Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

The Jewish woman is punished by being thrown off a cliff.

  • Title: Cantiga 107 The Jewish woman who was thrown from a cliff
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In Cantiga 107, a Jewish woman, named Marisaltos, is thrown off a cliff for committing a crime. In this version of the story, the crime is unspecified, but in other versions the crime is said to be that the Jewish woman had sexual relations with a married, Christian man. Marisaltos’ marital status is not mentioned in the Cantiga. The Jewish community carries out the punishment, demonstrating the fatal repercussions of violating the rules and traditions placed on Jewish women’s sexuality within their community.

    Marisaltos is scantily clad in an undergarment, depicting her as sexually desirable which likely runs contrary to historical practice because Jewish men would not have publicly undressed a Jewish woman. Her sexually suggestive depiction and her sexual relationship with a married, Christian man may lead viewers to infer Marisaltos is sexually dissatisfied with Jewish men and desires instead a Christian man. As a Jewish woman, this is the ultimate betrayal to the Jewish community.

    About to be pushed off the cliff, Marisaltos promises the Virgin Mary that if she survives the fall, she will convert to Christianity. Marisaltos avoids falling onto the rocks and immediately goes to church to be baptized. As a result of the Virgin’s intervention, the Jewish men fail in their attempt to punish Marisaltos for crimes of sexual misconduct. Because of the Jewish community’s failure and the presence of the merciful Virgin Mary, the Cantiga demonstrates that when a Jewish woman turns to Christianity, Jewish law is no longer relevant. She can escape Jewish custom because Christian religious figures are more powerful, more merciful, and, therefore, closer to God, all of which encourages Jewish conversion to Christianity.

    Contrary to the depiction in this Cantiga, Jewish courts did not tend to inflict the death penalty on unmarried Jewish women who had sexual relationships with married or unmarried men, regardless of their lovers’ religions. However, the Church was vehemently against cross-religious love affairs and passed legislation against it. As a result of these laws, violent punishments, though not the death penalty, were carried out in cases of Jewish and Christian sexual relationships. For example, one Jewish woman who had twins as a result of an affair with a Christian man was sentenced to having her nose cut off and was made to pay fines to the lords of the city. The Siete Partidas, a set of laws created in 1256 by Alfonso X, describes various cases in which sexual misconduct between Christian men and Jewish or Moorish women would be worthy of the death penalty. So, it was possible and within the confines of the law for a situation like Marisaltos’ to arise and be met with the death penalty. However it should be noted, Alfonso X was known for his relative fairness and equitable treatment of minority communities.

    Alfonso X, king of Castile-León, was known as the Learned and commissioned a wealth of literary works including the Cantigas. These stories of Marian miracles were composed in Galician Portuguese, the literary language of the era. Alfonso commissioned music and illustrations to accompany the poems, some of which he wrote himself. There is further personal material including Cantiga 235 in which the Virgin cures the king of a serious illness. This particular manuscript version is known as the códice rico for its numerous and detailed illustrations.

  • Source: Reproduced from the Edicón facsímil del Códice T.I.1 de la Biblioteca de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, Siglo XIII. Edilán, 1979. Made available open access by the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Alfonso X, el Sabio, King of Castile- Cantigas de Santa Maria Cantigas Conversion, Religious Jews Mary, Virgin, Saint Punishment Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1280- 1284
  • Related Work: Additional Cantigas about Jews include:
    4. This is how Holy Mary saved from burning the son of the Jew, whose father had thrown him into the furnace.
    27. This is how Holy Mary took the synagogue from the Jews and made a church out of it.
    89. This is how a Jewess was near death in childbirth and called on Holy Mary and was delivered at that moment.
    108. How Holy Mary caused the son of the Jew to be born with his head on backward, as Merlin had asked of Her.
  • Current Location: Madrid, Escorial Museum, MS B.i.2, fol. 154r
  • Original Location: Iberia
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Layman; Alfonso X, King of Castile
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 33.8/50.2 [size of page]/
  • Inscription: "Como preseron huna judea en Segovia que foi achada e erro." [How they arrested a Jewess in Segovia who was accused of a crime.]
    "Como a levavan a esfalfar d’una gran pena que yi a." [How they took her to throw her off a high precipice that was there.]
    "Como a esfalfaron e non sse fez mal por que chamou Santa Maria." [How they threw her down and she was not hurt because she called on Holy Mary.]
    "Como sse levantou sana loando muito Santa Maria por en." [How she got up unharmed, loudly praising Holy Mary for it.]
    "Como entrou na eigreia de Santa Maria e contou o miragre a a gente." [How she entered the church of Holy Mary and told the miracle to the people.]
    "Como aquela judea sse tornou crischana." [How that Jewess became a Christian.]
    Captions and translations come from the Oxford Cantigas de Santa Maria Database: http://csm.mml.ox.ac.uk/index.php?narOption=all&p=poemdata_view&rec=107.
  • Related Resources: Assis, Yom Tov. "Sexual Behavior in Medieval Hispano-Jewish Society," In Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Chimen Abramsky, edited by A. Rapoport Albert and S. J. Zipperstein. P. Halban, 1988, pp. 25-29;
    Barton, Simon. Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pages 57-59;
    Benaim de Lasry, Anita. "Marisaltos: Artificial Purification in Alfonso el Sabio's Cantiga 107," Studies on the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Art, Music and Poetry. Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso X, el Sabio (1221-1284)in Commemoration of its 700th Anniversary Year. Edited by Israel J. Katz and John F. Keller. Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1987. Pages 299-311;
    Klein, Elka. "The Widow's Portion: Law, Custom, and Marital Property among Medieval Catalan Jews." Viator 31 (2000): 147-163;
    Mirrer, Louise. "The Beautiful Jewess: Marisaltos in Alfonso X's Cantiga 107," in Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile. University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pages 31-44;
    Nirenberg, David. "Sex and Violence between Majority and Minority," in Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 1996. Pages 127-165;
    The Oxford Cantigas de Santa Maria Database http://csm.mml.ox.ac.uk/?p=database.