A History of Catalonia that I wrote way back in 2008 for my friend Steve Hall’s This Is Spain website was recently described as ‘seditious Catalan propaganda’ and my description of the relationship between Catalonia and Aragon as a confederation was called into question.
Over the years, I’ve had many arguments with Spanish nationalists, who have talked about a ‘great and united Spain’ existing since the marriage of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, in 1469. They generally go on to say that Catalonia never existed other than as a territory of the Crown of Aragon and as the Count of Barcelona was only a count he had to be the the vassal of someone ie. the King of Aragon. These ignorant specimens generally get upset when I inform them that they are regurgitating a fascist version of Spanish history, but as I did most of my historical reading many years ago I’m rarely able to call on impartial sources with which to validate my point of view.
For this reason, I decided to get on a stool and have a look on the top shelf of my little library and amongst the books on Catalan history by Catalans and English-speaking left wingers, I came across Imperial Spain by J.H.Elliot, and was lucky enough to find a few pages dedicated to Catalonia and Aragon prior to the union of the Crowns of Aragon and Castile following the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel.
Written in 1963, Imperial Spain is considered one of the most reliable texts on the growth of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs between 1469 and 1716. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, I strongly recommend you visit my friend Rod Younger’s excellent Books4Spain website.
The Relationship Between The Two Crowns After The Union
This first quote explains that Spain despite the union of the crowns didn’t really exist under the Habsburgs, and supports the Catalan claim that Spain resulted from the military annexation of Catalonia in 1714 and has therefore only existed for 300 years.
“The union itself was purely dynastic: a union not of two peoples but of two royal houses. Other than the fact that henceforth Castile and Aragon would share the same monarch, there would, in theory, be no change either in their status or in the form of government. It was true that, in the person of Ferdinand, their foreign policies were likely to be fused, but in other respects they would continue to lead the lives they had led before the Union.”
Catalonia As The Dominant Partner In The Crown Of Aragon
The following section is much longer but clearly explains that Catalonia was the dominant partner in the Crown of Aragon. The Catalan Count of Barcelona was also the King of Aragon and Barcelona was the capital city of an empire that stretched across the Mediterranean. Doctor Elliot uses the term federation and confederation on a number of occasions to describe the relationship between the states controlled by the Counts of Barcelona, and also goes into detail about the political and legal system that operated in the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation.
It is worth pointing out that this surprisingly democratic system was unconstitutionally abolished following the seige of Barcelona by Felipe V’s troops in 1714. The Diada – the Catalan National Day on September 11 – commemorates this loss of rights and the ideological reason behind the Catalan Independence movement is to regain the sovereignty that was taken by force 300 years ago.
Here’s the text:
“The Levantine states – Catalonia, Aragon, and Valencia – together constituted the entity known as the Crown of Aragon. In fact, the name is misleading, because the kingdom of Aragon, the dry hinterland, was the least important part of the federation. The dynasty was Catalan, and it was Catalonia, with its busy seaboard, which played a preponderant role in the great overseas expansion of the Crown of Aragon. The Catalan achievement was prodigious. Between the late thirteenth and late fourteenth centuries this nation of less than half a million inhabitants conquered and organized an overseas empire, and established both at home and in its Mediterranean possessions a political system of liberty and order in which the conflicting necessities were uniquely harmonized.
The Catalan-Aragonese empire of the late Middle Ages was primarily a commercial empire whose prosperity was founded on the export of textiles. Barcelona the birthplace of the Libre del Consolat de Mar, the famous maritime code which regulated the the trade of the Mediterranean world, was the heart of a commercial system which reached as far as the Levant. During the fourteenth century, the Catalans won and lost, an outpost in Greece known as the Duchy of Athens; they became masters of Sardinia and Sicily, which was finally incorporated into the Crown of Aragon in 1409; Barcelona maintained consuls in the principle Mediterranean ports, and Catalan merchants were to be seen in the Levant and North Africa, in Alexandria and Bruges. They competed with the merchants of venice and Genoa for the spice trade with the East, and found markets for Catalan iron, and, above all, Catalan textiles, in Sicily, Africa, and Iberian pensula itself.
The success of the Catalan-Aragonese commercial system brought prosperity to the towns of the Crown of Aragon, and helped to consolidate powerful urban patriciates. These in practice were the real masters of the land, for, apart from a handful of great magnates, the nobility of the Crown of Aragon was a small-scale nobility, unable to compare in territorial wealth with its counterpart in Castile. Dominating the country’s economic life, the bougeoisie was able to hammer out, both in co-operation and in conflict with the Crown, a distinctive constitutional system which faithfully mirrored its aspirations and ideals. At the heart of this constitutional system was the heart of contract. Between the ruler and ruled there should exist a mutual trust and confidence, based on a recognition by each of the contracting parties of the extent of its obligations and the limits of its powers. In this way alone could government effectively function, while at same time the liberties of the subject were duly preserved.
