British Jewish historian Cecil Roth, who was educated at Oxford, wrote a book that was of special interest to author Martin Elsant. The book was titled Historia de los Marranos and of the many figures covered in it was one Diego Lopes de Pinancos in Coimbra, Portugal. Ironically, Mr. Elsant is a former radiologist living in Jerusalem and Mr. Roth died in Jerusalem in the year 1970.
Although a large part of ACTOS DE FE is dedicated to the descendants of Diego Lopes, Martín Elsant includes two citations prior to his Notas de autor from different sources. One in particular struck me as quite interesting: “Bent under the dark wing of the Inquisition… the influence of an eye that never slept, of an invisible arm that never rose to strike. How could there be freedom of thought, where there was no Was there freedom of expression? Or freedom of expression, where it was so dangerous to say too much or too little? Freedom cannot be accompanied by fear.” – William H. Prescott, The Age of Philip II and the Supremacy of the Spanish Empire, 1858.
It’s easy to pick up a history book or click on Wikipedia to meet Diego Lopes. I prefer, whenever possible, to read historical fiction — an infusion of true history within opportunities that allow for creativity in re-examining historical events. I think this is what Martin Elsant is doing with ACTS OF FAITH, recounting historical events during one of the most difficult times in human and religious history—The Inquisitions—in such a way that it feels like the reader is enjoying a fictional book, filled with all the unexpected plot twists.
The story we are following involves Maria, the daughter of Diego Lopes, and a young man whom she is very fond of, Aristedes or ‘Ari’ Coelho. Ari had a difficult life, having to watch his parents succumb to the Black Death when he was only twelve years old. His aunt and uncle already had six children and couldn’t take care of another one, so Ari ended up spending his time as an “orphan” living with the village priest, Father Affonso. Perhaps it was this experience in such an impressionable part of his life that led Ari to join the Seminary as soon as he was old enough to do so.
When Ari and Maria met, she immediately fell in love with him. He likes to have biblical discussions with her, beginning with an explanation of why the Bible was not only meant for kind souls like hers, but also for sinners like himself. Sadly, it was The Inquisitions that sparked a brief period of feuding between Ari and Maria. One of Diego Lopes’ servants, Pedro, is kidnapped by one of the Inquisition’s relatives. Being a servant with no political clout, Pedro was unable to fight the planted evidence that was used to imprison him. Pedro soon becomes one of the many victims of the Inquisition when he is tortured to death. Maria finds Ari and they have a heated discussion about this matter—heated only because Maria asked Ari if the inquisitors who tortured Pedro to death were sinners and he indicated that while they may have made unintentional mistakes in the Peter’s case, they did not sin.
Part of Ari’s training at the seminar included a tour of the torture chambers used by inquisitors. He is just the first thing that slowly begins to change his feelings about the whole process of the Inquisition. The Bishop, hearing of Ari’s slight change in attitude, sits him down for a good chat. It is during this talk that Ari’s mind makes a decision: what the Inquisitors are doing in the name of God is nothing more than absolute and unadulterated evil. The question was, how do you fight him from the precarious position he finds himself in?
Ari learns of people being tortured only for their contrary religious beliefs, such as those of the Jewish faith who celebrate the fasting ritual during the great holy day of Yom Kippur. Ari knew that he was not just an evil leader of the Church, but a completely evil system that needed to be stopped. The problem was that the Familiars of the Inquisition in Portugal were trying to emulate those in Spain, and the Spanish Inquisitions were not a Monty Python sketch, but one of the deadliest events in European history. The story takes a big turn when Ari’s old friend, Maria, finds him and tells him that his father, Diego, has been arrested as part of the Inquisition. She begs for his help, but as much as she would like to, Ari realizes there is little he can do.
The case against Diego Lopes is weak and he is defending himself during the trial. When questioned, he indicates that the only reason the inquisitors have called him is because they have accused him of Judaizing. Things did not look good for Diego. This was a period in human history when there was not much sympathy for those he feared. These people were simply eliminated, in the same way that more than 50,000 ‘witches’ were killed in neighboring European countries. As Diego spent months in prison, Maria spoke to Ari fearing it would be only a matter of days before he was executed.
Maria begs Ari to try to help, stating that he is her last hope. It’s hard for Ari to let her down, but there really was nothing she could do that she wouldn’t find him in the same position as her father. At the same time, Ari finds it difficult to understand his claims that Judaism is superior to Christianity: his seminary teaching and his education are responsible for his position. Anyway, the last part of this book is an account of the plan made to free Diego and escape from Portugal. Some readers may already know the fate of Diego Lopes, but I won’t spoil it here and encourage everyone to pick up this book by Martin Elsant and settle for the ride in what represents the first book in the Inquisition Trilogy.