Antonio Sánchez del Barrio

Director of the Museo de las Ferias Foundation and the Simón Ruiz Archive

The Simón Ruiz Archive

(Medina del Campo, Spain)

The archive of merchant-banker Simón Ruiz Envito (Belorado, 1525–Medina del Campo, 1597) is undoubtedly a unique collection of documents as it is the only archive of an important sixteenth-century businessman to have been preserved in Spain. It has been compared to the archive of the Italian Francesco di Marco Datini in Prato, which preserves documents from the second half of the fourteenth and the early decades of the fifteenth century, and to that of the Fuggers, the great bankers of Augsburg, which boasts materials from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Simón Ruiz established himself in Medina del Campo around 1550 as a cloth merchant, trading wholesale in imported goods from Nantes and all over Brittany. He made a considerable fortune that allowed him to begin a second professional phase during which he also embarked on large financial operations, with interests throughout Europe and America, including loans to the Crown. From 1591 he devoted himself almost exclusively to the construction of a large hospital, his last work of patronage. The Hospital General was built between 1592 and 1619 according to the design of Jesuit Friar Juan de Tolosa, clearly showing the influence of classicist Italian models in combination with the architectural patterns of the Counter-Reformation (especially those of the so-called ‘Jesuit style’) and the close and powerful El Escorial.

Simón Ruiz’s personal documents and those of his business activities were kept here, in the General Hospital. This documentary repository was greatly expanded by the transfer of additional documents from the archives of Cosme Ruiz, the founder’s nephew and heir. The resulting mass of documents was preserved under the custody of the Hospital’s administrators for more than 300 years, between 1632 and 1947. The documents were then moved to the Provincial and University Historical Archive of Valladolid, where a series of renowned archivists inventoried them over the decades.

On 27 September 2013, the Board of Trustees of the Simón Ruiz Foundation decided to deposit the historical, artistic and documentary heritage that was still dispersed in the headquarters of the Fundación Museo de las Ferias in Medina del Campo. The aim was to bring together the founder’s entire legacy in a single 

space with all the guarantees of custody and specialised management. Between 2015 and 2018, the archive’s collections were digitised in their entirety thanks to an agreement signed with the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Then they were transferred to the Museo de las Ferias Foundation where, together with the rest of Simón Ruiz’s patrimonial heritage, they are now available to researchers and those interested in the history of commerce in general. Their administration is regulated in accordance with the agreement signed on 12 June 2015 between both foundations based in Medina del Campo.

The figures speak for themselves when it comes to the quantity and quality of this collection of documents, which provides insights into many of the key aspects of the trade, banking and financial exchanges of the time throughout Europe. As an approximation, we offer the following data extracted from its inventory, which is constantly being revised, on documentation of a commercial and financial nature. 

The collection contains 184 account books (1551–1617), including general ledgers or fair ledgers, with their corresponding alphabets; daily (or ‘manual’) books of both genres; fair notebooks and drafts, all of which bound – with just a few exceptions – in portfolio parchment.

It holds correspondence with Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Flemish cities, as well as the Americas, amounting to nearly 58,000 letters which circulated between 1554 and 1624; of these, 23,366 contained pre-printed postmarks. In terms of volume (in approximate figures), this correspondence can be broken down into the following figures: Valladolid (15,000), Madrid (10,000), Burgos (4,000), Seville and America (3,400), Bilbao (3,200), Toledo (2,000), Salamanca (1,000), Lisbon (6,000), Antwerp (4,000), Lyon (3,000), Florence (1,300), Rome and Nantes (1,200), Elvas (1,000), Genoa (650), Rouen (600), Paris and Oporto (500), Piacenza (450), and Cologne, Milan, Venice and Malta (100).

The amount of bills of exchange preserved in the archive is also exceptional: around 23,000 original bills drawn between 1553 and 1606, issued by 45 different European financial centres; of these, those of Antwerp, Lyon, Lisbon, Piacenza, Florence, Rome and Rouen stand out for their numbers (alongside those of Medina del Campo).

In addition to these, the archive contains around 20,000 documents of a commercial nature, including letters of payment, powers of attorney, bonds, marine insurance policies, bills of lading, customs notes, shipwreck certificates, balance sheets, promissory notes, invoices, receipts and listini.

With regard to the documentation of the General Hospital founded by Simón Ruiz, more than 200 boxes of information and some 30 parchments are preserved, which record in great detail the history of this charitable institution from the moment of its creation to the present day. Indeed, the hospital still continues to provide assistance for disabled individuals.

On 28 December 2017, the Simón Ruiz Archive was declared a Bien de Interés Cultural by the Junta de Castilla y León regional authorities. This declaration, the first for an archive in this region, provides it with maximum official protection.

Since 2017, the Simón Ruiz Archive has been included in the Censo Guía de Archivos de España e Iberoamérica, which can be accessed via the following link: http://censoarchivos.mcu.es/CensoGuia/archivodetail.htm?id=1722827. Similarly, since 2018, it has been part of Archives Portal Europe, which can be accessed at: http://www.archivesportaleurope.net/es/directory/-/dir/ai/code/ES-00001722827.

