THE SCENT OF PERFECTION
In which the Book is introduced to the reader, some sacred texts are discussed, and there begins the story of St Teresa, the girl from Ávila
Dear Reader! It is only right that for the arduous and time-consuming activity of reading you should have a reliable guide to enlighten you concerning the backdrop to the events and perhaps point out some of the more important details in the hope of bringing you closer to the story. This significant person is myself, the Book, the one you are now reading. Of course I have at my disposal many other works in which you, too, would find references, information, and useful answers to any questions that might arise as you read, but I shall spare you the additional burden of these. I found it difficult to persuade myself to come to your aid: I am old, a cantankerous and sceptical, ancient Book. But the story of this saintly half-Jewish young woman who lived over four hundred years ago has kindled my curiosity. In her time, too, as invariably in later times, the Jews were persecuted. And in those days women were perhaps even less valued than they are today. Let them bear many children, let them work, let them pray, but above all let them not stick their noses into the important business of men, such as religion, philosophy or politics. Teresa was one of the first to rebel against this culture that oppressed women and, successfully hoodwinking the powerful men of her time, to achieve her goals. She was liberated in her thinking, managed to have a clear relationship to the concept of God, and despite the ruthlessly hierarchical nature of the society of her time organized her small monastic communities on the basis of genuine equality.
I have little time to lose. The many weird machines of the electronic age are breathing down my neck and soon only in museums will a few copies of my brethren remain. Yet it was books that made mankind great.
Many thousands of years ago, when the various systems of writings were invented, writing as such was not regarded as text with its own, independent meaning and value, but merely as an aggregation of decipherable symbols referring to important events or objects arranged according to some principle. The Phoenicians tied small clay tablets to the large pottery urns in which they transported wheat, oil or wine, and the symbols written on these indicated what the urns contained. These were not informative texts, instructions for use, or explanations, merely minute symbols that made it easier to transport and store the hundreds of urns. Later these markings developed into texts, at first simple and eventually more complex expressions of ideas.
In the Middle Ages the Bible was not translated into the various vernaculars because that would merely have confused ordinary folk: the Bible should be read in Latin, the language of the church and of knowledge; anyone who did not know Latin was obviously unsuited to the reading of Scripture. Indeed, the role and social purpose of the Church was precisely to mediate between that text born of divine inspiration and simple men.
The invention and rapid spread of printing brought about changes during just those decades when Teresa lived. Books appeared by the hundred and it was no longer the privilege of the rich to purchase them. In addition to the Holy Writ and theological disputations, worldly works, too, came into being. This is the age of the chivalric romance so ironically critiqued by Cervantes in the times after Teresa’s death. The burgeoning democracy of reading transformed society. Knowledge in the form of writing and the rich fabric of allegory reached the masses and everyone could revel to their heart’s content in the glories of interpretation.
This child of Ávila found herself in a rapidly changing world. America had been discovered, the Arabs had been run out of Spain, a Christian Europe had come into being. In Italy the Renaissance was on its way out, the Reformation had begun, to be followed by the Counter-Reformation. In fact the only still point of the Christian world was Spain. Gold from America and the wealth that it brought did for a time create stability in this country re-conquered from the Arabs, and in these parts they did not, to be sure, much like change.
St Teresa of Ávila was a strong, wilful woman. After her death her enormous popularity led to this humble, handsome, splendid Spanish virgin from a noble family being transmuted by church dignitaries and bureaucrats into a plaster saint.
Many in the modern world have studied the story of her life and it has become clear that it is only her beauty and genius that are beyond dispute, in every other respect her story can be interpreted in a variety of ways. This Book that you are reading – I – am not a learned work such as many noteworthy scholars have devoted to her, but a free interpretation, a fiction, which none the less attempts to take into consideration the nature of the writings that have shaped the allegorical tales, and re-interprets the memory of Teresa.
Finally I must insist that while I can exist only through the tale of Teresa, it is my belief that my existence, too, is a contribution to Teresa’s life.
