Writing about 17th Century Spain

This month’s guest post on the writer’s craft is by Donald Michael Platt, a prolific author in diverse fields but perhaps better known now for his recent books on the Spanish hidalgo, Vicente de Rocamora. Donald has lived in California, Brazil, and now in Florida, so I asked him how and why he came to write a novel about 17th century Spain. Here is his response.

The Mystery of Vicente de Rocamora 

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Little-known historical individuals who led interesting lives arouse my interest. The less documented about them the freer I am to create character motivation and an entertaining story line. That is why I selected Vicente de Rocamora, 1601-1684, to be the protagonist of my two novels Rocamora and House of Rocamora. Several anomalies in his life piqued my curiosity, and the few available facts about him, especially in Spain, are unexplained.

Rocamora is mentioned in footnotes, sentences, and paragraphs in books about Judaizers and new-Christians who left Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in others about the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, and in both the Jewish and Valencian Encyclopedias. Yet, according to my research and that of others on my behalf, no book, monograph, or article in any historical journal has been written about, to quote Cecil Roth, “… this most extraordinary if not the most profound of Menasseh’s (ben Israel) physician friends.”

I first encountered Vicente de Rocamora when I read Roth’s A History of the Marranos in the 1950s, and the idea for a novel gestated over the decades. In 1990, I began intensive research into his life and times and discovered little more about him than what had been repeated in the books and encyclopedias mentioned above. I have italicized the basic known facts about his life and added my comments.

 Rocamora was born in Valencia into a marrano or new-Christian family. I found no documentation to confirm if he was born in the city or somewhere else in the kingdom, no evidence of his parents, and no proof that he or they Judaized in Spain. All de Rocamoras were certified old Christians in the 1600s.

 Rocamora was educated for the Church. I discovered no documentation that explains why he entered the Dominican Order. Did he come from an impoverished family and sought food and shelter within the Church? Did he experience a calling to be a monk? Was he a segundone, a second son, forced into the clergy by his family?

Rocamora would have been sixteen when he matriculated at the College of Confessors of Santo Domingo in the cathedral town of Orihuela at the southern end of Valencia, now part of Alicante, about twenty-five miles from Murcia. Orihuela in 1617 was the home of Don Jerónimo de Rocamora y Roda García Lassa, Señor de Rafal, Señor de Benferri, Barón de la Puebla de Rocamora, Knight of Santiago and maestro de campo de infanteria. Nearby lived Don Francisco de Rocamora y Maza, another renowned solder and Señor de la Granja de Rocamora, whose brother Tomás was a Dominican lector and polemicist. Other de Rocamoras of the caballero caste resided in Murcia. Were they and Vicente kin? I did discover a tenuous connection. Were any of them descended from conversos? It is possible on the maternal sides. In 1391, all the Jews of Orihuela chose conversion over death.

Vicente would have graduated a Dominican confessor at age twenty in 1621. That year, sixteen year old Philip IV was crowned King of Spain, and his tutor, the Count soon to be Count-Duke de Olivares became his chief minister for the next twenty-two years.

 Rocamora was the confessor and spiritual director for Infanta María, Philip’s younger sister. I did not discover exactly when Vicente arrived in Madrid or who sponsored him at la Corte. To be a royal confessor, he would have needed a certificate of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood untainted by Jew, Moor, or recent converts. Was it real or a clever forgery?

Only five years of age separated Vicente and María, b. 1606. I discovered no direct explanation why so protected an Infanta of Spain was allowed to have that young a confessor. Except for her brothers, the Infanta had no personal contact with males close to her age. María’s meninas slept at the foot of her bed, so her only private moments would have been when she prayed, retired to her privy, or confessed. A pawn to be used in a diplomatic marriage, the Infanta faced a convent-prison if she did not wed one of three eligible men: her nephew, a dauphin of France not yet born; the Prince of Wales provided he converted to the True Faith; and her cousin Ferdinand, son of Emperor Ferdinand II.

