luna, a man from Illueca, and his daughter, Beatriz de Luna.2 It is possible that Jaime de Luna, a converso from the vicinity of Zaragoza, and his daughter, who later married Jaime Ram, a Zaragozan, had lived in the same “señorio” as Gracia’s family. Hence, the shared name. In addition, a record of 1412 mentions a Doña Brianda de Luna, the widow of Don Luis Cornel.3

8These two converso girls, Beatriz (Gracia) and Brianda (Reyna) Luna, were the younger sisters of Doctor Agostinho Miques (formerly Samuel Micas). The royal physician, who taught medicine at the University of Lisbon, Miques was also called “Nasi” or prince. The latter appellation must have been attached to the family name, denoting the social status he had enjoyed among his coreligionists before his baptism. At least one historian believed that Gracia’s and Brianda’s brother remained in Portugal and lived as a Christian.4

9Most probably, Gracia’s own family was distantly related to the Benvenistes. Based on the information in The Jews in the Crown of Aragon, the name Benvenist, or its variants, was popular in Jewish and converso circles throughout the Iberian Peninsula.5 The Benvenists lived in Barcelona, Zaragosa, Valencia, and in smaller places such as Morvedre or Lerida. There were Benvenists living in Perpignan and Villafranca. Moreover, there were also Benvenistes living in the Illueca area.6

10The Benvenistes of Aragon were an old and respected Jewish family. In the twelfth century, Nasi Isaac Benveniste, was the physician of the king of Aragon. He transmitted his title to his son Seshet. In the fourteenth century, Joseph Benveniste, a member of the same family was the counselor of Alphonso XI of Castile. The most revered member of the family was Abraham Benveniste (1406–54), “court rabbi” in Castile, who restored John II’s shaky fiscal administration. He acted as tax farmer general of the realm. As “Rab de la Corte,” he was chief justice of the Jews, appointed by the king.7

11Most probably, it was his direct descendant who chose to migrate to Portugal where he and his sons converted to Christianity. Semah, the older son, took the name Francisco Mendes, and his younger brother, Meir, became Diogo Mendes.8 A. A. Marques de Almeida calls the Mendes family “uma importante familia judaica de Aragão que se refugion em Portugal em 1492.”9 Just how important they were will be demonstrated in the following chapters.


* Since contemporary European sources referred to the Ottoman Empire as “Turquie,” I am using both names.

1 For more on Illueca, see Encarnacion Marin Padilla, “La villa de Illueca, del señorio de los Martinez de Luna, el en siglo xv: sus judios,” Sefarad 56 (1996): 1:87–126, 2:233–75. Padilla’s study was based on notary deeds kept in the archives of notarial protocols of Zaragoza, Calatayud, and La Almunia de Doña Godina. In his marriage with Deanira de Lanuza, Don Pedro Martinez de Luna had two sons: Don Juan and Don Jaime. After the death of Juan, his son became the owner of the region.

2 “Es posible que el corredor cenverso y vecino de Zaragossa, Jaime de Luna, y su hija Beatriz de Luna, criada “a soldada” del tambien corredor zaragozano Jaime Ram, procedieran del señorio de los Martinez de Luna, dado su apellido” (Padilla, p. 374, footnote 274, referring to the year 1432.) Jaime de Luna’s name appears for the last time in 1492. The best-known man by the name of Luna was Alvaro de Luna, royal constable, in 1449. For more on him, see N. Round, The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna (London, 1986).

3 Padilla, p. 91.

4 See Herman Kellenbenz, “I Mendes i Rodriques d’Evora e i Ximenes nei lore rapporti commerciali con Venezia,” Gli Ebrei e Venezia, secoli xivxvii, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Milan, 1987), p. 152. There are also records regarding a Mendes family in Evora. In Venice, during a hearing at the office of the Inquisition, Brianda Mendes claimed that she had been forcibly baptized. There was a small community in Aragon, close to Eje, also called Luna. It does show a Jewish settlement during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. See Haim Bernart, Atlas of Medieval Jewish History (New York, London, 1992), map 42.

