LAS SIETE PARTIDAS
Las Siete Partidas, the Seven-Part Code, was a set of laws codified in medieval Spain, some of which were crucial to the legal foundation of modern slavery in the New World. The code, possibly the most consequential and comprehensive set of laws of the medieval period, was compiled in Castile between 1251 and 1265 under Alfonso X the Wise. The laws went into effect around 1348 and became the foundation for all Spanish jurisprudence. Beginning with Spanish expansion in the sixteenth century, the code spread to Spain’s New World possessions in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, giving the code the widest territorial influence of any single legal code.
In Iberia the institution of slavery relied on the legal precepts of the ancient Visigoths and Romans as well as the Byzantine Justinian Code that combined Roman and Church law in the early medieval period. Traditionally slavery was justified by the rules of war; slaves were furnished by the vanquished and prisoners of battle. In the early medieval period, as a result of the Islamic conquest of southern Spain (711-1492) and the Crusades spanning the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, religion became a significant component of the justification of war and enslavement. The Siete Partidas built on these legal and ethical traditions.
The Castilian code permitted individuals as well as municipal and religious organizations to own slaves and codified the criteria that had traditionally justified enslavement. Prisoners of just wars, particularly non-Christians, as well as condemned persons, children of enslaved mothers, and those who voluntarily sold themselves into slavery for debt relief or other economic reasons were regarded as legitimate slaves. The Siete Partidas appended the traditional conditions with two additional categories of persons eligible for slavery: children of priests were required to serve as slaves in their father’s churches and Christians who provided war material to Moors could be legally enslaved. Muslims, Jews, and others considered infidels could not legally own Christian slaves.
The Siete Partidas protected certain rights for enslaved individuals and provided a number of legal channels for manumission. Christian slaves were entitled to marry one another with the masters’ permission, and masters were legally bound to grant permission unless they could prove that the union posed a serious danger to their interests. Masters were prohibited from exhibiting cruel treatment, including separating families, excessive physical punishment, starving slaves, or exploiting them sexually. Masters who did not abide by these laws could be taken to court, and, if proven guilty, their slaves would be sold to another master or, in certain cases, manumitted. Slaves who displayed exceptional service to a master or the state were eligible for manumission. Slaves were legally permitted to ply a trade and to own property; they had the legal right to earn, borrow, and lend money and to purchase their freedom or that of another. Slaves were permitted to bring legal suits, testify in court, and organize religious brotherhoods.
The laws of the Siete Partidas addressing the rights of masters and slaves in medieval Spain reflected a system of slavery that was largely domestic, urban, and temporary and affected an enslaved population of a various nationalities. Sub-Saharan and North-African soldiers and slaves accompanied the occupying Muslim armies, and those captured in battle were considered Spanish property, while other Africans arrived in Spain via slave markets or as free persons. Sardinians, Greeks, Russians, Spaniards, Canary Islanders, Turks, Egyptians, and Moors were among the various peoples who served as slaves in medieval and early modern Spain. While the laws of the Siete Partidas were closely aligned with the Catholic Church and favored Christians, slaves in medieval Spain might be Christian as well as Jewish or Muslim. The slave laws of the Siete Partidas did not refer to nationality or race. Because the Partidas reflected the Spanish cultural and religious belief that enslavement was an unfortunate and accidental status rather than a natural state, the burden of proof of a person’s enslaved status fell on the owner; without positive evidence, an alleged slave would be freed.
After 1500, the Siete Partidas spread to Spain’s overseas possessions, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Florida, and Louisiana. While Spain developed colonial policy in subsequent centuries to regulate the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the growth of plantation slavery, both of which were on a scale unparalleled in the ancient and medieval worlds, Spanish legislators continued to rely on several elements of the Siete Partidas. The influence of the Partidas made for greater legal rights, protections, and channels to freedom for slaves in the Spanish Americas relative to British North America. How much these rights were observed in practice is a matter of scholarly debate. Nonetheless, numerous slaves in Spanish-influenced regions such as Cuba and Louisiana petitioned courts to uphold their rights and either won or purchased their own freedom based on the legal precedents of the Partidas.
Elements of the Siete Partidas remained in force in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas even after these territories went from Spanish to American possession. The Partidas continue to undergird basic law in Spanish America and the Philippines.
Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery. New York: Verso, 1997.
Burns, Robert I., ed. Las Siete Partidas. Trans. Samuel Parsons Scott. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Tannenbaum, Frank. Slave and Citizen. Boston: MA, Beacon Press, 1992 (1946).
Christina Proenza-Coles. Encyclopedia of African American History. Leslie Alexander and Walter Rucker, eds. ABC-CLIO, 2008.