One clue suggests when and why Rocamora became the Infanta’s confessor. Olivares removed María’s reactionary confessors and replaced them with his “men” when the heretic Prince of Wales arrived in Madrid to woo her in 1623.

María honored Rocamora, showered him with gifts, confessed often, and remembered him fondly after she left Spain at age twenty-three to marry her first cousin Ferdinand, King of Hungary and future Holy Roman Emperor. Can we ever know the true relationship between María and Vicente? Perhaps the answer lies in the old Spanish saying, “No man is closer to a woman than her confessor, not her father, not her brother, not her husband.”

 A fashionable confessor, Rocamora was renowned for his piety and eloquence. I discovered nothing significant about Vicente’s life at court after María left Spain in December 1629. Did he harangue victims of the Inquisition in the dungeons while they were tortured, at autos de fé where they were scourged and shamed, and at the quemadero before they were burned? Was he an Olivarista, a supporter of the Count-Duke’s attempts to remove the limpieza statutes and end inquisitorial investigations of new-Christians without proof of their Judaizing? Did he alert denounced new-Christians to flee Spain before they were about to be arrested?

While Vicente was at Court, Philip made Francisco de Rocamora hereditary First Conde de la Granja de Rocamora and Knight of Santiago in 1628, and Jerónimo de Rocamora hereditary First Marqués de Rafal in 1636. In 1642, Tomás de Rocamora was appointed Dominican Provincial of Aragon and in 1644 Bishop and Viceroy of Mallorca. Surely, they and Vicente would have interacted over the years, but that is still unproven speculation.

 In 1643, Rocamora disappeared from court and went to Amsterdam where he declared himself a Jew, and took the name Isaac Israel de Rocamora. Why did he leave Spain in 1643 and not before or later? My research confirmed that Rocamora was never denounced to the Inquisition, nor was his effigy paraded at an auto de fé and burned at the quemadero as commonly happened after others fled Spain and revealed themselves to be Jews. The most likely reason Rocamora left Spain in 1643 is that the Count-Duke de Olivares fell from power, and a reactionary bigot, Diego Arce y Reynoso, replaced the relatively benign António de Sotomayor as Inquisitor General.

The Holy Office and Rocamora’s family may have destroyed evidence wherever possible of his existence in Spain because Church and Crown would have been embarrassed to lose so highly a placed friar to the Jews. His kin might have done the same for fear of scandal and denunciation to the Inquisition. One example of such a policy occurred when Olivares was painted over as if he never existed on Velázquez’ Infante Baltazar Carlos at the Riding Academy.

The historical Rocamora did something unique upon his arrival in Amsterdam. It is the dramatic conclusion of the novel and the greatest anomaly of his life; he circumcised himself. This is where I end the novel. I deal with the rest of his life in a sequel, House of Rocamora.

Rocamora did not immediately join the Sephardic community in Amsterdam. His life from 1643 to 1645 is undocumented with the exception that Menasseh ben Israel became his good friend and introduced him to his Christian scholar acquaintances as a trophy.

 In August 1645, Rocamora matriculated at the University of Leyden Medical School. There is no evidence he followed the Law of Moses during his two years in medical school.

Rocamora received his license to practice medicine 29 March 1647 and in July wed twenty-five year old Abigail Moses Toro (Toura). He then joined the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, sired nine children over the next eleven years, and established a multi-generational dynasty of physicians. One may speculate to what degree he had been celibate in Spain.

rocamora_2A genealogist in the Netherlands found for me a transcript of a lecture about Rocamora by Jac Zwartz given in 1934. It had documentation from the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam that does not appear in any other sources I have seen where his name appears. That information altered the original course of my novel.

In 1650 after the birth of his second child, Rocamora almost converted to the Dutch Reformed Church because he found the restrictions and prohibitions of the Sephardic community to be as intolerable as those of Spanish Catholicism. Zwartz describes Rocamora as a freethinker. To what degree did he interact with and influence Spinoza?

