Some Books I Read and Thoughts About Them

Warning! Don’t pick up these books unless you want to become a medievalist. The writing may be academic, but the information is fascinating. I’m still reading.

Baer, Yitzhak, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Volume 2, Jerusalem, The Jewish Publication Society, 1966. I haven’t read Volume 1 yet, because its events take place long before the events in Ceiling, but I plan to. Volume 2 includes a lengthy account of the Inquisition case known as The Holy Child of La Guardia, which offers a powerful lesson on how far prejudice can take us from truth.

Beinart, Haim, The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Portland Oregon, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002. This was one of the first books I read, and I didn’t grasp its significance until I returned to it after I’d learned more history. A great deal is devoted to financial transactions, like property sales, and I found it dry and even heartless–until I realized that the tragedy is revealed in these transactions.

Byne, Arthur, and Mildred Stapley, Spanish Interiors and Furniture, New York, Dover, 1969, originally published by William Helburn, 1921-1925. Most of the furniture and rooms are from the 16th century, but some are from the 15th. While writing this bibliography, I became curious and did an online search for Arthur Byne and found this on the Spanish Wikipedia site: “Played an important role in the plundering of Spanish artistic assets at the beginning of century xx , including... remains of monasteries and convents and palaces, bound for characters like William Randolph Hearst.” Whoa! I had no idea!

Carmi, T., The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, New York, Viking and Penguin Books, 1981. Poetry flowered in medieval Spain, with complicated rhymes and metrical schemes. I loved improvising on these poems, which are vastly different from the poems I usually write. For instance, I’d never think that “the breath of my mouth eats away iron.” I brush my teeth!

Gerber, Jane S., The Jews of Spain, A History of the Sephardic Experience, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1992. “Turning Point, the Spanish Expulsion,” The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism, ed. Alan T. Levenson, Hoboken, Blackwell, 2012. This accessible article and the very readable book above helped me understand my other reading. I reached out to historian Jane Gerber, who kindly answered my questions, guided me to further reading, and even read my manuscript and let me know where I went astray. I’ll always be grateful.

Gitlitz, David M., and Linda Kay Davidson, A Drizzle of Honey, the Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, New York, St. Martin’s, 1999. The Spanish Inquisition was established to root out heresy, and the prime suspects were converts from Judaism. Among the signs of heresy were dietary practices, which were often the basis of accusations and confessions, diligently recorded by the inquisitors. The recipes in this book are based on Inquisition documents. Yum!

Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition, a Historical Revision, New Haven, Yale University, 1998. The Inquisition’s accused weren’t told for weeks and sometimes months why they’d been arrested, but they were warned three times to search their consciences and confess.

Liss, Peggy K., Isabel the Queen, Life and Times, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1992. This book widened my perspective. For example, books about Sephardic history highlight the financial assistance given by Jews to Ferdinand when he was courting Isabella, but this biography doesn’t even mention the Jewish contribution, although the circumstances of the royal courtship and marriage are covered in detail. I needed to change lenses once in a while!

Netanyahu, Benzion, Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman and Philosopher, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1953. Loma’s beloved grandfather is loosely based on Don Isaac’s life. The author, who died in 2012 at 102, was the father of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and was important in the formation of the state of Israel–and taught at Cornell University for many years.

Neuman, Abraham A., The Jews in Spain, Their Social, Political, and Cultural Life During the Middle Ages, Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1942. In two volumes, this is a classic of Jewish history. The two sources are the acts of the royalty of the kingdom of Aragon, and rabbinic responsa–the letters back and forth between ordinary rabbis and rabbinic authorities about dilemmas that arose in Jewish communities. I learned so much and so much of it eye-popping. For instance, belief in the power of amulets was so strong that it was deemed okay to break Sabbath laws to prepare an amulet for someone who was sick!

Pérez-Mallaína, Pablo E., Spain’s Men of the Sea, Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century, translated by Carla Rahn Phillips, Baltimore, John Hopkins University, 1998. I cut almost all of life at sea, but I’m so glad I read this fascinating book. For instance, I learned that playing cards, which weren’t around in the 15th century, were in the 16th and were in great demand but very expensive–so owners would rent them out!

Perry, Mary Elizabeth, The Handless Maiden, Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain, Princeton, Princeton University, 2005. The events in this book are mainly after the Expulsion, but it was still helpful for developing my Muslim characters–and it was interesting to compare the experience of each group–terrible in different ways.

Phillips, William D., Jr., Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 2014. Slavery doesn’t come into Ceiling much, but it was a constant in medieval society. No one wanted to be a slave, though through ill luck anyone could become one, but moral objections to the institution of slavery didn’t begin to appear, in a fledgling way, until the end of the period.

Raphael, David, editor, The Expulsion 1492 Chronicles, an Anthology of Medieval Chronicles Relating to the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, North Hollywood, Carmi House, 1992. A big challenge in writing Ceiling was to keep my characters from being 21st century people in period costume, and this book, more than any other, helped with that, because the chapters were written in the 15th and early 16th centuries by Jews and Christians who experienced events firsthand and said what they thought.

Roth, Norman, Daily Life of the Jews in the Middle Ages, Westport, Greenwood, 2005. Lucky me–Norman Roth wrote more about Spain than anywhere else in Europe. In this book I first learned that friars would enter synagogues and make the Jews listen to their sermons.

Weiditz, Christoph, Authentic Everyday Dress of the Renaissance, All 154 Plates from the “Trachtenbuch,” New York, Dover, 1994. Though this coffee-table paperback, one of the earliest known books of contemporary costume, came out in the U. S. in 1994, it was released in Europe in 1927, and Christoph Weiditz lived from 1500 to 1559. The figures aren’t pictured just showing off their outfits. They’re doing whatever they’d do: tugging a boat into harbor; riding one of two mules that are pulling a royal baggage wagon, which is surprisingly small; plowing a field behind two oxen. Great for the writer looking for contemporary detail!

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim, Zakhor & Jewish Memory, New York, Schocken Books, 1989. This isn’t a history book; it’s a meditation on the Jewish understanding of history from ancient times to the recent past. Historians today analyze events and their causes, but in the Middle Ages, Jewish and Christian thinkers saw everything through a religious frame. When matters went badly for them, Jews concluded that they had transgressed, and God was punishing them. Realizing their perspective helped me crawl inside the heads of my characters and tell their side of the story.