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Criminals and Coins: Understanding 17th Century Spanish Economy through Counterfeit Currency

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

Brief on behalf Pedro Goyeneche Infanzón in the criminal case for counterfeiting of money filed against him
Brief on behalf Pedro Goyeneche Infanzón in the criminal case for counterfeiting of money filed against him. [November 2, 1660].
During my time working with the Herencia collection, I have come across a variety of interesting documents. One that has been the most interesting to me, however, is the Brief on behalf Pedro Goyeneche Infanzón in the criminal case for counterfeiting of money filed against him. This document is a highlight of the Herencia collection because it explores the case of Goyeneche while allowing modern readers to gain insight into the economic status of Spain in the 1600s.

This case attempts to prove Goyeneche as not guilty after 120 counterfeit escudos were found in the well of the house where he resided. The document goes into various reasons as to why people should believe his innocence, such as the fact that others lived in the house, and how possessing counterfeit coins without knowledge of them being so is non-punishable. Among other details, the final defense ends with an explanation that Goyeneche is a popular merchant of good standing, and therefore unlikely to commit such a crime. It is even described how Goyeneche kneeled in front of a magistrate, begging not to be captured. Throughout this document, it is understood that counterfeiting coins was a serious crime, and would have negative socioeconomic implications on a person of high stature.

This case additionally serves as key literature for analyzing how counterfeit coins were produced. The document explains that false coins were determined by their matter, shape, and weight. The escudos in particular were discovered to be counterfeit due to their weight of 30 and 31 ounces, rather than their usual weight of 26 or 27. This is important to note, as currency reflects much about a country’s experiences in a given time frame. Issues with counterfeit money date back even to Classical Rome, where moneyers would make a profit by mixing a different metal into the source of coins to be minted, causing debased coins to circulate the system (Crawford, at 57). Creating false coins may point towards desperation to pay others for a cheaper price. This directly ties to Goyeneche’s experience, as Spain encountered problems with its own currency in the 17th century. This was a period when the country had a shortage in gold and silver, which is the same material that escudos were made from – the counterfeit coins in question for Goyeneche’s case (Royo, at 1). Whoever made these coins, whether Goyeneche or not, was being influenced by the economic struggles of their country. The document itself (p. 4) says:

Estando, como estâ, todo el Reino, lleno de menudos falsos, cessa el indicio, y presuncion, que…el acusado los aya fabricado…

Being, how it is, the entire kingdom, full of false coins, ceases the indication, and presumption that…the accused fabricated them…

This quote directly reflects the problem with the currency of the time. The kingdom was experiencing a wave of these counterfeit coins, with people creating them due to the lack of silver and gold, making the crime that much more severe. Overall, this document helps to contextualize the economic climate of 17th century Spain from a judicial perspective. It is highly recommended that one reads through this case, as well as others in the Herencia collection, in order to gain a deeper understanding of this captivating concept.

Works Cited

Crawford, M. H. “Plated Coins—False Coins.” The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), vol. 8, 1968, 55–59.

Royo, José A. M. “The Seventeenth-Century Depreciation of Silver Coinage in the Crown of Aragon.” The Journal of European Economic History, vol. 41, no. 1, 2012, pp. 103-143.

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