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Limpieza de Sangre: Legal Applications of the Spanish Doctrine of “Blood Purity”

The following is a guest post by Meghan Berry, 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 Francisco Molines of Mallorca, in the case versus María Aguiló concerning the fact that he should neither marry nor endow her. [Ca.XVII Century].

Brief on behalf Pedro Francisco Molines of Mallorca, in the case versus María Aguiló concerning the fact that he should neither marry nor endow her. [Ca.XVII Century].

One of the thrills of working on the Herencia document collection is the possibility of stumbling across an especially dramatic human story amidst the more standard pages of statute and precedent. One of the most fascinating items that I came across over the course of my summer internship is the 17th century Brief on behalf Pedro Francisco Molines of Mallorca, in the case versus María Aguiló. I am not the first reader to find this document compelling: the first page has a pencil note scrawled in the margin reading “¡Muy curioso!” [Very curious!]

The brief opens with a history of the romantic involvement between Pedro Francisco Molines and María Aguiló before arguing, in seven separate points, that the defendant has no legal obligation to marry María and can in fact be prevented from doing so.

From the statement of facts in this case it appears that María and Pedro were carrying on a secret relationship, with an enslaved person acting as a go-between, delivering gifts and tossing rocks at Pedro’s window during the night. María and her family believe that she was given several verbal promises of marriage during this relationship, and they now want Pedro to honor the engagement. The most intriguing element of this document is how many of the arguments on Pedro’s behalf are based in the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre, or “cleanliness of blood.” Regardless of whether the existence of an engagement can be confirmed, the brief’s authors use the doctrine of blood purity to discount María from any alliance with the Molines family.

The legal concept of limpieza de sangre developed in Spain around the 15th century as a way to differentiate between “Old Christians” of Catholic heritage, and conversos, the newer Christian converts of known or suspected Jewish or Muslim heritage (Kaplan, at 19). This idea was used to develop statutes preventing those of Jewish heritage from participating in many areas of civic life. Obsession with limpieza de sangre led to social strife as the Inquisition led to the punishment of conversos suspected of backsliding into Judaism. Families and church authorities watched marriages closely to ensure that Old Christian bloodlines did not become entangled with families of impure status.

In the case of Pedro and María, the author of the brief writes again and again that the Jewish people are considered to be “infamous in the eyes of the public” and that the rights of anyone of Jewish ancestry can be more or less discounted. Several Church authorities are cited to support this conclusion (Brief, pp. 6-7):

…siendo como queda provado la referida Aguiló descendiente de Judios, y estos ser infames, por dicha infamia, aunque huviera Esponsales, no deveria casarse dicho Molines con ella; por ser de limpia sangre…

…being that the aforementioned Aguiló has proven to be the descendant of Jews, and these being disgraced, by said infamy, even if they had been engaged, said Molines should not marry her; because he is of clean blood…

Such a firm and repeated invocation of limpieza de sangre indicates that the concept was relied upon to resolve similar cases of dispute over marriageability. Additionally, the citation of church scholars on this issue gives us insight into the context of the 17th century Spanish legal system, where both civil and canon laws were applied as needed. State authority was mixed with that of the Catholic Church to legally enforce religious discrimination, especially through the acts of the Inquisition.

The last page of the brief explains that a judge has the power to jail Pedro until he finds a more suitable woman of “pure blood” to marry. The document is then signed by about 15 men proclaiming their agreement with the case against María due to her blood status. Most of the signatories are friars and other scholars of canon law, further demonstrating the power of religion in this case to explain and support the enforcement of anti-Semitic limpieza de sangre laws. A couple of centuries later, Pedro would have needed a new reason to escape from his promises to María. A law was eventually passed in 1865 that ended the use of blood purity as a qualification for marriage (Kamen, at 254).

Sources
Brief on behalf Pedro Francisco Molines of Mallorca, in the case versus María Aguiló concerning the fact that he should neither marry nor endow her. [Ca.XVII Century].

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Kaplan, Gregory B. “The Inception of Limpieza de Sangre (Purity of Blood) and its Impact in Medieval and Golden Age Spain.” In Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature of Medieval and Golden Age Spain, 19-41. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

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