Finding Early Modern notarial records in Mexico


The Ex Templo Corpus Christi, Ciudad de México, home to the Archivo General de Notarias - image: Wikimedia Commons

The Ex Templo Corpus Christi, Ciudad de México, since 2005 home to the Archivo General de Notarias

Using guides to archival collections can be most helpful when searching particular records which might help you in anwering your research questions. Sometimes the records themselves are the subject of research. When I read recently a blog post about notarial records in Mexico it was not completely surprising to read a story about a number of obstacles in getting access to registers from the eighteenth century. However, for other periods some projects exist which help scholars in approaching other historical records at the same archival institution, the Archivo Histórico de Notarías del Distrito Federal in Ciudad de México (Mexico City), also abbreviated to Archivo General de Notarías. In this contribution I will look at the two blog posts by Andrea Reyes Elizondo about her research and at online guidance to archival institutions in Ciudad de México.

Book history and archives

Last year I connected book history and archives in a post reviewing the study of Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen on the role of the book trade in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century. Until last month I had not often visited the website of the Nederlandse Boekhistorische Vereniging, the society for Dutch book history. One of its features is the section De Boekenmolen (The Book Mill) with blog posts by scholars introducing their research and telling about the start of their interest in book history.

On June 9, 2020 Andrea Reyes Elizondo contributed a post concerning a subject with a fair distance to Dutch book history, an inquiry into the degree of literacy and scribal capacity in eighteenth-century Mexico. Her search for a continuous series of documents with signatures led her to notarial records. Doing research in Mexico is not as straightforward as you would like as a scholar. Much paperwork is needed, to mention only one aspect. Only at the notarial archive Reyes Elizondo can use the finding aid and a list of notaries for this period. At this point I was at first somewhat amused, because using the word list for a finding aid for notarial registers, after all indeed a series of similar records, seemed a bit misplaced. My second thought was a question: How can you find out about notarial records in Mexico, and more generally about Mexican archives? As a matter of fact, I knew about a number of online resources helping me to answer this question. Finding archives was not the greatest challenge, finding specific information about their holdings was a bit more difficult, and in my view worth a report here.

It is no bad thing to start searching archives in Mexico with the Censo-Guía de Archivos de España e Iberoamérica, a searchable database for archives and their collections in Spain and Latin-America. However, the notice on the Archivo General de Notarías de Distrito Federal (AGNDF), seems at first a bit disappointing, with an old link to its website and lots of empty fields or negative answers, but luckily it does show the titles of some guides and inventories. In particular the series of inventories for nineteenth-century records is mentioned. At the heading Fondos y otros colecciones custodiadas a link leads you to the Inventario Dinámico, a tree structure with the fondos, in this case three main collections, the Fondo Antiguo, the [Fondo] Consular and the Fondo Contemporaneo. By clicking on the link Fondo Antiguo you will go to a detailed notice about the history of this section. For the subsection Reservada the names and years of notaries are given, from 1524 to 1697. The eighteenth century is part of the subsection Antigua (1614 to 1902). The notice ends with substantial information about guides and finding aids, some of them unpublished, in particular the Inventario general del acervo histórico del Archivo General de Notarías del Distrito Federal, Ana Lucía Tlahuech Rivera and José Luis García Estrada (eds.) (2006) and Verónica Zárate Toscano, Guía Cronológica de Notarios 1750-1850 (1992). The 2006 inventory is the most recent work mentioned in this notice.

Finding archives in Mexico

I had hoped to find more about this archive in the Sistema de Información Cultural, an online directory for cultural institutions in Mexico which counts nearly 1,300 archives, fifty of them in Ciudad de México. The notice on the AGNDF gives you only the location, a phone number and an e-mail address. The Archivo General de la Nación provides a Directorio Nacional de Archivos, but on the page for Ciudad de México the information is similarly succinct, although even more archival institutions are listed. In the web directory for archivos iberoaméricanos of the Fundacion Mapfre the page for Mexico has disappeared. Sadly the Latin America Network Information Center at the University of Texas had to stop updating its information in 2015, and now even the links have disappeared in its archival directory. The Internet Archive has a capture from 2015 of the page in English with eleven Mexican archives, but not the AGNDF. The Spanish version of this resource is still up and running.

