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Book Notes: The woman who defied kings: the life and times of Doña Gracia Nasi, Andrée Aelion Brooks

Edgar Samuel

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes The woman who defied kings: the life and times of Dona Gracia Nasi, Andree Aelion Brooks (Paragon House, St Paul, Minn.) isbn 1-55778-805-7,129.95. Cecil Roth's biography of Dona Gracia Nasi was one of his most readable and popular books, but the researches of Dr Aron de Leone Leoni into her life in Venice and Ferrara1 have shown up some serious mistakes in Roth's account and have added a great deal of fresh information about this remark? able woman. This new and full biography brings the story up to date. It centres on the achievement of two brothers, Francisco (1483-1535) and Diogo (1485-1543) Mendes Benveniste, who contracted to sell the king of Portugal's spices over many years, and made a great fortune. They were both born into the Benveniste family of Soria in Castile and were brought to Portugal as children in 1492. They may have been descendants of Don Abraham Benveniste (1406-54) who was the Rab de la Corte of Castile and farmed the royal revenues of Castile together with his partner, Don Joseph Nasi, in the early fifteenth century.2 In 1492 his two grandsons, Abraham and Vidal Benveniste de la Cavallaria of Guadalajara,3 negotiated an agree? ment with King Jo?o II of Portugal on behalf of the Jews of Castile and Aragon. Six hundred Jewish families could settle in Portugal on payment of a tax of one hundred cruzados, and the rest of the Jews could enter Portugal and stay for eight months on payment of a poll tax of eight cruzados each (blacksmiths and armourers being admitted at half price). We can be sure that the Benveniste's of Soria settled in Portugal as one of the six hundred privileged families. Beatrice de Luna (Dona Gracia) and her sister Brianda (Reyna), were daughters of Francisco and Diogo Mendes Benveniste's sister. They were born in Lisbon and their father, Alvaro de Luna, descended from the Nasi family. Beatrice married Francisco Mendes and bore him a daughter named Ana (Reyna). Francisco died soon after in 1536 and, because he had left a great fortune, King Jo?o III proposed that his infant daughter be brought up in the Queen's household and married to a member of the nobility. Beatrice reacted swiftly by leaving Portugal to join Diogo Mendes in 1 H. P. Salomon and Aron de Leone Leoni, 'Mendes, Benveniste, de Luna, Micas, Nasci: the State of the Art (1532-1558)' The Jewish Quarterly Review 88:3-4 (1988). 2 Yitzhak Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Philadelphia 1971) 259. 3 Ibid. 317. 205</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes Antwerp with her daughter and sister, by way of London. Diogo Mendes then married her sister Brianda and they had a daughter. As heir to Francisco's estate, Beatrice owned half of the House of Mendes. Diogo soon came to appreciate that she had a remarkable flair for business, he made her trustee of his estate and guardian of his daughter, in preference to his wife Brianda. By the 1530's the Mendes firm was not only engaged in the importation of spices from Lisbon to Antwerp and their resale through? out Northern Europe, but had become bankers who received deposits and made loans to various governments. This led Emperor Charles V, who was heavily in debt to Diogo, to order his arrest on charges of Judaizing and of monopolizing the spice trade,4 which led in turn to bitter complaints from King Jo?o III of Portugal whose income was threatened, and from the Aldermen of Antwerp whose commercial privileges were endangered. Diogo was released. After Diogo's death in 1543 Charles V's sister, the Queen Regent, pro? posed the marriage of Ana to an illegitimate member of the Hapsburg fami? ly. At the first opportunity Beatrice de Luna migrated to Venice, where she and her sister lived and traded for three years, until a quarrel broke out between them and she moved to Ferrara. It was essential for the conserva? tion of the Mendes family fortune that the two sisters continued to live as Christians, and they did so until 1553, when Beatrice migrated first to Ragusa and then to Istanbul, where she and her nephew, Joseph Nasi, con? verted to open Judaism. From there she sponsored the publication of the Ferrara Spanish Bible and Samuel Usque's Consolacam as Tribulacoens de Israel, organized a commercial boycott of the Papal port of Ancona, endowed a synagogue in Ismir and acted as a leader of Turkey's Jewish community. Andree Aelion Brooks tells the story in copious detail and corrects and fills in the gaps in Cecil Roth's account. There are a few points which read oddly, like her speculative guess that Dona Gracia called in at Bristol in 1537 on the way from Lisbon to London and Antwerp, and the statement that Calais was a British possession at a time when Scotland was an inde? pendent kingdom allied to France. However, this is a readable and interest? ing book which updates the biography of a remarkable woman and Jewish leader. Edgar Samuel 4 J. A. Goris, Etude surles Colonies Marchandes Meridionales (Portugals, Espagnols, Italiens) ? Anvers de 1488 ? 1567 (Louvain 1925) 562-8. 206</page></plain_text>