In Between Two Worlds: Jewish Women and Conversion in Late Medieval Catalonia

By Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson

On August 10, 1391, the nearly 1,000 Jews of the city of Girona took refuge in the Gironella Tower, a fortified structure connected to the wall that formed part of the city’s defenses.

Like Jews elsewhere in the lands of Castile and the Crown of Aragon, the Jews of Girona were fleeing a mob that descended on their community determined to eliminate their presence by either conversion or death.


This wave of violence started earlier that summer in the city of Seville, where the local archbishop, Ferrán Martínez, had spent a number of years stirring up the local population against the Jews. The anti-Jewish violence of 1391 proved to be a turning point for the history of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula. In many communities, it resulted in the mass conversion to Christianity of the majority of the Jews, with some escaping while others were killed. The Jewish communities of Valencia and Barcelona officially ceased to exist, and survivors of the violence there had to relocate to other Jewish communities.

While the Jews of Girona were fairly integrated into the life of the city, there was some evidence of tensions in the years leading to 1391. In the late 1380s, there were assaults on individual Jews by some clerics in the city, and local Christian youths had also attacked a seven-year-old Jewish boy and forcibly baptized him. Warnings about the coming violence were sent to the local bishop by King John (1350–1396) on July 10, 1391, following the attacks against the Jews of Valencia. Luckily, the Jews of Girona were able to hide in the Gironella Tower, but the violence did not subside immediately and the city was not pacified for weeks. On September 25, more than six weeks after the initial violence, the tower itself was stormed by the mobs. While Jews continued to be harassed, conditions in the tower deteriorated rapidly as hundreds of people were crammed in a small space over the hottest part of the summer.


Blanca the Conversa

Two of the Jews who took refuge in the tower were Jucef Falcó and his young and heavily pregnant wife, Astruga. They, along with numerous other Girona Jews, decided that conversion was their only option to escape the difficult conditions in the tower. Within a few weeks of the first assaults against the Jews, they were baptized, taking the names Pere de Banyoles and Blanca. Soon after, Blanca gave birth to their son, Miquel. Within a year, however, Pere had died, leaving Blanca as guardian of their son and “usufruct” (temporarily having the right to use another’s property) of the vast estate that Miquel had inherited.

In many ways, Blanca’s story is not unusual for women in late medieval Iberia. Women were often named as guardians of their children and given legal rights to manage their children’s inherited assets in those roles. But there are aspects of Blanca’s life in the decades after Pere’s death that make her experiences specific to those of a distinct category of women: conversas, women who had converted to Christianity from Judaism. As a conversa, Blanca was now part of the Christian community, but her conversion – during a time of crisis and external pressure to convert – meant that she continued to have strong ties to the Jewish community in Girona. These ties included Pere’s family, with whom she was brought into conflict a few months after Pere died.

The first of four pages from the document dated December 7, 1392 – Arxiu Històric de Girona, Girona-05, 416, f. 203r

On December 7, 1392, a document was drawn up in Blanca’s house located in the Jewish quarter of Girona. In it, a local judge relayed the contents of a royal letter issued by King John in response to a request from Blanca. The letter confirmed Blanca as guardian of her son Miquel and her retention of usufruct rights over her deceased husband’s estate. Blanca’s position as guardian had been challenged by Pere’s natal family because she had remarried within two months of Pere’s death.

Her new husband, Ferrer de Montcada, was a converso from Barcelona. Young widows like Blanca often remarried, but rarely so soon after the death of their husbands. In Jewish practice, children’s welfare encouraged some widows to remarry, but the opposite was also true: concern for their children might have prevented a widow from remarrying. In his detailed study of Mediterranean Jewry, S.D. Goitein argues that rabbis strongly disapproved of widows who remarried without considering their children’s best interests.

Arxiu Històric de Girona, Girona-05, 416, f. 203v

According to Talmudic law, widows were not supposed to remarry until the youngest child was 24 months old. Sephardic Jews shared in the distrust of stepfathers. Solomon Ibn Adret, one of the most influential rabbis of fourteenth-century Catalonia, defended the right of the family of a deceased father to gain custody of any children he had. Some Jewish women refused to remarry, largely out of fear of the harm that might come to their children. Of course, Blanca was no longer Jewish, and therefore the injunctions of rabbis had no authority over her. Interestingly enough, Catalan law prohibited Christian widows from remarrying for a year after their spouse’s death. Blanca’s quick remarriage, to a man outside of her immediate community, was therefore unusual by both Jewish and Christian standards.

Getting the Best of Both Worlds

Yet, despite her change in religious identity (at least outwardly), Blanca still followed the Jewish practice of appealing directly to the king or queen when in trouble. Although technically any subject of the Crown had the right to appeal to the monarchs, Jews in the Crown of Aragon came directly under their jurisdiction and came to rely on that connection when faced by internal or external challenges.

