Cover image for The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598 By Michael J. Crawford

The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598

Michael J. Crawford


$69.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06289-1

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06290-7

Available as an e-book

256 pages
6" × 9"
8 b&w illustrations/2 maps

The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598

Michael J. Crawford

“Based on meticulous archival research, Crawford’s book reveals the complicated and fluid reality of ‘how Castilians actually experienced legal inequality in the early modern world.’ . . . [T]his is a book that a wide variety of historians will find an invaluable support to understanding the context of their own work.”


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In The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598, Michael Crawford investigates conflicts about and resistance to the status of hidalgo, conventionally understood as the lowest, most heavily populated rank in the Castilian nobility. It is generally accepted that legal privileges were based on status and class in this premodern society. Crawford presents and explains the contentious realities and limitations of such legal privileges, particularly the conventional claim of hidalgo exemption from taxation. He focuses on efforts to claim these privileges as well as opposing efforts to limit and manage them. Although historians of Spain acknowledge such conflicts, especially lawsuits associated with this status, none have focused a study on this extraordinarily widespread phenomenon. This book analyzes the inevitable contradictions inherent in negotiation for and the implementation of privilege, scrutinizing the many jurisdictions that intervened in these struggles and debates, including the crown, judiciary, city council, and financial authorities. Ultimately, this analysis imparts important insights about the nature of sixteenth-century Castilian society with wide-ranging implications about the relationship between social status and legal privileges in the early modern period as a whole.
“Based on meticulous archival research, Crawford’s book reveals the complicated and fluid reality of ‘how Castilians actually experienced legal inequality in the early modern world.’ . . . [T]his is a book that a wide variety of historians will find an invaluable support to understanding the context of their own work.”
“Crawford’s book is a worthy successor to the research of his mentor, Helen Nader. Much more than a simple study concerning the struggle to preserve or quash hidalguia among all sorts of Spanish families of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this book points to an early modern Iberian society seeking to find a replacement for its fast-fading medieval past.”
“Crawford’s careful and thorough research makes an important contribution to our understanding of the fluidity and ambiguity of noble status in early modern Castile.”
“What did it mean to be an hidalgo? This was a important status in late medieval and early modern Spain, one that all historians know was crucial—but none have really known much about it until now. Michael Crawford argues that hidalguía had little to do with the two main justifications that contemporary Spaniards gave for the privilege: that it either derived from a racial understanding of inherited nobility or was a reward for service to the king. Instead, noble status was fluid, contingent on circumstance, political networking, and the ability to carry out lengthy lawsuits successfully. Using hitherto unexploited sources, Crawford’s subtle analysis displays the rich complexity of local government in early modern Spain, pulling attention away from the so-called absolutism of the central government and showing how much more important the officials, regulations, and courts of local municipalities were in the real lives of Spaniards.”
“Michael Crawford’s insightful monograph, The Fight for Status and Privilege in Late Medieval and Early Modern Castile, 1465–1598, offers the most engaging and carefully researched account of the widespread social pressure to reach noble status in late medieval and early modern Spain. Vividly describing the mechanisms to accomplish such aims, he uses the process of ennoblement, and resistance to it, as a lens through which to explore Spanish society. Focusing on Seville, Crawford provides his readers with a clear and compelling portrait of the manner in which conversos, foreigners, and others (most often newcomers to Seville) litigated with municipal authorities as they sought to confirm their status as hidalgos or petty noblemen. This was not an idle aspiration, since hidalgo status led to tax exemptions and privileges. This is an excellent book that clearly portrays the almost obsessive desire to achieve noble rank in early modern Spain, as well as the municipalities’ often failed efforts to protect their tax base. This is an important and first-rate contribution to our knowledge of the social and legal aspects of this conflict and, thus, to our understanding of one of the most critical issues in the history of early modern Spain.”

Michael J. Crawford is Associate Professor of History at McNeese State University.