The philosophy, which lay at the heart of medieval Catalan political thought and was enunciated into a doctrine by great Catalan jurists like Francesc Eixemeniç, found
practical expression in the political institutions devised or elaborated in the Catalan-Aragonese federation during the Middle Ages. Of the traditional institutions whose
power had increased over the centuries, the most important were the Cortes. Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia each had its own Cortes meeting separately, although on occasion
they might be summoned to the same town and hold joint sessions as Cortes Generales under the presidency of the King. There were some variations in the character of the
individual Cortes. Those of Aragon consisted of four chambers, the aristocratic estate being divided into two – the ricos-hombres and the caballeros. The Corts of Catalonia and Valencia, on the other hand, possessed the traditional three estates of nobles, clergy and towns, the latter having secured representatives during the thirteenth century. The Aragonese Cortes were also unique in that, at least theoretically, unanimity was required in each estate. Meetings were held regularly (every three years in Catalonia), and the estates would deliberate separately on matters of concern to King and kingdom, considering grievances, proposing remedies, and voting subsidies to the King. More important, they had also acquired legislative power: for example in Catalonia, where this right had been won in 1283, laws could only be made and repealed by mutual consent of King and Corts. The Cortes were therefore by the end of the Middle Ages powerful and highly developed institutions which played an indispensable part in the governing of the land.
The rights and liberties of the subject were still further protected in the Crown of Aragon by certain institutions of unique character. The kingdom of Aragon possessed an official known as Justicia, for whom no exact equivalent is to be found in any country in western Europe. An Aragonese noble appointed by the Crown, the Justicia to see that the laws of the land were not infringed by royal or baronial officials, and that the subject was protected against the exercise of arbitrary power. The office of Justicia by no means worked perfectly, and by the late fifteenth century it was coming to be regarded as virtually hereditary in the family of Lanuza, which had close ties with the Crown; but none the less, the Justicia was, by the very accretion of the time, an immensely influential figure in Aragonese life, and to some extent a symbol of the country’s continuing independence.
There was no Justicia in either Catalonia or Valencia, but these two states possessed in the later Middle Ages, as did Aragon, another institution entrusted with similar functions, and known in Catalan as the Generalitat or Diputació. This had developed in the Principality of Catalonia out of the committees appointed by the Corts to organize the collection of the subsidies granted to the King, and had acquired its permanent form and structure in the second half of the fourteenth century. It became a standing committee of the Corts, and consisted of three Diputats and three Oidors, or auditors of accounts. There was one Diputat and one Oidor to represent each of the three estates of Catalan society, and the six men held office for a period of three years. The original task of the Diputació was financial. Its officials controlled the Principality’s entire system of taxation, and were responsible for paying the Crown the subsidies voted by the Corts. These subsidies were paid from the funds of the Generalitat, which were drawn principally from import and export dues, and from a tax on textiles known as la bolla. But alongside these financial duties it acquired others of even wider significance. The Diputats became the watchdogs of Catalonia’s liberties. Like the Justicia in Aragon they watched out for any infringement of the Principality’s laws by over-zealous royal officials, and were responsible for organizing all proper measures to ensure that the offending actions were repudiated, and due redress given. They were the supreme representatives of the Catalan nation, acting as spokesmen for it in any conflict with the Crown, and seeing that the laws or ‘constitutions’ of the Principality were observed to the letter; and at times they were, in all but name, the Principality’s government.
The Catalan Diputació was therefore an immensely powerful institution, backed by large financial resources; and its obvious attractions as a bulwark of national liberty had stimulated Aragonese and Valencians to establish similar institutions in their own countries by the early fifteenth century. As a result, all three states were exceptionally well-protected at the end of the Middle Ages from encroachments by the Crown. In the Diputació was symbolized the mutual relationship between the King and a strong, free so movingly expressed in the words of Martin of Aragon to the Catalan Corts in 1406: ‘What people is there in the world enjoying as many freedoms and exemptions as you; and what people are so generous?’ The same concept was more astringently summarized in the famous Aragonese oath of allegiance to the King: ‘We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.’ Both phrases, one emotionally, one legalistically, implied that sense of mutual compact which the foundation of the Catalan-Aragonese constitutional system.
It was typical of the medieval Catalans that their pride in their constitutional achievements should naturally prompt them to export their constitutional forms to any territory they acquired. Both Sardinia (its conquest began in 1323) ans Sicily (which had offered the Crown to Peter of Aragon in 1282) possessed their own parliaments, which borrowed extensively from the Catalan-Aragonese model. Consequently, the medieval empire of the Crown of Aragon was far from being an authoritarian empire, ruled with an iron hand from Barcelona. On the contrary, it was a loose federation of territories, each with its own laws and institutions, and each voting independently the subsidies requested by its king. In this confederation of semi-autonomous provinces, monarchical authority was represented by a figure who was to play a vital part in the life of the future Spanish empire. This figure was the viceroy, who made his first appearance in the Catalan Duchy of Athens in the fourteenth century, when the duke appointed as his representative a vicarius generalis or viceregens. The viceroyalty – an office which was often, but not invariably, limited to tenures of three years – proved to be a brilliant solution to one of the most difficult problems created by the Catalan-Aragonese constitutional system: the problem of royal absenteeism. Since each part of the federation survived as an independent unit, and the King could only be present in one of these units at a given time, he would appoint in Majorca or Sardinia or Sicily a personal substitute or alter ego, who as viceroy would at once carry out his orders and preside over the country’s government. In this way the territories of the federation were loosely held together, and their contacts with the ruling house of Aragon preserved.”