One night, already a Carmelite nun, she was tossing and turning in her bed but somehow sleep would not come…
After Mother died, my aunt Doña Elvira de Cepeda’s dear sons began to frequent our house. On one occasion Father became very agitated because he said I had dressed too alluringly and all eyes were on me; he forbade the boys from ever coming again, much to my unhappiness. We led such a gay life in the day room, chatting, singing, playing a variety of parlour games. At six in the evening Juana would appear with a huge dish of cakes and biscuits and orange juice and we would have a bite to eat. Then, to everyone’s sorrow, Juana would come again at nine, this time empty-handed, and stop in the doorway making a long face. The company would fall silent and the taking of farewells would begin. And so would end another joy-filled day.
It took much persuading for father to allow my favourite cousin, Pedro, to be my regular escort, which he was delighted to be. Soon we fell in love. The physical joy lasted no more than three months. But how wonderful and exciting it was! Pedro was a fine young man in his prime, upstanding, spirited, strong, yet always gentle with me. Never shall I forget his embraces and kisses. I always prepared carefully for our evening rendezvous, anointing my arms and neck with almond oil, sprinkling my hair with rosewater, and taking care to adorn myself in my finest jewellery. Some afternoons we would go for a ride – chaperoned, naturally. When we first embraced one night, still in all innocence, already he was speaking of our becoming man and wife, and it seemed that small, soft world of entwined arms inhabited only by two bodies longing for one another would remain just like that until the end of time. He caressed me, embraced me, held me close, and I explored his face with my lips and gently drew his own luscious lips between my teeth. How far away seems the outside world at such times! Ávila disappears, father and family disappear, everything seems perfect, time stands still, and you think that this truly is eternity. In the evenings I could barely contain myself as I waited for Father to go to bed. He would fuss about endlessly with his papers and it was often very late by the time he kissed me goodnight as I lay in bed in my nightdress, and once the dear man finally went to bed and closed the door to his room, I would spring out of bed at once and put on my clothes again. In the kitchen I found Juana, who was willing to let me out by the back gate. She made me swear, every single time, that I would preserve my virtue, and at four in the morning, when the bell of St Andrew’s church first tolled, I was by the gate ready to be let back in. For two whole months I struggled heroically and ineffectually to preserve my virtue. We both suffered terribly: he desired me and I him. Just twenty days before the end we sat on the bench beneath the myrtle bushes in his garden. He embraced me, kissed and caressed me, and we spoke of how when we were married we would have a great big house and many children and make Juana our housekeeper, then we just clasped each other tight and pressed our cheeks together in silence. Stroking my hand, he took it gently into his, and led it to his hose. I almost cried out as I came to his naked manhood and he folded my hand around it. I experienced the strange creature – I don’t know what else to call it – reaching out of there; it was his, yet had a life of its own. It was covered in silky, soft skin, but hard like the muscles of a man’s arm. It seemed to be independent, trembling in my hand, throbbing, arching upwards, as if wanting to get closer to me. At its root it was covered in silken hairs and I wanted it to be mine, to somehow take it into myself. I forgot every warning about my virtue as my whole body was flooded by a strange joy and longing; I wanted to dissolve in it. He laid me down on the bench, hitched up my skirt, knelt down by me and kissed me there. I could feel myself becoming all moist and at first I thought I had wet myself, but it was only desire trickling out of me. He bent over me and I could feel that long, strange body sliding into me. There was a momentary stab of pain, then an inundation of pleasure.
We lay one on top of the other for a long time, and slowly I realized what we had done. Gone was my virginity, my virtue that Juana had for so long been so concerned about. I gave a shudder. Father! Pedro noticed, bent close to my ear, and whispered sweet words: it would all be fine, we would be married by the autumn. I believed him and was happy. When the bell tolled, I gave him a kiss and ran home. Juana let me in, took one look at me and said angrily: Doña Teresa, what have you done? I just stared at her in astonishment. Then she began to weep and embraced me.
”There will real trouble if he doesn’t marry you. Don Alonso will do away with me too.”
We wept together for a while and then I ran off to my room. For the next twenty nights I went over to him every single night; he would be waiting for me by the gate and covered me with passionate kisses.
I was fearful that someone would find out, because the family and visitors now often remarked on the joy that radiated from my countenance. Once father also overheard a chance remark, gave me an inquiring look that frightened me to death, but he turned away and left the room. This left me drenched in perspiration and anxiety had replaced my joy, but I was quite unable to bring our liaison to an end, even though by then I was spending the best part of the day in a most fretful state. I prayed to God that Father should not find out.
