This Day in Jewish History

1739: Playwright Accused of Judaism Is Burned at the Stake

Church authorities may have gone after Joao Mendes da Silva because of the subversive quality of his plays.

On October 19, 1739 (some sources say a day earlier), the Portuguese poet and playwright Antonio Jose da Silva, a New Christian, was garroted and then burned at the stake in Lisbon, after having been convicted by the Inquisition of secretly observing Jewish practices.

There is evidence that Silva was pursued by Church authorities because of the subversive quality of his plays, a theory confirmed at least in part by the fact that the crime for which he was eventually executed – fasting, a supposedly Jewish practice when carried out on Monday or Thursday — was committed only after his arrest, and during his imprisonment.

'The Life of Christ'

Antonio Jose da Silva was born in Rio de Janeiro on May 8, 1705, the child of well-off Jewish converts to Christianity. His father, Joao Mendes da Silva, was a prominent lawyer and poet, author of an epic poem called “Christiados: The Life of Christ, Our Lord.” His mother was named Lourenca Coutinho.

In 1712, Lourenca was accused by the Inquisition of Judaizing, and the family was forced to return to Lisbon for her trial. She confessed to whatever crimes she was accused of and eventually “reconciled” and released, after which the family remained in Portugal.

Antonio studied canon law at the University of Coimbra, in north-central Portugal, but in 1726, he and his brothers, as well as his mother again, were arrested and tortured after being denounced to church authorities as heretics by the fiancé of a cousin who wanted to break off his relationship with her. Antonio had his fingers broken during his interrogation, and emerged from his ordeal crippled, but he and his family were all eventually released.

He finished his law degree in 1728, after his release from prison, and began working in his father’s law practice. He also married a cousin, Leonor Maria de Carvalho, whose parents had been burnt at the stake for heresy and who herself had been taken in for questioning by the Inquisition.

Light puppet songs, but...

It was during the next eight years that Silva wrote his eight plays, all of which were performed by puppet theater at Lisbon’s Bairro Alto Theater. Described as operas, they combined spoken dialogue with arias and light songs, and most of them were set in ancient Greece. The fact that they were performed by marionettes, and set in classical times, perhaps made it easier for Silva to introduce social criticism and other satirical elements; it is also true that he published all his works anonymously, although he sometimes included his name in the text in an acrostic.

Historians have noted that the records of Antonio da Silva’s arrest and trial make no direct mention of his having been a playwright, but also say that it seems highly unlikely that Church authorities were unaware of his artistic work, especially considering its satirical nature.

Several days before his arrest, by the General Council – the top authority – of the Inquisition, Silva alerted authorities to the fact that a slave girl in his employ, whom he had refused to emancipate, had threatened to denounce him and his family. That did not prevent the Inquisition from arresting him, and later his wife and other relatives, plus the slave girl.

A slave’s testimony was not sufficient for a conviction, and Silva refused to admit to the charges that he had been witnessed observing the Jewish Sabbath and fasting. Eventually, the authorities brought in a prison spy who testified to having seen Silva fasting on “Jewish” days in his cell, activity that post-dated his arrest by some six months. He was convicted by a secret tribunal, and not even an appeal by the Portuguese king, John V, was successful in having the death penalty averted. Silva was, however, spared the torture of being burned alive, as the authorities allowed for his neck to broken before he was put to the stake.