Since many years the online journal Nuevo Mundo / Nuevos Mundos runs the series Guía del investigador americanista, with for Mexico an updated version from 2018 of a Guía del investigador en la ciudad de México by Felipe Castro Gutiérrez; the 2009 version can still be consulted and compared with his new version. Castro Gutiérrez fails to mention the web pages of the AGNDF, but he does include a link to the online inventory of sixteenth-century notarial registers. With some luck – by going one level higher on the web portal of the legal department of Ciudad de México – I could reach a second web page of the AGNDF with this link and yet another online resource for the records of notaries. This second web page provides you with some twenty web links for more information.

Before going to the notarial registers of the eighteenth century I would like to present briefly the existing online projects for the AGNDF. The Catálogo de protocolos del Archivo General de Notarias de la ciudad de México – Fondo Siglo XVI, created in 2016 at the Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México (UNAM), provides you with an inventory of records from the sixteenth century. The images linked to the searchable inventory can only be viewed at the AGNDF. The website of this projects provides you also with the link to the sequel for the seventeenth century, the Catálogo de protocolos del Archivo General de Notarias de la ciudad de México – Fondo Siglo XVII, launched in 2014 by the UNAM. The main difference with the first project is a more detailed search interface and the absence of images. The third project, launched in 2012, has been created by the Colegio de México. It brings you to the Actas Notariales de México, a searchable database for nineteenth-century notarial acts between 1817 and 1919. The search results bring you to summaries of the acts.

Dealing with notarial acts

Andrea Reyes Elizondo wrote her contribution about her research for her Ph.D. at Leiden University on the website of the NBV in Dutch. At the blog Leiden Arts in Society she has contributed a number of posts in English. In 2018 she wrote a post in English about her experience in three Mexican archives, Monk’s Nun’s Works’. The first remarkable thing in this earlier post were for me her pictures of the Archivo General de la Nación, housed in a former prison. Her remark about having to wear gloves and a dust mask when reading archival records from the colonial period has these days received another connotation.

Reyes Elizondo does not say much about the AGNDF in this earlier post, but nevertheless I quote her words for you to ponder them yourself: “In contrast, the notary archive does not have a catalogue at all but two different printed guides which give little information about its contents and could not be photographed but only be copied by hand. For an archive catalogue to be truly useful to a researcher, it should mention how many books or documents were produced by the same person, the length of the collection, the period it covers, and a breakdown of the type of documents. The AHAGN guides only gave a summary of how many books a notary had (guide 1) and which books were for which years (guide 2).” She repeated this statement in her 2020 post in Dutch. If she had stated these things as facts only once, I would have hesitated to set things right, but after two similar statements some corrections are clearly needed.

Banner Censo-Guía

The notice in the Spanish Censo-Guía contains clear information about the time range and physical dimensions of the records within the AGNDF, good for 1,235 meters shelf length, and 5,637 volumes in the Fondo Antiguo for the period 1525-1909. Archivists may call a finding aid or inventory a catálogo but it remains a finding aid. I fail to understand how one can think that a finding aid for notarial records will contain information about acts in each register apart from the notary and the time range. Notarial registers have similar contents, and it makes sense to describe them as series, also in view of their sheer number.

A quick comparison might be helpful. The Stadsarchief Amsterdam has 3,5 kilometer shelf length with notarial registers from the Early Modern period, probably the largest series in its holdings. With indexes and a crowdsourcing transcription project they are being made more accessible. Recently I searched notarial registers in the holdings of two Belgian archives, the Rijksarchief in de provincie Antwerpen and the Felixarchief, the municipal archive of the city Antwerpen. The finding aids for both institutions have the usual succinct form. Detailed access is provided by an index or a more detailed finding aid, called by Dutch archivists a nadere toegang. At the Felixarchief notarial registers have been digitized. Reyez Elizondo wants to be able to use repertories of acts. Thus the AGNDF provides you with a finding aid for the registers and a list of notaries, but in fact more has been done, as I will show here below. To all appearances it seems the two blog posts reflect a confusion between the nature of a library catalogue, an archival inventory, an index, a repertory or any other kind of more detailed finding aids. Surely a book historian will use library catalogues more often than finding aids, but a scholar should be able to see the substantial difference in their nature and character.

