There is perhaps no subject more difficult to master than the operation of credit markets in colonial Latin America. The institutional aspects of these markets are obscure; even the terminology used to describe the instruments of credit is often baffling. If for no other reason, María del Pilar Martínez López-Cano’s study of long-term credit in Mexico between 1550 and 1630 is a very useful contribution to the financial history of New Spain. Martínez López-Cano brings a rare precision to the analysis of matters such as the distinction between liens and loans, the meaning of emphyteusis (a longterm lease that granted most of the rights of full ownership), and the precise definition of a chaplaincy. Mundane subjects, to be sure, but no less important for being so. For many readers, Martínez López-Cano’s study may be of more value as a reference work than as a monograph properly speaking.
Nevertheless, there is considerable archival research here, and the results, some of them quite unexpected, are presented clearly. For example, in the sixteenth century about 83 percent of the censos that Martínez López-Cano analyzed in the notarial registers in Mexico City involved a principal of less than 2,000 pesos, amortizable over a year or more. By contrast, simple loans, which were essentially unsecured, created short-term obligations, typically repayable within five months or less. Creditors tended to be secular persons; the religious orders and their members had yet to assume the importance as creditors that they had in the eighteenth century. Censos were apparently viewed as relatively safe annuities, for widows and children were often the beneficiaries. Astonishing amounts of money were involved. One merchant, a certain Baltasar Rodríguez de los Ríos, born in Huelva, had 140,000 pesos at risk. Four members of the cabildo of Mexico City in 1622 had more invested in censos than did the convent of San Jerónimo. Such sums, Martínez López-Cano dryly observes, were “nothing to sneeze at” (nada desdeñable).
The author also provides a detailed profile of borrowers, as well as their occupations and social statuses. Quite clearly, credit offered access to real property, for there were various ways in which censos could finance the purchase and sale of assets. It seems that censos often permitted substantial borrowing against equity, so the ups and downs of property values had a material effect on aggregate demand. Does this—the wealth effect—explain part of the “decline of Mexico” in the nineteenth century? Did falling asset values, affected by growing turmoil and increasingly insecure property rights, depress demand? Some as yet unpublished work points precisely in this direction.
This is a well-researched and intelligent study. One feels grateful to the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the UNAM for publishing it.