List of Illustrations


A Note on the Text

Introduction: The Status of Hidalgo as a Social Claim

1 The Constitution of Privilege: Royal Granting, Revoking, and Recognizing of Hidalguía

2 The Economic and Political Value of Status

3 Migration, Resettlement, and Status

4 Anatomy of a Lawsuit of Hidalguía

5 Social Networks and Privilege

6 Justice and Malfeasance at the Tribunal of the Hidalgos






The Status of Hidalgo as a Social Claim

On October 4, 1477, the royal court of Castile issued a writ to the municipal councils of the city of Seville and its subject town of Gerena ordering that they respect the hidalgo status (hidalguía) of Pedro Rodríguez Gijón along with its attendant privileges. Rodríguez had dutifully fought in the recent war against Afonso of Portugal, Isabel and Fernando’s rival for the throne of Castile, and thereby provided military service that the Catholic Monarchs had demanded from the kingdom’s hidalgos. Nevertheless, despite his military service and the claim that his family had always been in possession of hidalguía, the council of Gerena had denied him exemption from taxation. The council’s resistance to what Rodríguez viewed as his requisite liberties subsequently forced him into lengthy litigation and an appeal to an ambivalent royal government for support and justice. Rodríguez was one of thousands who faced local resistance to their claims of hidalgo status during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs.

More than a hundred years later, in 1584, a prosecutor at the royal appellate court in Granada denounced Gonzalo Argote de Molina, a city councilman of Seville, charging that he falsely held the status of hidalgo and thereby fraudulently enjoyed exemption from taxation. Like Rodríguez, Argote had provided loyal service to his sovereign and commonwealth. In addition to holding the office of provost of the regional militia of Andalusia, he had participated in the pacification of the Morisco revolt in 1568 and the great naval victory over the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571. Moreover, two years after the denunciation he would marry the heiress and illegitimate daughter of the Marquis of Lanzarote. Unlike Rodríguez and many others, Argote ultimately avoided an appeal to the Crown and a costly lawsuit for recognition of his hidalguía. The city council of Seville, protecting one of its own members and its prerogatives, blocked the royal prosecutor’s efforts to declare and list him as a common taxpayer (pechero).

Throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, conflicts over the recognition and possession of hidalgo status in the Crown of Castile were frequent and manifested themselves in diverse formal and informal disputes. The most conspicuous form of dispute involved the tens of thousands of lawsuits initiated by individuals at the chancery courts (chancillerías) to gain recognition of their possession of this status. This study examines not only these lawsuits but also the full range of conflicts over hidalgo status, the contexts in which they took place, and, more broadly, the efforts to claim, deny, and manage noble legal privileges associated with hidalgo status. Through a focus on these conflicts it reveals how Castilians actually experienced legal inequality in the early modern world.

Most modern historians conventionally define hidalgo as the lowest rank in the Castilian nobility, below knights (caballeros) and seigneurial aristocrats (señores and títulos), and further assert that hidalgos as a group enjoyed a range of legal privileges, including the regularly cited exemption from taxation. The small number of seigneurial aristocrats consisted of the heads of powerful families who held political and judicial jurisdiction over specific communities. The term caballero carried a wide range of meanings, including untitled male members of aristocratic families, cavalrymen in a royal or seigneurial service, and a rank of urban citizens required to maintain horse and arms on account of their wealth. In this hierarchy of the nobility, hidalgos formed the bottom rung as the most numerous if least materially endowed noble rank. Additionally, early modern documents used the term hidalgo in opposition to the term pechero, a commoner or ordinary taxpayer, to designate someone who did not pay royal taxes on account of status. Modern scholars have detailed how hidalgos ranged widely in wealth and occupation, but agree that they constituted a large legally privileged group that filled a liminal social space between the vast majority of the lay population and the small number of titled aristocrats.

