Writing Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters

A footnote. Sometimes it takes just a footnote to set my imagination alight. Years ago, I found such a footnote, in Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: critical essays, a book of academic essays about the times, influence and mythology of Isabel of Castile[1] , the mother of Katherine of Aragon. Katherine, of course, was Henry VIII’s wife, and went to her grave calling herself that. Really, that’s not surprising considering that she was a devout Catholic, and had been married to Henry for over twenty years, and let’s not forget their five dead babies and one living daughter, before he decided to replace her with Anne Boleyn. But back to my footnote.

This footnote introduced me to Dońa Beatriz Galindo (1465/75? –1534)– a woman who taught not only Katherine of Aragon, but also Latin to Queen Isabel herself. Latin was the necessary language of Medieval diplomacy for the Christian world, but, because she was ‘female’ and an unforeseen successor to her half brother’s throne, Isabel was not schooled or expected to learn this language in her childhood and early youth. As a mother, Isabel remembered how her own education did not prepare her for her future life. She ensured her five children received the best education possible by employing the best teachers for them.

When I decided to explore in Falling Pomegranate Seeds the forces that originally shaped Katherine of Aragon (or Catalina as she was known to her family) during her time at the court of her mother, I turned to Beatriz Galindo to tell this fictionalised story of Katherine’s early years. Beatriz was a perfect subject for me as a writer of fiction. I could only find the barest bones of her life story, which offered me a huge gap to fill with the use of my imagination; but what fascinating bones I had to play with. Beatriz was a scholar, a poet – sadly, like so many talented women of the past, her work is lost to us – and such a gifted Latin teacher that she lectured at the University of Salamanca. She also lectured on Aristotle, medicine and rhetoric. And did I mention she was a wife and mother as well?

I felt in awe of Beatriz when I started writing Falling Pomegranate Seeds. I could not help wondering how it must have been for her – a woman who lived a life denied to most women in the Medieval period. Did it come at a personal cost? That question opened up a lot of ‘what if’ questions that acted as midwives to my imagination.

My imagination constructed Beatriz as a woman who lived a life that challenged the status quo. In a male dominated society, Beatriz somehow, and extraordinarily so, rewrote her life story. She appeared to have both worked with and resisted a society that could have easily prevented her from reaching her true potential.

A recognised scholar and a respected advisor to Queen Isabel, wife of King Ferdinand of Aragon, a kingdom of lesser importance than Castile, Beatriz lived in a time of great change and upheaval – accompanying her Queen during the ‘Holy War’, Queen Isabel’s campaign to ‘cleanse’ her country of the Moors, which closed the door upon hundreds of years of Islamic influence in Castile. Beatriz Galindo was also a personal friend to the Queen. As a member of Queen Isabel’s court, she frequently accompanied the queen in her court’s peripatetic journey around her kingdom while employed as Katherine of Aragon’s tutor, and likely the tutor to Katherine’s three sisters.

Beatriz Galindo seems almost forgotten by world history, yet she deserves to be remembered. Her one and only biography, written in Spanish, is still untranslated and thus unavailable to the English-speaking world. As a tutor of Katherine of Aragon, a woman known and respected for her intelligence and learning, I believe we can say that Beatriz’s influence continued into the reign of Henry VIII of England and beyond.

History tells us that Beatriz Galindo was a scholar of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. This philosopher spoke loud and clear his views concerning women who he saw as “unfinished men” and vessels simply designed for childbearing. It intrigued me that Beatriz Galindo studied Aristotle and wrote commentaries about him. Did her resistance to and questioning of his beliefs result in her own empowerment and reshaping her life to one that allowed fulfilment? I could not help thinking about how such a teacher could have influenced Katherine of Aragon.

Falling Pomegranate Seeds is set during the time that saw Columbus discovering the “New World” and Isabel and her husband Ferdinand engaged in their Holy War. Married to Francisco Ramírez, master of the King Ferdinand’s artillery, Beatriz Galindo was an eyewitness to the fall of Granada. Later, she saw Isabel send into exile her Jewish subjects, after giving them an ultimatum to convert to Christianity. With her passion for learning and knowledge of medicine, I suspect the expulsion the Moors and Jews would have shaken Beatriz’s identity to the core, as would have had a later happening: the burning of countless and priceless Islamic manuscripts, which erased knowledge that had come down the centuries.

Envisioning Beatriz made me wonder what it may have cost her to claim her own life. My imagination posed one possible scenario. My imagination also opened the door to Katherine of Aragon, as both child and girl. Katherine was a woman who loved books and learning. As England’s very loved Queen, she was the patron of scholars and of the arts. It is not hard to imagine her then as a child who loved to learn. It is not hard to imagine that she would have loved her tutor, Beatriz. The youngest child of five children, Katherine suffered sorrow after sorrow before she left her mother’s court to begin her life of exile in England. But she came to England trained and ready to be a queen. Falling Pomegranate Seeds imagines how that happened.

Reference list:

Boruchoff, D. A. 2003, Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: critical essays, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Denzin, N. K. and Y. S. Lincoln 2003 Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage.

[1] Studying that book is also the reason why I call Isabel of Castile Isabel rather than Isabella. One of the essays strongly suggests that Isabella originated as a form of belittlement of this strong Queen – who was referred to as ‘King’ during her long and world changing reign.

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