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Providing Description for the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection (Take 2)

This is a guest post by Dasha Kolyaskina. Dasha is working in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress as part of the Library of Congress’s Junior Fellows Program. The program’s focus is to increase access to our collections for our various patron groups.

As a Junior Fellow at the Law Library this summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Hispanic Legal Documents Collection that the Library of Congress purchased in 1941. The collection of unbound manuscripts is housed in 96 document boxes, each with several hundreds of pages of material in Spanish, Catalan, Aragonese, Proto-Castilian, Portuguese and Latin. The boxes contain a wide range of legal and municipal documents from the mid-15th to early 20th centuries. The documents I worked with this summer have come from all around the Spanish-speaking world, but were centered in México, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and Spain.

The material in the collection includes everything from provincial tax rolls to criminal proceedings but also contains customs documents, public notices and official correspondence. Items of particular interest include late medieval manuscripts and documents relating to the Spanish Inquisition as well as various decrees and statutes from Spanish monarchs and officials.

The breadth of the collection is striking and has made working through the documents especially interesting. The variety and volume of documents has led to many questions about possibly the most curious part of the collection – how it all came together. The collection was purchased from a dealer in Barcelona, but there are few other details about its origin. Some of the documents are bound with string or have archival endorsements which indicate the Library of Congress was not the first institution to entertain hopes of cataloging and preserving these materials. Other documents in the collection are clustered geographically and chronologically, but as a whole the collection is somewhat of a jumble of Hispanic history.

Twenty-four of the boxes are currently unavailable to researchers because they have not yet been adequately described. This summer I worked on preparing metadata on those manuscripts from the collection. The data points I gathered will be used to write a finding aid to give researchers access to those parts of the collection. The metadata I create includes a description of the document as well as information on the jurisdiction, date, parties, and any distinctive markings. The age and variety of the collection has presented some unique obstacles in collecting this data. The majority of the documents I worked with are handwritten and sometimes fairly delicate. I expected the ornate writing to be a challenge, but what proved to be more difficult to decipher were the abbreviations and contractions common in legal writing at the time. I was aided by finding aids from several universities on the subject as well as some of the Library’s own holdings. The content of the disputes and correspondences I read during the course of my project was far more complex than I anticipated. The courts of two and three hundred years ago dealt with legal issues that have all of the intricacies of those we see in modern cases, and it was fascinating to encounter in the documents such a different way of doing things.

Late medieval last will and testament with archival endorsements in the margins from Cordoba, Spain (1507), Hispanic Legal Documents Collection [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

As a part of the Junior Fellows internship, each fellow from the various divisions of the Library presents a display that is open to the public on Display Day. These displays consist of items that the fellows encountered while working on their projects at the Library. The items in my display included a selection of criminal trials from the mid-1800s from the state of Michoacán in Mexico, legal records from the early sixteenth century from southern Spain, and a program of events for the celebrations of the 39th Anniversary of the Battle of Chihuahua in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Signatures on a late medieval sales contract for a vineyard in Almonte, Spain (1538), Hispanic Legal Documents Collection [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

Of all the items in my display, I found the nineteenth century court records to be especially exciting because the court reporters at the time had a penchant for theatrics. The description of each case reads like an episode of Law & Order, and the courts do not mince words when describing their disgust at the crimes being tried.

Correspondence in the trial of a priest for organizing a clandestine meeting for indigenous protesters in Michoacán, Mexico (1849), Hispanic Legal Documents Collection [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

The most extensive of the criminal trials from Michoacán was the homicide trial in the capital city of Morelia (1853). The body of the victim, Justo Espinosa, was found face down in a pool of blood on the street with stab wounds to the front and back of his neck. As the court reporter phrased it – the body “showed no signs of life but all of the signs of a corpse.” There were no witnesses to the crime, but the last person seen with the victim before his death was Luiz Gomez. Over the course of many drawn-out statements, the victim’s widow recounts the history of altercations between Espinosa and Gomez that most recently flared up in a heated confrontation where Gomez was injured with a sword. The pace of the statements picks up when Gomez is found hiding out in a church. The judge interviews Gomez and his brother and gets an honest confession from Gomez who did not dispute any of the charges against him. The court initially awards Gomez the benefit of asylum but immediately rescinds it because it was decided that the murder was committed with premeditation and malice. The trial ends somewhat anticlimactically with the conclusion that Gomez was simply sentenced according to statute.

Sketch of a pistol used in an assault trial in Michoacan, Mexico (1856), Hispanic Legal Documents Collection [Photo Credit: Donna Sokol]

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