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Contracts as Weapons: Notarial Power and Jewish Agency in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon

#Contracts as Weapons: Notarial Power and Jewish Agency in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon

Contracts as Weapons: Notarial Power and Jewish Agency in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon

Paper by Sarah Ifft Decker

Given at The Western Mediterranean and the Global Middle Ages colloquium held at UCLA, on October 21, 2023

Abstract: Historians of the medieval Crown of Aragon, as well as elsewhere in the western Mediterranean, have benefited immeasurably from the rise of notarial culture: ordinary people’s growing dependence on the notaries, as legal professionals and public authorities, generated the creation of a massive volume of documentation that has allowed medieval historians to study a corpus of data unmatched in many modern contexts. Studies of premodern notarial culture have often focused on the social and economic benefits that the notaries brought to people much like themselves: men, and to a lesser extent women, of the Christian ruling majority, especially urban artisans and merchants.

At the same time, historians working within and beyond Europe have also explored the power dynamics of notarial culture, as notaries interacted with women and with subordinate ethnic and religious groups.

This paper draws on the paradigm of the Global Middle Ages to decenter the perspectives of the Christian notaries and their clients and instead explore the agency of the Jewish men and women who chose to go to Christian notaries to draw up contracts related to inheritance, marriage, and divorce—areas theoretically under the exclusive jurisdiction of Jewish communities.

I argue that at least some of these Jews did so in order to wield the authority of the ruling majority’s legal institutions against both Christians and other Jews. I will also incorporate intersectional readings, exploring how marginalized members of the Jewish community—women, the poor—sought to use the notaries, and what challenges they faced.

Sarah Ifft Decker is Assistant Professor of History at Rhodes College and the host of Media-eval: A Medieval Pop Culture Podcast.

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