Form and Meaning in the Sephardic Poetry of New Spain

“No ha de ser en vano:”

Among the Inquisition documents housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley are the trials of Isabel and Leonor de Carvajal sisters of the more famous Luá­s de Carvajal The Carvajal family like many other immigrants came to New Spain in the second half of the sixteenth century (c 1579) from TrásosMontes a mountainous region between Portugal and Spainin search of a better life than that they had on the Iberian Peninsula As practicing Jews they were forced to conceal their religious beliefs in the Catholic lands of New Spain Members of the family however held such strong religious convictions that in their need to keep the Sabbath to keep kosher and to strengthen their faith by fasting which they viewed as penance for their life amongst “infidels” they were inevitably discovered by the Inquisition Most members of the family were tried for Judaizing in 15891590 convicted forced to serve some prison time as well as pay a stiff financial penalty and then reconciled to the Catholic faith The Carvajales did agree to renounce their Judaism yet within five years charges were again brought against them and they were brought before the Inquisitors yet again in 1595

Leonor de Carvajal was the seventh of the nine children of Francisco Rodrá­guez de Matos and Francisca de Carvajal The best sources for the life of Leonor and for all of the Carvajales include the autobiography of Luá­s de Carvajal (in which he expresses his extraordinary and fervent religious convictions) gleaned from his trial records and published by the Archivo General de la Nación in 1935 under the title Procesos de Luá­s de Carvajal as well as Alonso Toro’s 1944 history of the Carvajal family The publication of the former brought international attention to the Carvajales’ trials and led to the translation and study of Luá­s’ autobiography by Seymour Liebman Although the focus of these studies is Luá­s a fair amount of information about Leonor and other members of the family may be culled from them

The image of Luá­s and his family that these writings give us is that of a religious ideal Luá­s speaks in religious terms constantly and views everything in his surroundings from his tortillas to the way people pass in the hall as endowed with religious meaning In his sister Leonor’s trial recorded over the course of almost a year and a half from May of 1595 to November 1596 we have the testimony of a very different person She has not been “allá­ arriba” as she says and she is scared Her trial record is invaluable not only in providing another perspective on Luá­s and his account of the family’s religious practices but also as a testimony to the importance of women of the Carvajal family in maintaining and transmitting Jewish beliefs

In this study I focus on how two of the songs/poems recorded in Leonor’s trial fit into the context of the larger Sephardic and Peninsular poetic traditions The parallels found between the forms of these poems/songs and the forms used by contemporary Peninsular (often converso) court poets further supports the conclusion that I made in my 2000 study namely that these poems have all the hallmarks of larger poetic traditions and are more than likely not the unique compositions of one sixteenthcentury CryptoJewish author ie that Luá­s is not the author These songs are important in establishing the Carvajales’ rituals and beliefs in a wellestablished tradition of CryptoJewish belief that can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsula They reflect through the use of certain poetic forms and meters the historical moment of the Expulsion during which such forms were in vogue among Jews and Christians alike Afterward these forms and meters became a part of Sephardic cultural memory The copla and décima song forms used to ritualize the Carvajal family religious practice transform popular lyric forms the pop songs of their dayinto transcendent spiritual texts

Central among the songs/poems in Leonor’s trial is a version of the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Law (folios 126r127v) several stanzas of which have been recorded by the Inquisition scribe Leonor tells the tribunal that this poem about the Law of Moses was recited by the family on Shabbat She says her brother Luá­s said the Law “en copla” / “in verse” and that she and her sister Isabel “iban respondiendo porque también la saben de memoria” / “they would respond because they also knew it by heart” It is a long work of more than eighty lineseight stanzas of ten lines each (this is the number of lines recorded by the Inquisitorial scribe although the fact that he adds “etc” after the final line suggests the poem as recited by the Carvajales was longer) The first quinteto (five lines) appears to be entirely in Spanish while Portuguese elements are already evident in the second quinteto (for example meu acatamento in line seven) The rest of the poem continues this fluctuation between Spanish and Portuguese often tending toward Portuguese suggesting that the scribe may have been trying to transcribe in Spanish the poem being recited in Portuguese by Leonor In it we find a rhymed synopsis of the Ten Commandments and a brief description of their reception in Sinai:

“Yo soy tu Dios y Señor
que con poder infinito
te liberté del Egipto
donde vivá­as con dolor
y asperamente aflito
No tendrás dioses agenos
ante meu acatamento
ni farás alguos tropheos
semellança dos arreos
con que horne o firmamiento

Nada desto adorarás
ni les darrás algún honor
a má­ so por Dios tendrás
que soy fuerte zelador
en quantas cosas versa
Meu nome no jurarás
sobre alguna vanidad
sin muita necessidad
bien castigado serás
si fizieres tal maldad