By the age of sixteen Teresa had grown into a fine-looking, well-educated woman, at gatherings attracting everyone’s attention as a superlative conversationalist and a somewhat flirtatious but spellbinding personality. In the Spanish society of that time a woman of the nobility had three kinds of ”honour”. Her virginity, which she preserved for the sanctity of her marriage, her social status, of which the bedrock was provided by her descent (and subsequently her husband), and lastly her Catholic faith and conduct, which was assured by her membership of the Church, by taking part in the obligatory ceremonies, and the unqualified acceptance of every single tenet of the religion.
The first honour she lost quickly, the second she lacked, though she was not to discover this until later, and to the third she clung until the end of her life – as regards its outward manifestations, though inwardly she saw many things quite otherwise.
And then it all ended terribly badly. On the final morning, as I crept back through our gate, I found Father. Never had I seen him so sombre and sunken in gloom. I couldn’t bear to look him in the eye and my tears came streaming down.
”Come to my room, my dear, ” he said quietly and tersely, turning on his heel and entering the house. I was sobbing; Juana embraced me but I shook her off. Evil asp in my bosom: I was sure it was she who had betrayed me. Slowly, I set off after Father. I can still recall every step I took. The big, oaken door standing ajar, the wide corridor, the silk Persian carpets on the walls. I paused by each one: perhaps there would be a miracle and suddenly everything would be back to normal; but nothing changed in the unrelenting silence. By the time I came to Father’s room I was no longer crying; somehow I had managed to pull myself together. What I had done had happened to others a million times, it is no sin against God to enjoy the caresses of our lover, all I had done was take a down-payment a few months in advance…
Father was sitting in the tall armchair, stiff, pale, and infinitely sad. He no longer looked angry, just pained and broken.
”My dear!” he said. He never called me ‘my dear’: it was always my darling girl, my angel, my sweet little Teresa. ”In this house you have experienced nothing but what is good, you have encountered only people who have lived respectable, virtuous lives. But you have betrayed us and you have ruined your own life for ever.”
Well, Don Alonso was no angel himself. Teresa’s mother, Don Alonso’s second wife, Beatriz de Ahumada – a distant relative (fourth cousin) of his first wife and the child of a rich peasant family – was not yet fourteen but already a fabled beauty. She caught Alonso’s eye on one his trips, he instantly fell in love with her – and knocked her up. When the pregnancy became obvious, Alonso wasted no time in announcing their wedding. Unfortunately Beatriz’ mother was unaware of the pregnancy and turned to the local priest for help, as she had a particular loathing for Jews and had no intention of allowing one into the family. The priest managed to unearth a rule that banned the marrying of a deceased wife’s relatives and annulled the nuptials as well as excommunicating both parties. The situation was ultimately resolved through a member of a distant branch of Don Alonso’s family, a bishop who had, by the by, collected substantial sums for the king’s crusades. From him, in return for appropriate recompense, it was possible to purchase the approval of the Roman Catholic Church for the prohibited marriage, in the form of a dispensation. The document cost Alonso a small fortune, but luckily once the child was on its way the mother-in-law also relented somewhat. Of course the bureaucracy in Rome took its time and there was concern that baby Fernando would arrive before the dispensation, so Beatriz had to hide in the tiny village of Gottarendura until the wedding. Ultimately everything turned out fine; this was the village where Beatriz gave birth to all her children.
“But father, I am innocent, and Pedro will marry me, we can have the wedding in the autumn, he adores me!” I protested.
“I love you so much that I always believe everything you say, but as far as this marriage is concerned, you are being a silly goose, my dear! The Cepedas will never accept any more Jews into their family. We all swore, my brothers and I, that our children would never marry in. He won’t marry you because his family won’t let him. He knew that, of course.”
I thought the earth would swallow me up.
“How can I be a Jew? I am a staunch Catholic, I’m there at St Andrew’s every Sunday for mass. A Jew! Father, that’s impossible!”
