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Law, Society, and Justice in Colonial Mexico City: Civil and Ecclesiastical Courts Compared, 1730-1800


This dissertation centers on the administration of criminal justice by the civil and ecclesiastical high courts of Mexico City during the Bourbon reform era of 1730-1800. Highlighting the principles of adjudication at work in the courts, and with special emphasis on the historical origins and text of the law itself, this study compares the theory and practice of criminal justice across civil and ecclesiastical forums for crimes of sexual violence, marital infidelity and premarital sex, and cases related to the contentious issue of ecclesiastical privilege and asylum.

The period under review was a high point of judicial reform for the Bourbon monarchy in Spain that sought to shift authority over public morality away from the church judiciary and to the civil courts. Rather than uncovering partisan rivalry between these two tracks of justice during an era of reform, or that ecclesiastical justice was subsumed by an energized civil judiciary, this study finds both courts operating as partners within a unified system of justice, despite significant shifts to procedural law and jurisdiction. The church and civil courts assumed discrete responsibilities according to royal directives, pooled resources, shared information, and largely respected jurisdictional boundaries according to jointly shared and classic traditions of law that emphasized a fair, equitable, and "honorable" (recta) administration of justice.

This study builds on traditions of scholarship for the colonies that either has emphasized the theoretical foundations of colonial law, termed derecho indiano, or has used trial records to detail a history of human agency for marginalized groups like Indians, Afromestizos, and colonial women. Situated within a thematic shift towards a "new legal history" that is interested in the day-to-day work of judicial officials and the details of criminal processing, it offers a fresh perspective on the history of colonial justice by taking seriously the study of Mexico City's church and civil courts together and identifying commonalities in judicial philosophies, due process, and shared traditions of legal principles across the two forums.

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