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Early Modern Citizenship in Europe and the Americas: A Twenty Years’ Conversation

Acerca da cidadania na Europa e nas Américas na época moderna: vinte anos de diálogo
Citoyenneté en Europe et en Amérique à l’Époque moderne: 20 ans en dialogue
Tamar Herzog
p. 225-237


Este texto é uma reflexão acerca da relação entre um livro e os seus leitores, a propósito de um livro que eu publiquei há cerca de 20 anos – Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America. Procuro confrontar as razões que me levaram a escrevê-lo, e as questões que então coloquei, com a recepção e o uso que os leitores lhe têm dado desde então. Para além de fazer um balanço das mudanças que têm havido nos estudos sobre a cidadania na época moderna, este texto visa, de um modo mais geral, suscitar uma discussão sobre como evolui a investigação e o conhecimento, assim como desafiar os autores a reflectirem sobre os seus próprios sucessos e fracassos.

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1In 2003, I published a book titled Defining Nations. Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America (Herzog 2003). My aim was to suggest a new interpretation concerning how Early Modern citizenship operated in both Europe and its overseas territories by closely observing the Spanish and Spanish American case, while also drawing tentative conclusions regarding other cases, most particularly, the Italian city states, France, and England. Succinctly summarized, what I argued was that, in the Early Modern period, multiple interested individuals, who pursued their own particular goals, constructed and applied the category of “natives of the kingdoms of Spain”, meant to distinguish Spaniards from foreigners. I further demonstrated that belonging to this kingdoms-wide community was most commonly established by examining the integration of individuals and families in local communities. Local citizenship (vecindad) thus informed debates regarding membership in the kingdom community (naturaleza), with both communities understood as including individuals and families who did not necessarily share a common place of birth, descent, or even culture, but whose status was instead defined by observing their behavior. Based on performance, reputation, and local relations, those whose activities and words could be construed as showing loyalty to the community were considered members; those whose behavior and words did not, were defined as outsiders.

  • 1 What happened in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in both Spain and Spanish America was (...)

2Because status depended on observing conduct during multiple years and required interpreting a host of different cues, it involved elaborated calculations, in which some factors could lead to one conclusion and others to the contrary. As these debates persisted over time, the limits between one status and the other often proved flexible, the same individuals and families meeting with a different response according to how their behavior had changed, but also according to how society judged it, who was the decision maker, and what were the concrete circumstances and interests at stake. Producing a chaotic situation, in which individuals could be classified differently, or pass from one status to the next, with foreigners becoming natives and natives losing their condition as such, and the same happening with citizens, these practices came under attack in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, attempts to adopt a new method that would detach local citizenship from Spanishnness, that would be easier to apply, or that would produce permanent classifications, mainly failed. Indeed, Old Regime interpretations persisted throughout most of the nineteenth century in the diverse Spanish American states and, in Spain, until the mid-twentieth century.1 Thus, although loyalty to the monarch and the Catholic church were essential characteristics of Spaniards on both sides of the ocean, neither of these conditions was sufficient to transform individuals into members. Instead, the Spanish community was imagined as the aggregate of multiple local communities, in which individuals and families integrated as citizens (vecinos) in order to be recognized, when such a recognition was necessary or desired, also as Spaniards.

  • 2 On processes of identification, see Brubaker and Cooper (2000).

3At the time, studies of early modern citizenship in Europe were divided mostly into works that sustained the existence of two models for citizenship, identified as ius soli and ius sanguinis (Brubaker 1992; Lefebvre-Teillard 1993), that surveyed legal and intellectual debates regarding citizenship (Riesenberg 1992; Álvarez y Valdés 1992; Benoehr 1982), that included detailed case studies (Bizzari 1916; Zannini 1993; Bellavitis 1995; Ventura 1995) or that observed the political uses of citizenship by emerging states (Sahlins 1989; Sahlins 2004). Though I found many of these works extremely informative, even inspiring, as a legal historian, trained to believe that law formed and informed our daily lives and our most quotidian activities in ways we do not always acknowledge, I was unsatisfied by these responses. Many scholars either observed the theory, or the practice, but there was hardly any dialogue between “bottom up” and “top down” analysis. Neither was there an interest in processes of identification, that is, in the particular circumstances, in which identification was required, including the actors, the sites, the times, the occasions, and the procedures, in which the question who was who was asked and answered.2