Lémbrate sanctificar
a meu dia señalado
os seys podes travallar
en lo que mais te agradar
ho séptimo te he vedado
Porque en seis dá­as crieu
todas has cosas criadas
en el séptimo descansé
por esso santifiqué
seguirás suas pissadas

Tu pay y may honrrarás
y vivirás largamente
siempre alegre y contento
hea terra que posseerás
por mano de omnipotente
Fuge da alguien matar
guarte da fornicaçion
y de alleno furtar
y ao próximo lebantar
testimonio de trayçion

Nëo deseges cossa agena
ni tampoco ha mulher
ni hao esclavo que tuviere
boy o asno cossa fea
la qual o Señor nëo quere”
Todo o poblo oveu las vozes
del poderosso Señor
de ante su grande resplandor
y de las más cosas que oveo
se apartó con gran temor

Todos a Moyssen dixeron
que él se les relatasse
ho que ho Señor le mandasse
que elhes obedeçerá­an
temendo que hos matasse
El le dije “nëo temáis
que esto fez nosso Señor
para vos provar no mais
si de El tendes temor
uindo y a tantas siñaes
feytas en vosso fabor” etc

TRANSLATION
“I am your Lord and God
who with infinite power
liberated you from Egypt
where you were living in pain
and were gravely afflicted
You shall not have foreign gods before me
Nor shall you make images
similar to the jewels [stars] with which I adorned the firmament

You shall not adore any of this
nor shall you give it any honor
You will have only me as your God
For I am very zealous
in all that is dictated
You shall not swear on my name over some trifling matter when it is not necessary
You will be severely punished
if you commit such an evil

Remember to keep
my designated day holy
You can work on the other six
doing whatever you like
The seventh I have reserved
because in 6 days I created
all created things [and] on the seventh I rested
Because of this I sanctified [it] [and] you shall follow in their footsteps

You shall honor your mother and father and thus live a long time
always happy and content
in lands that you shall own
according to the Lord’s will
Avoid killing someone
Keep yourself from fornication
and from stealing from others
and from offering traitorous
testimony against those close to you

Do not covet others’ things
nor their wife nor any slave they might haveox or ass or any base thingfor such a thing the Lord does not want”
The whole community heard the voices of the powerful Lord
From the presence of his great brilliance and the other things they heard they fled in great fear

All told Moses to tell them
what the Lord commanded him and that they would obey
fearing that He would kill them He told them “Do not be afraid for the Lord did this to test you and find if
you would fear Him
having seen there so many signs done in your favor” etc

The poetic voice of the text shifts from that of God speaking to Moses to that of a witness to Moses’ sharing of the Law with Jews at Sinai The composition summarizes the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses and underscores the idea of being tested by adversityjust as the Jews had been tested in Egypt and just as the CryptoJews see themselves being tested in New Spain

The choice of Moses as the exemplary Jew is one that resonated with the Sephardim throughout the Diaspora According to the Spanish scholar Elena Romero in the Sephardic tradition there exists an entire cycle of poems/songs about Moses and his importance in the Jewish tradition In this cycle of songs/poems Moses becomes something of an epic figure and apocryphal information is added to flesh out historical details and the Biblical account The cycle includes poems on Moses’ prodigious birth his mission to liberate his people from Egypt the Exodus and the reception of the Law on Sinai We find in the eighteenthcentury Sephardic copla entitled “Hazañas de Moisés” the “Deeds of Moses” a treatment of Moses’s reception of the Law and a brief synopsis of the Commandments similar to the synopsis found in Leonor’s poem/song In this Moroccan version however the poet dedicates many more verses to a description of the Jews in Sinai while dedicating only a few to the Decalogue itself

The version of the “Ley de Moyssen” Leonor recites to the tribunal clearly fits into this Sephardic tradition of Moses songs and perhaps supplies us with a hitherto missing piece of this larger tradition an elaborate version focusing on the actual Law itself Interestingly Leonor’s “Ley de Moyssen” is also one of the earliest of the Sephardic Moses songs recorded Those poems/songs of the Sephardic Moses cycle studied by Romero date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries The formal aspects including the rhyme scheme and line length of the “Ley de Moyssen” merits special attention because of parallels with contemporary currents in Peninsular Iberian poetry The stanzas are composed of ten lines each with each line composed of eight syllables These octosyllabic tenline stanzas are called décimas The rhyme scheme of these décimas follows a specific pattern one that was used by fifteenthcentury courtly Iberian poets The basic rhyme scheme is: abbabcdccd This particular combination of rhymes line length and ten line stanzas makes this composition a copla real a popular form in late fourteenth and early fifteenthcentury Portuguese and Spanish poetry Court poets and the most popular of Golden Age playwrites including Lope de Vega composed and performed such coplas reales As Dorothy Clotelle Clark points out by the sixteenth century the copla real was “used to the almost complete exclusion of almost all other forms of octosyllabic stanza in lyric poetry” This form was generally used by poets who avoided other Italianate forms that were becoming popular in the sixteenth century Leonor’s testimony offers a glimpse of how New Spanish/Mexican CryptoJews originally from Portugal incorporated popular Spanish and Portuguese song forms into their secret rituals It also offers us one of the first written records of the décima in the Americas and further proves that the Sephardic copla corpus which Hassán and Romero date to the eighteenth century existed long before that at least some 200 years before

