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Education in Early Modern Spain: Whose Responsibility?

The following is a guest post by Katie DeFonzo, who served as a fall 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 Teresa de Betrela Lapeira, the wife of Oronzio de Betrela Andrade, a Colonel of Infantry of the Royal Army, versus María de Lapeira, a widow, and others, as legal guardians of the ward, María de Martí Lapeira, concerning said María de Martí Lapeira's education. [January 12, 1723]

Brief on behalf Teresa de Betrela Lapeira, the wife of Oronzio de Betrela Andrade, a Colonel of Infantry of the Royal Army, versus María de Lapeira, a widow, and others, as legal guardians of the ward, María de Martí Lapeira, concerning said María de Martí Lapeira’s education [January 12, 1723].

Es la Educacion vna segunda vida; que se da al hombre, ò por major dezir, la mas comoda conservacion de la primera, afianzada à los desvelos de aquel, a cuyo cargo corre la proteccion en los tiernos años de la impubertad… [p.2]

Education is a second life given to men, or better said, the easiest conservation of the first (life), entrusted to the efforts of those responsible for (a child’s) protection during the tender years of childhood…

Thus begins a brief written on behalf of a mother living in Spain in 1723 seeking to maintain responsibility for the education of her daughter. This statement indicates that for the well-to-do members of Spanish society living during this time period, an education (particularly one in keeping with Catholic tradition) was of the utmost importance. Which begs the question: who was responsible for overseeing the education of Spain’s youngest? And what legal recourse did mothers and other relatives have to ensure that they had a say in the kinds of opportunities that were available to their children?

Let’s first set the scene for the case described in this document. Doña Teresa de Betrela Lapeira has just married for the second time, this time to a colonel named Oronzio de Betrela Andrade. The representatives signing this document – Dr. Ramon Romà and Dr. Miguel Marmer – insist that the objections of Doña María Lapeira, the girl’s grandmother, mother of Teresa’s first husband (Joseph de Martí), are inadequate. The circumstances surrounding this remarriage are not mentioned in this brief, but it is clear that Doña Teresa must have formally been separated from her husband in order to marry again. This path opened the door to the possibility of being confronted with uniquely complicated legal entanglements. Teresa is perfectly within her rights to continue overseeing the education of her only daughter, María de Martí Lapeira, and Doña Teresa’s legal representation details several arguments to support her position. Some of these arguments are focused on the suspicions that a second marriage might raise, given that the mother has essentially chosen to become part of another family. Others are more practical and relate to the complicated ways in which children from both families would be provided for according to laws of succession.

In countering one central argument, the authors of this brief acknowledge a harsh reality of 18th century parents: the significant possibility that children would not survive into adulthood or even to an age at which they could begin schooling. Some worried that a parent or guardian might seek to obtain money or other items designated for that child through inheritance or some other means. In this particular instance, a total sum of 12,000 pounds is at stake. For a mother looking to remain on good terms with the members of her new family and contribute financially as best she could to their well-being, there would the possibility of little incentive for her to oversee the education of children from a prior marriage and provide for their financial security. Yet the authors of this brief counter this argument by drawing a clear distinction between property belonging to the mother (i.e. money obtained directly from her first husband) and property that she or anyone might inherit as the child’s successor. The representatives also question the assumption that children from the second marriage would necessarily rank above any stepsiblings in the line of succession.

Another chief concern addressed in this brief is the question of whether a grandmother or other relative might be better suited to assume responsibility for the education of her grandchild. The references used to formulate these arguments seem here deeply rooted in the Catholic doctrine so pervasive in Spanish law and culture at the time. The authors of this brief refer to the writings of Church Fathers (early Christian theologians, including St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, who were influential in shaping formally accepted Church doctrine) in order to insist that the mother, being the one who brought the child in question into this world, is most likely to be unselfishly interested in providing for the continued success of that child’s education. Being near to their children so regularly, a mother was considered the most likely to develop an understanding of their temperaments and give advice to the tutors directly responsible for their students’ progress. Moreover, if the younger María were to live and be educated in the same place as someone such as her aunt, who might be chosen as her successor, the reasons already mentioned as grounds for being suspicious of a parent might be applied in the case of other relatives.

The representatives of Doña Teresa seem to root their arguments in a belief that it is the responsibility of a judge to examine the particulars of the situation of a mother and child, especially when something as vital as that child’s education is at stake. Nor do they doubt that for a judge to do so would be entirely compatible with Spanish law. Doña Teresa’s representatives are even able to refer to past cases when it was determined that it was in the best interest of a child that education remained the responsibility of that child’s mother. One concern that these representatives address is how the situation of this young girl’s stepfather might detract from her education, given that his role in the army meant frequent travel. There is no concrete guarantee that the birth father will retain absolute responsibility for a child’s education if that child’s parents separate, and it is not assumed as fact that a child’s stepfather would take no genuine interest in the welfare of any children his new wife brought with her into the marriage. Nor is it clear that a mother would invest more in the education of her new husband’s children (particularly sons) or allow her love for the members of her new family to supersede the love for a child she has known longer.

It must be acknowledged that few Spanish women growing up during the early 18th century would have had the opportunity to receive any formal education. The very fact that this brief was written reveals that the young María was assumed to be a woman who would attain a certain standing in Spanish society. Yet despite the strict laws that dictated so many aspects of life for married women during this time, it seems that if María were ever able to have children of her own, she might take hope in knowing that at least some legal assurances existed that would allow her to maintain an active role in their education.

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