Demographic and social historians who have sought to quantify the number of hidalgos in sixteenth-century Castile have produced estimates that range from 5 percent to an extraordinary 10 percent of the population. Using the conservative estimate that hidalgos made up roughly 5 percent of the population, Antonio Domínguez Ortiz calculated an astounding 108,358 hidalgo families for the year 1541, compared to the 50-odd families that held seigneurial titles. In other European countries the nobility ranged from less than half a percent to roughly 2 percent of the population. The purported existence of a large nobility implies the enjoyment of privileges and therefore a numerous lay elite differentiated by legal rights from the mass of commoners, who suffered legal inequalities. Early modern Castilians at times complained about such widespread noble privileges and the detrimental consequences they had for Castile’s society and economy. Modern scholars have noted these complaints and further argued that privileges, especially fiscal ones, acted as a source of economic backwardness because the weight of direct taxation fell heavily on the peasantry. Additionally, tax exemptions compelled governments to rely on indirect taxation that handicapped economic growth and encouraged the sale of offices and honors, which led wealth to be invested unproductively in the acquisition of status. Such descriptions of Castilian society necessarily assume that noble privileges effectively conferred power and wealth on this segment of society.

This study explains that the extraordinary numbers, both of hidalgos and of the disputes over the status of hidalgo, resulted from the fact that many of those claiming hidalgo status only precariously achieved recognition of their status or failed to achieve local recognition at all. Those who succeeded in gaining some level of recognition often enjoyed few, limited, or none of the associated legal privileges. Moreover, this study demonstrates how the existence of diverse local rules governing status and the persistence of multiple sources for authorizing or recognizing the status contributed to the unstable, indefinite, and essentially rhetorical nature of hidalgo status in the early modern period.

Due to the fluid and contingent nature of hidalguía, conflicts over its recognition and disputes about its related privileges became a major and significant phenomenon in early modern Castile. Through an examination of the evolution of these disputes in the Crown of Castile, particularly in the city of Seville and its territory, this study offers new approaches to understanding elites, privilege, and social status in late medieval and early modern Europe. It questions conventional ideas about how, and the degree to which, individuals enjoyed social and legal privileges in Castile, emphasizing both widespread resistance to privilege and the fact that both status and privilege had to be actively maintained.

The rhetoric employed by those claiming noble status in Castile often explicitly or implicitly asserted that hidalgos by right of birth enjoyed uncontested legal privileges. Indeed, Castilian laws and customs existed that sanctioned privileges for hidalgos such as tax exemption, access to or monopoly over political offices, and immunity from judicial torture and debtor’s prison. Nevertheless, actual enjoyment of privilege did not come easily. There was widespread resistance to recognizing individual status that would confer these privileges and periodic resistance to the establishment of privileges based on status at the municipal level. This resistance took place on many levels and manifested itself in diverse ways. Municipal governments and the local elites who controlled them as well as officers at the royal appellate courts acted as the primary opponents to the proliferation of privilege. This opposition seems contrary to expectation because these local elites comprised the very individuals who benefited from privileges associated with hidalgo status or sought to identify themselves as hidalgos. Reading surviving complaints made by established elites against those who claimed, assumed, or bought hidalgo status, historians in the mid-twentieth century presented such resistance as the reactionary efforts of an old nobility against the incursions of parvenus, particularly commercial and financial ones who sought ennoblement.

The evidence from Seville suggests that this resistance, rather than being related to class or caste antagonisms and identity, resulted from royal and municipal concerns with maintaining revenues and the fiscal base for these revenues. But municipal governments in particular balanced these fiscal concerns with the need to uphold the status of its highest officers and their dependents and clients. Consequently, local social networks, which operated according to a range of contingent factors, heavily influenced the dynamics behind these conflicts, as did the political relations and negotiations between local municipal authorities and the monarchy. Bearing these factors in mind, this study emphasizes that the nature and meaning of disputes over hidalgo status evolved with royal and municipal efforts to elaborate and reform judicial, economic, and administrative institutions and systems.