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An Exploration of the Herencia Collection: Nuptial Agreements in Medieval Catalonia

The following is a guest post by Lourdes Johnson, who served as a spring 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.

For the last five years, I have worked for public and school libraries as a library page, library assistant, and bilingual library clerk. Since January 2020, I became an early-career librarian and archivist with a master’s degree in library and information science and a digital assets management specialization. Spanish is my native language, and I am fluent in English and Italian. While interning at the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing (PRTD) division last fall, I attended a training session and learned about the Law Library. The librarians presented their latest project: they were looking for interns for the Herencia crowdsourcing campaign. The prospect of joining a cohort of interns and having early access to a rare collection of digitized legal documents from medieval Spain written in Latin, Catalan, and Spanish felt like an irresistible and intriguing adventure. I could not let go of the opportunity. I applied for it, and I got so excited when I was accepted!

One of the sections that caught my attention is the Briefs: Family and Domestic Relations (Pleytos Matrimoniales). A portion of it contains litigation regarding inheritance claims, dowries, annulments, and wedding gifts. Upon further inspecting the documents, I realized some of the claims stemmed from matrimonial agreements, which became standard practice in medieval times, particularly in the Catalonia region. The image below is a digitized version of a donation/inheritance/marriage contract, known as “Clausula de Donatio Feta En Capitols Matrimonials,” and is evidence of the complex nature of family law in Medieval Catalonia. The primary purpose for engaging in such agreements was to ensure that the stem family’s wealth stays in the same household. In the example below, the public notary is Simeon Porta, the date is January 1562, and it was made in the city of Cervera. Jaime Vila, the groom’s father, makes a generous wedding gift to his son, Geronimo Vila, and his spouse, Doña Beatriz. 

Gift executed by Jaime Vila before the Notary Public Simeon Porta, of the city of Cervera, in the articles of marriage of said Gerónimo Vila and Beatriz de Guimera (1562)

Gift executed by Jaime Vila before the Notary Public Simeon Porta, of the city of Cervera, in the articles of marriage of said Gerónimo Vila and Beatriz de Guimera (1562).

An examination of the contract’s content, about eight pages, written in medieval Catalan, reveals details of the terms and conditions: A father grants money and his estate to his son and his son’s wife on the occasion of their wedding. The scribe details the sum of money the couple will inherit: “vuytanta milia lliures Barcelonesas” (about 80 thousand Libras), and the types of expenses that it should cover: carriages, nannies, servants, horses, door greeters, and pages. One part of the donation will be cash, and the remainder will be honored when the father dies. One can deduce that this is a wealthy family. Upon the parent’s death, the first male son will inherit every property the father owns, with the condition that the parents and the newlywed couple cohabitate in the same estate. There are references to an order of succession of the estate and money allowance to be distributed to the couple’s children if the spouse dies. The contract specifies grounds for annulment in the event of “an offense, ingratitude, or scarcity.” The scribe or acting notary documents that the son profusely thanks his father by giving a “besamêt de mans,” an expected sign of honor and reverence between two noblemen.

In this context, “Capitols Matrimonials” (Capitulaciones Matrimoniales) is an umbrella term that encompasses a series of legal agreements: a donation, a marital contract, and an inheritance. Jesús Lalinde Abadía, one of the first researchers of matrimonial pacts in medieval Catalonia, delved deeply into the origins and content of marital contracts. In a dedicated “Terminology” chapter, he explains the subtleties and, at times, conflictive semantic interpretations between donations and inheritances in medieval Catalonia: he acknowledges the implications and nuances of the terms “hereditare” and “haereditamentum,” widely used in gifts, dowries, and succession agreements. (Lalinde Abadía, pp. 197-201.) To this day, in modern Catalonia’s civil rights laws, under article 1325 of the Spanish Civil Code (Libro IV, Titulo II), partners can opt to sign “Capitulaciones Matrimoniales” to protect their assets and their descendants’ financial future. This marital agreement may also include a donation clause from the spouses’ parents or a donation among them.

I highly recommend the Briefs: Family and Domestic Relations (Pleytos Matrimoniales) section to historians, and to researchers with a focus on medieval studies, gender, legal, or Hispanic studies. These documents resonate with today’s family, marriage, inheritance, and succession laws in Europe and countries colonized by Spain. The following online bibliographic sources are ideal companions that will help researchers to contextualize some of the Briefs: Family and Domestic Relations (Pleytos Matrimoniales) from the Herencia collection:

di Renzo Villata, M. G. (2018). Succession Law, Practice and Society in Europe Across the Centuries. (1st ed.). Studies in the History of Law and Justice: Vol. 14. Springer International Publishing.

The book is available to the public as an e-book in PDF format. di Renzo explains the historical, sociological, cultural, and legal significance of the “Capitulaciones Matrimoniales” and describes them as “the most quintessentially Catalan of all legal institutions” (p. 59).

Fontanella, Joan Pere. Joannis Petri Fontanellae … Tractatus de pactis nuptialibus sive de capitulis matrimonialibus: multis regiae Audientiae Principatus Cathaloniae & aliorum gravissimorum senatuum, exquisitis decisionibus ornatus … Tomus posterior. Alacant : Biblioteca Virtual Joan Lluís Vives, 2009.

Some legal briefs that deal with dowry restitutions and inheritance claims refer to Joan Pere Fontanella’s clauses and chapters from “Tractatus Matrimonialis.” Fontanella is one of the influential jurists who crafted de facto marriage agreements popular in medieval Catalonia. The Biblioteca virtual Joan Lluis Vives has published a Linked Open Data version accessible to anyone over the web.

Lalinde Abadía, Jesus. “La Problematica Historia del heredamiento.” Capitulo II: La Terminologia. Anuario de Historia del Derecho Espanol 1961. Espanol pages (199-234).

Lalinde Abadía was one of the first researchers to publish books on the history of Spanish law. Chapter II focuses on early Catalonia’s history of the “problematic” legal interpretations of the term “haereditamentum,” widely used in matrimonial agreements (p. 203).

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