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The aim of “Global Inheritances” research project (Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF 2014) is to study the ways in which the institutions of the early modern Spanish Empire identified the legitimate heirs of mobile individuals coming from the Iberian peninsula who died suddenly, often without making a will, while they were in the monarchy’s extra-European territories, thousands of kilometres away from their home towns.

In the context of a global scale empire, and in the absence of reliable official documentation such as civil and property registers and technologies such as photography or biometric identification, both the property and identity of these mobile individuals was extremely uncertain. Who were the deceased? What property did they own? Who and where were their heirs? When they died thousands of kilometres away from Europe, how did the institutions transmit the inheritance to their legitimate heirs? How could the courts be sure who they were? How could heirs demonstrate their identities in order to safeguard their rights to succession?

For those hundreds of thousands of subjects of the Catholic monarchy on the move around four different continents – and for their families too – identifying themselves and demonstrating their identities was an urgent and growing need. Demonstrating their identities in court was a fundamental pre requisite for heirs claiming inherited property and, even more importantly, ensuring legitimate property inheritance was a central priority of the institutions themselves.

Over the course of the sixteenth century, in fact, the Catholic Monarchy set up specific courts, the so-called Juzgados de Bienes de Difuntos (courts charged with handling the estates of the dead), to take temporary possession of goods left without owners and for the purposes of identifying their legitimate heirs. This project will analyse the extraordinary documentation produced by these courts, in order to reexamine some historical and, in general, social sciences paradigms by contributing in an innovative way to debates on personal identification procedures and socio-political belonging.

ALESSANDRO BUONO is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at LaDéHiS-CRH (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris)