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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sons of Something: Taxes, Lawsuits and Local Political Control in Sixteenth Century Castile


The widespread ennoblement of the Spanish bourgeoisie in the sixteenth century has been traditionally considered one of the main causes of Iberian decline. I document and quantify the surge in ennoblement through a new time series of nobility cases preserved in the Archive of the Royal Chancery Court of Valladolid and use the insights provided by lawsuits from several localities to model the rent seeking mechanisms at work in a game theoretical framework. I then validate the game against the data and use it to draw inferences about the unobserved redistributive activity in local politics. Contrary to established scholarship, I find that: 1) the tax exemptions granted to nobles cannot alone explain the flight to privilege, since ennoblement was more costly than the present value of the future tax benefits; 2) the central motivation behind ennoblement was to gain control of local governments and acquire decision-making power over common resources; 3) while ennoblement reflected a high level of redistributive activity, there is no evidence in the archival record linking it to the stagnation and decline of Spain.

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