At the Court of Broken Dreams
If London is a village, Barcelona is a city; if London is a city, Barcelona is a world. Capital of the Kings of Aragon and Counts of Barcelona, Lords of the rich Catalan lands, it has many thousands of citizens. It has cathedrals, churches, synagogues (still), even half-secret mosques and the great naval dockyards, the Drassanes, that house the burgeoning sea power of Spain. And on its streets ageing prostitutes and youthful rent boys, priests and rabbis and Moorish traders, rub shoulders with Catalan merchants and troubadours, and the occasional Castilian grandee, sneering perceptibly at this teeming promiscuous Mediterranean life.
In the chamber of the Archives of the Crown of Aragon, near the cathedral in the lovely, dusty stone streets of this old town, two middle-aged men sat, chewing the cud, sipping thick Arabic coffee.
“So, how is His Majesty?” asked the one with the skullcap and neat greying beard.
“His Catholic Majesty, you mean?”
“Ah, the king has a new honorific?”
“Both Their Majesties are, I am told on the highest ecclesiastical authority, to receive from the Holy Father himself, the title of the Catholic King.”
“A great honour for us all, Pablo. I wonder what His Holiness wants in return. The expulsion of Their Majesties’ Hebrew subjects perhaps?”
“I trust not, Abram. What benefit would that bring to the pope? Although…” Father Pablo moved a little closer. “Her Majesty is already seriously considering such a decree on the advice of the Archbishop of Toledo.”
“What the queen decides to do within her own dominions is no business of ours or, strictly, even of the Crown of Aragon. His Majesty is far too sympathetic to the Jewish community here; he knows we are his most loyal subjects. Besides, it wouldn’t be easy to get such a measure through the cortes. And, you know, our cortes are far more independent than the docile Parliament that sits occasionally in Castille.”
The clean-shaven man, who wore an elegant velvet robe, looked down at the legal documents he was fitfully working on.
“But I was forgetting, Rabbi, that you know His Majesty’s mind better than almost any of us.”
“Me? What do I know?”
Father Pablo giggled.
“How could anyone,” said the rabbi, “Know the king’s mind as well as yourself, Mr Secretary? Didn’t you have an audience just this morning to brief the king on the forthcoming business of the cortes?”
“And aren’t you seeing him tomorrow morning to receive a briefing? On a rather confidential matter?”
“Ah, Pedro, nothing of His Majesty’s is confidential from you.”
“So, you are seeing the king tomorrow?” The secretary suddenly looked serious.
Silence. The rabbi, smoothing his less sumptuous black robe with its significant yellow stripe, just smiled, as if to say: Me? Seeing the king?
“Another secret mission?”
“Another? What previous mission are you thinking of?”
Father Pedro looked down at the decrees he had been preparing for the royal sign manual.
“Perhaps a message for the sultan which naturally had to be delivered, informally, behind Her Majesty’s back?”
Rabbi Abraham looked puzzled. “Would I be privy to a plan to keep our beloved queen in the dark?”
“You and I both know we need to be… as subtle and wise as the king we serve; not every courtier can equal the splendid severity, that is to say piety, of our beloved Queen Isabella.”
“But, of course, we serve the King of Aragon. And remember, Pedro, I am a Catalan and a Jew and, like my ancestors before me for many centuries, I serve the Count of Barcelona, King Ferran.”
“Who is sending you…?”
“How can I know until I have seen His Majesty?”
“To Burgundy perhaps? There is talk of a dynastic union with the Habsburgs. It would help cement a pact against France, don’t you think?”
“Don’t confuse a simple rabbi with talk of high politics, Mr Secretary. My head is swimming already.”
“Well, let’s make sure it stays on your shoulders. I’m sure the queen would favour such a marriage alliance. So, have no worries on that score.”
“I shall bear that in mind… should His Majesty give me such a commission!”
They finished their coffees and parted with mutual felicitations: the secretary reassured to know the purpose of the rabbi’s meeting with the king; the rabbi pleased he does not.
The family of Rabbi Abraham di Mayorca had served the Kings of Aragon for a century — and long before that, the Counts of Barcelona. As his father, the late Rabbi Isaac de Mayorca used to say — but only in Catalan — “We served the Counts of Barcelona when they were Catalans!” They had even served — or at least negotiated with — the Moslem Moors when they ruled the island of Majorca, wherefrom the family had emerged two centuries earlier. They had also — as Rabbi Isaac would say, using the Majorcan dialect of Catalan that only a tiny circle of his associate Jews or gentile would understand — that they had served the king-counts in the glorious days when Barcelona headed a great Mediterranean empire. One of his great-uncles had even attended on the Catalan Dukes of Athens, the last of whom had married the great-uncle’s sister who had ostensibly converted to the Catholic faith but, in secret, had both adhered to the Jewish faith and had fled to it — but that’s another story.
Abraham himself — now in his middle years, but looking a little older with his broad shoulders, grey-auburn beard and massive girth — had served King John (or Joan) II of Aragon, Count of Barcelona, for over twenty years, struggling to appease the many (internal) enemies he so easily made, to keep strong his links with the wealthy and important Jewish community of the Catalan lands, and to untangle the many impenetrable knots his byzantine and ill-judged policies invariably produced. He had essayed, with great dedication, to reconcile the embittered and jealous king with his handsome and more popular son and heir Prince Carles — only to have his efforts constantly undermined by the king himself. And then when the prince died — poisoned, it was suspected, by his father while under house arrest — it was, of course, the rabbi’s task to produce medical evidence to disprove this; for were not all Jews, and especially rabbis, brilliant doctors and wizards, and able to use their Kabbalistic knowledge to explicate every suspicious death, or even, on occasions, to reverse it?
