There was no greater or more absolute social distinction in early modern Spain than that between noble and non-noble. Together with the clergy, the nobility constituted a privileged estate. In addition to conferring status--it was once argued that a passion for nobility and an aversion to the bourgeois work ethic contributed to the decline of Spain--nobility provided tangible benefits. Nobles could not be taxed, nor imprisoned for indebtedness; they could not be tortured except in cases of treason; their possessions could not be taken from them in civil suits; and if they faced the threat of execution they could choose decapitation rather than hanging. There was considerable variety among the nobility, from the extraordinarily powerful and wealthy dukes of Alba or Medina Sidonia to the "mendicant" hidalgos, popular in period literature. In northern Spain, which had been Christian for centuries, as much as half of the population claimed noble status; indeed in Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya the entire population deemed itself noble! In the more recently conquered south, where the majority of the population worked on large estates and descended from Moorish families, only about one percent was noble.
The Schoenberg Collection contains three cartas ejecutorias, that is, documents issued in the name of the king proving a certain person to be noble. Each of the three seems to have had a common origin: an attempt by the king's tax collector to add their names to the tax rolls. The cartas present the testimony of respected neighbors and elders who swore to the person's honor and reputation and to the antiquity of his nobility. While it was probably better never to have had one's status questioned, a handsomely bound carta ejecutoria could become a family treasure as well as indisputable proof of one's hidalguia.
Despite the formulaic nature of their texts, the cartas are typically colorful and often exude a sort of folk charm which identifies them with a person and a place and which separates them from the higher traditions of European manuscript illustration.
Granada, Spain, 16 June 1543
This pleito de hidalguia (litigation to prove noble status) was made by Juan Garcia de la Puente of the town of Mora, whose troubles in part stemmed from having changed his residences over time. He was born in Baez, in the valley of Toranco, from which he moved at an early age, though he frequently returned. All ten witnesses to his family's good name are from Baez or from one nearby. Six of them are hijosdalgo themselves, and one is a curate. A compelling proof of his nobility is that Garcia was once imprisoned in Toledo for his debts but quickly released when it was known that he was noble. Moreover, it was recalled that his family never paid taxes or assessments, as did the "buenos hombres pecheros," the solid taxpayers of the community.
Parchment, 38 folios, 350 x 210 (330 x 212) mm, 35 lines, in
Spanish, written in a rounded gothic hand.
In favor of Juan Gayton de Cuenca
Granada, Spain, 12 September 1578
In the case of this carta, the pleito de hidalguia was initiated in 1573 by three brothers in their thirties: Juan Gaytan de Cuenca, Francisco Gaytan de Cuenca, and Alonso Gaytan de Truxillo. They lived in Jerez de la Frontera, in southern Andalucia, an area only recently reconquered from the Moors. The case occured during the reign of Phillip II, a zealous Catholic who did not hestitate to use the Inquisition to prosecute heresy. It may be significant, then, that the carta claims emphatically that the brothers do not descend from "bastardos ni de moros ni judios ni conversos ni que ayan sido presos ni penitenciados por el Sancto oficio de la Inquisicion." They were thus legitimate, of old Christian family and pure blood, without taint of Jews or Moors. They claim, in fact, to have descended from one of the warriors who fought in the Reconquest of Spain. One witness recalls that their father and grandfather kept horses and had slaves, like all persons of quality did.
Parchment, 66 folios, 321 x 226 (311 x 215) mm, 34 lines, in
Spanish, written in a rounded gothic hand.
In favor of the nobility of Juan de Mena Gutierrez
Granada, Spain, 14 April 1606
The inclusion of Juan de Mena Gutierrez in the tax rolls in 1599 can probably be explained by the fact that though he was born in Caceres, he settled in Los Santos in Leon after he married. His case must have been strong since he only relied on three witnesses, all of them pecheros, or taxpayers. They pointed out that Mena's family had "cavallos regalados" and their family seal over the door to their home. His paternal grandfather had gone to the Indies to be governor of Santa Marta in what is today Colombia. His father never paid taxes and was memorialized with the family coat of arms on his tombstone.
Parchment, 52 folios, 316 x 212 (307 x 202) mm, 34 lines, in
Spanish, in a rounded gothic hand.
Last update: Thursday, 02-Aug-2012 15:07:43 EDT