 In 1660, Rocamora received full membership in the Amsterdam Collegium Medicum, and citizenship equal to Dutch Christians, one of only three Jewish physicians in the 17th century to be so honored. The Municipal Archives of Amsterdam have no documents showing that Rocamora owned taxable property or wealth accrued through imports and exports. Did they exist at one time, or is there another still unknown reason why he was so honored?

 Known as an Ornament of his Community, Rocamora was a philanthropist and a gifted poet in Latin and Spanish, but none of his writing is extant. He appeared prominently in David Levi de Barrios’ Aplauso Harmonico, published in 1683, which outlined his life and accomplishments. He died in 1684.

Through his second son, Solomon, Rocamora seeded a multi-generational line of physicians. Their descendants married among the following families: Méndez da Costa, da Costa Athias, Valhe del Saldanha, Santcroos, Gaon, Abarbanel, Brandón, dela Penha, Ricardo, Cassuto, Abendena Méndez, and Abendena Belmonte.

What follows is the tenuous connection I mentioned between Vicente and the de Rocamoras of Orihuela.

About 1265 CE, Pierre Román, a second son of the Sieur de Roquemaure who was a nephew of Louis VIII, joined the army of Jaime of Aragon, aka the Conqueror, that drove the Moors from southern Valencia and Murcia. As a reward for his heroism, Pierre Román received from the king entails of land near Orihuela, and he “Castilianized” his name to Pedro Ramón de Rocamora. The de Rocamoras of Rafal, Benferri, Granja de Rocamora, and others in Murcia were his descendants.

Did consanguinity exist between Vicente and those aristocratic de Rocamoras mentioned above?

Vicente’s descendants Rachael David de Rocamora married Judah Cassuto in 1828, and her brother, Isaac David de Rocamora, married Miriam Cassuto. In 1992, the Cassuto family donated documents to the Bibliotheka Rosenthal in the Netherlands. A genealogist researching on my behalf found two items of interest among them.

One was a legal decision in 1660 confirming Isabella de Rocamora’s right to succeed as Condeza de la Granja de Rocamora against a plaintiff kin of “impure” blood.

A second legal document records a dispute over inherited property in Murcia dated 1737. The principal disputant was Joseph (not spelled José or Josip) Nicolás de Rocamora. I do not know how or when these documents left Spain or who brought them to Amsterdam or Hamburg.

Also, 12 July 1740, the Bourbon King Philip V signed a royal cedulo for another Francisco de Rocamora, Deán of the cathedral in Orihuela, asserting he was limpio contrary to calumnies.

The name Rocamora translates as Rock of the Moors, and mora is the Latin genus for the mulberry. Both a rock and mulberries appear on the noble de Rocamora heraldry below. Fleur de lys show the de Rocamoras origins in Roquemaure on the Rhone.

In 2013 I had an interesting exchange of emails with a direct descendant of Vicente-Isaac. He told me family tradition said he was an atheist and always sat in the last row of the Amsterdam synagogue. Also, the family has a higher suicide rate than the norm. Many pairs of first cousins married each other. He also had access to a portrait of the afore-mentioned Tomás de Rocamora.

In Rocamora, I answered many of the questions posed above from my research, with my imagination, and, I like to believe, with some logic, all entertaining and informative for the reader. Perhaps my novel may encourage scholars to research further Vicente and the de Rocamoras contemporary with him. Until then, if, as Napoleon said, History is a myth men agree upon, let mine be the definitive myth.

Donald Michael Platt

2 thoughts on “Writing about 17th Century Spain”

  1. While researching my distant ancestors, the Rocamoras, I came across your article and books. I cannot wait to acquire them and feel immersed in the historical time period. Thanks for filling in bits of my family tree with your research. I am related to the Cassuto family, being the great great great great niece of both Miriam Mordechay Cassuto and Juda Cassuto, who married into the Rocamora family.

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