How Did Queen Esther Become a Christian Saint?

They fled from Spain to neighboring Portugal but were soon forced to cross the Atlantic on their way to the New World. They were baptized as Christians against their will and were forced to remove any signs that hinted at their Jewish heritage. But they were willing to risk their lives to hold on to something. This is the story of the conversos who invented a Christian saint who was in fact a Jewish queen, to remind themselves of who they truly were.


Queen Esther. Wall painting in Villa Carducci

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Droops on the little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

(From “When We Were Very Young”, A.A. Milne)

For centuries, the bedtime prayers of innocent young children, kneeling at the bedside with their chubby little fingers intertwined as they did their best to recite the words, represented the ideal image of family life in the context of Christian culture. Home. Children who have not tasted sin or violence, and an honest, innocent prayer for protection and peace.

But for hundreds of thousands of families, this image of sweet innocence was in fact something terrible – a source of pain which caused them more agony than the actual flames that threatened to engulf their bodies. It was a terrifying symbol of what had happened to them: the knowledge that their little children would grow up without knowing the faith of their ancestors and without knowing who they really were.

In the late Middle Ages, just before the discovery of the New World and the expansion of the great colonial empires, the Jews of Spain were presented with an unequivocal choice: leave or convert to Christianity.

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A postcard depicting a group of Spanish Inquisition soldiers breaking into the home of Jewish conversos who had been conducting a Passover Seder in secret. From the National Library of Israel’s postcard collection

This event was not a sudden turnabout – it was preceded by hundreds of years of Jewish persecution, the marking of Jews as inferior citizens (physical signs such as a ban on shaving their beards or a requirement that they wear certain conspicuous articles of clothing), and large-scale efforts to convert them to Christianity. It is no wonder that in Spain at the time of the expulsion, there was already a very large community of “New Christians” – Jews who had converted to Christianity, under threat or out of a desire to maintain their status and economic well-being,

But the Spaniards were neither sympathetic nor accepting of the New Christians (whom they referred to as marranos – “pigs”), who somehow managed to maintain their uniqueness and wealth after converting. Influenced by the masses and swept up in this general atmosphere, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella issued a royal decree demanding that all Jews leave Spain within three months, using the claim that the Jews who remained openly faithful to their religion were “ruining” the New Christians and “a bad influence”.

It was a horrible choice to make. The Jews weren’t being offered a wonderful opportunity to relocate to a new country. Those who chose to leave had to give up all their possessions and set out destitute on a dangerous journey that claimed the lives of many even when done under the best conditions. Many ships carrying Jews away from Spain were sunk, and those who didn’t drown were tortured and slaughtered.

And yet – according to the lower estimates, over 100,000 Jews left Spain in what is probably the most famous expulsion in history.

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The royal decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, signed by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, 1492

But their troubles had only just begun. Half of the exiles moved to the neighboring kingdom of Portugal. King João (John) II agreed to grant them asylum, on the condition that he receive payment for each Jew he accepted.

This is how Portugal became the main competitor for Jewish trade relations with the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Jews into the Ottoman territories, telling his courtiers: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

Initially, it was agreed that the exiles would live in Portugal for only eight months, but as the months passed, the Jews assimilated into the country’s economy and helped the Portuguese in opening the gates of distant trading cities where other Jews lived, and the authorities chose to turn a blind eye and allow them to stay.

Ferdinand and Isabella were furious. The fact that these deportees were living comfortably and securely only a few kilometers from the Spanish border threatened the grip that the Spanish Inquisition had on the New Christians within its domain.

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Auto-da-fé ceremony in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, painting by Francisco Rizi, 1683

Only four years after the expulsion, they served their revenge: The Spanish monarchs proposed a deal, offering the new King of Portugal, Manuel I, their pious daughter – named after her mother, Isabella, in exchange for the complete expulsion of Portuguese Jews. King Manuel signed the contract, but he wasn’t interested in losing his country’s Jews who had a fundamental impact on the kingdom’s economy, which by then was the second largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

Since it was the late Middle Ages, the era of absolute monarchies, he could do whatever he wanted, and the solution was very simple. The Jews of Lisbon who chose not to convert to Christianity were required to gather in the city square. There they were promised they would soon be put on board ships to the countries of their choice. As history has taught us, such promises generally end in cruelty for the Jews. It was true then, and was still true hundreds of years later.