However the unusually long “Ley de Moyssen” which was used by the Carvajales to celebrate Shabbat is by no means the only exceptional poem/song in Leonor’s trial record The scribe also records nine “cánticos” little songs that according to Leonor the family sang on Friday night at sundown The first cántico is the most complete: the scribe recorded six of its stanzas while only recording the first stanzas of the following eight The first song “Si con tanto cuidado cada dá­a” has a regular rhyme scheme (fol 123r124r):

As in the “Ley de Moyssen” this cántico stresses the difficulty and persecution of the CryptoJews and their fervent belief in God and their hopes in redemption Line 27 “No a de ser en vano ” / “Let it not be in vane ” is particularly poignant when put in the context of Leonor’s long imprisonment in the Inquisition prisons and her final execution

While this cántico expresses similar sentiments to those expressed in the “Ley de Moyssen” its form differs significantly This cántico is composed of hendecasyllabic lines (consisting of eleven syllables each) Elevensyllable lines are the hallmark of Italian style poetry that was in vogue among both Spanish and Portuguese court poets beginning in the fifteenth century The strophic form of this song which consists of stanzas of eight elevensyllable lines with three rhymes the first two alternating in lines one to six and the last repeating in lines seven and eight (ABABABCC) is known as the octava real This is the same form we find in the other eight cánticos recorded in Leonor’s trial The octavas reales are an Italian poetic form that was introduced to Spanish and popularized by court poets Garcilaso de la Vega and Juan Boscán This form quickly became the metric pattern for the learned Spanish compositions of both a religious and profane nature The great Spanish literati Lope de Vega and José de Valdivielso composed religious poetry in octavas reales The form was also popular among Portuguese poets and a favorite of Camáµes Sixteenth and seventeenthcentury literary theorists tell us this form was particularly suited for important and weighty subject matter such as moral instruction or epic material One of the bestknown representatives of the octava real is Garcilaso de la Vega who used the form to compose his Églogas a series of long poems recounting the poet’s personal amorous adventure through a mythological landscape imitative of the classical world The octavas reales then are a form used by erudite professional Iberian court poets and the inclusion in the Carvajales CryptoJewish rituals in New Spain is a bit unexpected

The learned cultured poetic form of the octavas reales contrasts with the coplas reales of the “Ley de Moyssen” While the octavas reales evoke the learned courtly circles of professional Italianate Iberian poets the coplas reales although also used by learned courtly poets remained an essentially popular literary form The octosyllabic copla real cum décima continued to exist and even thrive in the popular cultures of the Americaspeople sang it on the street and on the ships arriving to the New World and have continued doing so until the present The cántico form however was a learned poetic form found almost exclusively among the works of trained court poets The presence of cánticos in Leonor’s trial shows us that in addition to being aware of the popular décima form the Carvajales also possessed a sophisticated and very learned/literary level of poetic composition Theirs was not a rustic rude ritual pieced together from bits of scripture but a private ritual based on welldeveloped learned poems/songs that reflect the literary tastes and values of the Iberian aristocrats and literati

Thus Leonor’s trial record is valuable not only for what it tells us about what kinds of texts sixteenthcentury CryptoJews in New Spain were using to maintain their faith but also that learned forms of Spanish poetry thrived in the world outside the court In addition to showing that the CryptoJews of New Spain used a variety of Peninsular poetic/song forms as part of their private familiar ritual including the octava real a form that reveals the Carvajales had a knowledge of sophisticated learned Iberian court poetry Leonor’s trial record also shows that women including Leonor and her sisters participated in the performance of these songs and were key in their preservation and transmission In the Spanish tradition there is almost no evidence of how or if women in the court read or sang similar poems/songs composed in coplas and octavas reales The value of Leonor’s testimony however transcends whatever light it may shed on sixteenthcentury literary forms and the role of women and Sephardim in their performance and transmission Leonor’s trial illustrates why literature matters The poems and songs Leonor recites to the Inquisitors prove to be the most damning evidence against this family that will ultimately be put to death in one of the largest autos de fe in the Americas In these texts the Carvajales both preserved and created their identity as Jews these songs tell them not only what rules should govern their lives but also reassure them that they are not alone in their affliction and that they have a special relationship to the Lord As such Leonor’s trial is more than just a collection of poems and songs however valuable these may be to the study of Iberian and Jewish culture and literature but is above all a testament to a woman’s faith and to her courage in the face of oppression

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