Book Review: Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy

Aya Katz is publishing her novel Vacuum County, which has several recurrent themes about Cabeza de Vaca, whose travels she is now documenting in greater detail here on Pubwages. Her discussions on Spanish exploration and colonization made me think about a colonial Latin American history course I took back in 1999, and how I had several papers just languishing from that class. Since I did spend considerable amount of my time reading texts and writing those papers for my college courses, I thought it would useful to give those papers a second-life here on the Pubwages and Hubpages. It is with this intention I decided to publish this book review, which was a paper I wrote for my colonial Latin American history class in June of 1999. The book I reviewed was about a lesser known Spanish conquistador, Francisco Noguerol, who ended up in a bit of a sticky wicket, as they like to say in cricket.

 

 

Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook’s book Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy, is the biography of the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Noguerol de Ulloa, who mistakenly married two wives at the same time. Noguerol’s troubles began several years earlier when his controlling mother decided to arrange his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant in order to bring more prestige to their family that held the noble title of hidalgo, but who had little money. Thus, Noguerol sets off for the New World in order to make a name for himself and to escape his loveless marriage.

Soon after Noguerol’s arrival South America, he joins the forces of Diego Almargo in his plunder of the Peruvian region. After Francisco Pizarro executes Almargo in 1538, he is successful in luring his rival’s former supporters, such as Noguerol, to his side. For Noguerol’s new alliance with Pizarro, he is awarded the encomienda over the Los Ubinas Indians and decides to settle in the city of Arequipa. During Noguerol’s residence in this city, his sisters, Sister Ynes and Sister Francisca, falsely inform him that his first wife, dona Beatriz de Villasur has died of severe chest pains. Since his sisters were respected nuns of the Benedictine order, Noguerol had no reason to question their word. A few years after Noguerol learns about his first wife’s death, Charles V passed an ordinance requiring all encomenderors to be married. In order to save his encomienda, Noguerol married dona Catalina de Vergara, the widow of the late Doctor Tejada.

 

 

In 1556, Noguerol decided to take his new wife back to Spain, only to find out upon arrival that he was faced with charges of bigamy. Noguerol stated during his trial before the Council of the Indies that his first marriage to his first wife, donna Beatriz, was not legitimate since he had never lived with her and had never consummated the marriage. To Noguerol and dona Catalina’s dismay, they were forced to separate while he was being tried on charges of bigamy. Despite Noguerol’s claim to the contrary, in 1557 the Council ruled that his marriage to dona Catalina was null and void. Noguerol and dona Catalina appeal to Pope Paul IV and their marriage was eventually recognized in 1558, but they had to go through an ordeal before they got to that point. The couple was finally able to reunited and settle down in the city of Medina until Noguerol’s death in 1581.

One of the important strengths of the book is the Cooks’ ability to use legal and historical documents in order to create an engaging drama that makes the characters come to life. Although textbooks and legal/historical documents are useful in giving the student a solid understanding of how the Spanish legal system operated, these works usually do not allow the reader to understand the emotional impact that these institutions had on people. While the legal documents mention the imprisonment of Noguerol in the royal jail, however, it is the Cooks’ description of a dank jail cell that draws pity towards his plight. These descriptions allow us to visualize Noguerol being thrown in jail like a common criminal, despite his standing as a hidalgo. While in Peru Noguerol had received a head wound during his service in the king’s army, which was an injury from which he never fully recovered. This, coupled with his being forced to stay up late into the night because of the loud noises made by the crude inmates, and the horrid stench of his confines helped to exacerbate the pain in his head. By envisaging Noguerol in such a pathetic state, the reader cannot help but sympathize with the conquistador who had had relatively good luck up until that point.

Another quality of the book is its illustration of how Noguerol used the two letters his sisters had written him in order to make a claim that was not entirely true. Noguerol had claimed that he had not known that his first wife was still alive since his sisters had written him to the contrary. However, upon the Cooks’ perusal of the court documents, they found that while Noguerol’s defense lawyers questioned Sister Ynes and Sister Francisca, and were able to determine that they were the true authors of the two letters. Nevertheless , the Cooks’ note that the lawyers were careful not to ask the sisters if they had ever written their brother back once they had found out that dona Beatriz was still alive. Thus, Noguerol was able to claim that he had been in “truthful ignorance” of his first wife still being alive until he had reached Seville in 1556. While Noguerol’s sisters may not have written him back to inform him that their first letters were false, the authors point out that Noguerol had probably been informed of rumors that his first wife was still alive before returned to Spain. Noguerol testified before the court that even though he had met a man that had told him his first wife was still alive before he boarded a boat headed back to Spain, that this confidence did not deter him from escorting his new wife across the Atlantic because he was too much of a gentleman to leave her unprotected in the company of sailors. Noguerol claimed that he had not known that his first wife was still alive since he knew the letters were from reliable sources, and that the person who told him about his first wife did not seem like someone who could be trusted. The authors’ close examination of the court documents allows the reader to discern that not all of Noguerol’s claims were entirely true.

However, one of the short comings of the book is the authors’ willingness to question one of Noguerol’s statements made during the trial, while merely accepting the other. The Cooks point out that Noguerol claimed his marriage to dona Beatriz had never been legitimized since he had failed the consummate that union. So while the Cooks are skeptical of Noguerol’s claim that he was completely ignorant that his first wife was alive before he reached Seville, yet they never bother to question the assertion he never had carnal relations with dona Beatriz. Although Noguerol and dona Beatriz were never close, if he was willing to deny he did not know Beatriz was still alive, then who is to say he did not fib about consummating the marriage with her? If the authors are willing to question one of the assertions Noguerol made during the trial, they also need to be willing to question the validity of his other claims.

