Brianda De Bardaxi

THE name of Brianda de Bardaxi is unknown to history. She was only one of the multitude of obscure sufferers whose wrongs and agonies were a matter of course in the evil days in which she lived, and are forgotten save in the records of the dread tribunal which sat in judgment on them. Her story is a commonplace one, and precisely on that account it possesses interest as an illustration of the methods by which the Spanish Inquisition secured the supreme blessing of uniformity of faith, and finally reduced to impotence a people who, under Charles V. and Philip II., seemed destined to universal monarchy.

To render it intelligible, we must remember that the motive for establishing the Inquisition in Spain was the Judaizing tendency popularly ascribed to the conversos, or converts from Judaism, and their immediate descendants. The general massacres of 1391, the partial ones which followed, and the cruelly repressive laws of the fifteenth century had compelled or induced vast numbers of Jews to submit to baptism. The sincerity of conversions effected after this fashion might well be doubted, and the impression was general that a large proportion, if not all, the conversos were secretly inclined to their old faith. Rabbinical Judaism had so completely surrounded the believer with observances, which through generations had become part of his daily existence, that it was impossible for them to be abruptly cast aside. As the zeal of fanaticism grew intense, everything which savored of Jewish custom was regarded as proof of heresy and apostasy, and the inquisitor sought not so much to ascertain directly the belief of those accused as to find whether they were guilty of following any of the abhorred customs. This led to a minuteness of definition of criminal acts unparalleled in the history of jurisprudence. In the sentences which condemned to the stake, to confiscation, or to penances which were punishments of the severest description, we find enumerated such offenses as avoiding the use of fat, and especially of lard, eating amin, a kind of broth esteemed by Jews, eating Passover bread, reading and even possessing a Hebrew Bible, ignorance of the Paternoster and Creed, saying that a good Jew could be saved, blessing a child and passing the hands over his face, resting on Saturdays and working on Sundays, neglecting to make the sign of the cross and to kneel at the elevation of the Host, eating raw eggs on the day a brother died, eating often with a father who had remained a Jew, giving alms to Jews, casting small pieces of dough into the fire while employed in kneading it, putting on a clean tablecloth on Friday afternoon, changing the body linen on Saturday. In one case, the only crime asserted in the sentence of a woman was that she had been present at the wedding of a Jew, her brother. In another, it was alleged against the penitent that when very sick his sister had told him to commend himself to the God of Abraham, and he had returned no answer. In another, it was gravely averred that the offender, when dealing with Old Christians, tried to cheat them, and rejoiced when he succeeded. Eating meat in Lent, even casually, was of course a symptom of the gravest character, and equally so was abstaining from food on the Jewish fasts of Kippur or of Queen Esther.1 In this hypersensitiveness of orthodoxy, it was of course easy to find grounds of suspicion against all who were newly born to the Church, and to be suspected, as we shall see, was in itself a crime.

Shortly after the Inquisition was established in Aragon in 1484, a woman named Brianda de Bardaxi appeared before it.2 Whether she had been cited, or came spontaneously in pursuance of the customary edict promising mercy to those who would present themselves within a given time and tell all they knew about themselves and others, does not appear, and is of little moment. She evidently belonged to the conversos of the wealthy class, of whom there were many holding high station in Church and State. She was then a woman about thirty years of age, married to Gabriel de la Cabra, who seems to have been well to do. Her mother, Salvadora Salvat, was turned of seventy, and resided at Barbastro with a widowed daughterin-law, Aldonza Junqueras. There had been some dissension between them, the mother thinking that Brianda had obtained more than her share of the family property.

In the general terror evoked by the Inquisition, the ties of kindred amounted to little. Every one was required to reveal all he knew, whether it affected the life of parent or child, husband or wife, and the instinct of self-preservation blotted out all other instincts and affections. Moreover, as the names of accusers and hostile witnesses were kept secret, and no one was allowed to know on whose evidence he was tried and condemned, the opportunity for the gratification of malignity was unbounded. It was the time for wicked men and wicked women, as Gilabert Desplugas boasted when he threatened revenge on Brianda’s husband, who had evicted him from a house for not paying rent, and he made his words good. Gilabert himself was penanced in the auto de fé of May 21, 1486, and his wife had been burnt three months before. In that Saturnalia of persecution every one with a drop of Jewish blood in his veins walked as though on a lava crust that might engulf him at any moment.