The Jewish community of Girona had been given to Queen Violant of Bar (1365–1431) by her husband as a wedding gift, allowing her to collect taxes directly from the Jews but also making her responsible, alongside the king himself, for addressing their concerns. So when Blanca’s guardianship of her son was threatened by her remarriage, she appealed directly to the king to have her role confirmed. The king issued a confirmation of her status as guardian of her son and usufruct holder of her husband’s property. Thus, Blanca seems to have used aspects of both Christian and Jewish norms to her advantage, and to ensure her continued guardianship of her son, role as usufructuaria, and ability to appoint whomever she wanted as procurator.

Arxiu Històric de Girona, Girona-05, 416, f. 204r

In the years that followed, Blanca demonstrated herself as an astute manager of Miquel’s extensive inherited assets. As a Jew, Pere had been one of the leading moneylenders in Girona, a member of the wealthy and powerful Falcó family. Miquel had inherited hundreds of credit notes related to both long- and short-term loans to Jews, Christians, and conversos in Girona and the surrounding countryside. In her management of this property, Blanca relied on Jewish, converso, and Christian legal representatives, including her husband and other relatives.

Within two years of Pere’s death, in June of 1394, however, Blanca and Ferrer found themselves in trouble when they were arrested in the nearby town of Caldes de Malavella on charges of secretly practicing Judaism. They were freed on orders of Queen Violant, but a few months later they were arrested again, this time in Girona. Blanca appealed to King John for assistance, and once again the couple were freed and their confiscated property returned. It is difficult to assess, based on the surviving evidence, whether or not Blanca and Ferrer were continuing to practice Judaism or had embraced their new faith.

Arxiu Històric de Girona, Girona-05, 416, f. 204v

Accusations of Crypto-Judaism

The question of the authenticity of conversion for thousands of new converts who had become Christian in the systemic violence of 1391 across the Spanish kingdoms is difficult to answer. But authorities were certainly anxious about the sincerity of these conversions and made efforts to try to keep new converts apart from their Jewish relatives. In 1391, the king issued a regulation imposing the death penalty on Jews and Conversos who cohabited. Evidence from the notarial records in Girona demonstrated that such regulations were ineffective, as Jews and conversos continued to live and eat together as well as engage in business as both partners and customers.

Such records also tell us that Blanca was beginning to divest herself, and Miquel, of the various assets they held in Girona. Over the course of 1395, the year after her arrests, Blanca began selling off the hundreds of credit notes she managed as part of Miquel’s inheritance. Many of the people she sold them to were members of her first husband’s family – the Falcos. Indeed, a number of these sale contracts were with female Jewish members of that family, Blanca’s former sisters-in-law in particular. Such contracts highlight that Blanca continued to have connections with her former marital family, especially the female members of the kin group.


Why was Blanca divesting herself of these assets? A royal letter issued by Queen Violant in 1410 provides us with that answer. In that letter, Violant ordered the seizure of all goods held in Girona by Blanca, Ferrer, and Miquel because they were condemned as crypto-Jews: conversos who had continued to secretly practice Judaism. This condemnation was done in absentia as the family had left Girona sometime between 1396 (when she last appears in the notarial records) and 1407 and had moved to Portugal, where they returned to Judaism.

Blanca de Banyoles’ life is in many ways emblematic of the experiences of many Jewish women who converted to Christianity following the violence of 1391. In Girona, conversos often continued to have close ties with their Jewish families while also developing connections within the Christian community. They were viewed with suspicion by Christian authorities, who attempted, with little success, to keep Jews and conversos separate. These suspicions would continue and even grow during the fifteenth century as increasing numbers of Jews converted to Christianity. By the last quarter of the fifteenth century, Queen Isabel and King Fernando had created the Spanish Inquisition; soon after, in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spanish kingdoms, ending nearly fifteen centuries of Jewish presence.

Dana Wessell Lightfoot teaches medieval and early modern European history, medieval Spain, European women’s history, the witch hunts, and the medieval Mediterranean at the University of Northern British Columbia. Her research focuses on the lives of women in late medieval Europe. You can follow Dana on Twitter @DrDameHistory

Alexandra Guerson’s teaching specializes on first-year transition and she teaches world history at the University of Toronto, New College. Her research focuses on Christian-Jewish relations in late medieval Iberia. Follow her on Twitter @aeguerson

Dana and Alexandra’s current work is a collaborative project on Jewish women and conversas in late medieval Catalonia. Together with Michelle Armstrong-Partida, they are co-editors of Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia published by University of Nebraska Press. They would like to express thier deep gratitude to the staff at the Arxiu Historic de Girona, especially Joan Ferrer i Godoy and Isidre Prades, for their continuous support over the years.

We have been following Dana and Alexandra’s great research for many years!

Further Readings:

Gampel, Benjamin R. Anti-Jewish Riots in the Crown of Aragon and the Royal Response, 1391-1392. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgment in One Volume. University of California Press, 1999.

Guerson, Alexandra and Dana Wessell Lightfoot. “A Tale of Two Tolranas: Jewish Women’s Agency and Conversion in late medieval Girona.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2020, pp. 344–364.

Planas, Silvia. Na Blanca: Jueva de Girona (s. XIV). Edicions Vitella, 2010.

The research for this article was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant.