- "By My Absolute Royal Authority": Justice and the Castilian Commonwealth at the Beginning of the First Global Age
The development of powerful states and the institutional frameworks that supported them were key elements in the history of Europe from 1300 to 1800. In this important book, J. B. Owens analyzes how legal institutions functioned in Spain and, by extension, in the Spanish Empire. In so doing, he challenges assumptions about the development of the Spanish state and the power of its monarchs.
Until a few decades ago, successful rulers were often thought to have built powerful states through the coercive use of institutions. Owens rejects that notion, and historians who study the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities would agree. Without the cooperation of elite members of society and the loyalty of citizens as a whole, monarchs and states had very little power. Another model proposes that patronage and clientage provided the glue that held states together, and that monarchs developed their power by working through favorites and networks of patrons and clients. Owens rejects this notion as well, arguing that favoritism weakened rather than strengthened royal authority.
How, then, did Spain develop into a powerful monarchy, able to administer a global empire for hundreds of years? Owens finds the answer in legal institutions and their evolution. In his formulation, the claims of Spanish monarchs to hold "absolute royal authority" were broadly understood as their duty to dispense justice and ensure that the rule of law prevailed. To the extent that a monarch fulfilled that duty, he or she earned the cooperation and loyalty of the citizenry that underlay state power.
Many historians understand the importance of legal institutions in the development of the early modern state, but few of them study those institutions in detail. By contrast, Owens shapes his entire analysis around a famous legal case involving the claims of two powerful litigants, each side arguing that royal justice supported its claims. At issue was the control of extensive lands in south-central Castile. The city of Toledo had purchased the lands from the crown in the mid-thirteenth century. Then in 1445 King John II gave the land away to one of his supporters during a period of civil war, ignoring Toledo's prior claim. The municipal corporation of Toledo then sued to regain the lands from the aristocratic clan eventually headed by the Duke of Béjar. The case dragged on for more than a century, finally ending during the reign of Philip II in the late sixteenth century. [End Page 876]
In eight densely written chapters, Owens traces the case through the Castilian court system. In addition to analyzing the arguments on each side, he links the evolution of law and its administrative structure with broader political developments in each reign. For example, the courts failed to reach a decision during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late fifteenth century, in part because the monarchs and the judiciary were still too dependent on patronage to view the dispute purely in terms of law. By contrast, Charles I (Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor), gained citizens' loyalty through cooperating more effectively with local institutions. The Court of Appeals (Chancillerìa) in Granada eventually found in favor of Toledo, as well as contributing to ongoing debates about legal norms. During the reign of Philip II the king and his Council of Castile reversed this verdict, signifying for Owens that they had moved away from the notion of "absolute royal authority" as a guarantor of the rule of law and toward the notion that it allowed the king to act above the law. This breach of faith broke the bonds of cooperation and loyalty that supported state power and led to the decline of royal authority in the seventeenth century.
The argument is most effective in analyzing how the interplay of ideas and political...