These pressures presumably were quite heavy in many cases, given that some of the speakers were being charged with crimes or costly civil transgressions. Most defendants (and some witnesses) were jailed, sometimes for several days, before testifying; the magistrates and notaries would typically depose defendants at the jail—hardly a comfortable position in which to think and narrate. Even when speakers were not jailed or were not even defending themselves, as in the depositions of some witnesses, the relatively high social status and authority of the Spanish magistrates and notaries must have been obvious, and may have limited what ordinary people would say in their narratives.
Such an analysis of court records—considering the ways that legal and social contexts shaped the production of the texts—might in itself be the primary goal of a study. Similarly, for a legal history of the judicial system itself, the procedures that structured the court records would be of central interest. However, for the purposes of social history of the people using the courts, I am ultimately concerned with the content of testimonies for what they reveal about social struc- tures beyond the legal system.
From this perspective, perhaps the larger or more interesting challenge in using these records lies not in the process of legal deposition or notarial tran- scription, but rather in the limited purpose of the civil court system—to punish criminals and mediate in civil disputes. Since the narratives I am studying were initiated because of crimes or lawsuits, certain kinds of social phenomena (crimes, disputes) and related information appear frequently. However, I think that some other important phenomena are left out, or appear only infrequently. Two exam- ples are described below.
Domestic servants. One topic for which court records have been an especially rich source is domestic service. I was interested in studying domestic servants and found little information about them outside the court records, but these girls and women appear with really remarkable frequency in the court records. It seems that there was an “indizuela,” an Indian servant girl employed in one house or another, present at most of the crime or dispute scenes that I have seen described by non- Indians. This alone (and it is confirmed by census records) indicates the high numbers of indigenous women serving in the city’s households in the period under study. But typically, if these women were called to testify, they said little or their narratives were not recorded in much detail.
At the same time, though, a significant number of court cases involve domes- tic servants as principal parties. These include cases where domestic servants brought litigation against their employers, or where litigation resulted after some other event that reveals relationships between servant and employer—typically, struggles between servants and employers, and complaints by employers that ser- vants had fled their households with advance wages or stolen goods. Such cases are rich sources of information about the conditions of servants’ lives and their recruitment and labor in the Hispanic city. As I have suggested with the examples of Jocotenango and Francisca García, court cases may enable us to (re)consider domestic servants within some of the patterns of labor recruitment and cultural transformations that have been identified for other parts of early Mesoamerica.