Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (Jewish Publication Society).
Gracia Nasi, known at first as Beatrice de Luna, was born in Portugal in 1510 into a family of New Christians or conversos, the result of the mass conversion of Portuguese Jews in 1497. However, as so many others had done, her family secretly retained their ties to Judaism and gave her the Hebrew name Hannah. Beatrice married another converso, Francisco Mendes, a wealthy trader in gems and spices.
The Formation of a Family
Beatrice/Hannah de Luna Mendes and her husband, Francisco, had one child, a daughter named Reyna. In 1536, when Reyna was five years old, Francisco died, and Beatrice, now a 26-year-old widow, was heir to one half of his enormous fortune. That same year, the Inquisition was re-established in Portugal and all conversos were threatened, but Beatrice de Luna, who up until that time had escaped suspicion, was allowed to leave Lisbon. Together with her daughter, Reyna, and her sister Brianda, she fled to Antwerp, the capital of Flanders. Two years later, Joao Migues, Beatrice’s nephew (later renowned as Joseph Nasi), joined them.
Diogo Mendes, Francisco’s brother and business partner, already lived in Antwerp, and after the arrival of the two women, he married Beatrice’s sister Brianda. Diogo had inherited the other half of Francisco’s fortune and had already extended the family business to include not only trading in spices and precious stones, but also banking. Banking as it was practiced in the 16th century involved the transmission of money from country to country and the arrangement of bills of exchange. Once Beatrice de Luna Mendes and her family were safely settled in Antwerp, they became skilled in these procedures and Beatrice created a secret network, enabling Jewish conversosto leave Portugal, transferring their money through bills of exchange so they could make new lives elsewhere.”
Tragedy Brings New Fortune
Prosperous and respected, the Mendes family established themselves in luxurious fashion, but as long as Flanders remained part of the Spanish Empire and the Inquisition remained active, they were still not able to live without fear of discovery. The decision was made to transfer the Mendes assets to a more tolerant country, where they could live openly and practice Judaism. But before these plans could be carried out, Diogo died. Now Beatrice not only retained her half of the capital in the Mendes business, but she was also appointed administrator for the other half, which she was to manage for his widow (her sister Brianda) and their infant daughter. This assignment caused a bitter fight between Beatrice and Brianda that had ramifications for many years afterward.
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