“This is a family secret, my dear, that I have not told you before because I didn’t want the burden of this knowledge to frighten you and make you withdrawn. Perhaps it would have been better to enlighten you.”
“How can we be Jews? We go to church, we all confess, we take communion. You are a noble, a Christian, aren’t you?”
“Sit down, Teresa,” he said, pointing to the smaller armchair. “Let’s begin at the beginning. We are conversos, converts to Christianity. My father – your grandfather – Juan Sánchez, was forced to abandon the faith of his fathers. Had he not bowed to Christianity, he would have been confined to the ghetto or sent into exile, as were many tens of thousands of his people. Grandfather was born here, lived here, and thought this was his home, and he sacrificed his faith for this illusory homeland. It was never accepted that we had truly abandoned our Jewish faith; the conversos are under constant surveillance and the slightest inkling that we might stumble in our faith sends people scurrying to the Inquisition.”
“But surely someone who has become a zealous Catholic is let be?”
“Come now! One of grandfather’s neighbours was also a converso, an affluent merchant. One Christmas they bought a hock of smoked ham, like everyone else, saying ‘Let’s not stand out!’ But the family did not want to eat it and because the merchant’s wife was unhappy about throwing it away, she gave it to a poor family with many children that lived some distance away. They accepted it gladly but then began to wonder, and asked the butcher how many hams the merchant’s family had bought. Just the one, like most people, came the answer. So: they buy it, then don’t eat it, and we get a gift because their ancient faith forbids them from eating it! They immediately reported them to the Inquisition. The merchant and his wife were taken away, imprisoned, tortured, and their lives were ruined. Such is the world we live in, Teresa!”
“But you, Father, surely they haven’t harmed you?”
“They have indeed. When I was about ten, we lived in Toledo with your grandfather, Juan Sánchez. For various reasons the general atmosphere suddenly became charged against the conversos, and they were accused of spilling the blood of Christian children and other stupid slanders. The Inquisition rounded up several hundred people of Jewish descent, your grandfather among them. Those who would not donate to religious causes, swelling the pockets of the Inquisition, were tortured and then made to wear a long yellow outfit, the sambenito, which had red flames and devils painted on it, and they were chased through the city’s streets, where the enraged Christians pelted the unfortunates with the remains of exhumed heretics and rotting corpses of animals, as well as rocks and stones. In the square they were all tied to stakes, bundled up in straw, and one by one the city luminaries set fire to them.”
“They were burnt alive?”
“Of course, alive, to the rabble’s vast amusement.”
“He had enough money and was willing to ‘confess’ that he had sinned but had repented and would return to the ‘true’ faith, never again disobeying Christian precepts.”
“And they believed him?”
“My dear, they were keen on money. If you have enough money to save your life, that’s a good example for others in the same boat, encouraging them to sacrifice their fortunes to save their own and their families’ lives.”
“And these were allowed to go free?”
“Yes, but they were forced to take part in penitential processions, on seven successive Fridays, wearing a sambenitillo, canary-yellow garb that is shorter than the sambenito: only knee-length and with black crosses on it. Along the winding streets of Toledo they would have to pass, stopping at every church to bear witness that their new-found conversion was genuine. The rabble by the roadside jeered and spat abuse at them and pelted them with rotten fruit, parts of animal corpses, and of course rocks and stones.”
“And you had to watch this horror too?”
“No, my angel, I didn’t watch it; I took part in it. Every male in the family above the age of three had to march alongside the grown-ups dressed in yellow, so my older brother and I did, too. The more tender-hearted priests sometimes allowed us to go to the end of the procession, so that by the time we came to those who were hurling things the rocks and stones had been used up. But they still got us, now and then, of course. There’s a mark here, on my shoulder. The most dreadful thing was when they let us go home after it was all over. We ripped the vile yellow clothes off one another and huddled together sobbing, sometimes until daybreak. And the following day we all had to do our daily tasks wearing our usual clothing. The merchant sold his wares to those who had humiliated and tortured him the previous day.”
Relations in those days were indeed complicated. The communities were made up of Moors, Jews and Christians and did try to get along peacefully. But this rarely worked out: sometimes the Moors pursued the Jews and Christians, sometimes the Christians harassed the Jews and Moors. The Jews didn’t harass anyone, which was of course typical of them and in any event was not the right thing to do.