Above the heads of the packed crowd, Christian priests went out to the balcony overlooking the square, sprinkled the crowd with “holy water”, and the Jews’ fate was decided. At that moment they were baptized into Christianity. By that point, if they chose to return to Judaism or declare their Jewish faith, they could expect to be burned at the stake on charges of heresy and treason.

Similar ceremonies were performed in the other cities of Portugal, which was quickly and officially rid of all Jews.

These Jews, who had even less choice in their conversion to Christianity than the first Spanish conversos, sought a secret way to preserve their heritage under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition. They knew that no matter how much they remembered and believed in their religion in their hearts; for the future generations – their children and grandchildren – there was no chance that their faith would persevere.

In an attempt to preserve it despite it all, they took advantage of one of the practices of the Catholic faith, whereby believers often “sanctify” various figures and make them into saints who can be revered, even if they haven’t yet received official status from the Church itself.

And so “Santa Ester” (Saint Esther) came to be.

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An icon of “Santa Ester” that hung in the homes of Jewish conversos in South America. Photo: Ronit Treatman, SCJS Kanter Lecture: Conversos & Santa Ester

It isn’t hard to understand why the conversos felt connected to Queen Esther. The story of the beautiful and innocent girl, who was taken from her home and community against her will to the king’s palace – where the megillah tells us that “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred” (Esther 2:10) – reflected their own sad situation as well as their hope. Would they or their children have the privilege of openly declaring once again, before the king, the ministers, and the whole nation, that they belonged to the Jewish People?

The figure of Santa Ester became an integral part of the homes of many conversos. Icons bearing her image were hung on their walls. The women lit candles in her honor. And the little children – to whom the big family secret could not be revealed – knelt near their beds every evening, clasping their little fingers together, praying to Santa Ester that she should watch over them, protect them, and show them the right path.

It was dangerous. Any sign indicating that a family was still holding on to its Judaism resulted in showcase trials by the Inquisition. The best-case scenario was a trial resulting in a humiliating display of “repentance” and “atonement”, which involved torture and severe punishment. More often, the accused and their families were burned at the stake in a public ceremony called an auto-da-fé. According to various estimates, tens of thousands of Jews met their ends with this method of execution.

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Auto-da-fé ceremony in Mexico, 1601. From the Encyclopedia Judaica

Over time, some of the conversos migrated to the New World, to the territories controlled by Spain and Portugal in South America, where they hoped (in vain) that the long arm of the Inquisition wouldn’t catch up with them. They brought Santa Ester there with them and made sure to celebrate her holiday – which was essentially the same as the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The women were the ones who were responsible for the Santa Ester festival, or “Santa Esterica” as they called it in some places.

The holiday would begin with three days of fasting, to commemorate the fast that Esther established before she appealed to King Ahasuerus.

“And Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish” (Esther, 4:15-16).

They would divide the fast among themselves, with each woman fasting for one day, and when the fast was over they held a feast.

Instead of public celebrations that were customary in Spain before the expulsion, the families celebrated by having a small, discreet and yet dangerous festive meal at home. The mothers cooked traditional recipes with their daughters that had been passed down through the generations and used the time they spent cooking and baking to whisper to their eldest daughters about other traditions related to kosher food.

As stated above, this was an extremely dangerous practice.

In 1643, a descendant of conversos named Gabriel de Granada was caught in Mexico. During his interrogation, he confessed to the family’s “crimes” and described the holiday and the fast. He and his family members were burned at the stake for the crime of “converting to Judaism.”

The Church continued persecuting the families of conversos, who needed to find increasingly creative ways to hide their traditions. But they continued to maintain those traditions and families whose Jewish memory was fading continued to celebrate the festival of “Santa Ester” every year.

And they held onto the image of Esther with good reason.