5 See especially vols. 1–2. Nov. 17, 1299 (37) Barcelona: Benvenist Avenbenvist of Zaragoza.
No date, 1302 (97) Aljama de Valencia/Barcelona. Benvenist (no date) his “genre” and his “fill.”
Feb. 1314 (163) Valencia: Jusef Benvenist and Benvenist Issac Rossel of Barcelona.
Aug. 10, 1324 (290) Barcelona: Jusef Benvenist of Montblanch.
Nov. 2, 1324 (302) Lerida: Benvenist Cofe and his mother, of Morvedre.
No date (494) Vilafranca del Penedes[?], Benvenist Izmel of Villafranca, to change residence to Barcelona with his son Samuel.
Oct. 20, 1328 (601) Barcelona: Benvenist Ismael, physician -dead.
Oct. 20, 1328 (602) Barcelona: Samuel Benvenist, son of the physician.
Jan. 24, 1329 (617) Tarazona: Benvenist ca Porta of Tortosa.
Aug. 3, 1340 (937) Barcelona: Issach Benvenist dead, left a widow and a son, also named Issach.
Apr. 13, 1341 (957) Barcelona: Benvenist Bionjuha de Caballeria of Barcelona.
Oct. 24, 1359 (1126) Cervera: Benvenist Bonjuha.
Aug. 11, 1369 (1135) Barcelona: Heirs of Samuel Bonjuha of Cervera, son Bonjuha of Besalu.
Aug. 9, 1375 (1146) Barcelona: widow of Samuel Benvenist, called “Bi Benvenist” of Barcelona.
Aug. 23, 1389 (1202) Monzon: Benvenist de la Caballeria.
May 27, 1390 (1206) Perpignan: Benvenist Bonet and Bonjuha Bonet.
Dec. 20, 1457 (1344) Tortosa: Benvenist Bubo.

6 A Bienbenist Abenpessat was functioning as “adelantado” (the head of the Jewish community). He is probably the same man who is referred to as “el judio de Illueca Bienbenist Abenpessat” under the lordship of Jaime Martinez de Luna (Padilla, p. 108 and p. 354). He is mentioned in 1451, in connection with a contract. Still on March 17, 1488, a man named Mosse testified in Illueca to having seen Fernando Lopes, a converso, and his father, eating meat “degollada de judios” (slaughtered in the Jewish manner) in the house of Bienbenist Abenpessat.

7 For more on Abraham Benveniste see, Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971), 4.555.

8 Roth suspected that their father converted at a different time and received the name Henrique Núñez at his baptism. He is not identical with the informer of the same name in Cecil Roth’s Doña Gracia of the House of Nasi (Philadelphia, 1948), p.10.

9Capitais e capitalistas no comércio de espeçiaria: o eixo-Lisboa-Antuérpia (1501-1549): Aproximacão a um Estudo de Geofinança (Lisboa, 1993), p. 23 and p. 29, respectively. A man by the name of Mendes, who might have been related to Francisco’s family, is Alvaro Mendes, a mapmaker of John III. He emigrated to Turkey in 1585 and, allegedly changed his name to Abraham Suseyet, or Solomon Abenaes, or Abenaish. See Encyclopedia Judaica, 2.63ff.

Chapter 2. A short history of the Conversos

1The beginnings of Gracia’s story go back to Spain, to the times of the Expulsion, and even before.

2Most of the ills of Spanish history, such as the lack of a bourgeoisie and industry, have been attributed to the expulsion of the Jews. Scholars have disagreed on the number of expellees from as few as 150,000 to a barely imaginable 1 million.1 More recent research contends that the urban population of Spanish cities had been smaller than previously considered and that prior to the Expulsion there were no more than 10,000 Jews living in Aragon. In 1492, the majority probably converted rather than left, and those who left chose Portugal or Italy as their new haven. Just a minority of the Jewish population fled to Muslim-ruled regions, and even those moved slowly, in well-prepared stages.2

3Shortly before his death in 1254, Pope Innocent IV established the Inquisition, an organization that from its beginnings until the Enlightenment was responsible for the torture and death of many thousands. As the Inquisition spread its power, conversions everywhere drew increasingly large numbers. However, those Jews who embraced the cross—the conversos, or New Christians—and who had chosen to stay on the Iberian Peninsula remained under constant suspicion and had to fear secret denunciation and the omnipresent spies of the Holy Office.

4In 1449, during the rule of João of Castile, the first outbreak of hostility was directed against the New Christians of Toledo, primarily because some of them had achieved high positions at the royal court. Among them was Don Alvaro de Luna, a financial advisor to the king. He was executed a few years later.

5The Christians referred to the newly converted Jews by many names. The terms used for the group, such as “conversos,” “confesos,” or “christianos nuevos,” underwent semantic changes during the decades after the Expulsion, and began to mark an “inherited status,” gaining a connotation of “suspect,” or a crypto-Jew. In Spain, but also in Italy, a Portuguese converso became virtually synonymous with “judaizer,” that is, one who practiced Mosaic rites in secret.


6The organized beginnings of the Inquisition in Spain were directly connected with an event in Seville. During a royal visit in 1477, the hosting monks complained to the royal couple about the “conversos,” claiming that they judaized. Indeed, a year later, Sixtus IV agreed to set up the Inquisition in Spain. Established in 1478, the Holy Office began its work in 1480, in Seville, under the leadership of Frater Morillo and Frater San Martin. Ultimately it totaled fifteen tribunals, including one in Palma, Majorca. Madrid, Seville, and Toledo were the most active because the largest number of New Christians lived in those cities. Between 1481 and 1488, 700 people were burned at the stake.

