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The Significance of the Seal

In the case of Spain or, to be more exact, of Castile, the prominent state on the Iberian peninsula which is the heart of the modern country, we are fortunate in having a code setting down in a precise way the form and function of all administrative relations, including sections dealing with the power of the notary and the seal. This famous legal code, promulgated by Alfonso X, called “The Learned,” was completed in 1263. Called Las Siete Partidas, a reference to the seven parts of the code, the title is usually translated as The Seven Books. An old translation of it made by Samuel Parsons Scott in 1807 is still considered definitive, and is used for the material quoted here.

Title XIX of the code deals with notaries, who are “appointed to draw up the ordinances of kings, or other documents called ‘public’,* executed in cities and towns; as lords, as well as the people have the confidence to entrust to them all the acts, contracts, and agreements which they have to perform, or state, in court or out of it.” The analysis then continues: “The appointment of notaries is a duty that belongs to an emperor or a king, and this is the case for the reason that they constitute in fact, one of the branches of the government of the kingdom, for they are responsible for the preservation and genuineness of the ordinances issued by the Court of the King, and by cities and towns, and are, as it were, public witnesses in suits and contracts which men bring against, or make with, one another.”

Title XX of the code deals with the seal: “Sealers are a kind of officers [sic] who it is very proper should possess good qualities, and be exceedingly diligent in taking care of seals, and in sealing papers, for according to the custom of these times, sealing an instrument contributes greatly to prove its genuineness and credibility.” It continues: “And all matters which men have to decide by means of written documents are better determined, and are more worthy of belief, when their seals are impressed upon them by way of testimony.” And then, “The seal of a king, or an emperor, or any other lord of high rank, impressed upon any document, proves it in court. The seals of other men are not evidence against anyone except those to whom they belong.”

The language is succinct. The notary, an appointee of the highest authority, is responsible for the authenticity of a public document, a “public witness” in any disagreement as to its validity. Sealing adds credibility. A seal of a king, an emperor, or a lord is ultimate proof. The seals of others only have value as evidence in private actions in which the sealers themselves are concerned, with the seal being a witness (among other evidence) as to their credibility. This provision is also that of ecclesiastical law as it had been developed by the thirteenth century and without doubt is taken directly from it. The notary thus can be seen as all powerful; the seal is useful but not ultimate proof except in the case of a king, an emperor, or a lord. Other seals merely add an extra note of authenticity.

Every study of Jewish documents in Spain indicates that the juridical position taken in Las Siete Partidas was the actual law of the land. Abraham A. Neuman, in his history of the Jews in Spain (1942), devotes the first volume to the political and economic position of the Spanish Jews: legal systems, taxation, regulation of trade and commerce, and loans and monetary institutions. Most of this material is buttressed with case histories. The notarial system is supreme, he writes, as it is in Italy and the south of France, and the attestation of the notary makes an act enforceable without the necessity of seals, Jewish or Christian. Indeed, in Neuman’s study there is but one reference to a seal. He notes that the bet din, the Jewish court, when dealing with moral offenses, was “fortified with the royal seal,” which fits the code as described in Las Siete Partidas; that is, the court action indicates royal sanction and authenticates the validity of the decision. Yitzhak Baer in a similar study (1966, 1:148), writing about control of interest rates demanded by the royal authorities in Aragon, says:

In order to prevent subterfuge on the part of the Jews, every Jewish moneylender was required to swear compliance with the law before the local royal representative. The town notary was to keep a list of all the Jews who took the oath and was permitted to draw up promissory notes only for the moneylenders on his list. Before the note was signed the creditor was again required to swear that he did not in any way circumvent the law. A notary who failed to take all the prescribed precautions was subject to dismissal.

In all these precautionary measures there is no mention of sealing. When Jews possessed seals, as they certainly did, it was for social prestige, a mimicking of the habits of the upper classes. The use of Jewish seals in medieval Spain thus resembles French practice.

*That is, those concerned with public issues as distinct from private business.

A further section refers to the importance of safeguarding these official seals and states that a seal and counterseal of this kind shall be held by different men.

*That is, those concerned with public issues as distinct from private business.

A further section refers to the importance of safeguarding these official seals and states that a seal and counterseal of this kind shall be held by different men.

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