Medieval Catalonia

Region straddling France and Spain, lhe historic Catalonia is marked by a very strong culture forged by a unique history, in which the desire for independence has always been asserted. From Muslim raids to the Mediterranean empire formed with Aragon, through the March created by Charlemagne, up to the decisive turn of the 15th century and the rapprochement with Castile, here is the story, too little known in France, of the Medieval Catalonia.

Visigothic Catalonia and the Arab-Berber conquest

The Visigoths settled in Roman Hispania from the 5th century, their capital initially being in Toulouse. In 507, under the blows of the Frankish king Clovis, they had to withdraw behind the Pyrenees, except in Septimania, and they moved their capital to Toledo.

The Arab-Berber conquest began in 711, and the future Catalonia was conquered in the late 710s and early 720s, along with two-thirds of Hispania, as well as Septimania, with the exception of Toulouse. A few cities in the high valleys of the Pyrenees are spared, and will be the future seats of Christian resistance. Governors were appointed by the emirs of Cordoba to lead the conquered cities, some of which, like Barcelona, ​​served as bases for raids to the north. However, the majority of the population remains Christian, Islamization and Arabization being a long process in Al Andalus.

Cordoba’s central power is having serious problems managing the rapid conquest of Al Andalus, and northern city governors are challenging its authority. This is for example the case of Munuza, Berber chief of Llivia, who allies himself with the Duke Eudes of Aquitaine. This provokes the raid of the Emir of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman al-Ghâfîqî, and the opportunist counter-attack of Charles Martel which ends at the battle of Poitiers (732).

However, in the following years, the raids continued, this time in the Rhone valley, starting from Septimanie or Catalonia. It was not until the 750s and the conquest of Septimania and Aquitaine by Pépin le Bref for their number to decline significantly, without ever sinking far into Frankish territory.

The Spanish March: Frankish Catalonia

The conquests of Pepin the Short bring the Franks to the gates of Al Andalus. They attacked first the western and central Pyrenees, but it was a failure which ended in the disaster of Roncesvalles (778). In the east, they are more successful because they benefit from the support of local populations.

In the early 780s, relations between the populations of the Ebro Valley and the Franks increased so much that the Emir of Cordoba, Abd el-Rahman I, had to intervene. He could not prevent Girona offering itself to the Carolingians in 785! The following year, the Muslim governor of Barcelona conquered Huesca and Zaragoza and broke free from Cordoba. The various renegades did not hesitate to ask the Franks for help against the Umayyad emir, like a certain Zatum, governor of Barcelona who, in 797, himself went to Aix-la-Chapelle to propose an alliance to Charlemagne ...

This one launched a first offensive in 799 which allowed the conquest of places like Vic, Caserras and Cardona, between Girona and the high valley of Segre. Above all, in 801, the Franks took Barcelona, ​​despite the intervention of an Umayyad army. This conquest was decisive, and allowed Charlemagne to create the March of Spain, the future Catalonia. On the other hand, he fails in his attempts against Tortosa.

The Spanish March is made up of counties which pledge allegiance to their overlord, the Carolingian emperor (Charlemagne then his son Louis the Pious). Among these counties, besides Barcelona, ​​we can mention Girona, Empúries or Urgell-Cerdanya. Others are closer to the Count of Toulouse, already a rival to the Count of Barcelona. At this point, Catalonia really turned to the Frankish kingdom, its center of gravity further north, especially for religion, with the preeminence of Narbonne. Charlemagne also encourages the installation of ’Hispani fleeing Muslim domination north of the Pyrenees.

The birth of independent Catalonia

The weakening of the Carolingians during the reign of Louis the Pious and his successors contributed to the emergence of an independent state.

The counties seek more and more to escape Carolingian tutelage, despite the recurring danger of Muslim raids. Indeed, they continue and even increase in the 840s, devastating Cerdagne and the surroundings of Narbonne. This did not prevent William of Barcelona from rebelling against Charles the Bald in 848, and seeking the support of Cordoba! It took several years for the Carolingian sovereign to reestablish his authority and get rid of William. Instability remains and eventually leads Charles the Bald to negotiate with the Umayyad emirs.

The turning point for the Spanish March came in 878, at the Council of Troyes, when the Carolingian's man, Bernard of Gothia, was deposed and his counties divided. Among the beneficiaries, a certain Guifred the Hairy, who soon rules Urgell, Cerdanya, Barcelona and Girona, and obtains the title of marchio ; he is considered one of the founders of independent Catalonia. This decision confirms the domination of the house of Barcelona over Catalonia. Guifred the Hairy undertakes to consolidate the March and establishes the county of Vic-Ausona, as well as the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll. The Muslim threat is still present, and it was while fighting that the Count of Barcelona died in 897.