The persecution of the Jews came in waves. There was a peak, for example, in the early fourteenth century in the wake of the great plague, which was obviously caused by the Jews themselves. King Pedro I of Castile, however, later showed himself to be decidedly philosemitic, which certainly angered the nobility. Many Jews converted to Christianity in the hope of being left in peace: these were the conversos, the new Christians. When at the end of the Middle Ages the Moors were successfully driven out of Andalusia and Granada, Isabella of Castile and the king of Andalusia, Ferdinand, agreed after protracted negotiations to marry in 1469. At first they did not specially target the Jewish and converso communities, but once they had consolidated their power, they thought that the most important tool of unification would be zealous anti-Semitism. The rulers dreamt of a unified Spanish state and reckoned that the only barrier to this was the unruly Jewish people, whom the peasants already despised from the bottom of their hearts. At that time this manifested itself not in the form of racial hatred but simply as religious mania. A faith of which the ancient God, the Lord, the son of God, Jesus, the mother of God, Mary, the foster-father of God, Joseph, and its most important saints, the Apostles, were all of them Jews, will obviously strive to keep away from their religion those Jews who have the gall to claim ownership of the part of Holy Writ called the Old Testament by any means at their disposal. The two rulers magnanimously imagined that if they succeeded in getting every Jew to convert to Christianity and remain true to the new faith, in a few generations a unified culture would evolve and the Jews would finally disappear, to the gratification of all.
Of course they also had their way with the Moors, who were likewise forced to abandon their faith and were deprived of their assets and often of their children, too. These Morescos became servants and slaves. Hundreds of thousands of them were rounded up and transported to the coasts of Africa, where of course in the Islamic communities they counted as Christians and ended up at the very bottom of the social ladder. These events reached their climax in the years after Teresa’s death.
In the last quarter of the fourteenth century inflation and high prices again led to a new round of Jewish persecution, which was sparked by such distinguished clerics as the orator Fernand Martinez. Because of anti-Semitism Jews converted to Christianity in their tens of thousands, and the Jewish community thus shrank by half. Anti-Jewish feeling now turned towards the conversos, although according to the Church’s official view the Christians of old and the conversos should have been treated alike, and they were indeed accepted by the upper classes; none the less they remained tainted with suspicion as far as the lower levels of society were concerned. The simplest solution appeared to be to expel those who clung to their Jewish faith, as they might have a bad influence on the conversos and tried to lure them back to the faith of their ancestors. A royal decree to this effect was issued in 1482, but its implementation did not prove entirely successful.
At first the conversos were not banned from pursuing occupations not permitted to Jews, for example, tax-collecting, state office, running pharmacies, medical practice, tailoring, operating slaughterhouses, joining monastic orders, and so forth. But the conversos were ambitious and thanks to their better education occupied many such important positions. So now there came decrees that forbade not only Jews but also conversos from pursuing such careers. Even worse, many conversos, as in all likelihood Teresa’s grandfather, too, practised their Jewish religion in secret. For this of course the Jews were held responsible, as they were clearly systematically luring the conversos back to their faith of old. Isabella and Ferdinand therefore turned to more efficacious methods. The Papal Inquisition had already been at work in Europe: it was originally established to eradicate heretical sects on the orders of Pope Gregory IX in 1231, but what the Spanish rulers had in mind was an organization under their own control, and in 1478 they set up the Spanish Inquisition, which of course had at its disposal techniques that were more up-to-date. Only one or two technical innovations remained to be developed, such as the Spanish boot. It is thought that between 1481 and 1530 eight thousand cases were heard and it is likely that more than two thousand executions were carried out. The main concern of the Spanish Inquisition was to make the conversos see the light and since there were many well-off citizens among them it turned out that taking the conversos to court also had considerable financial benefits. If someone was caught, he would be tortured – purely for educative purposes, naturally – he would implicate another person under suspicion who was well-off, who in turn could also be charged, and the latter, too, would end up having to pay handsomely.