In their eyes, Esther, the daughter of Avichayil, was also a converso – a woman who was forced to conceal her lineage and her faith in order to save her life, until she stood up bravely, even though she was all alone in the palace of King Ahasuerus, and declared her national and religious affiliation before the king and his people. In doing so, she saved not only herself but also her people. And not only in her generation. How many descendants of conversos managed to maintain their identity thanks to her? How many of them openly returned to their Judaism when they arrived in countries that allowed this or when the Inquisition’s power declined? We will never know the exact number, but Queen Esther’s strength of spirit and steadfastness persevered in another world and another time.

The Mystery of the Spanish Esther Scroll

"¡Que tengas un feliz Purim!" - That’s Spanish for: Have a happy Purim! A 17th century megillah stands out for being penned in the language of descendants of the inquisitions’ survivors.

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The Book of Esther, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

A partial list of key figures in the story of Purim, the festive holiday that will begin on Saturday night (Sunday night in Jerusalem), includes the following descriptors:

King Ahashverosh: Rey Ahasueros

Queen Vashti, Queen Esther: Uasti la Reyna, Ester la Reyna

Mordechai the Jew: Mordehay el Iudio

Haman, son of Hamdata the Aggegite: Haman hijo de Hamedata el aghageo

Shushan the capital: Susan la metropolitan

At least, that’s how the words appear in the Book of Esther in an all-Spanish megillah (scroll) handwritten in 1684 in Amsterdam that is in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The Amsterdam megillah’s being written in a language other than Hebrew makes it unique. In synagogues throughout the world, the Book of Esther is read aloud from scrolls on the eve of Purim and again the next morning — always in Hebrew.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Why would the Amsterdam megillah have been written, and presumably recited on Purim, in a different language? After all, even in today’s congregations, where prayers sometimes are led by cantors and intoned by worshippers in the native land’s tongue — such as French in Reform synagogues in France or English in the United States — it’s inconceivable that Torah scrolls are not written or chanted in Hebrew. Ditto for the Book of Esther and other megillot recited on Jewish holidays.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Of course, in homes and synagogues of all Jewish denominations throughout the world, printed books of the Torah and other portions of the Bible are commonly published, read and studied in translated form alongside the facing pages’ Hebrew original. Non-Jews reading the Bible commonly do so in their native languages, too.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Maybe, then, the Amsterdam megillah was a variation of that: a Spanish-only translation that was not intended to be read publicly on Purim.

No, said Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist and coordinator for Latin America, who is sure that the Amsterdam megillah was written for the purpose of being read publicly.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The proof, she said, lies in the three complete blessings that appear before the megillah’s text begins. The first words of each, Bendito tu ANDR, meaning, “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe,” is a standard opening for Jewish prayers. The megillah’s prayers are chanted only when the scroll is read publicly — and not, for example, when someone reads or studies it at school or at home.

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Bendito tu ANDR – “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe”, an Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“Unfortunately, we can’t determine who read it or to whom, but it’s clear that the person who wrote it did so for the purpose, like a Torah scroll, of reading it in public to fulfill the mitzvah,” Moreno said of the Amsterdam megillah.

The “larger, more interesting” questions, she said, are: Why was it written in Spanish, why in Amsterdam and why in the late 17th Century?

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“The story is this,” Moreno began, launching a sensible supposition encompassing Jewish history, migration and tradition — in short, the real life experienced by Jews of the day.

Following the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, some of those who had outwardly converted to Christianity and remained in Spain and Portugal, continued to practice Jewish customs in secret. Some of their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam beginning about a century after the expulsion, where they were able to reconnect openly with the Judaism of their ancestors.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Because they couldn’t read Hebrew, for the first time in Jewish history, we see a pattern of communities translating multiple Hebrew texts into languages written in Latin script, Moreno said.

One of the most notable cases, she explained, was the Biblia de Ferrara, a translation of the Bible into Spanish published in the northern Italy city in 1553. NLI’s collection includes one such first edition. The Biblia de Ferrara was later published in Amsterdam in the 17th century.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“We do know that the most important community [of descendants of conversos] was Amsterdam, and we know that the style of the congregation is that the cantor prayed in Hebrew, but some of the worshippers had siddurim [prayer books] in Spanish and said the prayers in Spanish,” she said.

