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  • An Ecclesiastical Harem from Eighteenth-Century Spain August 21, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    The Inquisition  it can’t have been that easy. Mass in the morning, torture in the afternoon and, yet another blasted auto da fe in the evening… Who can blame the good men with the blood red cloth if sometimes they decided to create, let’s call it, ‘recreational space’ for themselves. This extraordinary – and apparently well-documented case – comes from an ‘outlet’ in Aragon in the early eighteenth century. The story begins with a fifteen year old girl visiting a Countess and her Confessor, an Inquisitor: note the dangerous role that, as we have seen before, chocolate plays throughout this account. Drink it and be damned!

    I went one day with my mother to visit the Countess of Attarass and I met there Don Francisco Torrejon her Confessor, and second Inquisitor of the holy office: After we had drunk chocolate, he asked me my age, and my Confessor’s name, and so many intricate questions about religion, that I could not answer him: His serious countenance did frighten me, and as he perceived my fear, he desired the Countess to tell me, that he was not so severe as I took him to be; after which he caressed me in the most obliging manner in the world; he gave me his hand, which I kissed with great respect and modestly, and when he went away, he told me, my dear child, I shall remember you till the next time. I did not mind the sense of the words; for I was unexperienced in matters of gallantry, being only fifteen years old at that time.

    Unfortunately for our heroine Don Francisco was a man of his word and the knock on the door came the next evening. The behaviour of her family is a reminder of the generalized terror that the Inquisition could cause even among the wealthiest in ‘subject’ countries.

    [W]hen we were in bed, hearing a hard knocking at the door, the maid that lay in the same room where my bed was, went to the window, and asking who is there I heard say, the holy Inquisition. I could not forbear crying out: Father, father, I am ruined for ever. My dear father got up, and inquiring what the matter was, I answered him, with tears, the Inquisition: and he, for fear that the maid should not open the door as quick as such a case required, went himself, as another Abraham to open the door, and to offer his dear daughter to the fire of the Inquisitors, and I did not cease to cry out, as if I was a mad girl, my dear father, all in tears, did put in my mouth a bit of a bridle, to show his obedience to the holy office, and his zeal for the Catholic faith, for he thought I had committed some crime against religion; so the officers giving me but time to put on my petticoat and a mantle, took me down into the coach, and without giving me the satisfaction of embracing my dear father and mother, they carried me into the Inquisition.

    However, things were about to get ‘curiouser and curiouser’ for this Spanish Alice:

    I did expect: to die that very night; but when they carried me into a noble room, well furnished, and an excellent bed in it, I was quite surprised. The officers left me there, and immediately a maid came in with a salver of sweet meats and cinnamon- water, desiring me to take some refreshment before I went to bed: I told her I could not; but that I would be obliged to her, if she could tell me whether I was to die that night or not? Die (said she) you do not come here to die, but to live like a princess, and you shall want nothing in the world but the liberty of going out; and now pray mind nothing, but to go to bed, and sleep easy, for to-morrow you shall see wonders in this house, and as I am chosen to be your waiting-maid, I hope you will be very kind to me.

    Before leaving this woman asks at what hour our heroine wishes to be woken with her chocolate: that damnable substance again. The maid also reveals her name to be Mary. In the next few days Mary explains the nature of gilded prison in which the girl has been put. Special clothes are brought and special foods.

    With this answer  she left me, and an hour after came again with two baskets, with a fine holland shift, a holland under petticoat, with fine lace round about it: Two silk petticoats and a little Spanish waistcoat with a gold fringe all over it: with combs and ribbons, and every thing suitable to a lady of higher quality than I. But my greatest surprise was to be a gold snuff-box with the picture of Don Francisco Torrejon in it. Then I soon understood the meaning of my confinement.

    Mary gradually sets out the rules of the harem to her new charge:

    If you see some young ladies here, never ask them the occasion of their being here, nor any thing of their business, neither will they ask you any thing of this nature, and take care not to tell them any thing of your being here; you may come and divert yourself with them at such hours as are appointed, you shall have music, and all sorts of recreations; three days hence you shall dine with them, they are all ladies of quality, young and merry, and this is the best of lives, you will not long for going abroad, you will be so well diverted at home; and when your time is expired, then the holy Fathers will send you out of this country, and marry you to some nobleman.

    The ordeal though was about to get a good deal worse: what is disturbing here is how she was alternatively flattered and terrified into service.

