Discovering Louisa May Alcott's Jewish History on Portuguese Tour

'Little Women' Author Was a Little Bit Sephardic

A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
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A Little Surprising: “Little Women” has served some Jewish immigrants to America as a tool of assimilation. But, as it turns out, the novel’s author Louisa May Alcott came from Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

By Eve LaPlante

Published May 28, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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At the top of the hill, past the city’s magnificent Romanesque Old Cathedral, is the University of Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest universities, founded in 1290. This is a university town: One in five residents of Coimbra is a student.

Created out of a palace occupied by the early kings of Portugal, the university boasts the second-largest library in Portugal. Its gorgeous Biblioteca Joanina, erected in the early 18th century, contains important papers of local Jewish scholars, many of whom were students or professors here. The ramparts afford views of Coimbra’s city’s red-tile roofs, the river below and the surrounding countryside.

Our final destination, a short walk northwest of the university, was the Pátio da Inquisição — Courtyard of the Inquisition — where Coimbra’s inquisitorial trials were held. Coimbra’s tribunal disposed of more than 11,000 individual cases between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Some of the trials lasted for years, while the accused waited in prison. Records indicate that more women than men were tried, convicted and executed, probably because mothers and grandmothers were held responsible for maintaining Jewish beliefs and practices among New Christians. As recently as 1718, in this courtyard, the tribunal tried more than 60 suspected Jews and then burned two people at the stake. On this spot, students and tourists now gather at the Restaurante O Pátio cafe.

By prior arrangement of our local guide, the informative Tiago Boavida, we were able to view torture chambers where the accused were held as they awaited trial. The chambers are in the basement of a 16th-century building that is now part of the university’s art school, the Centro de Artes Visuais. A student unlocked the door, welcomed us inside the cavernous space now used as an art gallery and removed a panel of floorboard. Metal stairs led down into the empty, whitewashed cells.

Afterward, as I stood outside in the school’s peaceful courtyard, surrounded by flowering plants and 16th-century capitals, it occurred to me that these cells are where Alcott’s ancestors might have been held if they had stayed in Portugal. In that case, their American descendants — and the writings of Alcott — would not exist.


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