“This is important to state: One year before the Biblia de Ferrara was translated to Spanish, the siddur was translated to Spanish. It was a parallel phenomenon in the translations of both the siddur and Tanach [Bible],” Moreno said. The Amsterdam megillah “reflects the use of Spanish in historical context,” she added.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

In the 1560s, Sephardic diaspora communities — including Salonika and Kushta (contemporary Istanbul) — who maintained Jewish observance and were not lacking in Jewish knowledge, published a limited range of Jewish texts in Ladino, such as a prayer book for women and a partial translation of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), known as Shulkhan HaPanim.

By the time the Amsterdam megillah was written, nearly two centuries had elapsed since the inquisitions began.

According to the Amsterdam megillah’s inscription under the blessing, the scribe was Benyamin Senior, and the work was commissioned by Ishak de Matatia Aboab.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The megillah’s writing is straightforward and all-text, lacking adornments and colors and illustrations. Moreno called the calligraphy “very, very beautiful” for the size of its letters and the gaps between them. “It’s beautiful, professional and readable,” she said.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

So much so that the megillah was exhibited at a meeting at the National Library in mid-March of the U.S.-based Samis Foundation, which last year provided a generous grant to NLI dedicated to the Moreshet Sepharad (Sephardic tradition) collection.  

Moreno found no document explaining how the megillah came to reach the Library. Nor is she sure how it was used. “In a synagogue? In a home? Was it never read? It’s very curious for me,” she said.

If it was never recited, why was the megillah written, given the cost and time invested in producing it?

“That’s a very good question,” Moreno said, “but I can’t give a definitive answer.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected]


Books and manuscripts in disguise? The items in the special Purim video below have been “dressed up” to appear as something they are not… Happy Purim from the National Library of Israel!

The Mystery of Moses’ Horns

Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, left an incredible cultural legacy behind, along with a fascinating mystery: Why did he choose to add horns to his famous sculpture of Moses?

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Michelangelo’s "Moses". Photo: Ulrich Mayring

By Daniel Lipson

In the eternal city of Rome, not far from the Colosseum, sits the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Behind the church’s relatively modest façade is one of the world’s most famous works of art, which has made this somewhat ordinary-looking house of worship into a famous location: the sculpture Moses, erected as part of the monument for Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the most prominent artists of the Renaissance, created the sculpture on the orders of the Pope himself. The work began in 1505, ending ten years later. The Pope, who had commissioned the work for his own tomb, died two years before and did not get to see the finished product.

The sculpture presents the figure of Moses, and in addition to the long beard and the divine tablets he holds, it’s a little surprising to discover that Moses also has a small pair of horns. Two strange bumps protrude from his head in a rather unflattering manner. Some claim that Michelangelo added these in order to mock the Pope, but the more common view is that this artistic decision was based on an error in interpretation.

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Michelangelo’s Moses. Photo: Ulrich Mayring

But how can it be that such an esteemed artist, who spent a decade working on his creation, could make such a mistake?

The story is as follows: Michelangelo and many preceding generations of European Christians were familiar with the Vulgate version of the biblical text – largely the work of a man by the name of Jerome.  Jerome, who would later be raised to sainthood, was a priest, theologian, and translator who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century CE, relying on previous Greek translations and even studying Hebrew to understand the text of the Old Testament in the original.

Back to Moses’ horns. The solution to the mystery can be found in the last few verses of the weekly Torah portion or parshah of Ki Tissa, in the book of Exodus. Here is the text in question (Ex. 34:29-30, 35), as it appears in English in the Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible, which is still used by certain Catholic congregations today:

“And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned [karan in the original Hebrew] from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned [karan], were afraid to come near… And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned [karan], but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them.”

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Biblia sacra, Antwerp 1599, open to the verses describing Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai (second column from left)

The Hebrew root k-r-n can indeed mean “horn” – as in animal horns. But it has other meanings as well: k-r-n can also mean a ray of light, and the original Hebrew verses here were in fact referring to a verb or action, not a noun. The verb essentially means, “to shine” or “to glow”. The original Hebrew text indicates that Moses’ face was shining, not horned. Jerome was almost certainly familiar with both meanings, but chose to translate karan as “horned”, a mistake which earlier translators had successfully avoided.

