The Medieval Review 14.11.09

Crawford, Michael J. The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 140. $64.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780271062891 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Sara Nalle
William Paterson University of New Jersey

Perhaps there are no more evocative images of Castile from the early modern period than those relating to its hidalgo heritage. For decades, pictures of Don Quixote and El Greco's The Knight with His Hand on His Breast have been used to promote tourism to Spain. Although much has been written about the socio-economic characteristics and influence of Castile's exceptionally large noble class, the focus of Crawford's book is primarily legal and political. Noble status in Castile brought with it many privileges, the most important of which was exemption from various types of royal taxes. Because these taxes were administered at the municipal level, both the towns and the royal government took a keen interest in who could claim noble status. Both sides argued, with reason, that it was their prerogative to recognize the noble status of specific citizens residing in a community. Because the proliferation of noblemen meant that commoners had to pay more in taxes, towns vigorously resisted the crown's efforts to interfere with the local adjudication of noble status. Crawford's book examines in depth such disputes over noble status in the city of Seville, which thanks to the Atlantic trade during this period grew to become one of Europe's major entrepôts. His monograph contributes to the now quite large body of revisionist history that demonstrates just how limited the royal government's "absolute" power actually was.

Crawford lays out his argument over the course of six chapters, accompanied by an introduction and brief conclusion. The book begins in the fifteenth century, when Castile's monarchs, engaged in various wars, began to issue contradictory laws concerning hidalguía. Henry IV set the stage by promising ennoblement to those who fought for him in a civil war, but once the war was over, to placate the outraged cities, he reversed his policies. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, did virtually the same thing during their reign. The result was that by the end of the fifteenth century, the laws regulating nobility were hopelessly confused and contradictory. The confusion could not come at a worse moment, because the period was one of great social mobility when many new families were joining the noble class, and others were migrating south to take advantage of the new economic opportunities being opened up in Andalucía.

Because noble status was established locally, it did not automatically transfer to a new municipality, such as the city of Seville, which was a magnet for migration. In the second and third chapters, Crawford shows how the city council of Seville reacted to the increased social mobility and the influx of migrants by making it more difficult to claim noble status and closing pathways to advancement. Before 1515, the year when new regulations went into effect, a man did not need hidalgo status to advance in the city's government and everyone paid certain taxes. After that date, to hold municipal office, one had to prove his hidalguía, which was often done by showing that one was not subject to certain taxes. Migrants to the city who had enjoyed noble status in their hometown found that in Seville they were mere commoners, and had to litigate to prove their nobility.

The losers at the municipal level frequently challenged the city's decision in the royal appellate court in Granada. In Chapter 4, Crawford dissects a typical lawsuit over hidalguía and provides some statistics about the number of cases heard by the royal court, their average length, and outcome. Litigating with the royal judges over hidalguía was a risky, expensive, and lengthy proposition, just as it had been at the local level. In 1583, the royal prosecutor in Granada smelled something fishy about the way the city of Seville handled its hidalguía applications, and opened seventy-six cases against prominent citizens of the city, charging them with the crimes of false nobility and depriving the crown of its rightful taxes. This chapter and the next are the most revelatory in the book. In the face of the royal prosecutor's attack on the worthy citizens of Seville, the city council closed ranks and defended them all, down to the last man, converted Jew, foreigner and migrant alike, regardless of the facts of their cases. Nobility in Seville, it appears, had very little to do with the reality of one's ancestry or royal writs and everything to do with one's connections to the city council. One expects city politics to be corrupt, but things get worse in chapter 6, where Crawford reveals that the royal prosecutor who led a lawsuit against Seville's failure to obey royal orders concerning its handling of noble status also had been busy lining his pockets. Throughout this period the crown tried to bolster its prestige and popularity by providing its subjects with trustworthy courts--but in Granada justice appears to have been elusive and expensive, to say the least.

The title of the book notwithstanding, The Fight for Status more correctly may be seen as a case study of the city of Seville's battles with the crown and its lawyers over the noble status of various of its citizens. Always a large and wealthy port teeming with a diverse population drawn from all over Spain and the Mediterranean world, during the sixteenth century, the city became Spain's de facto second capital, rivaling Madrid in wealth, culture, and political influence. Given Seville's exceptional nature, Crawford's choice of the city for study merits some explanation. Without more context, it is difficult to know to what extent Seville's experiences are typical or exceptional for the period. Although one gleans something about the city's history as Crawford develops his argument, a separate chapter devoted exclusively to Seville, placing it in the context of Castile's other major cities and justifying the monograph's arbitrary cut-off date of 1599 (the death of Philip II), would have served to answer these questions. At times the book would have been served by more rigorous editing--for a short monograph there was more repetition and recapping than necessary--but on the whole Crawford's book is valuable for its depiction of the confused reality of noble status in sixteenth-century Seville and of the venality of city and royal officials entrusted to serve the common good.

Copyright (c) 2014 Sara Nalle

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