When Brianda came before the Inquisition, she confessed nothing as to herself, but mentioned that when she was about five years old she had one day seen her mother fast until nightfall, and when she was about fifteen she had seen it repeated by her mother and sister-in-law. When about ten, at the town of Alcolea, she had heard a woman named Violante Fayol speak some Hebrew words, had seen her one day barefooted, and on asking the reason had been told that it was a Jewish fastday. This was the sum of her revelations, which appear frivolous enough; but it was in a strange, distempered world, seeming to us now like a hideous nightmare peopled with fantastic spectres whose actions defy human reason. The information was sufficient for the Inquisition: doubtless Violante Fayol was duly looked after, though we know nothing of her fate, but we do know that the mother and sister-in-law were brought to account, and they could readily guess the source of the accusation against them.

Several years passed away, for the terrible patience of the Inquisition, secure of its victim, alive or dead, was accustomed to wait till it had exhausted its indirect means of obtaining information before casting the net which should envelop the accused. Salvadora and Aldonza were at length arrested and put on trial. The old woman, angry with her daughter and frightened by threats of torture, endeavored to satisfy her judges by sacrificing her child, and, as she afterwards admitted, between fear and hatred, she told more than the truth. She accused Brianda of having participated knowingly in the forbidden fasts on both occasions, and when she and Aldonza were condemned to penance she had at least the satisfaction of gratified revenge.

The evidence was transmitted to Saragossa, where the Inquisition had been gathering further testimony against the incriminated Brianda; for depositions dated in 1485 and 1486 show that she had not been lost sight of. At length, on February 9, 1488, the prosecutor brought his charges against her, supported by such evidence as had been procured. It was trivial and flimsy, much of it based on hearsay gossip, for in the jurisprudence of the time there was no limit set as to the quality of evidence. The most important was the testimony of Gilabert Desplugas and his two daughters that Brianda had admitted to them that she secretly led the life of a Jew ; and besides this, a certain Maria Guillem deposed that she had said of the murdered inquisitor, Pedro Arbues, commonly called Master Epila, that his only fault was that he purchased testimony. On the same day Brianda was subjected to an interrogatory, and again on May 19. Then a long interval followed, and she was examined a third time on February 17, 1491. Promises of mercy and threats of rigor were not spared, but only a few trifling matters could be extracted from her in addition to her original confession. She remembered that when five or six years old she had eaten one or two mouthfuls of Passover bread, given to her by a neighbor whose name she had forgotten, and that, some eighteen years before, in the house of Gilabert Desplugas, she had refused to eat some amin because she disliked it, when she and Maria Desplugas came to blows over the matter.3

Meanwhile, she had been allowed to employ counsel selected by the Inquisition, a certain Pedro de Bordalva, who, on July 1, 1490, had put in his argument for the defense, in which he smartly and vigorously exposed the nugatory character of the evidence for the prosecution. He also gave a list of forty witnesses whom he desired the inquisitors to examine, — for in these proceedings all evidence was taken secretly by the judges themselves, and counsel were not allowed to participate. This evidence developed the animosity of the mother and sister-in-law, and the enmity of Gilabert Desplugas and his family. Abundant witnesses swore that Brianda was an earnestly religious woman, leading the life of a nun rather than that of the world : she wore a hair shirt next to the skin, and walked barefoot in the processions ; she observed rigorously all the fasts commanded or recommended by the Church ; she spent an hour or two a day in prayer, and ate freely of both fat and lard. When the holy Pedro Arbues was slain, and his dried blood on the church pavement suddenly liquefied and welled forth, she sent a serving-man to dip a linen cloth in it, which she kissed, and made her household kiss, as the blood of a martyr. Moreover, there were put in evidence an application from her to the Pope for the privilege of choosing a confessor, indulgences granted to her by the Master of the Order for the Redemption of Captives, a papal absolution to her for certain vows, a bull de la Cruzada, in her favor, and an absolution a culpa et pœna given to her, showing that she had liberally spent money for the salvation of her soul according to the most orthodox observances.

The only testimony obtainable in rebuttal was a reëxamination of the old witnesses, who simply repeated what they had said before. Thus the evidence in her favor preponderated, and conviction was not easy without a further confession. In such a dilemma the only resource for a puzzled inquisitor was torture. After a considerable interval, on March 8, 1492, she was therefore brought before the tribunal, and solemnly adjured to tell the truth, in default of which she would be tortured. She bravely replied that she was innocent and was ready to endure any torture, but protested that if she should, while under it, confess anything, it would be through fear, and not through truth, and she denied it in advance.