    At seven in the evening Don Francisco came, in his night-gown and night-cap, not with the gravity of an inquisitor, but with the gaiety of an officer. He saluted me with great respect and civility, & told me: he had designed to keep me company at supper, but could not that night, having some business of consequence to finish in his closet, and that his coming to see me was only out of the respect he had for my family, and to tell me at the same time, that some of my lovers had procured my ruin forever, accusing me in matters of religion, that the informations were taken, and the sentence pronounced against me, to be burnt alive, in a dry pan, with a gradual fire, but that he, out of pity and love to my family, had stopped the execution of it. Each of these words was a mortal stroke on my heart, and knowing not what I was doing, I threw myself at his feet, and said. Seignior, have you stopped the execution forever? That only belongs to you to stop it, or not, (said he) and with this he wished me a good night… Early in the morning Mary got up, and told me, that nobody was yet up in the house, and that they would show me the dry pan and gradual fire, on condition, that I should keep it secret for her sake, and my own too which I having promised her, she took me along with her, and showed me a dark room with a thick iron door, and within it an oven,and a large brass-pan upon it, with a cover of the same, and a lock to it, the oven was burning at that time, and I asked Mary for what use that pan was there ? And  she, without giving me any answer, took me by the hand out of that place…,

    Naturally the young girl surrendered:

    So I told Mary that I would follow her advice, and grant Don Francisco everything he would desire of me. If you are in that disposition (said she) leave off all fears and apprehensions, and expect nothing but pleasure and satisfaction, and all manner of recreation, and you shall begin to experience some of these things this very day. Now let me dress you, for you must go to wish a good-morrow to Don Francisco, and to breakfast with him. I thought really this was a great honor to me, and some comfort to my troubled mind ; so I made all the haste I could, and Mary conveyed me through a gallery into Don Francisco’s apartment. He was still in bed, and desired us to sit down by him, and ordered Mary to bring the chocolate two hours after, and with this she left me alone with Don Francisco who immediately, ardently declaring his inclinations, I had not the liberty to make any excuse, and so by extinguishing the fire of his passion, I was free from the gradual fire and dry pan, which was all that then troubled my mind. When Mary came with ;he chocolate, I was very much ashamed to be seen with him in bed, but she coming to the bed-side where I was, and kneeling down, paid me homage as if I was a queen; and served me first with a cup of chocolate, still on her knees, and bade me to give another cup to Don Francisco myself, which he received mighty graciously, and having drunk up the chocolate,  she went out , we discoursed for a while of various things, but I never spoke, a word but when he desired me to answer him.

    Later Don Francisco’s new ‘wife’ is introduced to the other members of the seraglio and more particularly Leonora the one sympathetic face she is to meet there.

    But the third morning, after drinking; chocolate in bed, as the custom was for Don Francisco and me, Mary told me, that a lady was waiting for me in the other room, and desired me to get up, with an haughty look, and Don Francisco saying nothing, I then got up, and left him in bed. I thought that it was to give me some new comfort and diversion; but I was very much mistaken, for Mary conveyed me into a young lady’s room not eight feet long, which was a perfect prison, and there, before the lady, told me: Madam, this is your room, and this young lady your bedfellow and comrade, and left me there with this unkind command. O Heaven’s thought I, what is this that has happened to me ? I fancied myself out of grief, and I perceived now the beginning of my vexation. What is this, dear lady ? (said I) is this an enchanted palace, or an Hell upon earth? I have lost father and mother, and what is worse, I have lost my honor, and my soul forever. My new companion, seeing me like a mad woman, took me by the hands, and said to me, dear sister (for this is the name I will give you henceforth) leave off your crying, leave off your grief and vexation; for you can do nothing by such extravagant complaints, but heap coals of fire upon your head, or rather under your body. Your misfortunes and ours are exactly of a piece: You suffer nothing that we have not suffered before you; but we are not allowed to show our grief, for fear of greater evils. Pray take good courage, and hope in God; for he will find some way or other to deliver us out of this hellish place, but above all things, take care not to shew any uneasiness before Mary who is the only instrument of our torments, or comfort, and have patience till we go to bed, and then without any fear, I will tell you more of the matter.

    Leonora awaits till the two girls are confined for the evening and then explains.

