My recent return to Spain where I deepened my knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition gave me pause regarding the naming of the main character in my novel-in-progress—Isabela. After all, Isabella I of Castile joined Ferdinand of Aragon to become the infamous Catholic royals who unleashed the Inquisition in Spain at the end of the 15th century, resulting in the conversion, expulsion or execution of thousands of Jews and Muslims. This queen’s relationship to my story is therefore not trivial. Did I really want to name my main character Isabela?
And yet… the name and the character of Isabela came to me all at once on a bicycle trip through Portugal and Spain many years ago. From a post I wrote after that bike trip… the Isabel that inspired me was a different one altogether…
Estremoz, as promised is a lovely little medieval town surrounded by vineyards and famous for its many white marble quarries. Prominent in the town is an outsize marble statue of Santa Isabel; a queen of Portugal who devoted her life to the poor.
King Dinis and his Queen Isabel lived in the early 14th century. The king disapproved of Isabel’s giving to the poor, and forbade it on pain of death. So, she hid the bread she was carrying for them in the folds of her skirt. When the suspicious king asked her to show him what she was carrying, the bread had miraculously turned into white roses. The marble statue of the queen now stands on the castle terrace in Estremoz. There is a simple timeless beauty to the obelisk shaped work of art and her face reminds me instantly of a young friend at home whose name is: Isobel!
HJMy Isabela was a far cry from the ruthless Spanish monarch, and much more akin to the Portuguese Queen who became a saint. The name comes from the Hebrew name Elisheba, a form of Elizabeth. It means consecrated or pledged to God, and has further origins in Italian and Spanish.
On that same trip, we stopped for a break at Menir da Casa Nova, a series of Celtic standing stones alleged to be a burial site. The “doorway” of the stone structure faces the rising sun and there is a sense of blessing to the site. Isabel the character dawned in my imagination as I rode down from that hilltop. The very same morning, we pedaled up three steep kilometers to the spa town of Castelo de Vide with its 14th century castle and medieval Jewish quarter. We explored magical streets of flower bedecked whitewashed houses with beautiful wrought iron windows and a spectacular fountain, all built by Jews in the 14th century.
Their legacy vanished during the Inquisition and expulsion when most Jews were forced to convert. All that remains are their made-up-by-the-Inquisition names and traces of Jewish customs that found their way into the pageantry of Christianity. A restored synagogue has become a museum, highlighting this history, including the fascinating ways that Jews hid their identities and customs: architectural, linguistic, and musical.
The character Isabela became a story… of village life, of hidden identity and escape from the Inquisition—of bravery and compassion in the face of threat. So Isabela she will remain