The famous Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint explains that Moses’ face was “glorified” or “glorious”, which is a reasonably accurate translation. But Jerome also made use of the Greek translation done by Aquila of Sinope. Aquila grew up in what is now Turkey in the second century. He converted to Judaism, and some identify him with Onkelos, whom we know as the man who translated the Torah into Aramaic.

In any event, Aquila indeed translated the Hebrew root k-r-n as meaning “horn”. It may sound strange to us, but in ancient times horns symbolized power, which is why horns were sometimes attached to the helmets of warriors. To be fair, Aquila was careful to write that Moses had the “appearance” of horns rather than physical ones.

Jerome followed Aquila and used the word cornutam / cornuta in Latin, meaning animal horns, not rays of light.

From a copy of the Vulgate, France, 13th century

According to one explanation, the use of the word cornatum may have an antisemitic dimension. Both the New Testament and the Christian faith as a whole attribute the presence of horns to monstrous creatures and even Satan himself. Even though the Old Testament is also holy to Christians, it could be that Moses, as the representative of the Jewish People, was described implicitly as being the leader of an evil people or nation, and the horns thus served as a means to demonize the Jews.

Another possibility is that Jerome, like Aquila before him, got the idea from an entirely different source:

There is a certain early piyut (a Jewish liturgical hymn) that appears in some of the older Ashkenazi prayer books for Jewish holidays. This piyut tells of Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it was customarily recited during the festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, when the Torah is read in the synagogue.

The piyut was written in ancient Aramaic in the dialect of the Land of Israel, and it incorporated Greek words as well. The language and structure of the piyut dates it to the era of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim conquest, but according to scholar Joseph Heinemann, it is based on a folk song, handed down orally from much earlier.

The piyut is comprised of 22 lines, built as an acrostic following the Hebrew alphabet. It was translated into Hebrew in 1966 by Avraham Rosenthal. The piyut opens with the words Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai (“God bent Heaven to Sinai”), later describing God placing rays of glory on Moses’ head. So far, so good in aligning with the biblical text. But then, towards the end of the piyut, the angels appear before God and are afraid of Moses, as they claim he might gore or headbutt them.

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Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai piyut, Rome Machzor, 1441

It may be that this combination of Moses’ physical description (the Hebrew wording being open to interpretation) with his supposed ability to headbutt or gore someone (possibly based on a common, popular understanding which arose during this period), is responsible for creating the image of Moses as actually having horns on his head.

It might be that this was the source Aquila relied upon, which Jerome then copied when preparing the text of the Vulgate.

But is Michelangelo’s work based on this mistranslation?

Art historian Ruth Mellinkoff proved that the association of animal horns with Moses was a common theme in many Christian artistic works in the Middle Ages, and not always negatively so. Sometimes Moses appeared with one horn, a hat from which horns emerged, and even hair in the form of two horns. It would appear that Michelangelo was following a well-established artistic tradition when he decided to add his horns.

Art scholar Malka Rosenthal showed that Moses appeared with horns in Jewish literary illustrations as well. A number of books published in the German city of Fürth between 1741 and 1750 show the figures of Moses and Aharon on the cover, with Moses holding a staff and tablets while a pair of horns appear on his head.

Passover Haggadah, Fürth, 1741
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Medieval Jewish commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, and others reject this view, of course. The words of Ibn Ezra concerning a particular heretic named Hivi sum it up fairly dramatically:

“May the bones of the criminal Hivi be crushed, who said that since [Moses] ate no bread, Moses’ face became as dry as a horn. And that the reason [the People of Israel] feared [approaching Moses] was because his face was ugly. And how did this accursed [Hivi] not open his eyes…”

The Woman Who Taught England Chemistry

Back in the 19th century, it wasn’t considered appropriate to teach women chemistry. Jane Marcet thought it might be worthwhile anyway, so she wrote a chemistry book for women that became the one of the world's most popular textbooks for half a century.

