Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why I Love...Little Known characters from history

Today we have a guest post from author Donald Michael Platt on why he loves writing about little known characters from history.

Donald Michael Platt is the author of Rocamora, a new book that is going to be published on November 30. For more information, check out Donald's website by clicking here. Good luck with your release Donald.

I am drawn to little known historical characters who led interesting lives because the less that is known about them, the freer I am to create story and character motivation to fill the gaps. Also, researching the little known allows me to “play detective” in the hope of finding evidence not published about them.

That is why I selected Vicente de Rocamora, 1601-1684, as the MC for my historical novel, Rocamora, scheduled for release, so far, 30 November 2008.

Over the decades since I first encountered Rocamora in Cecil Roth’s A History of the Marranos, I had been curious about his life. Throughout those decades, I could find no book, monograph, or even an article in an historical journal written about him; yet he is mentioned in many works about the Iberian Jews who settled in the United Provinces in a sentence here, a paragraph there, and nothing beyond.

What is known about Vicente de Rocamora plus my comments:

1. Rocamora was born in the Kingdom of Valencia (“where men are quick with their knives because their women are hot and passionate”) of New Christian parents, with no evidence who they were or if they were secret Jews.

2. He entered the Dominican Order at age 16, no reason given why.

3. He became the confessor and spiritual director for the Infanta María, sister of Philip IV, when she was in her teens and he only five years older, mostly likely at age 21 or 22, in an era before confession booths. No reason given to explain this anomaly of a heavily guarded royal female having so young a confessor.

4. To be a Royal Confessor, Rocamora would have needed a certificate of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood untainted by Jew, Moor, or recent converts. Was it real or a forgery?

5. María honored Rocamora, showered him with gifts, confessed regularly, and remembered him fondly after she left Spain in 1629 to marry her cousin Ferdinand who later became Holy Roman Emperor.

6. Rocamora was renowned for his piety and eloquence and was described as a gifted poet in Latin and Spanish. None of his writing is extant. He also was a fashionable confessor. “No man is closer to a woman in Spain than her confessor, not her father, not her husband.”

7. In 1643 with no smoking gun reason given why, Vicente disappeared from Court, reappeared in Amsterdam, declared himself to be a Jew and took the name Isaac Israel de Rocamora. Something else happened that I cannot reveal here because that is a spoiler.

8. My research uncovered unpublished documents suggesting Vicente’s consanguinity with three men: Jerónimo de Rocamora, Knight of Santiago and maestro de campo de infanteria who became the First Marquis de Rafal when Vicente was still at Court; Francisco de Rocamora, Knight of Santiago, who became First Conde de la Granja de Rocamora also while Vicente was still at Court; and Francisco’s brother Tomás, who became Dominican Provincal of Aragon while Vicente was at Court and in 1644 Bishop and Viceroy of Mallorca. Surely, they would have interacted with each other. Their estates were a short distance away from the College of Confessors of Santo Domingo in Orihuela where Vicente studied to be a Dominican

9. My research confirmed that Rocamora did not leave Spain because he was denounced to the Inquisition. Then why did he leave Spain in 1643? That was easy to assume. The most powerful man in Spain since 1621 fell from power, the Count-Duke de Olivares, and a reactionary bigot replaced the relatively benign Inquisitor General Sotomayor.

10. Rocamora did not join the Jewish community in Amsterdam for four years, during which time he went to medical school for two of those years at Leyden and earned his license to practice. At age 46, he married a twenty-five year old, joined the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, sired nine children over the next 11 years, and established a multi-generational dynasty of physicians. In 1660, he received citizenship equal to Dutch Christians, one of only three Jewish physicians in the 17th century to be so honored.

One may speculate how celibate he may have been in Spain.

I had a wonderful time filling the gaps in his life. My instincts about his true views on religion were validated during my research. I hope to do the same with other little known historical personages.

Two other little or lesser-known characters mentioned in history are worth more than a few novels.

One is Bodo, the Apostate, who was born into a noble Germanic family forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne. He became Deacon at the court of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious/Debonair and the King’s favorite. At age 35, he received permission to go on a pilgrimage to Rome and instead headed south to Spain. There he submitted to circumcision, took the name Eliezer, married a Jewish woman, donned armor, waged war against Christians, and went to Cordoba where he became a polemicist. All this took place contemporary with another little known historical situation, the Jewish Principality of Septimania at the time of Pepin, Charlemagne, and Louis.

Yet another little known historical person is “Daddy” Dan Rice who was P.T. Barnum’s great rival. They burned each other’s tents and such. Rice supposedly the first great and highest paid standup comedian of his time. He was summoned often by Lincoln to come to the White House and tell jokes when he was depressed during the Civil War. Rice was said to be the creator of the Uncle Sam outfit, and when Jesse James robbed a train he was riding, the bandit refused to take his money because he had made him laugh as a boy.

Historical research into the lives of the obscure can be frustrating at times when one cannot discover the whys of behavior or any documentation to support what has been written about them and copied by other historians over the centuries. The reward when that happens is the freedom an author has to create motivations and dramatic scenes to fill the gaps that one does not have with the well documented such as the Tudors and Napoleon.


  1. He sounds like one interesting guy and looks like a good read. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thank you Amy and Michelle. Because so many on the HF blogs and sites write fiction about British history, I should have included this teaser:

    To what degree did Vicente interfere the Prince Charles' wooing of the Infanta?

  3. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this for us donroc! It was a very informative and interesting article to read!

  4. Thanks so much for posting! Now I really want to read the book. I went to add it to my TBR on Goodreads but couldn't find it. Can anyone help?

  5. Yes, Teddy Rose, I can. It may take several more weeks before ROCAMORA appears on line at Amazon, B&N and others as well as in books in print.

    Thank you for the TBR intention, and for the time being, perhaps you can mark your calendar to be reminded around Dec. 15th.

    I am a member of Goodreads too and will make announce there and other places when it is avialable with drums, bells, whistles, brass, pots, pans, and tin cans.

  6. Intrigued also with the minutia of history and the unspoken people behind the scenes. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thank you, Mary Jo, and now I am delighted to say Rocamora is available on line at Amazon (UK too) and B&N and to order from your local bookseller through Ingram/Books in Print.