    Now, my sister, said she, we need not fear being disturbed all this night so I may safely instruct you, if you will promise me, upon the hopes of salvation, not to reveal the secret, while you are in this place, of the things I shall tell you. I threw; myself down at her feet, and promised secrecy. Then (she began to say), my dear sister, you think it a hard case that has happened to you, I assure you all the ladies m this house have already gone through the same, and in time you shall know all their stories, as they hope to know yours, I suppose that Mary has been the chief instrument of your fright, as she has been of ours, and I warrant she has  shown to you some horrible places, though not all, and that at the only thought of them, you were so much troubled in your mind, that you have chosen the same way we did to get some ease in our heart. By what has happened to us, we know that Don Francisco has been your Nero, for the three colours of our clothes are the distinguishing tokens of the three holy Fathers. The red silk belongs to Don Francisco, the blue to Guerrero and the green to Aliaga, for they use to give the three first days these colours to those ladies that they bring for their use. We are strictly commanded to make all demonstrations of joy, and to be very merry [these] three days, when a young lady comes here, as we did with you, and you must do with others: But after it we live like prisoners, without seeing any living foul but the six maids,and Mary who is the housekeeper. We dine all of us, in the hall, three days a week, and three days in our rooms. When any of the holy Fathers have a mind for one of his slaves, Mary comes for her at nine of the clock, and conveyeth her to his apartment : But, as they have so many, the turn comes, maybe, once in a month, except for those who have the honor to give them more satisfaction than ordinary, those are sent for often. Some nights Mary leaves the door of our rooms open, and that is a sign that some of the Fathers have a mind to come that night, but he comes in so silent that we do not know whether he is our own patron or not. If one of us happen to be with child, she is removed to a better chamber, and she sees no person but the maid till she is delivered. The child is sent away, and we do not know where it is gone, Mary does not suffer quarrels between us, for if one happens to be troublesome she is bitterly chastised for it. So we are always under a continual fear. I have been in this house these years, and I was not fourteen years of age, when the officers took me from my father’s house, and I have been brought to bed but once. We are at present fifty-two young ladies, and we lose every year six or eight, but we do not know where they are sent, but at the same time we get new ones, and sometimes I have seen here seventy-three ladies. All our continual torment is to think, and with great reason, that when the holy Fathers are tired of one, they put her to death; for they never will run the hazard of being discovered in these misdemeanours. So, though we cannot oppose their commands, and therefore we commit so many enormities, yet we still fervently pray God and his blessed Mother to forgive us them, since it is against our wills we do them, and to preserve us from death in this house.

    The two girls were, in fact, rather lucky for soon Arragon was to be besieged and captured by the French and sixty of the harem were to be released.

    After the eighteen months, one night, Mary came and ordered us to follow her, and going downstairs. she had us go into a coach, and this we thought the last day of our lives. We went out of the house, but where, we did not know, and were put in another house which was worse than the first, where we were confined several months, without seeing any of the Inquisitors or Mary, or any of our companions: And in the same manner we were removed from that house to another, where we continued till we were miraculously delivered by the French officers. Mr. Faulcaut, happily for me, did open the door of my room, and as soon as he saw me, he begun to show me much civility, and took me along with him, to his lodgings, and after he heard my whole story, and fearing that things would turn to our disadvantage, he ordered the next day, to send us to his father. We were drest in men’s clothes, to go the more safely, and so we came to this house, where I was kept for two years, as the daughter of the old man, till Mr. Faulcaut’s regiment being broke, he came home, and two months after married me. Leonora was married to another officer, and they live in Orleans.

    It is an extraordinary tale and Beachcombing has to ask whether it is true. The work was written by a Spaniard, Antonio Gavin who bore some understandable animus towards the Inquisition: and there is a long series of seventeenth and eighteenth-century books in English that do the same, a veritable black myth. But Gavin gives a good account of how he came by the information. He discovered the narrator in an inn in Rotchfort in France and interviewed her there.

    In my travels in France afterwards, I met with one of those women at Rotchfort in the same inn I went to lodge in that night, who had been brought there by the son of the master of the inn, formerly Lieutenant in the French service in Spain who had married her for her extraordinary beauty and good parts. She was the daughter of Counsellor Balabriga and I knew her before she was taken up by the Inquisitors orders ; but we thought  she was stolen by some officer for this was given out by her Father, who died of grief and vexation, without the comfort of opening his trouble, nay, even to his Confessor so great is the fear of the Inquisitors there.

    Any other example of ecclesiastical harems in half credible sources? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And how do harems work more generally? Does any comparative work exist on this question? Beachcombing has found a couple of titillating nineteenth-century instances and nothing more.

    PS Writing almost finished. Normal service to resume.