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A woman born in 18th-century Britain was expected to look pretty and keep quiet. At least that’s how we imagine things as we look back at the past from the comfort of our 21st century. But as the European Enlightenment took hold, more and more families provided their daughters with an exceptional education that went beyond what women were expected to know at the time. This was the case in the family of Jane Haldimand, the daughter of a Swiss merchant and banker from Geneva, who had no objection to exposing his only daughter to the same subjects his sons were taught, by the best tutors money could buy.

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Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, the University of Pennsylvania

It so happened that Jane studied Latin and the basic principles of chemistry, biology, history, and philosophy. She also developed an interest in art and learned to draw and sketch. At the age of 15, she was forced to take on the duties of managing the household after her mother died in childbirth. Jane became responsible for raising her younger siblings and hosting her father’s clients, and through conversations with the latter, she managed to further expand her knowledge.

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Jane Marcet in the company of her books

When Jane Haldimand married her husband, he didn’t recoil from her extensive education, quite the opposite. Her husband Alexander Marcet was a client of her father’s. He was a doctor who had studied in Edinburgh after having fled there to escape conflicts that broke out in Geneva in the mid-18th century.  Jane accepted her new name – Jane Marcet – by which she’d become well-known in the future. She shared her husband’s hobby, which he preferred over tending to his patients: The couple were simply quite interested in chemistry. The more successful Dr. Alexander Marcet’s clinic became, the more time the two could devote to scientific research. Indeed, Dr. Marcet lectured on chemistry and conducted public demonstrations and experiments, and the couple’s research contributed to medical knowledge and the diagnosis of kidney stones. The two were among the founders of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Alexander played a central role in it.

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Portrait of Marcet’s husband Alexander, by H. Meyer

In the late 18th century, science was in vogue. Dr. Marcet was only one of many popular chemistry lecturers who appeared before the general public and demonstrated the latest scientific innovations. However, this knowledge was generally the domain of men alone and wasn’t considered suitable for women. Jane Marcet didn’t necessarily set out to change this, but she wanted to spread the knowledge she had accumulated over the years in a quick and easy manner, and to make it accessible to women as well. That is how her book Conversations on Chemistry, published in 1805, came about.

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Conversations on Chemistry in Which the Elements of That Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments. The first edition of this book didn’t include the name of the author. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

It took Marcet about three years to write it, apparently with the help of her husband who edited the chapters. In order to avoid a conflict of interest with her husband’s work, Marcet first published the book anonymously, even though the preface clearly stated that the author was a woman. Marcet also wrote outright that the book was adapted for women and she emphasized that she believed it offered a level of knowledge suitable for ladies. At the same time, she admitted that she was not a scientist and hadn’t delved into the complexities and intricacies of science in a way that others might think wasn’t appropriate for a woman.

As hinted at in the title, the book is structured as a conversation between a teacher and her students, who are referred to by their first names. The teacher explains and demonstrates chemical principles mainly based on the work of the 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who laid the foundations for much of modern chemistry. Interspersed throughout are sketches that Marcet herself drew, including some depicting various chemical experiments and devices.

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An illustration from the book, drawn by hand by the author, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Practically overnight, the book became a smashing success. Sixteen editions were published in Britain alone from 1805 until 1853. Numerous versions and revised or annotated editions of the book were also published in the United States, and imitations were also printed. Marcet herself was involved in updating and revising the additional editions that were published in Britain, and in 1837, her name finally appeared on the cover. The book became the leading chemistry textbook during the first half of the 19th century. A copy of the first edition is kept in the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel, and pictures of it have been included in this article.

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The book is written as a conversation between a teacher and her students. The readers are invited to act out what is written. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Marcet herself continued publishing similar Conversations on… books on subjects like the natural sciences, economy, and theology. But her first published book, Conversations on Chemistry, was the most successful and what she became best-known for. The book’s level of influence can be summed up by the following anecdote: While working as an apprentice in a bookbinding workshop, a young boy came across Marcet’s book. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that its target audience was women; he kept leafing through it and fell in love with the world of chemistry. This boy was from a lower-class family, he wasn’t fortunate enough to receive a formal education, and had to study on his own. Michael Faraday would go on to became one history’s most important chemists and physicists.