4I was unaware of how deep was my dissatisfaction until I entered the archives. In the archives I found the records of thousands of individuals and sometimes institutions who requested, discussed, negotiated, or denied, citizenship status to particular persons in both local communities (vecinos) and in the kingdom (naturales). The individuals involved in these debates sometimes lived in remote villages, they were often unlearned, even illiterate, yet they struggled to affirm that they belonged to the community or that others did not, mostly, because belonging to the community allowed them to access to a series of rights and privileges from which non-citizens were excluded. In the local setting, among such rights was using the commons, drinking from the same cup during festivities, or holding certain public offices. On the kingdom setting, at stake was obtaining public offices and ecclesiastical benefices, immigration to the New World, or the liberty or vigilance over mercantile activities. While many of the cases I studied involved individuals, who claimed status as members in order to benefit from these rights, sometimes, initiative for classification came from neighbors who wanted to impose on these individuals the duties of citizenship, such as tax payment, service in the militia, and, eventually, the duty rather than the privilege to serve in certain public offices. Yet, regardless of the reason for which classification was required, the debates that ensued were often quotidian, they were multiple, they involved a plurality of actors, and they happened everywhere, even in the smallest of municipalities, indeed villages of no more than 5 or 6 families.

5Thanks to the literature on these subjects, I was of course aware that many communities, most particularly large communities, had their own rules regarding who vecinos were and, often, their own procedures to recognize individuals as such (García Ulecia 1975; Piles Ros 1978; Díez de Salazar 1988; Navarro de la Torre 1994). I also knew that kingdom-wide legislation in Castile and the other Iberian kingdoms sometimes dealt with these issues, both vecindad (or the local variation of it) and naturaleza. These legal regimes, which were very local, normally enumerated different conditions and different processes. Yet, what I found in the archives indicated that, regardless of the kingdom, region, or municipality, actors mostly understood citizenship in similar ways. In other words, regimes of citizenship could be extremely local and, at the same time, profoundly general. The bigger surprise, however, waited for me across the Oceans. In Lima, Peru, I accidently came across procedures undertaken in order to decide who should be expelled from the realm given their condition as foreigners. It was only then that the most obvious became apparent to me, namely, that the Spanish monopoly in the Americas that prohibited the residency and commercial activities of non-natives led to endless debates regarding who Spaniards were. These debates were mostly propelled by merchants, often competitors, yet the questions they asked and the answers they supplied were not dramatically different than those I had already uncovered in Spain.

6I surveyed these debates regarding municipal and kingdom membership on both sides of the ocean, with the intention of listening to what discussants said. Why did they believe they merited treatment as members? How did they go about denying the same condition to others? Though the instrumentalized nature of these debates was clear to me – they were always directed at obtaining a very concrete, tangible result – also clear was the fact that what seemed cacophonic nonetheless revealed repeating patters, which I set out to describe.

7My proposal, therefore, was both methodological and historical. Methodologically, I argued that, like linguists do when they observe speech, we must study the words and actions of a plethora of agents if we wished to reproduce the norms that structured their activities and rendered them meaningful. Because most of the information we have originates in disagreements, we must do our best to imagine how things transpired when there was no discord. By observing both sides of the Atlantic, we can understand better what we see. Simply put, the diverse conditions on both (and not only in the New World) sometimes revealed the potentiality of certain norms or arguments much better; at others, they tested their limits, or had individuals, who engaged in constructing differences between one side and the other, explain better what they meant and why they proceeded as they did. Rather than following the usual path of believing that Spanish norms were transported to the Americas, where they changed, I arrived at the conclusion that we must constantly look to both sides of the Ocean, trying to make sense of how individuals and communities used the same norms and ideas albeit somewhat differently.

  • 3 These questions continue to haunt me: I found the same correspondence between how contemporaries (...)

