Private Property and the Commons of 16th Century Spain Essay

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Private Property & the Commons of 16th Century Spain

Private Property in 16th Century Spain

Historically, 16th-century Castile was considered to be fundamentally an urban society that depended on cities and towns for the articulation of its local and centralized administration (Elliott, 1991). Privilege was considered to be a matter of a priori rights founded on traditions associated with nobility and wealth. The lower social stratum was maintained in order to provide fiscal and military support for the crown. The qualities of separateness -- both cultural and logistical -- between the urban central and diffuse local jurisdictions engendered very different perspectives regarding authority. Rather than arbitrating reasonable agreements, local authority worked to undermine what was considered to be overreaching by the crown. I contend that the autonomy of local jurisdictions worked against the crown's insistence on absolutism and a monarchy of estates that were grounded in medieval social concepts, however, the diffusion of authority at the local level also eroded the capacity to effectively organize and achieve a truly liberalized state.

The a priori privilege that was associated with nobility and wealth was grounded in Roman traditions of civil authority. The concept of civitas was based on Roman law that recognized a local governmental administrative unit that was based on a corpus of people who lived under the same set of laws due to their citizenship, the divisions of the commonwealth, or the state. This independent municipality in Spain was the main administrative unit and it was effectively duplicated in the colonies and territories (Kagan, XXXX, p. 43). The character of any particular civitas was a "microcosumus" that reflected the traditions, cultures, legends, and rules of the "genius loci" or what Kagan refers to as the "community's particular sense of itself" (XXXX, p. 44). The actual urbs or space / place did not contribute to the unique sense of place so much as the civitas (Kagan, XXXX, p. 43). Indeed, the genius loci had "to be taught to successive generations in order to be understood" and it was most likely not "equally shared by every inhabitant of a particular town" (Kagan, XXXX, p. 43).

The social structure in 16th-century Spain had its roots in feudalism and had evolved to ensure that landed people retained their property and that crown had access to the resources it demanded. Social class labels were in common usage in 16th-century Spain; in the 1611 Covarrubias dictionary, references is made to "dividing peoples into three classes, 'meores,' 'medianos,' and 'mayores' (as cited in Thompson, 1987, p. 1). The usage, according to Thompson, was "restricted to value-free grouping according to wealth" such that "the resolution of a government committee organizing a donative in 1591 'to divide the whole kingdom into three classes' for the purpose of setting contributions" (1987, p. 1). These class distinctions were dearly held by the crown, as illustrated by a 1611 order from King Philip II that insisted on maintenance of the traditional hierarchical system; the king's commandment insisted that correct titles, distinctions, and courtesies according to rank should be used in all written or oral contact with other so that "the disorder, excess, and inequality" that was eroding social mores could come be abolished (Alban. 1999, p. 7).

Several stratum of the social system in Spain were intended to maintain the status quo. The practice of entail ensured the settlement of inherited property that spanned several generations in order to maintain the property in the family or some other specified group. A vecino could own and maintain a home in city or town, but not actually live in the neighborhood where that house was located. The reverse was also common: he vecino could also live in the countryside surrounding a city or town and also keep a house in the municipality. A hidalgo was a non-titled member of Spanish or Portuguese nobility who was exempt from having to pay taxes. A hidalgo might not own any real property. Indeed, the obligation to pay a type of tax, referred to as regular service and extraordinary tax, was an important distinction with regard to pechero -- social status that did not stem directly from wealth or the possession of property. Other types of taxes, for instance, those related to the sale of products, were more common -- a more universally held obligation. Pechero implies an exemption for paying taxes that was granted primarily to the privileged through their nobility, status as clergy, or the jurisdiction in which they resided. The exemptions came about through approval by vote in cities, such that the privileged ceased to be associated with the tax. For instance, the Ordinance of Alcala required the registration of commoners on what was termed the rolls of coins and measures, in order to prevent commoners from avoiding their obligation to pay the designated taxes. Included in the limitations of this analysis is the fact that it "delineates on a reduced scale the local political polygon" (Guerro, XXXX, p. 303). Nevertheless, it does provide a basis for understanding the essential relationships among the various components of the political and social systems.

The system of local authority in medieval Spain was many-faceted and diffuse. A parallel system of ownership existed in 16th-century Spain in which all of the vecinos, hidalgos, and pecheros had access to collectively held property known a the commons. Unlike private property, which was by nature and name was essentially only available to the owners (vecinos), access to the commons form of property could not be restricted. Private property could include real estate, such as a house or land, or moveable goods. By the late 18th-century, collective property was considered a form of feudalism and the emphasis was on encouraging people to acquire private property. The Spanish laws increasingly privileged private property, even bringing reforms to apply to the entail, a form of common property that was intended to continue to be exclusively, but collectively held in perpetuity. In the 19th-century, emerging nation-states continued this pattern of privileging private property over collective property. The notable counterpoint occurred in social countries or communist regimes in which an opposing force privileged collective property over private property, with a particular focus on dismantling the entail system that favored aristocrats.

The cultural and logistical separation between the urban central and local jurisdictions engendered very different perspectives regarding authority, particularly with regard to ownership of real property, including property considered to be held in common by municipalities. The structure of authority in Spain was diffuse, and it was made all the more so by the Habsburgs' "sale of towns," an event that resulted in political fragmentation (Kagsn, 1996, p. 444; Nader, 1990). The Hapsburg Spanish regime was in the habit of creating and then selling municipalities in order to alleviate the financial difficulties of the royalty (Nader, 1990 as cited in Elliott). This practice resulted in many Castilians obtaining charters for the municipalities and then facing incredible indebtedness and immense pressure from the crown to give up their hard-won independence. The exclusive jurisdiction held by certain appointees over the commodities tax, the millones, which was a major source of revenue is evidence of this diffuse authority (Kagsn, 1996). The many obtuse lines of authority fostered high levels of non-compliance with royal decrees and resulted in increased dominance of the judiciary bodies (Kagsn, 1996). Competing claims over jurisdiction and legal precedent were continually arbitrated -- this decentralization of power was clearly a manifestation of the liberal Habsburg ruling system (Kagsn, 1996). A democratic form was incidentally shaped as nobility, cities, towns, villages, and commoners employed their liberty to negotiate, resist, or evade the royal demands for tribute (Kagsn, 1996).

Local authorities and individuals sabotaged the overreach of the crown, such that negotiation was replaced by illegal activities. By the time of the Utrecht agreement in 1713, the Spanish possessions of northern Italy and the Netherlands had been placed under the governorship of the Habsburgs, a change that removed the traditional liberties these medieval Spanish kingdoms had enjoyed. The viewpoint that the law of land was negotiable -- and it was vulnerable to disregard by citizens -- found traction during the years of Bourbon rule, as well. The years of Bourbon rule and Habsburg rule pulled Spain into wars, draining its coffers and exposing hundreds of thousands of Spaniards to famine and disease. Smuggling became a common practice in Catalonia, such that "the Basque provinces and Andalusia defrauded royal coffers and broke down respect for the law" (Carr, 2000, p. 204).

Moreover, the trend toward localized authority continued in those jurisdictions under the influence of muhtasib, a supervisory position with authority over bazaars and trade in medieval Islamic countries, in Spain -- particularly Valencia. The muhtasib was a locally based institution that became involved in the collection of non-canonical taxes. The muhtasib office was favored in Christian Spain fundamentally because the citizens already preferred local jurisdictions and "the summary jurisdiction of the mustassaf was viewed as a welcome alternative to complicated court procedures, rather than as a skirting of…[continue]

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