The higher echelons of the aristocracy did not especially favour the persecution of the Jews and not infrequently they would intervene with the authorities on behalf of their converso friends. On the other hand in the countryside it was easy to fan the flames of hatred of the Jews among the peasantry. One or two impassioned preachers, such as the above-mentioned Fernand Martinez, attributed every economic ill and meteorological calamity to the work of the Jews and arranged their own little pogroms independently of the Inquisition. The powers that be tried to suppress these and channel the whole business into the somewhat languid but at least supervised waters of the local bureaucracy.
Juan Sánchez was a successful merchant in Toledo. His first wife was the daughter of a well-known banking family, but had died giving birth to their third child. His second wife, Ines de Cepeda, was not quite as high-born as the first, but was still the daughter of a well-regarded Christian merchant. In 1485 Toledo witnessed a wave of appalling anti-Semitism and the conversos were accused of conspiring against both the kingdom and the Inquisition. A large number of citizens were rounded up and many were sentenced to death. Sánchez too was taken away but he was prepared to confess and return to the one and only redeeming faith. According to contemporary accounts this cost a colossal amount of money and of all the accused who were released it was he who paid the most. The Church took him back into its embrace and punished him with the penance that Don Alonso had described.
This is still a far cry from the well thought-out and extremely efficient Jew-exterminating Nazi machine of the twentieth century; compared with this the Inquisition was merely a primitive, rickety bureaucratic hodge-podge – though it at least operated to the greater glory of the Church!
Juan Sánchez, having completed his penance, quickly left Toledo and moved with his family to Ávila, where the people seemed at the time to be more tolerant. To be on the safe side, he changed his name and took the family name of his second wife also. In 1500, for a hefty sum, he secured his patent of nobility and was officially declared a hidalgo.
But being a converso was a very risky business even in Teresa’s time.
“Father, you are a Don, so how can you be a converso?”
“My dear, your grandfather’s second wife – your grandmother – was a Cepeda. Though the Cepedas are not from the high aristocracy, they were a well-known Christian family. Your grandfather ensured that after the horrific events his sons should be certified members of the nobility. You can see our patent of nobility in that frame on the wall.”
Let’s pause here for a moment. I, the Book, need not be as indulgent as this concerned parent.
Two important points have emerged. First, the better-off conversos tried to marry into well-known Christian families of more modest means, offers that the latter, because of their financial situation, were rarely in a position to refuse; the case of Juan Sánchez was by no means unique. In this way the children of such unions would be only half-conversos, and if they also married cleverly in their turn, the grandchildren would be only quarter-conversos, and so on. The fact that the doña, the wife, came from the nobility did not of course turn a señor into a hidalgo, but in return for appropriate sums of money the state was not averse to “rebranding”. If someone could bring to the special courts witnesses to testify that for the previous three generations his family had been Christian, he could obtain a patent as proof that he did not have to pay taxes and was free to apply for any position. He could even, for example, become a tax-collector. Many thought that Juan Sánchez regarded the securing of this document as a business investment, because a tax-collector he did in fact become. The state had not, of course, thought this matter through and soon brought forward legislation to the effect that a patent of nobility obtained in this manner could not be passed down from father to son and the latter would again have to go to court if they wished to remain noble in adulthood. The taps regulating the flow of money have to be used frequently, otherwise they rust up.
In 1519 the four Cepeda brothers, Teresa’s father among them, refused to pay any taxes, claiming that, as nobility, they were exempt. A court case was brought against them, but they decided to lodge a challenge to it in the little village of Hortigosa de Rioalmar, not far from Ávila but still within its jurisdiction, where one of them had bought a small property some time earlier and the prosecutor in charge, Francisco de Pajares, happened to be Pedro Cepeda’s brother-in-law. Witness after witness testified that the brothers came from a Christian family of hidalgos going back at least three generations. Four of the witnesses for the state, who had earlier testified against the Cepedas, suddenly withdrew their incriminatory testimony. Later it turned out that the prosecutor himself had paid them off on the brothers’ behalf, but this fact had no effect on the final outcome. It was a complex case because the state tried, in the interests of the treasury, to prove that the counter-petitioners were not nobility, as many still recalled Juan Sánchez’ calvary in Toledo. But the carefully chosen small town, the reliable network of family and friends, and substantial sums of money ensured the result the brothers sought: on 16 November 1520, their patent was finally issued, though the captious prosecutor managed to attach to it a codicil restricting its validity to the region around Ávila. Don Alonso’s framed document showed traces of some changes: the word “codicil” had been scratched out and the first two words of ”restricted to the Ávila region” now read ”especially in”. We are none of us perfect.
