Cartas Ejecutorias: Nobility and Power in Early Modern Spain

The documents on display in this exhibition were created for one purpose: to prove their owners’ nobility, or hidalguía. Hidalguía was a form of minor nobility, but it did not come with a title or aristocratic rank. In Spain, when a person’s noble status was in dispute, the legal remedy was to file a lawsuit in one of the Royal Chancery Courts, either in Valladolid or in Granada. Usually, the suit was spurred by a loss of the privileges claimed by the would-be hidalgo, such as being entered on the tax registers for commoners or having property seized for non-payment of taxes.

While the royal chancery courts preserved file copies of each case, successful plaintiffs could commission their own copies of their legal documentation in a format known as the carta ejecutoria, or executive letter. These documents were intended to be shown to others as proof of hidalguía, and they became status objects. Their owners often commissioned lavish illuminations and bindings for their personal copies, customizing them to express piety and loyalty to the Spanish crown alongside their own status. 

In this exhibition, we examine an extensive private collection of cartas ejecutorias through a number of lenses: their legal context, iconography, and materiality, as well as the family history they contain. We also dedicate a special section to an exceptional carta ejecutoria produced for a group of indigenous men in sixteenth-century Mexico. Explore the collection through the map below, or through the themed galleries in this exhibition.

— Kelli Hansen and Mariana Guzman, curators