In the tenth century, the successors of Guifred the Hairy continued to organize and repopulate Catalonia, taking advantage of the relative lull caused by the transition from emirate to caliphate in Al Andalus. They then do not hesitate to send embassies to Caliphs Abd-el Rahman III and Al-Hakam II, and cultural exchanges intensify. Thus, Gerbert d´Aurillac, future Pope Sylvester II, came to study Arabic manuscripts at the monastery of Ripoll.

It is then that a trauma intervenes which also contributes to the creation of the Catalan identity: the vizier Al-Mansur takes the ascendancy over the young caliph Hisham II and effectively governs Al Andalus. He decided to sever relations with Catalonia and sacked Barcelona in 985. The event caused a stir in the West, but the Catalans resented the Franks who refused to come and help them. The divorce is consummated between Catalonia and Francia, confirmed by the refusal of the Catalan counts to recognize as king Hugues Capet, elected by the Great in 987. The Capetians themselves do not recognize the independence of Catalonia until… 1258 !

The affirmation of independent Catalonia

Emancipated from Frankish rule, Catalonia, still straddling the Pyrenees, recovered from the shock of Al-Mansur fairly quickly. If they are not kings, the Counts of Barcelona confirm their preeminence on Catalan territory, which they repopulate through a proactive policy.

In 1009, behind their banner, they united all the counts of Catalonia to lead a punitive expedition against Cordoba. This is sacked and, despite heavy losses, the Catalans return with a significant booty. In addition, relations with neighboring Christian kingdoms (Castile and Pamplona) are developing to unite in the face of the Muslim threat, which continues despite the demise of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Among the great counts of Barcelona, ​​one can quote Ramon Berenguer Ier (1018-1035) which attracts the colonists to repopulate Catalonia and organizes a maritime policy, favoring Barcelona to the detriment of Empúries. His grandson married Douce de Provence, thus extending the Catalan territory (to the chagrin of the Count of Toulouse) and orienting his maritime policy towards Pisa and the Balearics.

Another great figure is Oliba, Count of Berga and Ripoll, where he became a monk, then abbot in 1008. We owe him a great cultural work and the introduction of Romanesque art in Catalonia, as well as the development of the library of Ripoll monastery. It was also Oliba who imposed in Catalonia the Peace and Truce of God, fundamental concepts for 11th century Christianity and the notion of holy war.

The "marriage" of Catalonia and Aragon

The first part of the Reconquista, in the 11th century, was mainly led by Castile, which was based on the system of outcasts to weaken the taifas. In 1085, King Alfonso VI took Toledo and, if it was a resounding event, Christians could not long take advantage of it; The following year, the Almoravids disembark and defeat them at Zallaqa.

Faced with the Almoravid threat, the Counts of Barcelona seem to be the recourse, especially after the failure of the imperial temptation of Alfonso VII. From the beginning of the 12th century, they launched their offensive towards the south, marked by the capture of Tarragona in 1118. The alliance with Aragon was decisive: in 1137, Ramon Berenguer IV married Pétronille, heir to the kingdom of Aragon : the counts of Barcelona become kings of Aragon, the fate of Catalonia and Aragon are now closely linked. Then, they entered the land by taking Lleida (1148) and, a year later, established their success by conquering Tortosa. In 1153, Catalonia doubled its area.

The Catalan count-kings weigh heavily against their Spanish neighbors, but also against the Count of Toulouse and the kings of France and England. As for the Muslims, the Catalans are distinguished by their tolerance vis-à-vis the conquered Muslim populations. This does not prevent the King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, ​​Peter I (Peter II for Aragon), from being one of the great victors of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, in 1212, facing the Almohads.

Catalonia and the Albigenses

The victory of Las Navas de Tolosa prompts Peter II of Aragon to see himself as a powerful ruler and a champion of Christendom. He then found himself immersed in the complex struggle between England, France and Rome with the stake (and pretext) of Albigensian heresy.

Catalonia has confirmed its influence in the north of the Pyrenees with the marriage of Raymond III Berenguer and Douce de Provence as we have mentioned. The Count of Barcelona therefore has a responsibility as a suzerain vis-à-vis these lands. The Count of Toulouse himself, however vassal of the King of France, finally paid him homage. However, Toulouse is considered to be the heart of Albigensian heresy! Peter II of Aragon must give up his claim to be the champion of Christendom to defend his vassal against Simon de Montfort, sent by the Pope. In 1213, at the Battle of Muret, the King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona was killed for having defended the Count of Toulouse… who fled without having fought! It is a catastrophe even beyond the death of the Catalan sovereign: his son Jacques is captured by Simon de Montfort (and only released on the order of the Pope), and Catalonia ends up losing land and influence north of the Pyrenees, especially with the success of Philippe Auguste at Bouvines in 1214. The Treaty of Corbeil of 1258 confirms the situation, with the recomposition of Languedoc for the benefit of the Count of Toulouse (submitted to the King of France), and a Provence recovered by Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX. Catalonia now looks to Spain, and the Mediterranean.

A Mediterranean empire

Despite the death of Peter II of Aragon, the thirteenth century is the time of conquest and prestige for Catalonia.