“Well, now you know my views. After your beloved mother’s death you had the run of this house. No one will suspect anything if from tomorrow you will continue your studies in the Augustinian Sisters’ convent of Our Lady and make every effort to put all that has happened out of your mind. In a year or two we shall find you a suitable husband. You have a substantial dowry, you can still make a very good marriage.”
“But Father! I don’t want to be a nun!”
“I don’t want you to become one either, Teresa. You are going there in order to study and get over this damaging relationship. This is my wish and paternal command. Gather your things; you can take María with you as your servant, and I shall be sure to visit you often.”
Doña Teresa de Ahumada (Spanish custom permitted girls to take their mother’s family name) withdrew to a convent in 1528, still with painful wounds in her heart. It is said that her lover tried to contact her many times but despite the convent’s relatively easy-going regime, Teresa was supervised closely and they could not meet or even exchange letters. There ensued a harrowing, lonely period in Teresa’s life, suitable for reflection.
For the first three nights I slept not a wink; I was tossing and turning all night and even now I often cry myself to sleep. I was fortunate that Father generously purchased a cell for my sole use. At first they wanted to put me in a dormitory with twenty others of my kind. I would have died. Poor Father, he loves me so much that he believes I’m innocent – most likely he wants to believe I’m innocent. He is making plans for my marriage, which should be the next one after my older sister’s. But the very thought of this chills me to the marrow. Father is rich, he is likely find me someone who is to his taste, from a family willing to accept the daughter of a well-to-do converso. This does, however, limit the choice considerably. I have never heard anyone mention that we are Jews, but Ávila is a gossipy town and I assume everyone knows. Now I understand why those that I knew to be conversos were always kind and friendly.
Oh, this is terrible!
The Christian husband that Father will spend a deal of money securing will discover on his wedding night that he has been sold faulty goods and howl with rage, perhaps even beat me, for having deceived him and besmirched his honour; if he is stupid enough he might even broadcast it to all and sundry… No, this cannot be! In this country it is dreadful enough to be a wife and spend your life cooking, washing, weaving, spinning, bearing one child after another, under some despot of a revolting, tyrannical husband. That’s not a world I want to live in! But even if by some chance the unfortunate fellow should prove tolerable, behind my back everyone would whisper that I was a Jew and I would be welcome only among my own kind.
No! I don’t want a husband! Poor Father! I know he really wants the best for me and I do love him dearly, but no, not even for him am I prepared to ruin my life.
In those early days I had a recurring dream that there would be a sharp knock on the gate: the sisters would open it hurriedly, and my lover would come charging in on a splendid black steed. I would hurry to him, let him sweep me up and plant me before him in the saddle; raising his feathered hat to the sisters, we would turn around, and away we would gallop, out of this prison, towards freedom and a life of unalloyed joy. But he did not come. Once, when I caught sight of a letter that had just been delivered, the sisters glanced furtively in my direction and quickly hid it. My beloved had obviously written to me. How beautiful his hands were, with those long fingers. How velvety their touch.
I pray to God to at least grant me peace. There are opportunities enough, as we pray together nine times a day. Of course, this does not fulfill me; though I mumble along with the others, I can pray truly only when I am alone and even then only before I fall asleep.
It was the custom among the upper classes in Spain to send their adolescent daughters to a convent in order to shield them from temptation. Here they could fill their days with their devotions, singing and, naturally, such studies as were appropriate for the gentler sex: theology, grammar, a certain amount of mathematics, music, and knitting and embroidering. Latin was of course out of the question, there was no point teaching it to women: nor could they study the Holy Writ, as they would not have understood it. The Bible is for educated males, only the Protestants entertained the absurd notion that everyone should read it. Once the girls found a suitable match they could leave the convent, though in general a family was able to provide only one of their daughters with an adequate dowry. For much smaller sums, however, it was possible to ensure they remained in the convent for ever. Not infrequently they knew their fate in advance and were permanently consigned there from the age of four or five. There was no shortage of work in a convent for those not affluent enough to be spared hard labour, someone like Teresa, for example.
