The Notarial System
The European Civil Law tradition prevailed in Portugal and her colonies, meaning that transactional law and functions involved with the preparation and authentication—and even the preservation—of legal documents developed as a separate system from the functions of the courts and its advocates, or attorneys. Under a legal tradition that valued the introduction of written evidence over oral testimony, notaries were responsible for preparing those legal documents and authenticating them for presentation to the courts.
Notary records or registros notariais have existed in Portugal since the thirteenth century and in Brazil as far back as 1549. These records were kept by authorized notaries initially called tabelião and then notário from the nineteenth century onward. There are three general types of notaries: Tabeliães de Notas or Cartório Notarial, public notaries; Tabeliães Eclesiásticos, ecclesiastic notaries; & Tabeliães de Audiências, court notaries. Each kind of notary served different purposes and worked in different areas.
In addition to preparing and authenticating documents, the tabelião also had full responsibility for recording his transactions in a format that would preserve them for future reference by the parties, courts, and other members of society. The result was the creation of permanent notarial registers. Generally, at the end of each year, the notary arranged for the binding of the individual documents he had prepared into a single volume arranged in chronological order, often adding a cover sheet and índice (table of contents). These records were organized and bound in volumes containing all the documents drafted by a single tabelião during a specific year, or series of years; therefore, these records are organized by the name of the notary along with the period of service. If there was no official notary appointed, as sometimes happened in the Ultramarine colonies, then the records would be organized by geographical area.
The books kept by these notaries include various types of legal documents such as wills, codicils, land transactions, powers of attorney, contracts, dowry arrangements, bonds, mortgages, complaints, court cases, and so on; therefore, they become rich resources for historians. These books are generally organized chronologically under the name of the notary. Notarial records are usually housed in the public archives or arquivos públicos.
Be aware, in many cases, the law required a document to be signed before the notary but did not require that it be recorded for permanent preservation. Furthermore, many of these records have yet to be digitized.
Here are some resources to locate Portuguese notary records:
- District Archives of Portugal
- Order of Notaries, List of Ancient Archives
See also Portugal Notarial Records on FamilySearch for additional information.
Formats of Specific Documents
Click on the type of record below to learn more and see samples
(Power of attorney)
(Purchases and Sales of
|Inventário de dote
|Inventario de bens de defunto
(Inventory of decedent's state & property)
|Prova de pureza da sangue
(Proof of purity of blood)