On 23 June 2021, the digital archive (Portal de Archivos) of the Museo de las Ferias Foundation was publicly presented. This digital repository provides free and universal online access to all the documentary collections it manages, including those of the Simón Ruiz Archive. Of the latter, the following are currently available online: the complete collections of 184 account books (1551–1617), 210 listini of currency quotations (1579–99) and 31 parchments in addition to 2,069 bills of exchange dated between 1553 and 1580 (https://archivos.museoferias.net/index.php/archivo-simon-ruiz-2).

For the present occasion, we have selected a series of documents that illustrate the diversity and quality of the collections that make up the Simón Ruiz Archive. These include samples of account books, a basic set of documents necessary for proper record-keeping in any commercial company. Hence, the same entry, which records the purchase of a barrel of aniseed at the Medina del Campo May fair in 1579, passes through different records (doc. 73): the draft, the journal or ‘manual’ and finally the general or ‘cash’ books. It thus evolves from a simple note taken in pen and ink at the time of purchase to an accounting entry reflected both in the daily accounts and the final accounts recorded – by double entry – in the ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ sections of the general ledger.

Besides these there were also other sorts of books which recorded specific commercial operations, such as draft books of bills of exchange, brokerage books, notebooks of ‘memoirs and accounts of what was spent,’ books and notebooks of fairs, and even books of ‘the sale of licences on the asientos of slaves.’ Two of these specific types have been selected: the first is a ‘fair notebook,’ specifically the oldest in the Simón Ruiz Archive, which registers in double-entry format the clearing of bills of exchange that were negotiated during the final days of the fairs, in this case those of Medina del Campo between June 1584 and August 1586 (doc. 32). The other one is a book entitled De las licencias que Pedro Gomes Reynel vende en Lisboa sobre el asiento de esclavos que se llevan para las Indias de Castilla, namely, a record of the sale of licences for the slave trade with the Americas (doc. 86). These were royal licences granted to private individuals: in this particular case, this sort of trade would lead to the bankruptcy and imprisonment of Cosme Ruiz, heir to the founder Simón Ruiz, who appeared in the role of guarantor of the Portuguese contractor who traded in these licences.

The Simón Ruiz Archive holds one of the most remarkable collections of sixteenth-century bills of exchange in Europe. As a unique example of this collection, we have selected a bill of exchange issued in Antwerp in January 1582 and payable in Medina (doc. 82), in which the drawee and the beneficiary are one and the same person, in accordance with the formula ‘your mercy will pay to yourself.’ This surprising financial operation – in fact a credit operation – is reflected in the ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ sections of the corresponding ledger, in this case the Libro Mayor de Ferias of 1556–59, a documentary piece also selected for this occasion. The other selected bill of exchange reminds us of the important trade in sugar from Brazil to European ports, under the control of Portuguese merchants, and the circumstances suffered by the vessels that transported it, in this case the recovery of goods ‘arrested’ in England.

The section of commercial correspondence is undoubtedly the most valuable collection of documents in the Simón Ruiz Archive, not only because of the thousands of items of business news contained in its more than 58,000 letters, but also because of the wealth of information of all sorts that the letters provide. One of the documents we display is a letter with information on financial news and currency exchange rates that also reports the death of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, and the disruption this caused on the Antwerp financial market (doc. 82). Other exceptional testimonies found in this collection of letters include a report of the victory of the Holy League in the battle of Lepanto in October 1571, with details of the casualties, prisoners and captives (doc. 56). Another letter informs of the frustrated attack of the Turkish armada in Calabria in August 1576. Both cases illustrate how important it was for an international businessman to be properly informed about developments that could in any way affect the markets. Another letter in the collection, dating from 1591, tells of the arrival of luxury goods from India and China, not by the usual route of the ‘Manila Galleon’ used by the Spanish markets, but via the ‘Carreira da India,’ run by the Portuguese (doc. 27).

Another interesting type of document of a mercantile nature is the ‘asiento,’ that is, loan contracts with the Crown, in which only consortiums of businessmen or powerful bankers who handled enough capital could afford to participate, generally through the use of bills of exchange. The document selected for this occasion is a letter of payment for 50,000 golden Spanish escudos (out of a total of 100,000 escudos) to meet the expenses incurred by the armies of Flanders commanded by Alessandro Farnese (doc. 49).

Another of our documents is a royal decree signed by the Infanta Juana of Austria, at the time acting regent of Castile in Philip II’s absence (doc. 28). Here she exceptionally authorises Simón Ruiz to do business with France despite a recent court ruling against him after the merchant was found guilty of a case of illegal ‘saca de moneda’ which contravened a royal decree against the export of hard currency. The document proves Simón Ruiz’s powerful contacts at court and how he was able to use them to forward his commercial and financial interests.

Finally, we have selected a document relating to maritime insurance, an essential instrument in mercantile practice to prevent the very real dangers of long-distance transportation. In this specific case, we are dealing with witness statements of complaints to the Consulate of the Sea in Pisa which accredit the owners of goods lost after the shipwreck of a vessel near Livorno (doc. 50).

In short, this is a representative selection of different documentary typologies from a private commercial archive of a great Castilian businessman who traded with the whole of Europe and the Americas during the second half of the sixteenth century.