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Who’s to Blame for Lost Silver and Gold? Laments of Financial Troubles in Spain 1588

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The following is a guest post by Ashley Gonzalez, 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.

Acts of the “Cortes” held in the village of Madrid in the year 1588
Acts of the “Cortes” held in the village of Madrid in the year 1588

Herencia! What curious snapshots of history lie within your depths? As a summer 2021 intern, I had the exciting opportunity to work through the Herencia collection. Many documents were beyond intriguing; I’d love to research them all!

One of the first to catch my eye was a set of documents from the Cortes, the legislative body of Spain. Published in 1593, Acts of the “Cortes” held in the village of Madrid in the year 1588 gives us a look at matters the Cortes considered important enough to address.

Among other interesting subjects, these documents show concern over the kingdom’s financial difficulties. The Cortes looked suspiciously at foreign nations to help explain a lack of currency that had been felt in Spain, writing that China and the East Indies were taking grand quantities of silver. On another page, the Cortes petitioned the king to ban the import of cheap, poor-quality foreign goods—described as “things of alchemy, […] rosaries, false stones and stained glass, chains,” and other items—and reprimanded the buying of such “useless things”:

… y luego traen otra inuencion y nouedad que buelue à subido precio, y assi toda la vida ay que comprar, y en q̄ gastar infinito dinero, y al cabo de todo ello no es nada ni vale nada, y sacan con ello el oro y plata, que con tanto trabajo se adquiere y va a buscarse a las Indias, y partes remotas del mundo.

… and then they bring another invention and novelty that returns to a higher price, and like that you need to buy all your life, and in that is spent infinite money, and in the end that is nothing and is worth nothing, and with that they take out the gold and silver, that with much work is acquired and is sought in the Indies, and remote parts of the world.

If this is true, why would Spaniards purchase foreign goods that were “worth nothing”? Perhaps the answer lies in that these goods were foreign, rather than domestic. Following the discovery of American silver, 16th century Spain began to experience a decline in the production of manufactured goods –  the people may have naturally turned to foreign products to fill a material need or desire that Spain herself could not answer.

Interestingly, an analysis of Spain’s silver circulation may further confirm that the Cortes were right in suspecting foreign nations. Ten percent of New World silver was used to buy Asian products, and much of the silver that reached Spain did not remain there for very long. It circulated throughout Europe—primarily to repay large debts, but also to finance costly wars and purchase foreign goods and necessities.

The year 1588 is often thought of as the beginnings of the decline of Spain; the shocking loss of the Spanish Armada at the hands of England meant more financial woes for the Spaniards. But that’s outside the scope of this brief snapshot of history—I encourage you to seek out the rest of the story!

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