Through skillful analysis of unused documentation at Simancas, this valuable study reconstructs for the first time a hitherto neglected, but manifestly major, factor in the agrarian economy and society of Siglo de Oro Spain. The Hacienda Real of Philip II, as one means of raising desperately needed revenues, embarked in the 1560s upon a policy of compelling the numerous farmers, graziers, and municipalities, who in an epoch of demographic and agricultural expansion had increasingly occupied large portions of the empty ungranted crownlands, or baldíos, to buy titles of ownership to such holdings or lose them through government sale at public auction. Vassberg, after detailing the procedures followed by the land commissioners and their staffs, who challenged titles, negotiated prices and terms of purchase, and despite rising resistance (expressed chiefly through the Cortes) directed a huge flow of maravedís into the fisc, suggests two principal conclusions. First, the immediate result of the sales was only to a limited extent the displacement of small- and medium-sized farmers, since many were able to finance title acquisition by mortgaging their now legally held properties. Second, from the 1590s, with population and the market for foodstuffs falling off dramatically, these mortgages could not be maintained, and most smaller farmers then lost their baldíos to the nobility and urban moneyed investors.
Since Vassberg’s exposition rests largely on available data from three grainproducing regions; does not take into account the many private tenures outside the baldíos, or the vast tracts held by nobles, churches, monasteries, and military orders; and displays perhaps too much faith in the dated collectivist theories of Joaquin Costa and in Viñas y Mey’s unproved hypothesis that mortgage foreclosure (not, as in England, arable enclosure) brought about the ruin of Castile’s peasantry and agriculture, the larger interpretive questions remain moot. Nevertheless, Latin Americanists will find, in this illuminating book, much of interest on public land policy and its realization in Philippine Spain, suggesting the need to investigate what repercussions, if any, the metropolitan disposition of the baldíos may have had upon the law and land-grant system of the Indies, and, in the republican era, upon the sale or seizure of state lands and the commons of municipalities and villages.