8Historically, I realized that there was a larger story out there that one could tell. That story would combine questions of local citizenship with the emergence of states, showing that states could be constructed by aggregating municipalities and their citizens, rather than by replacing them, as the usual interpretation held. It would tie immigration and naturalization more closely with citizenship, demonstrating that the same processes that excluded individuals and communities were also responsible for identifying members. In Spain, at least, community members were often imagined as permanent and loyal residents and in fact were distinguished not so much from those of foreign origin but from those who were – according to the standards of the period – far too mobile and therefore considered untrustworthy. The expansion of communities to new territories in both Europe and Overseas complicated these dynamics but did not fundamentally alter their nature. Indeed, eventually, in both Europe and Overseas discourses other than citizenship would be elaborated and used, for example, race, to exclude those who were integrated yet rejected. The substantial similarities between what individuals and communities argued, and what jurists explained, was the most perplexing of my findings. How could illiterate peasants who defended their rights (or excluded others) use categories and images so similar to what jurists described? Were juridical categories popularized to such a degree, or perhaps jurists mainly observed and theorized the practices already followed around them? And how to explain, despite local variations, the substantial similarities in practices and beliefs across very wide territories?3 What do we still need to know about early modern law that could account for this mystery?

9All this transpired almost 20 years ago. What had happened since?

  • 4 According to Google Scholar, consulted on September 17, 2020, the book in its various reiteration (...)
  • 5 Particularly striking, for example, are several of the contributions to Ciaramitaro and Puente Br (...)

10Much of what I had proposed was adopted by a plurality of scholars of early modern Spain and Spanish America.4 It is now habitual among these scholars to pay attention to both vecindad and naturaleza, inquire on the relations between them, and interpret their meaning and practice in ways similar to what I had described. Scholars use these findings as guidelines that can explain a variety of situations, but many also turn to them in order to ask quintessential questions regarding the importance of local communities and civic belonging in the Hispanic world. Indeed, what I suggested became so naturalized that some present it as either obvious, or as of their own making.5

  • 6 Sahlins (2005, 466) admits “important parallels” between the Spanish situation and the late medie (...)

11Over the years, I was particularly happy to find out that my work was also useful to a variety of scholars in other fields. Historians of the Jewish experience found it valuable (Studnicki-Gizbert 2007, 45, 193; Lyon-Caen 2014, 123). So did historians of the Netherlands, who were particularly sympathetic to the centrality of municipal citizenship in my analysis of the early modern state (Prak 2018, 308, 310). Several historians of France followed suit, though while some sought to distinguish the Spanish from the French experience, others found them surprisingly similar (Sahlins 2004, 341, 345, 365, 352; Sonkajärvi 2008).6 My analysis, so deeply inspired by the writing of Italian colleagues, ended up informing many of them in return, as they inquired on the relations between different levels of citizenship and identity (Crivelli 2017, 28). The scholarship on the English empire followed suit, with some historians affirming that England was different, while others contending that it was not (Musselwhite 2020, 36-37; Weiss Muller 2017; Herzog 2018). Also shedding lights on debates on citizenship in nineteenth-century California, by 2016 and 2018, Defining Nations was cited as demonstrating that several models for citizenship operated in Europe or as showing that there are alternative perspectives that one could employ for analyzing the relations between citizenship and empire in Europe and beyond (Cisneros 2009, 44-45, 77-78; Cooper 2016, 12; Cooper 2018, 43-45, 47-48, 51, 163-165; Terrasa-Lozano 2009, 639, 648). More recently, my work had been instrumental in dreaming of another world, or at least another Europe, in which municipal rather than state loyalties and citizenship would carry the day (Prak 2018).

12If useful for understanding citizenship, Defining Nations was also cited in studies of foreignness and immigration, as well as attitudes and policies towards minorities and individuals of African descent (Cerutti 2012; Zaugg 2008; Calafate 2012, 1; Schmidt-Nowara 2008, 44; Von Vacano 2014, 170, 182; Surwillo 2014, 212; Herzog 2012). Some modernists and contemporanists also found it useful because they considered it a vehicle to question local identities, the coming of nations, and attitudes towards immigrants and outsiders (Lazar 2008, 27, 64; Balfour and Quirga 2007, 18; Guarnizo 2012, 22). Most recently, Defining Nations was even mentioned in a book on the making of the national census in the USA, whose author considered it as a site enabling a discussion on the processes of negotiations involved in constructing nations (Schor 2017, 2-3).

13Many scholars who used my work paid attention to the conclusions, but others focused on the methodology, which I proposed. The main contribution of Defining Nations, some argued, was the focus not on legislation, but on how citizenship was linked to local reputation, which, in turn, often depended on how behavior was interpreted by those watching. From that perspective, they rightly noticed, it demonstrated that citizenship was both an exclusionary legal category and a social reality based on negotiations (Kostylo 2012, 173). Others cherished the methodological proposal to study the Old and New world together, not in order to compare and contrast them, but to use them as skewed mirrors of one another, or as two distinct laboratories (Havard 2009, 988). For some, the most important point was the questions I asked, namely, the relation between urban citizenship and national categories of belonging, which offered “interesting perspectives” on questions that are “in need of further research” or which “allowed to question from a new angle” the “different levels in which citizenship operated” (De Munck and Winter 2012, 21; Neveu 2005, 135, 151). I was particularly touched to realize that the proposals I made could lead to generalizations about what “becoming a citizen” meant in early modern Europe (Macri 2011, 126-127).