The second web page of this archive gives you a number of links, some of them broken, but luckily the link to a most relevant M.A. thesis functions. Fernando Pérez Celis completed in 2011 at the UNAM his thesis with the title Catálogo de las escrituras notariales de siglo XVIII. Notarías 22, 25 y 352 de Fondo Antiguo, Sección Ordinaria, del Acervo Histórico del Archivo General de Notarías de ciudad de México (PDF, 2011). Pérez Celis described the registers for three notarías. At p. XVIII of this thesis he notes there are 329 notarías for the eighteenth century, good for a total of 1,689 volumes, only 137 of them catalogados. In my view Pérez Celis created a repertorio, a word that should appear in the title of his study. Surely this still leaves large parts of the eighteenth century uncovered for the purposes of Reyes Elizondo, but much more has been done than she supposed. The very presence of the three projects each dealing with whole centuries seems to have gone unnoticed. It would do justice to the AGNDF to include them in both blog posts.

Logo El Colegio de Mexico

When you study Mexican history it is difficult not to encounter various projects of the UNAM and El Colegio de México. The latter institution is home to the Comité Mexicano de Ciencias Históricas which offers a very useful commented list of online resources for Mexican history. The library of El Colegio de México has on its web pages a list with twenty digital projects of this institution. Among the publications of the Colegio de México are the guías de protocolos, guides for notarial acts at the AGNDF for the nineteenth century. For each year a volume will be published. In the colecciones digitales of UNAM’s libraries you can select Tesis eTESIUNAM and quickly find nine relevant titles concerning the AGNDF, among them yet another thesis with a repertory of acts for some eighteenth-century registers, again without the word repertorio in its title. In view of these studies, the guides for nineteenth-century notarial records and the three online projects for notarial registers for other centuries choosing the eighteenth century shows at least courage. Reyes Elizondo certainly has this courage, but her two blog posts do not tell you at all what else can be readily found and has been done for the rich record series of the AGNDF.

Working in Mexican archives

Of course researching reading and writing capacities is a good subject, and I cannot say anything against Reyes Elizondo’s approach to this subject. A remark about another archive in Mexico invites me to add some comments. Reyes Elizondo would have preferred to find the notarial acts in the holdings of the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN). Lately the website and other services of the AGN has been redesigned, and in many respects services have deteriorated. The digital collection with mapas, planos y ilustraciones has vanished. The fact that you can now consult both the new and the 1990 version of the Guía general de los fondos makes you almost smile about the operation which is probably motivated by political aims. The thing to note about the AGN is the absence of online finding aids. For the near future it is wise to keep in mind many scholars will want to visit the AGN, and perhaps you will not succeed easily in having a seat in its study room. Simply having more space and more chance to work at the AGNDF is something to relish, even if you have to face a number of other restrictions.

For this post I was able to use the information I gathered on my legal history website concerning digital archives all over the world. On this page I put links and information about archives, archival guides and about digitized archival collections. Without archival guides research would be very much hampered. A number of online overviews and archival guides has already been decommissioned. Using just a single resource for any purpose is only recommended by companies pretending to be The One and Only Firm. Another thing became clear, too: Thinking you know all about archives in your own country is not the most useful attitude. It pays off to take sufficient time to review and adjust your knowledge about archives by using relevant guides, to note carefully their content and to reflect about possible implications for your research. Knowing about the difference between an archival finding aid and a library catalogue should be part and parcel of doing research with original sources in the humanities or in the vast fields of legal history.

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