This convent is a dreadful place; I can’t bear the confined space, the iron discipline, the feeling of being shut in, even though I often think of becoming a nun. I had erred but my confessors did not make a big thing of it; if I were accepted into some order – preferably not this one, because I don’t like this one at all – even my Jewishness could disappear. I observe the religion’s precepts at all times and I find joy in prayer. Just not here, in these military barracks. Though I quickly got on good terms with my fellow inmates and we saw eye to eye on many matters, I did not share my sad history with them and let them think I too was waiting for a husband. Only to my dear friend Juana Suárez have I explained why I want to be a nun – but not in these barracks. She told me many stories about the Carmelites, who are profoundly religious yet much more open, with rules not so strict that visits from the convent to the city are out of the question. Perhaps that’s where I should go. I mentioned this to Father, but his face clouded over and he said: that’s no convent for a Jew, my dear. I will get you a proper husband, one worthy of you. Poor Father, with those memories of Toledo! I will have to find some way out; it’s a matter of life or death.
Teresa endured nineteen months in the convent. She was unable to come to terms with it: she fell ill and had fainting fits, and finally her father took her to his sister’s to recover. On the way they stopped briefly at the house of her dear uncle Pedro in Hortigosa, where during her visit she read to the elderly gentleman from works of theology. One in particular caught her attention: the sermons of St Jerome. St Jerome (347-419) was an outstanding linguist and historian who knew Greek, Hebrew and Latin; he was the scholar who modernized the old Latin Bible, the Vetus Latina. Based on the Greek texts he made numerous emendations to the text, and his version became known as the Vulgate and was widely used by the church from the seventh century onwards. Jerome was an unusual man of great learning, who in his youth lived the life of a hedonistic Roman but later converted to Christianity and became an ascetic. He left behind many volumes of writings and commentaries. He was a man with a quick temper, and the ironic tone of his passionate disputations gave rise to numerous theological debates. He had a particularly powerful effect on his female students. He spent twenty years working in a monastery in Bethlehem, and there is a well-known story from this time about a lion that one day happened to wander into the monastery’s courtyard, resulting in everyone fleeing in terror, except for Jerome. The lion proffered its paw to the holy man, who saw that an enormous thorn was lodged in it. Jerome removed the thorn and the lion followed him around faithfully for a long time afterward. There are numerous paintings that depict this scene.
I spent many days reading St Jerome’s sermons and I have been profoundly agitated ever since. Despite receiving absolution in the convent I am now certain I have committed a mortal sin. Had I died in the interim, I would surely have gone to Hell for all eternity. What have I done! And I had also lied to Father, compounding my sin. There can be no forgiveness. I had been possessed by Satan when I yielded to those caresses and let myself be carried away by those honeyed words. Somehow I must atone for this heinous sin. I will join the Carmelites, come what may. There I can lead a life of virtue and regain my peace of mind. Father is against it, I know, but he is in thrall to Toledo. It is I alone who must decide, and I have decided: I will take the veil despite my father’s wishes. I pray God will forgive this further act of disobedience.
On 2 November 1535, Teresa ran away from home and defying her father’s express will entered the Carmelite Cloister of the Incarnation in Ávila. She became a postulant and a year later made final profession of her solemn vows. Though her father was most unhappy, he eventually reconciled himself to her decision and supported her with a generous annual allowance.
VILMOS CSÁNYI is a world-renowned biologist, biochemist and ethologist and university teacher. He is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Science. His main field of research is human and animal behavior, and questions of biological and cultural evolution. He is also the author of numerous literary novels.
About the Translator:
PETER SHERWOOD studied Hungarian and linguistics in the University of London before being appointed, in 1972, to a lectureship in Hungarian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London). He taught there until 2007. From 2008 until his retirement in 2014 he was László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has reviewed regularly for The Times Literary Supplement (London) as well as the e-journal Hungarian Cultural Studies (Pittsburgh) and other scholarly journals. In addition to book-length publications, he has translated from a wide range of genres, including shorter prose which has appeared online in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, The Missing Slate and B O D Y. He lives in London.