  • 7 This question comes up more clearly in my later work, for example, Herzog (2015, 249-253).

14Parting from what I had affirmed, some scholars proposed new questions, which I had not anticipated. For example, while I studied how certain non-citizens and non-natives became members, these scholars asked what happened with non-members who insisted on remaining external to the community. How did these individuals and families go about maintaining their status as permanent foreigners despite their integration (Bartolomei and Lloret 2021)? Alessandro Buono (2020) suggested that we could apply my methdological proposals also to membership in family units, which would thereafter be imagined not as the natural result of biological ties but as complex social conglomerates, where adhesion also depended on performance. Matching with interests I had developed much later, the issue whether the criteria I suggested for Spain could also operate in Portugal was equally discussed (Terrasa-Lozano 2012; Xavier 2015; Herzog 2015). Was there (or should there be) an Iberian history, or must Spain and Portugal (or, as my Portuguese friends would rightly say, Portugal and Spain) be always studied separately?7

  • 8 In her later work (Salvatto and Carzolio 2015, 678-683), Carzolio extensively uses Defining Natio (...)

15Not all agreed with my conclusions. In an article that was elaborated contemporaneously to my own work but published a year earlier, María Inés Carzolio suggested that vassalage to a king was much more important in the early modern world than I had given it credit and indeed was the basic element constituting natives (Carzolio 2002, 640, 649-650, 652-653).8 On his part, Antonio Terrasa-Lozano (2012) made the observation that my analysis did not apply to nobles, for whom the logic of membership in municipal and kingdom communities was somewhat distinct. Some, who misread my exploration of the tools social members could use to integrate or reject others as indicating to particular conclusions, criticized me for arguing that Afro-Spaniards could be marginalized by demonstrating that they sometimes were not (Ireton 2017, 589). To reconcile this disparity, Ireton compared what I had said in 2003 to what I had written in 2012, concluding that I suggested that the status of these persons was perhaps distinct on each side of the Ocean. I was particularly puzzled by those who, familiar with my work, nonetheless pointed out that “little attention has been paid… to the term ‘natural’ and ‘naturality’... in spite of their importance,” who suggested that, when attention was paid to these categories, “analysis has been conducted in a way that takes for granted the fact that everyone clearly knows their meaning”, and who therefore heralded the need to undertake the task “to examine what ‘naturality’ actually was” (Pérez Sarrión 2011, 67-68). Though these affirmations were perplexing, they also confirmed that my attempts to reach Spanish historians has succeeded only partially as a recent article, which attributes to me the affirmation I never made that urban citizenship implied no political rights, and which continues to suggest that the local and the national were at odds, demonstrates (Sánchez León 2020, 23).

  • 9 Regretfully, I could not find a copy of this text.
  • 10 Ciaramitaro and Puente Brunke (2017, 11, 13-14), comparing Herzog (2003) with what I had said in (...)
  • 11 Delgadillo Núñez (2018, 1878) allegedly uses my work to criticize, I gather, both me and Joanne R (...)

16But, regardless of whether people agreed with me or not, as I was preparing this text, I realized that in the process of engaging with my work, some scholars transformed it dramatically. According to one, I invented a theory that could thereafter be named after me (“the Herzog Theory”) (Ciaramitaro forthcoming).9 According to another, I belong to a school with followers (together with Simona Cerutti – hurray!) (Sahlins 2009, 1418). Interestingly, there were suggestions that I had changed my mind over the years. As told by a reader, whereby originally, I had thought that one was either a foreigner or a native, thereafter I came to describe these conditions as a continuum, with a plurality of indeterminate situations between these two extremes.10 In other words, my various pieces could be read together and analyzed for both agreements and inconsistencies and the particular words I employed could be used to explain and interpret my ideas. For example, what was the meaning of the term “juridical situations” that I invoked in an article but not in the book? Did I refer to legal rules (disposición normativa) or did I seek to explain that, although by law, only two categories existed, the complete native and the complete foreigner, the reality was much murkier therefore making the decision who belonged in which category so difficult and, on occasions, so arbitrary? In other words, when I spoke about “juridical situations”, was I speaking about how to apply conceptual distinctions to reality, or was I making a claim, as understood by this author, for subjective identities that would make the conditions for membership less “concrete”? Somewhat similarly, could my affirmations regarding the general rule (but not the exceptions) be transformed into weapons to criticize me, or others who allegedly followed me?11

