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Woman who Defied Kings, The: The Life and Times of Doña Gracia Nasi

Woman who Defied Kings, The: The Life and Times of Doña Gracia Nasi
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Index , Notes , Bibliography , Photos , Illustrations
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Winner of the Mark Twain Award from the Connecticut Press Club for 2003!

Finalist in the Jewish Book Council 2002-2003 National Jewish Book Awards!

“...Doña Gracia’s character leaps out of the archival material–she is headstrong and intelligent, as charismatic as any fictional protagonist.” — Lilith

An important contribution to early modern Jewish history
"This fast-paced biography of Dona Gracia Nasi, an extraordinary sixteenth-century Renaissance Jewish Woman of Valor, international banker, diplomat, and mover and shaker, is beautifully written and based on newly retrieved archival sources. Her life and career are set in a kaleidoscopic tale of five cities—Lisbon, Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, and Constantinople. This is an important and vividly realized new contribution to early modern Jewish history." —Ivan G. Marcus, Frederick P. Rose Professor of Jewish History, Yale University

Asignificant contribution to our understanding of sixteenth-century economic practices in Europe and to the life of conversos
This lively, meticulously-documented biography is bound to become the touchstone of Gracia Nasi scholarship for years to come. Using hundreds of documents not available to Cecil Roth—whose biography of Doña Gracia has been our main source until now—Brooks has finally set the record straight about the life of this heroic Jewish Renaissance woman. Brooks' lively prose and knack for dramatic detail should insure the book a wide popular readership as well. In what other single source can you find information about the medicinal uses of pepper, the intricacies of sixteenth-century silver speculation, or what it was like to be a wealthy passenger on a Mediterranean galley?

Brooks weaves hundreds of seemingly unconnected strands into a compelling tapestry of Doña Gracia and her times. I was particularly taken by Brooks' evocation of Jewish and converso life in the succession of Renaissance centers—Lisbon, Antwerp, Rome, Ferrara, Venice, Istanbul, and Tiberias—in which the action unfolds. That alone would justify my assigning this book to my students. So too would Brooks' treatment of the complex "underground railroad" by which Doña Gracia and her family helped thousands of conversos to escape the dangers of life under the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Brooks' work also makes a significant contribution to our understanding of sixteenth-century economic practices in Europe: the movement of goods, the intricacies of commercial contracts, the development of letters of credit and exchange, the birth of the maritime insurance industry, money lending, and tax farming. — Professor David M. Gitlitz, the University of Rhode Island, and author of Secrecy and Deceit

Brooks does not disappoint
The author, a New York Times writer who based her book on original, unpublished sixteenth-century documents and worked with scholars who translated papers in 13 different languages in seven countries, knows how to tell a story. She delicately interweaves Doña Gracia's personal chronicle with the history of the places where she lived or had influence: Portugal, England, Belgium, Italy, Tiberias and Constantinople.—Hadassah Magazine, October 2002

A role model for women today
"An excellent read! The story of Doña Garcia is riveting. She would be a hero in any age and a role model for women today." —Fayne Erickson, publisher Ms. Magazine

From Publishers Weekly
In an assiduously researched biography of a 16th-century Jewish woman who managed a powerful business empire, Brooks, an associate fellow at Yale, has illuminated a mostly forgotten corner of history. Famed during her lifetime both in the Sephardic Jewish community for her unstinting philanthropy and in the wider world of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, where she fled to escape the Inquisition, Beatrice de Luna Mendes, better known as Doña Gracia Nasi (1510-1569), was a woman of formidable business acumen, personal courage, outstanding altruism and devotion to the Jewish religion, which, as a Catholic converso, she practiced in secret. Widowed early, Doña Gracia managed both the complex financial affairs of her late husband's merchant empire and its secret activities. The latter included huge bribes to the Church and (never repaid) loans to several monarchs, as well as an underground escape route that rescued thousands of conversos from the Inquisition's fury in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Despite their financial power, the Mendes family were forced by the Inquisition into quick moves and narrow escapes from Lisbon to Antwerp to Venice and Ferrara, back to Venice and then to Constantinople. Brooks's research, which involved previously unavailable documents in 13 languages and seven countries, effectively details 16th-century social, religious and economic conditions, especially as they affected the Jewish community. Her overeager attempt to lionize her subject, however, sometimes results in fulsome, even strident prose. Yet even if Doña Gracia is not a feminist heroine, as Brooks suggests, this saga of her life and times is a significant contribution to Jewish history during the Renaissance.

Shatters the stereotype of women
The Woman Who Defied Kings is the first modern, comprehensive biography of Doña Gracia Nasi, an outstanding Jewish international banker during the Renaissance. A courageous leader, she used her wealth and connections to operate an "underground railroad" that saved hundreds of her fellow Spanish and Portuguese conversos (Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism) from the horrors of the Inquisition. Born in Lisbon in 1510, she later moved onto Antwerp, Venice and Ferrara where she was constantly negotiating with kings and emperors for better conditions for her people. Doña Gracia Nasi helped lead a boycott of the Italian port of Ancona in retaliation for the burning of 23 of her people by the Inquisition—an outrageous act in an era when Jews were more accustomed to appeasement. Finally settling in Constantinople, she persuaded Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to grant her a long-term lease on the Tiberias region of the Palestine where she spearheaded one of the earliest attempts to start an independent state for Jews in Israel. Doña Gracia Nasi is equally important to history because she shatters the stereotype of how women, especially Jewish women, conducted their lives during the Renaissance period. Some historians have called her the most important Jewish woman since Biblical times.



PART I. Portugal: 1510-1537
Chapter 1. A Time to be Born
Chapter 2. Growing Up
Chapter 3. Marriage
Chapter 4. Widowhood

Part II. Antwerp: 1537-1545
Chapter 5. Among the Money Merchants
Chapter 6. A Time for Learning
Chapter 7. Crisis
Chapter 8. Flight

Part III. Italy:1546-1552
Chapter 9. Merchants in Venice
Chapter 10. The Enemy Within
Chapter 11. Patron of the Arts
Chapter 12. An Imminent Departure

Part IV. Turkey: 1553-1569
Chapter 13. From an Ottoman Perch
Chapter 14. Tragedy in Ancona
Chapter 15. A Time of Trial
Chapter 16. Unfinished Business
Chapter 17. A Benevolent Lady
Chapter 18. The Tiberias Project
Chapter 19. Ebb Tide


ANDRÉE AELION BROOKS is a journalist, author and lecturer specializing in Jewish history topics. For nearly two decades she was a contributing columnist and news writer for the New York Times. She wrote the award-winning book Children of Fast Track Parents. She founded the Women's Campaign School at Yale University, where she is an Associate Fellow, and served as the director/editor of an important teaching series for 5-7th graders in Sephardic Jewish history and culture called "Out of Spain."

Over forty years of published work including: more than 2,000 articles in the New York Times during an eighteen year span; countless pieces in other newspapers and magazines including The New York Times Magazine, European Judaism (academic journal), Equity (Worth), McCalls, Glamour, Reform Judaism, Hadassah Magazine, Historic Preservation, among many others.

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