"To Hell or Restitution": Catholic Commercial Justice in New Spain, 1600-1770

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0003-3986-2903
Hursh, Kimberly, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Owensby, Brian, AS-History, University of Virginia

This dissertation argues that, throughout the mid-colonial period and well into the eighteenth century, indigenous, Spanish, and casta people in Mexico City and central New Spain negotiated economic justice and made economic decisions through the cultural framework of Catholicism, not only in the spiritual domain, but in ostensibly secular spaces as well. By examining the records of a handful of secular, domestic commercial sites and viceregal institutions—trade in the Plaza Mayor, regional public markets, the asiento, the artisan guilds, the Mesa de Propios, the Juzgado de Indios, and the repartimiento—this work uncovers the everyday discourses on economic justice that were circulating in these institutional spaces and how they impacted commercial arrangements in New Spain.
This study advances the argument of economic sociologists and anthropologists that economic decision making is not only motivated by utilitarian, material need, but by culturally and temporally situated beliefs about how the world ought to be, as well as by the relational context in which exchange takes place. In New Spain, Catholicism’s prescriptions on need, usury, lending, contract law, and just price gave content to the expectations and beliefs that people brought to exchange. Catholic commercial theology required that commerce be oriented by virtue, namely justice, and toward an end, namely happiness in God. This belief shaped the commercial and judicial institutions in which actors negotiated commercial justice, which in turn elicited and coerced certain behaviors from economic actors.
While early modern commercial actors certainly considered personal profit, when they came before judicial bodies to argue for or against an economic practice, they could not argue in terms of personal profit, or even economic development. Instead, litigants argued in terms of how an economic practice would harm or benefit the people to whom they were obligated. Catholic commercial theology gave content and form to how economic actors defined their obligations, but these obligations also accrued definition through daily concrete and symbolic interactions between people. Whether the parties to an exchange considered it to be just was not only a material matter, but a matter of relationship and culture as well.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Moral Economy , Catholicism, Colonial Mexico, Commercial Culture
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