And then — with the banking families which had funded the great mercantile Catalan fleets dissolving and failing around them and Aragon/Barcelona reduced in wealth and citizenry to a shrinking power on the edge of Iberia — the wise, not to say cunning, Rabbi Abraham had subtly, imperceptibly shifted his allegiance from the failing discredited king to his second son and heir Prince Ferran, whose devious and ambitious mind saw the future of his kingdom not as looking out across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and southern France, whose languages and culture his own kingdom’s so resembled, but inwards towards the great central kingdom of Espana: Castile, whose princess and contender for the throne, Isabella, he had married in ‘69 and who had recently — to his confused satisfaction and chagrin at his failure to make good his own more distant but masculine claim — acceded.
Rabbi Abraham was always a heavy man, but in Barcelona a healthy layer of fat (or a few in his case) was always viewed as a sign of wealth and prosperity. And despite his somewhat ungainly size and a mien that could hardly be called beautiful — a strong Jewish nose, rough complexion, jowly cheeks and eyes that were myopic from too much deciphering of Castilian, Catalan, Hebrew, Latin and Ladino — despite all this, he was always strangely attractive to women, including several very grand and even royal damsels, whom, as a pious rabbi and a married man, he had — with a mixture of charm and fearsomeness — managed to ward off. For Rabbi Abraham could certainly be fierce. Sitting as a judge in the Rabbinical Court, which had a wide jurisdiction over the Hebrew kahal, he was feared as being fair but stern and capable of strict judgments. Indeed, on one occasion, a litigant who had laughed in his face while he was in the seat of judgment has been sentenced to fifteen lashes; he had not laughed when he was brought back to apologise.
Reb Abraham protected his privacy and his reputation jealously. The position of a “court Jew” was never unambiguous and he well understood that his position at court and his position within his own kehilla (the Hebrew community) could easily be jeopardised by even a hint of scandal. Besides, he had married young, and had an adult son (now a convert and a stranger to him) and a daughter whom he had loved as a child and whom he had, with great propriety, married off at thirteen to the plump, rosy-cheeked fifteen-year-old son of a rich mercantile cousin and who now had a life and three children of her own. His wife Judith (the name his daughter, according to Sephardi tradition, also bore) he had married more because she was the descendant of the great Rabbi Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla whose particular brand of Kabbala he followed, than because he had ever been deeply enamoured of her; yet over the years he had become genuinely fond of her and appreciative of her qualities. Nonetheless, they had had some disagreements, or misunderstandings in the months before her death of a plague-like disease three years before, and since then his dealings — both political and social — had been wholly with men.
In the 70s, Rabbi Abraham had served his byzantine-minded masters, King John and now his son Ferran, on several important missions abroad and, each time he had travelled, he had in the back of his mind the possibility of seeking refuge for himself — and possibly for his whole community — should the more ferocious elements in the Catholic Church finally achieve their aim of convincing Their Catholic Majesties that the Spanish kingdoms should be cleansed of the Hebrew race. Catalonia had been home to Jews for centuries and the mercantile, practical and cultured tone of Catalan and Jewish life had neatly meshed together. But Castille had a more severe approach. And with the gradual expulsion of the Moorish-Moslem kingdom from the whole of the peninsula, the new Hispanic Catholicism was obsessed with the notions of purity of the heart and blood, despite the obvious fact that all the noble families — including the Trastamara themselves — had Jewish ancestry.
Fortunately for the rabbi, King Ferran — more recently established on his throne than his powerful wife and gnawingly aware of the greater strength of her kingdom — enjoyed the freedom of using his personal envoy to conduct a more secretive and independent foreign policy on behalf of his own kingdom. And while Portugal and Castile had both been closely associated with the fallen House of Lancaster, he was eager to develop his own links with the House of York. And so it was that, in his audience with the crafty king, Ferran had commissioned him to “explore the possibilities” of a marriage alliance between Trastamara and York, and even to suggest that one day Aragon and England might combine to fight their common enemy the King of France — a plan he knew had long been close to the King of England’s heart — but only, of course, when, as would soon be the outcome, the Moors were defeated and thrown out of the Spanish kingdoms. And so nothing was to be promised. “Nothing to be — if you’ll forgive me, Rabbi,” as the king smilingly put it, “Set in stone.”
Rabbi Abraham liked and admired the young King Ferran. He was subtle and intelligent and he knew he couldn’t trust him; all of which was mutual. With King Ferran, he was dealing with a crafty and flexible prince such as the Italians could admire. But he knew that in the person of Queen Isabella, they both had to deal with a ruler of granite-hard beliefs, which had no truck with serpentine flexibility nor with humane sympathy.
So, he was pleased to be sent on his mission to England. Things were not too comfortable for him at home. His daughter had become as estranged from him as his son, suspecting he had not shown as much alacrity as he might three years before in seeking the best available medicine for his wife in her last illness; the charge was totally untrue, but he was sufficiently aware of his lack of grief — indeed his internal relief — at her demise, to feel guilt when the charge was raised. And in the political community, he was aware he had enemies who were eager to implicate him in a plot to conceal the true cause of the death of his king’s late elder brother. King Ferran had suppressed those so far, but it might not suit him always to do so.
So, there were several reasons why Rabbi Abraham was preparing to leave his homeland well-prepared for a very long sojourn abroad and with more than half an eye open to find a patron in England who might offer the possibilities of a different future, in other lands.
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