She was forthwith taken to the torturechamber, and bound on the trestle for the water torture. In this, the patient was tied, with sharp cords which cut into the flesh, upon a frame inclined so that the head was lower than the body ; a strong jet of water was directed into the mouth, carrying with it a strip of linen, which was withdrawn from time to time to prevent absolute strangulation, and to enable him to confess if so disposed.4 For an hour and a half Brianda was subjected to this torment, and the colorless official record, which I transcribe literally, gives us a clear insight into the methods which, with rare exceptions, broke down the firmness of the most resolute.

At the first interval she was told to confess all the Jewish rites which she had observed, to which she replied that she was innocent. The torture was resumed, and then she was thrice summoned to tell what Jewish ceremonies she had performed. She asked the inquisitors to enumerate the ceremonies, when she said she had performed them all, but could give no details. She was evidently weakening, and the water was resumed for a while, after which she promised she would tell the truth. On being asked again what ceremonies she had performed, she replied that she admitted those named in the proceedings. Then she said she had kept the Kippur fast with Salvadora and Aldonza, who told her she would become rich if she would do so ; she was then fifteen or sixteen years old. When asked if she had done so more than once, she did not remember. Asked if what she said was true, she replied yes. Asked if, when she fasted, she believed in the law of Moses, she said that Salvadora and Aldonza told her to believe in it, and she did so. Asked, since she believed in the law of Moses, what other Jewish ceremonies she had performed, she said she had given alms to Jews. Asked what Jews, she said that seven or eight years before, after her marriage, she had in her house given four sous to a Jew named Pastor for a poor Jew. Asked whether, when they fasted, other persons knew of it, she said no, for they shut themselves up. Adjured to tell the truth, she said she did not eat the fat of meat. Asked on what they supped after the fasts, she said on codfish, and then again on meat. Then she was pressingly asked whether she had performed other Jewish ceremonies, and she replied that she had once kept the fast of Queen Esther, during Lent, at the instigation of a Jewess named Algeroza. Asked if her husband knew of it or was in the house, she said no. Asked what women she had in the house at the time, she said a woman named —, who was about to be married. Asked if she took the glandolita, or sinew, out of the leg of meat, she said no. Asked to tell all the Jewish ceremonies she had performed, she said all that a Jew can perform. Asked what ceremonies, she said taking out the glandolita and the fat. Asked with whom she had performed the fasts and other ceremonies, she said with the wife of Domingo Agustin. Asked what fasts, she said the fasts of God, such as Lent and Advent. The torment was then resumed, after which she said that she had performed all the Jewish ceremonies that could be named. Asked if she knew of others who did so, she said no. Then the torture was recommenced, and in the next interval she said that she had kept the Kippur fast with Juana Sanchez, now dead, the wife of Maestro Pedro de la Cabra the younger. Asked how long ago, she said about eighteen years. Asked where and with whom, she said in the house of the said Juana Sanchez, with Catalina Sanchez, her sister. Asked who taught her how to observe the Kippur, she said Salvadora and Aldonza. Asked who induced the other, she or Pedro’s wife, she replied that they were together, when she said to Juana, Will you fast? Juana said yes, and they fasted.

All these disconnected and incoherent trivialities were but slender results from the infliction of such prolonged agony, but nothing more could be obtained. According to law, torture could be applied but once, but the tribunals were not accustomed to submit to such restriction, and easily evaded it by the fiction of adjournment and continuance. Accordingly, in the present case, when Brianda was unbound, the inquisitor announced that the torture was not finished, and would be continued on the third day.

The inhuman criminal legislation of the period acknowledged the worthlessness of confessions under torture by considering them invalid unless they were confirmed after removal from the place of torment. On the third day, therefore, Brianda was brought into the council-chamber of the Inquisition, where, the record is careful to inform us, there was no sign of torture, and was interrogated under oath. She declared that all she had uttered on the trestle was false, and had been extorted from her by fear and agony. The question of what to do when a confession was thus retracted was one which puzzled the legists greatly, but was usually solved by the ready expedient of repeating the infliction. So it was in this case. The inquisitors thrice warned Brianda solemnly to tell the truth, as otherwise they would subject her to torture again. She defiantly answered that she had already told the truth ; they might kill her if they pleased ; if they tortured her a hundred times, she would confess a hundred times, and would retract on removal. They were doubtless used to this display of vehemence on the part of the victim, and were unmoved. An order was promptly issued for the “ continuance” of the torture; she was carried back to the place of torment, where she desired the notary to record a public protest that whatever she might say would be extorted by pain. Thus far the brave woman had borne herself resolutely, but she miscalculated the physical endurance of her overwrought nerves and exhausted frame. She was stripped, and preparations were made to hoist her in the strappado, which was a very effective form of torture, when she fell to the floor in a swoon and became deathly cold. It was against the humane provisions of the law to endanger the life of a patient, and the baffled inquisitors had her carried out.