Another weakness of the book is the tendency of portraying dona Beatriz in a not so favorable light. She is made out to be a spiteful and vengeful woman who waits until Noguerol is dead before she claims they consummated the marriage. Dona Catalina, on the other hand, is portrayed as the hero of the day who makes peace with her former rival, and whom grants the former a generous settlement of 3,700 ducats. The authors point out the estate existed upon Noguerol’s death consisted of the investment made upon the incomes both Noguerol and dona Catalina brought to the marriage. While dona Beatriz may come across as a slightly vengeful woman, who can really blame her? She had not heard from Noguerol in almost twenty years, and when she is contact again with him once more, it is only to find out that he had married another woman. Although they were not husband and wife in every sense of the word, who can deny she did not feel immensely betrayed? We are allowed to sympathize with Noguerol’s plight by envisioning him in a wretched jail cell, but we are not allowed to witness a scene in which dona Beatriz would feel the embarrassment and shame of hearing a group of people gossiping about how her husband had married another woman. The authors could strength the book by not as heavily portraying Noguerol as merely the victim of dona Beatriz’s vengeful ploys.

Although the authors clearly state that their book is about the experience of the Spanish elites in the Old and New Worlds, it is interesting they mention Noguerol was an encomendero while only mentioning the Indians of Los Ubinas in passing. Noguerol received his income by exploiting the labor force of the Native Americans, which he derived from his grant of repartimento, so perhaps more should have been said about this in the biography. While the authors mention the freeing of Noguerol’s two slaves by the names of Ana Rodriguez, and Francisco Noguerol, they never mention any of the dealings he had with the Indians of his encomienda. By including a few such interactions, the authors would be able to give the reader a better understanding of the role that Spanish encomendero played in sixteenth-century Peru.

Something that I found new and interesting was that a case of transatlantic bigamy had ever taken place. This book appealed to me because it covered a topic I had never had heard about before, especially since in most cases where a man had more than one wife, it was because he usually had no qualms about polygamy. In our age of the Internet and email, it is hard to imagine a time when it took months for messages to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Also, the most humorous aspect of this whole situation is that Noguerol never bothered to question the validity of the letters his sisters wrote him. Noguerols’ sisters led him to believe that Beatriz was dead in hope that he would come home to take care of his aging mother, which illustrates that all people, even nuns, have ulterior motives.

The theme of family history is a way in which this book can be tied in with what we have been studying in class. In lecture it was pointed out that in Hispanic culture that the dowry a woman brings to a marriage remains her property, thus bolstering Beatriz’s insistence upon recovering her dowry from Noguerol, and with dona Catalina making a similar request during the forced separation with her husband. It was also pointed out in lecture that it was common for wealthy families without status to marry into noble families who had less money so as to raise the social standing of both parties involved. Although the point made in lecture dealt with marriage that took place in the New World and the marriage between Noguerol and dona Beatriz took place in the Old World, it still fits into the same formula with the daughter of the wealthy merchant, dona Beatriz, marrying the son of a family with a noble title of hidalgo but no money, Noguerol.

The authors have done a commendable job of creating an exciting tale that adds a measure of reality to the depersonalized legal documents of the sixteenth century. Although the Cooks’ tale has a few disparities, such as being slightly biased against the case of dona Beatriz, I believe the reader cannot help but remain entranced as the historical drama unfolds, leaving the reader to constantly wonder if Noguerol and dona Catalina will ever be reunited. Unlike the accounts one finds in textbooks of characters who are usually devoid of human emotions, the Cooks’ bring their characters to life and thus allow the reader to gain a fuller appreciation of what life was life for a Spanish conquistador and his two wives in the sixteenth century.

 

About Sweetbearies

My pen-name is Sweetbearies, which is based on the name I use for my arts and crafts site: http://sweetbeariesart.com. I write about subjects such as artwork, photography, crafts, books, and whatever subject tickles my fancy at the moment.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy

  1. Aya Katz says:

    This sounds like an intriguing book. Are the court documents reproduced in the book? Was there medical testimony about the consummation of the first marriage?

    • Sweetbearies says:

      They quote the documents, but there is no medical testimony about the consummation. Actually, everyone just took Noguerol at this word, and discounted what dona Beatriz had to said about how he did consummate the marriage, but she only said this after Noguerol passed away. People believed dona Beatriz waited until after he died to make this claim because she was bitter for being jilted, and only saying this to get attention. I think the authors were a bit more biased in favor of dona Catalina, and whereas dona Beatriz was a bit conniving, Noguerol probably had an inkling his first wife was still alive after he married dona Catalina in Peru. There is evidence a man told Noguerol about this before he returned to Spain, but he claimed this man did not seem honest. It was probably easier for Noguerol to believe dona Beatriz was dead since he had only married her because his mom wanted him to, and since he had made a point to escape to the New World to get away from this arranged marriage.

    • Christopher Welsh says:

      It is a great book and it does rely heavily on the court documents which I think is great, it is a good illustration of the Spanish court system at the time and how it worked between Spain and their colonies. It was also simply an interesting story and court case. In the end I felt they left it to the reader to ultimately decide who to believe.

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