in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Teresa of Avila, her family and the Inquisition

Day Two of the Summer School here at the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas and as always many questions about Teresa of Avila and the Inquisition. I am posting here a section from my book which I will using tonight with the class.

Many thanks again to Fr Ronald Rolheiser, Cliff Knighten, Greg Zuschlag and John Markey OP for making all this possible...

Smoke and Rock: Teresa’s Lineage

Until the mid-20th century most official biographers and commentators on Teresa had accepted the projected Ahumada-Cepeda[1] family picture of an ancient Castilian Christian family always ready to defend the Catholic faith and play a significant role in the ‘re-Christianisation’ (la reconquista) of Muslim Spain.[2] Although, as mentioned, hints and suggestions find their way into Teresa’s writings we had little idea of her actual family lineage itself until comparatively recently. Within a decade of her death in 1582 none of the dispositions for the processes which would lead to her canonisation mention any doubt over her ‘pure blood’ and in fact emphasise her ‘noble’ lineage or that she was of ‘old Christian’ blood (See Egido 1980: 135-7).[3] This fiction is repeated for the next four centuries in her ensuing biographies, sadly reinforced by and reinforcing the need to ally religious with political (usually Christian nationalist) sensibilities.

          This was to all change dramatically in 1946 when an extraordinary document was found by Alonso Cortés in the municipal archives of Valladolid. What is even more remarkable about this document is that it ‘disappeared’ from the archives not long after it had been found in 1960 only to mysteriously reappear 26 years later in 1986. At this point it was immediately transcribed by Teófanes Egido and published in his key work El Linaje Judeoconverso de Santa Teresa (Egido 1986). The document, a pleito de hidalguía or lawsuit of nobility, is reproduced in full in Egido’s text and details the attempt by Teresa’s father and three brothers to prove their ‘noble’ blood, largely to avoid the new tax imposed by the recently crowned King, Carlos I/ Charles V, in 1519. The case began that same year and seemed to start off well with good supporting arguments from the four brothers: Alonso (Teresa’s father), Pedro and Ruy Sanchez and Francisco Alvares.[4] However as the case proceeds all sorts of counter-witnesses begin to appear from the woodwork.     From the testimonies we discover that Teresa’s great-grandparents, Teresa and Alonso de Sanchez (presumably ‘Teresa’ was a popular name in the family) lived in the Saint Olalla or Saint Leocadia district of Toledo. Here their son, Juan Sanchez, the father of the Cepeda brothers, was born, later becoming a cloth and fine silk merchant who would eventually move to the Calle de Andrino in Avila sometime in the 1480s. In Avila the family was known as the toledanos (Juan appeared to adopt the name ‘Juan de Toledo’) and they continued the cloth business in an area known for the many Jews and conversos living there. Juan Sanchez, said some of the witnesses, was a man of great importance, having given help to King Henry IV and the Archbishop of Santiago, he also had a considerable fortune. Later, the family would move away from the cloth trade and live the life more fitting to minor nobility or hidalguía. The four boys thus had all the qualities for this station in life: they had the good pedigree and were loyal to the crown in the practice of arms.   

So far so good, as far as the Cepeda brothers were concerned. However, from spring 1520 contrary voices start to creep into the narrative. On 9th March, for example, Bernardo Platero, a resident of Avila, testifies that Juan Sanchez was ‘reconciled’ by the Inquisition in Toledo and wore there the ‘sanbenitillo  – the strange garment of humiliation that those tried by the Inquisition had to wear as they processed through the streets for public ridicule (Egido 1986:167).[5] Juan González de las Piñuelas, another resident of Avila who knew the family well, provided further details on 12th May, testifying that Juan Sanchez ‘wore the sanbenitillo with its crosses publicly in procession with the other “reconciled ones” and walked in procession from church to church for seven Fridays in succession’ (Egido 1986:170). This was so damning for the brothers’ case that it had to be postponed while testimony was sought from the Inquisitorial office in Toledo. This was duly forthcoming with the final confirmation of Juan Sanchez’s ‘reconciliation’:


          (It is certified by the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the city and         archdiocese of Toledo) that on the 22nd day of the month of June, in       the year 1485, Johan de Toledo, merchant, son of Alonso Sanchez,           inhabitant of Toledo in the district of Santa Leocadia, gave, presented and swore to a confession before the then Lord Inquisitors, in which he        said and confessed that he had done and committed many serious          crimes and offences of heresy and apostasy against our holy Catholic   faith. (Egido 1986:189)


However, even more interesting is that one of Teresa’s uncles Hernando or Fernando Sanchez did not seem to be reconciled. Egido speculates that this ‘mysterious’ uncle died early, however we do not as yet know more about him (he appears to have left for Salamanca to study).

          Yet despite this damning evidence the Cepedas duly received their noble status in August 1522, suggesting that a certain amount of wealth, liberally disposed, could always have the necessary effect.


[1] Teresa’s family names, literally ‘Smoke’ and ‘Rock’. See, for example, Efrén de la Madre de Dios 1951: 160: ‘St Teresa esteemed highly, as did everyone, having been born of noble parents; from her earliest childhood she would hear in her house interminable praise of her noble background.’ This statement was corrected in later versions of the work.
[2] For more on the political and social background of La Reconquista see my John of the Cross, Chapter 1.
[3] ‘Old Christian’ was a term used to refer to families who had not been ‘tainted’ by Jewish or Muslim blood during the ‘occupation’ of Spain by the Muslims. As the 16th century proceeded such designations, connected with the so-called ‘statutes of pure blood’, would become increasingly important in delineating a person’s social standing in post-reconquista Spain (For more on this see, for example, Elliott 2002).
[4] For more on the confusing, often converso, practice of switching and adopting multiple surnames see Davies 1981.
[5] We have some later representations of this odd garment. It was like a rough tunic on which was painted the diagonal cross of St Andrew in red ink. Towards the end of the Inquisition, in the 18th century, the sanbenito would designate all sorts of degrees and types of heresy and apostasy. See Roth 1995.

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