The escribanos or scribes of colonial Spanish America have left much documentation on the juridical, economic, political, social, and cultural aspects of contemporary society which are valuable sources of history barely tapped until recently. These notarial records, or protocolos, provide the text of a wide variety of transactions such as contracts of many kinds, orders for goods, bills of sale, bills of lading, recibos of imported wares, wills, testaments, inventories, and the like. In the past, much written history derived from extant legislation, but these protocolos often supply information closer to the historical reality. Their utility for economic and social history is evident in such valuable studies as Frederick P. Bowser’s The African Slave Trade in Colonial Peru: 1524-1650, and for biographical data in such works as James Lockhart’s The Men of Cajamarca. Contracts between architects and artists and their clients frequently contain illuminating details, technical and personal, which sometimes help to identify a surviving work. And the records of book orders, receipts, and inventories reveal a remarkable diversity of literature available to colonial readers, thus demonstrating the falsity of the alleged obscurantism of Spanish rule.
In the first four chapters of this brief monograph, the author describes the general origin, nature, qualifications, practices, and the hierarchy of the escribanos. The last four chapters and appendixes are more narrowly concerned with these officials in Guatemala, though chapter 7 gives an interesting discussion of the importance of the protocolos as sources of historical investigations.
The office of escribano, which initiated in 1559 the dubious practice of office-selling by the crown, is mentioned in the Siete Partidas as in two categories: one, a kind of secretariat for the royal house; and two, escribanos públicos, to record ordinary transactions in the cities and towns. The first grew into the bloated bureaucracy of imperial Spain, while the second multiplied with the expansion of overseas settlements. This is a well documented monograph on a neglected subject; it emphasizes the humbler, public escribanos and their practices which supply interesting details and insights into the daily life of colonial Spanish American society.