17In a hindsight, my greatest contribution was the questions I asked, not the conclusions I reached. Shedding light on the importance of both vecindad and naturaleza was one important question, the possible connections between them was another. If, before 2003, very few considered these categories significative and even fewer stopped to reflect on what they meant or considered them sufficiently complex to justify asking how they operated, currently many take them to be fundamental for explaining a great variety of things. Whether scholars agree with what I had said, criticize it, or seek to add to it, replace it, or reinterpret it, they can no longer ignore the question. My biggest frustration, however, remains at having failed to establish a closer dialogue between history and law. Historians of Spain and Latin America (and elsewhere) continue to insist on substantial differences between norms and their application, and most continue to consider law as an external scaffolding rather than an internal spinal cord of social interactions. They maintain a standing distinction between certain elites —who are supposed to know the law or have experts to guide them— and others. The conundrum that demonstrates that even illiterate villagers explained their entitlements in ways not very different than Italian jurists, is reproduced almost nowhere.

  • 12 “It is said that there are 144 customs in France that have the power of law: these laws are almos (...)

18Where do we go from here? As may be clear from my own trajectory, I will not be the one going. I tend to change questions, geographical allegiances, and periods, almost as often as Voltaire (1694-1778) once remarked you changed laws as you rode through the territory of early modern France (as often as you changed horses).12 But I do hope others will take my work elsewhere. There are so many questions that remain unanswered, so many things we still do not know, so much that needs explaining.

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1 What happened in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in both Spain and Spanish America was briefly described in Herzog (2007).

2 On processes of identification, see Brubaker and Cooper (2000).

3 These questions continue to haunt me: I found the same correspondence between how contemporaries argued for the right to land and what jurists said, for example, in Herzog (2015b).

4 According to Google Scholar, consulted on September 17, 2020, the book in its various reiterations and fragments collected some 1,270 citations that Google could trace and identify. The largest group includes scholars (not only historians) of early modern Spain and Spanish America.

5 Particularly striking, for example, are several of the contributions to Ciaramitaro and Puente Brunke (eds) (2017).

6 Sahlins (2005, 466) admits “important parallels” between the Spanish situation and the late medieval city-states of Italy and even early modern England, yet categorically asserts that my suggestion that this model could also be applied to France is “misleading”. As far as Sahlins is concerned, there was a “Spanish road” and, by implication, a distinct French method, which he described in his work.

7 This question comes up more clearly in my later work, for example, Herzog (2015, 249-253).

8 In her later work (Salvatto and Carzolio 2015, 678-683), Carzolio extensively uses Defining Nations to explain developments in the New World.

9 Regretfully, I could not find a copy of this text.

10 Ciaramitaro and Puente Brunke (2017, 11, 13-14), comparing Herzog (2003) with what I had said in Herzog (2011). The same analysis, almost verbatim, also appears in Ciaramitaro and Reyes Lugardo (2017, 244-246).

11 Delgadillo Núñez (2018, 1878) allegedly uses my work to criticize, I gather, both me and Joanne Rappaport. Somewhat similarly, Ciaramitaro (2017, 257-259) use of Sandoval Parra (2013): where I see a confirmation of my conclusions, he sees a “gentle criticism”.

12 “It is said that there are 144 customs in France that have the power of law: these laws are almost all different. A man who travels in this country changes law almost as many times as he changes horses” (Voltaire 1835).

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Referência do documento impresso

Tamar Herzog, «Early Modern Citizenship in Europe and the Americas: A Twenty Years’ Conversation»Ler História, 78 | 2021, 225-237.

Referência eletrónica

Tamar Herzog, «Early Modern Citizenship in Europe and the Americas: A Twenty Years’ Conversation»Ler História [Online], 78 | 2021, posto online no dia 23 junho 2021, consultado no dia 22 outubro 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Tamar Herzog

Harvard University, USA

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