7In 1484, Tomás de Torquemada became Grand Inquisitor of Spain, holding that position until his death in 1498. Torquemada, whose name has been identified with the essence of the Inquisition, belonged to the first seven Inquisitors appointed. But at that stage in the history of the Holy Office, the pope still had the last word and could extend his mercy.3

8In 1488, the Inquisition moved south, to Toledo, Saragossa, and Valladolid where, especially in Toledo, Jews and Moslems were forced to inform on the New Christians. The “crypto-Jews” became the targets of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Ironically, until 1492, the unconverted Jews of Spain enjoyed more freedoms than the conversos, or their coreligionists, living in continental Europe. Yet their importance to the Crown decreased when the New Christians began to perform the same functions and services that had been entrusted earlier to Jews.

9Also, after the fall of Granada, there was less need for Jewish capital to help wage the war. In 1492, all Jews had to choose either to convert or to leave Spain. Those who refused to convert, and had liquid assets, moved to Portugal, where they were permitted to stay, until the Inquisition began to operate there too. Gracia’s family belonged to that group.

10Already the 1391 pogrom in Sevilla’s Jewish quarter had forced many survivors to escape to Portugal. Some remained but others later returned to Spain. For example, Isaac Abrabanel’s grandfather escaped, but his grand-son returned in 1485, and became the financial advisor of Ferdinand and Isabel.

11When Manuel married the Spanish princess Isabella in 1497, he promised his bride to clear Portugal of Jews. Although the wealthy could resist the edict for a while, the plague of 1506, for which the mob blamed the Jews, led to a bloodbath in Lisbon.

12Faced with the choice, more Jews chose conversion.

13The number of conversions was higher in Portugal even than in Spain, since Portugal had been the last refuge for Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. Compelled to seek exile rather than undergo the forced conversion, on March 19, 1497, about 700 Jews fled to Morocco and other parts of North Africa. An even larger number of Jews emigrated to Italy, and some moved to Avignon. The Holy Land, conquered by the Turks (1517), also attracted them, especially Salonika, where each immigrant group had its congregation, its “Kahal Kadosh.”

14Portugal was eager to copy Spain. Thus, owing to the mass conversions, the Inquisition, activated in Portugal 40 years after that of Spain, had many more thousands of suspects to investigate among the New Christians.


15Christian attitudes underwent major changes during the fifteenth century. Before the activation of the Inquisition, the sincere convert was distinguished from the “crypto-Jew,” and the distinction was made along religious lines only. Just before the introduction of the Inquisition in Spain, however, a virulent attack, the work of Alonso de Espina (1412–1495) appeared by the title Fortalitium fidei contra judeos, sarracenos aliosque christianae fidei inimicos, calling them beasts endangering the Faith. This work, primarily anti-Jewish, also repeated the charge of deicide and helped to whip up violent sentiments against the New Christians.4

16The conversos, who in many cases had successfully penetrated the highest echelons of society, shared the lives of the social and economic elite. But by holding important offices in the government, they crossed a set of social boundaries that provoked hostile responses. Excesses such as the 1449 Toledo riots against the conversos became common in the decades preceding the Edict of Expulsion.

17The Spanish Inquisition is entirely intertwined with the politics and religion of the country. It protected Roman Catholics. With the expulsion or conversion of many Jews, and the conversion of others as well as the forced baptism of the Muslims, the Inquisition relied on the surviving dream of the Spanish nobility to live in a purely Christian country. In 1492, the Reconquista promised to fulfill those dreams. However, the end result was precisely the opposite: the many conversions made Spain a suspect country for the Inquisition. To the Church, Spain seemed to be crawling with crypto-Jews and fake Christians.5

18There was also a slow but continuous change in the conversos’ self-image. By the end of the fourteenth century, the new converts began to turn away from Judaism and ceased to observe Jewish laws. It is a persistent yet highly romanticized view to claim either that most converts were forced to embrace Catholicism or that they remained secret Jews. The majority of them, in fact, did not feel guilty of having committed a disgraceful act. As the number of converts grew, it became ever easier to join their ranks, and feel comfortable about having done so.

19By the mid-fifteenth century, there were relatively few crypto-Jews; rather there were small groups or families secretly practicing some Jewish rites. Converso medical doctors were permitted to study scientific books in Hebrew, and some of those also studied the Talmud, since the gentiles did not distinguish between the two kinds of literature.6 The fact that the Inquisition questioned many conversos about a large number of secret practices (about which our knowledge comes mainly from the Inquisition’s own records) does not mean that the secret Jews practiced all or even some of them. The New Christians were mostly ignorant of what to practice and mainly of the accusations leveled against them

20The overwhelming majority of converts did not want to return to their previous religion. Most conversos were not only not Jewish in their faith or in their deeds but by and large assimilated and alienated from Judaism: “semi-gentilized.”7 Therefore it is impossible to speculate as to what percentage of the New Christians could still be considered Jewish, according to Mosaic laws.