It is first marked by the long reign of James I, son of Peter II. In 1229, the King of Aragon attacked the Balearics, conquering Mallorca, then Ibiza. Aragonese nobility and Catalan merchants push him to take Valencia in 1233, and for his ally Castile he seizes Murcia. His nickname "Conqueror" did not prevent him from having, for a good part of his reign, in trouble with the nobility of his kingdom, irritated by his reforms.

His succession therefore took place in turmoil in 1276: the kingdom was divided between his two sons, Jacques II (who inherited the Balearics and Perpignan, the last Catalan enclave north of the Pyrenees) and Pierre III. The latter, Count of Barcelona, ​​King of Aragon and Valencia, embarked on a Mediterranean policy: he married the granddaughter of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Constance of Sicily, which allowed him to be offered the crown of Sicily. at the Sicilian Vespers against the Angevins (1282). As for his brother, Jacques II, King of Mallorca, he is getting closer to the King of France.

At the start of the 14th century, Catalan-Aragonese power was asserted especially in the western Mediterranean. Catalan and Mallorcan merchants settled in all the major Mediterranean ports, including in Islamic countries (in the Kingdom of Granada and in the Maghreb in particular). They become rivals of the Italian cities, including Genoa, with which war breaks out.

The crises of the 14th century

This power encroaches on the influence of Castile, with whom tensions are increasing; if the two kingdoms are united against the Merinids and the Nasrids at Salado (1340), the same is not true with the advent in Castile of Peter the Cruel who attacks Aragon in 1356, and imposes his peace on Peter IV the Ceremonial in 1363. The crisis of Trastamare which follows, even if it primarily concerns Castile, also affects Aragon and Catalonia with the passage of the Grandes Compagnies de Du Guesclin.

Like all of Europe, the Catalonian-Aragonese kingdom takes the full brunt of the economic and demographic crisis of this century, as well as the Plague of 1348. The kings of Aragon lose influence over state affairs in favor of of the nobility and, from Peter III (1283), they had to set up the system of pactism, which institutionalized the cortes. Their power continued to increase thereafter, to the detriment of the centralized monarchy in Barcelona. Within the kingdom, rivalries between Aragonese, Catalans, Valencians and Mallorcans are active, sometimes leading to armed conflicts ...

The civil wars of the 15th century

In 1410 passed away the house of Barcelona, ​​which had no male descendants following the death of Martin I "the Humanist". It is then a real dynastic crisis, which lasts two years, and sees Ferdinand of Antequera ascend to the throne with the support of Pope Benedict XIII. The advent of Trastamare, however, did not satisfy the Catalans ... The long reign of Alfonso V, says the Magnanimous, is marked by these divisions, especially as the king was more interested in the recovery of Sicilian possessions than in internal affairs. His costly war, which ended with his entry into Naples in 1443, continued to weaken the monarchy. His brother John II succeeded him in 1458. He led a contested policy in Catalonia, which exploded into civil war a few years after his arrival on the throne. The intervention of foreign rulers like Louis XI and Charles VIII complicates matters and it takes ten years to quell the rebellion. John II must, however, again swear on the pact of Peter III, in 1472.

The Catholic Monarchs and the weakening of Catalonia

John II's son, Ferdinand, married Isabella of Castile in 1469 and helped him come to power in 1474. He himself succeeded his father in 1479. If the two crowns of Castile and Aragon are still separated, the two spouses govern as if it were one and the same kingdom, outlining a united Spain. This allows them to end the Reconquista by capturing Granada in January 1492.

The union is finally made to the detriment of Catalonia and Aragon. Indeed, the kings settled in the Escurial, and Spain turned away from the Mediterranean to look towards the New World, despite the (re) conquest of the kingdom of Naples in 1504. Seville supplanted Barcelona. The death of Isabelle brought Ferdinand of Aragon one step closer to Castile, and with the accession of his grandson Charles V in 1516, Catalonia no longer came of age within Spain. A situation that will last for the next two centuries ...


- D. Menjot, Medieval Spain (409-1474), Hachette, 2006.

- G. Dorel-Ferré, Historical Atlas of Catalonia, Otherwise, 2010.

- P. Sénac, The Carolingians and al-Andalus (8th-9th centuries), Maisonneuve & Larose, 2002.

- Mr. Zimmermann, History of Catalonia, PUF, 1998.

For further

- P. Bonnassié, Catalonia at the turn of the year 1000: growth and changes in a society, Albin Michel, 1990.

- P. Bonnassié, Catalonia from the middle of the 10th century to the end of the 11th century, Toulouse-Le-Mirail University, 1975.

- C-E Dufourcq, Catalan Spain and the Maghreb in the 13th and 14th centuries, PUF, 1965.

- J. Nadal-Fabreras, P. Wolf, History of Catalonia, Privat, 1982.

- J. Sobreques i Callico, History of Catalonia, Base, 2007.

Video: International Course on Medieval Music Performance, Besalú - Catalonia, Spain (October 2021).