Thus, after proceedings which had lasted for four years, exhausting all the methods of the Inquisition, no positive evidence had been obtained even as to the infinitesimal offenses alleged against her. Through those long years she had endured the unceasing anxieties of suspense, as well as the sharper agonies of the torture-chamber, and the awful punishment which she had thus undergone might well have been regarded as atoning for whatever problematical derelictions she might have been guilty of. Still, the faith had not yet been vindicated. Nothing, in fact, had been proved, but to inquisitorial casuists there had been cause shown for suspicion against her; and to be subject to suspicion was, in the inquisitorial code, itself a crime, requiring public abjuration and penance. When, therefore, the customary council of learned jurists was assembled to consult upon her case, they unanimously decided that she was “ vehemently suspect ” of Judaizing heresy, and must abjure and undergo such penance as the discretion of the inquisitors might impose. The points of which she was thus held suspect are enumerated in her public abjuration in the auto de fé of March 28, 1492, the outcome of her four years of misery. On the scaffold in the church of Nuestra Señora de la Gracia she was made to declare herself suspected —

“ That for some years, both as a child and after marriage, I observed the fast of Kippur.

“ That I did not eat lard.

“ That I frequented the house of the condemned heretic Beatriz, wife of Gilabert Desplugas, for which your reverences hold me suspect that I went to Judaize.

“ That when the reverend father inquisitor Epila was killed I rejoiced at what was done to him.

“ That I said the only fault of the said Master Epila was that he purchased testimony.

“ That I have confessed that when I was a child I ate Passover bread.”

Then followed the sentence, in which the inquisitors, in the name of Christ, said : “ We find that we must declare and pronounce her suspect of the crimes and heresy and apostasy which she has abjured, and as these suspicions must not remain unpunished, we assign to her as penance that she do not commit these crimes and errors, and we condemn her to imprisonment at our discretion, reserving such other penance as we may see fit to impose, and we condemn her in the costs of the case, the taxation of which we reserve to ourselves.”

A few days later there followed the imposition of the penance thus reserved : Brianda was to be shut up for five years in the tower of Saliana, she was to confess and receive the sacrament thrice a year, and she was to forfeit to the Inquisition one third of all her property, which was to discharge her from the obligation of paying the costs, — except, presumably, the fees of her counsel, Pedro de Bordalvo, which were taxed at fourteen florins. The said third of her property, or its money value, was to be paid within ten days, under penalty of a mulct of two thousand gold florins, and of being held convicted of all the crimes and heresies whereof she was suspected. We may reasonably assume that the money was promptly paid, for on the following June 9 she was mercifully released from prison, and restored to full control over her person and property. Had her sentence been confiscation, her whole estate would have gone to the royal treasury, and the Inquisition would have received nothing; so mercy and thrift went hand in hand.

One is tempted to ask, in no spirit of irreverence, whether the interests of religion, in whose name the whole affair was performed, would have suffered if the third of Brianda’s property had been quietly appropriated at the outset, without exposing her to years of shame and misery, and inducing her kindred and neighbors to bear false witness against her.

Gilabert Desplugas, at least, had no reason to congratulate himself on the result of his relations with the Inquisition. He followed the fate of his wife, and was burnt, presumably as a relapsed heretic, in the auto de fé of May 15, 1502.

Henry C. Lea .

“ Se fusse des hoirs Hue Capel
Qui fut extraict de boucherie,
On ne m’eust parmy ce drapel
Faict boyre à celle escorcherie.”
  1. These offenses are all alleged in the abstracts of sentences contained in a MS. in my possession, entitled Memoria de diversos Autos de Inquisicion celebrados en Caragoça desde el año de 1484 asta el de 1502.
  2. The following details are drawn from the records of the trial, preserved in the Llorente MSS. now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (fonds espagnol, No. 80). As is customary in such matters, they are of enormous prolixity, extending to nearly 350 folio pages.
  3. This Maria Desplugas was penanced in the auto de fé of March 2, 1488, but was spared confiscation because she had voluntarily come forward and informed on herself and others, including the Bardaxi family.
  4. This is the form of torture to which the contemporary François Villon alludes as applied to himself : —