    23 August 2011: Invisible has her suspicions, ‘I confess (without being put to the question) that when I read your ecclesiastical harem story my first thought was a scornful ‘Black Legend!’ And looking further, I’m still convinced it’s a load of old sambenitos. Look at the source: Antonio Gavin, an ex-priest, writing for the benefit of his rabidly anti-papist audience in England and elsewhere. (For example, here’s a Dutch copy of his book) There are at least 5 anti-Catholic books/journals on Google books quoting this identical lurid story. They have names like The Tocsin: or, Sheffield Protestant Alarm Bell and The great red dragon, or, The master-key to popery.  I can see why this story was useful to the anti-Catholic movement. It seems tailor-made to press all of the right Protestant buttons about the cruel Inquisition and hapless virgins in the clutches of lecherous priests . So strange that Gavin ended his life as a Virginia parson! This article seems to strongly question the veracity of the ‘harem’ story. I find it fascinating that Gavin’s account is also found on several modern anti-Catholic sites including this one, which discusses sexual solicitation in the confessional: As the site says (and I cannot vouch for its accuracy): An early work that openly discusses sexual solicitation was written by Antonio Gavin, a renegade Spanish priest who fled to England shortly before 1713. As a secular priest and confessor for several years in Saragossa and as a member of the so-called moral academy, where local confessors would routinely discuss their most difficult cases with their colleagues, Gavin was in a good position to learn about instances of sexual solicitation. Within a few years of his arrival in England, Gavin had published, The Master Key to Popery, in which he denounced questioning of penitents on sexual matters as a school for scandal by which the penitents learn things of whiciest who fled to England shortly before 1713. As a secular priest and confessor for several years in Saragossa and as a member of the so-called moral academy, where local confessors would routinely discuss their most difficult cases with their colleagues, Gavin was in a good position to learn about instances of sexual solicitation. Within a few years of his arrival in England, Gavin had published, The Master Key to Popery, in which he denounced questioning of penitents on sexual matters as a school for scandal by which the penitents learn things of which they never had dreamed before.The Master Key of Popery is filled with stories about the lewdness of priests some of the solicitation cases he discusses have the ring of truth. Regardless of the degree of exaggeration contained in Gavin’s discussion of solicitation, The Master Key of Popery is important because the shameful secret of sexual solicitation by priests, which had been so carefully preserved by the Holy Office, was revealed to a popular audience and by no less a source than a former Spanish Catholic priest. [37 – footnote: Sexuality in the Confessional, A Sacrament Profaned, (Oxford University Press, 1996). P. 183-85 Now I have NO doubt whatsoever that ecclesiastic sexual irregularities were >ahem< rampant in 18th century Spain (and earlier). But this particular account by Gavin? I look at it much as I would ‘Awful Disclosures’ by Maria Monk or a Jack Chick tract. For similar 19th century stories see Nancy Lusignan Schultz’s, Veil of Fear: Nineteenth Century Convent Tales, Purdue University (1999). I close with a florid passage from Monks, Nuns and Monasteries by Sacheverell Sitwell about the chapel of Santa Clara in Coimbra, Portugal. ‘perhaps of more romantic impact is the chapel of Santa Clara…there are five side altars to each side with grilles over them for the nuns to look down into the church, but these are not like the opera-boxes of Bavarian or Neapolitan nunneries. They are latticed grilles to hide the inmates of a sacred harem’. And, given that nuns were married to Christ in ceremonies with vows, rings, wedding gowns, veils, and crowns, in a manner of speaking, a cloistered monastery truly IS an ecclesiastical harem.’ Thanks Invisible!!!

    25 August 2011: Author Jay Nelson writes i:n  ‘I am inspired to respond to your question about ecclesiastical harems as such clerical hi-jinks (if one may call them such) are a great interest of mine. The most amazing case I have encountered is that of Canon Pandolfino Ricasoli, a Jesuit confessor who with a prioress named Faustina, turned a 17th century Italian convent into a full-blown sex cult. He seduced the girls saying that carnal acts were okey-dokey if one kept the mind on God. Sometimes he enjoyed several at once at Christmas when he was feeling particularly devout, and the two also pimped them out to local nobles. They were only found out when one of the girls confessed to a Priarist priest, who informed the Inquisition. Ironically, this order of teachers, founded by the Catholic patron saint of education, St. José Calasanz, would also soon get into trouble with the Inquisition and be dissolved for the amount of sexual abuse going on. Like so many modern prelates, the saint promoted and transferred offenders to keep it covered up. For having had an obscene amount of fun over eight years, Ricasoli was walled up for the remaining sixteen years of his life. Strangely enough, on the Net you can find copies of a painting of him for sale by Chinese studios. Why they chose that image is an interesting question — it shows him holding a cross, with a little devil, added after he was busted, whispering in his ear. The story is covered in my book, SONS OF PERDITION, and also in FALLEN ORDER by Karen Liebreich.’ Thanks a million Jay!