The Almogàvers

Iron Awake and the Catalan Battle Against Islam

Almogàvers was the name given to the soldiers that made up the light infantry in the territories of the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile during the Middle Ages from the 12th to the 15th century.

In the Crown of Castile, the internal organisation was regulated and codified by Alfonso X of Castile in the Siete Partidas.

The historical importance of the Almogàvers would be achieved once the conquest of the Islamic Emirates on the Iberian Peninsula was over.

Faced by the problem of demobilising them and reintegrating them into civilian life, they were recruited to participate in the War of Sicily in the service of Frederic II of Sicily and went on to form the the Catalan Company of the Orient

.At the time, they were known for their ability and aggressiveness in battle and when in enemy territory, they survived by looting.

In times of peace they often caused problems because they terrorised and stole from the peasant population so it was clear that they needed war to be kept out of trouble.





Description

The Almogàvers dressed very simply, in just a smock or short shirt, breeches and sandals known as avarcas and the weapons they carried were very light, comprising a lance, a knife and two short spears.

Furthermore, in their haversack, they carried bread for two or three days and on their belt, a fire striker so they could always light a fire. They were responsible for finding their own food and of necessary would eat grass or even go without.

For these reasons, they were known for their simplicity and frugality and their capacity for surviving under harsh condition and for being able to attack or retreat at surprising speed.

In times of peace, the local and royal authorities charged them with guarding the frontier from isolated watchtowers, as bodyguards and watchmen or even as spies in enemy territory.

When they made raids into enemy territory, the squads normally comprised between five and fifteen men and the forays generally lasted for two or three days.

When they were at war or in longer campaigns, the detachments were normally made up of between twenty and thirty men.

Saracen Etimology and Origens

These bands were named al-mogauar by the Arabs, which meant those that caused riots. Similarly, the ranks within the bands also had Arabic names: the guides were known as adalí, from the Arabic al-dalla, which means guide, and the leader of the raid was known as the almogàten, from al-mucaddem, which means he who leads. 

The origens of these bands of mercenary bandits, known as Al-Mogaua, can be found in the territory of Al-Andalus in the 10th century.

The first historical reference to them comes from the Arabic chronicle Akhbar muluk Al-Andalus, the history of the kings of Al-Andalus, which was written between 887 and 955 by Àhmad ibn Muhàmmad Ar-Razí, who was known as Al-Tariji or The Chronicler by the Arabs and by the Christians as Rasís the Moor.

In his chronicle, he describes the territories of Al-Andalus, and when he reaches the Ebro Valley, Al-Tariji cites for the first time in history the existence of troops named Almogàvers at the city of Saraqusta, the Moorish name for Zaragoza.

Adapting to the Crown of Aragon

Given the Al-Andalus origins of these small bands of Saracens specialising in surprise attacks, the Aragonese would be the first Christians to adopt the same tactics and for this reason they use the same name, the Almogàvers.

Despite the lack of chronicles covering the events of the 11th and 12th centuries, the first time the Almogàvers are mentioned on the Christian side is when Alfons I of Aragon and Pamplona sends them to colonise Castellar, on the banks of the River Ebro close to Zaragoza, in order to prepare to siege the city.

This first mention of the Almogàvers on the Christian side comes from Les Cròniques dels reis d'Aragó e comtes de Barcelona, which was commissioned by Pere the Ceremonious around 1359.

"After the death of King Pedro, he was succeeded by his brother Anfós [...] A few days later he takes control of Tauste, and he aggregates its church to the Monastery of Sant Joan. Next he colonised Castellar by some men vulgarly known as Almogàvers; that place had once been colonised by his father. THe same year he laid siege to Zaragoza with his Aragonese and Navarrans."

— Pere el Cerimoniós, Cròniques dels reis d'Aragó e comtes de Barcelona (circa 1359)

In 1177, as an act of friendship to the Kingdom of Castile, Alfons the Chaste sent troops known as Almogàvers to the siege of al-madinat Kunka, modern day Cuenca.

Mercenary Companies of Catalans and Aragonese

This is the famous description of the Almogàvers, which was written by the official of the Royal Chancery, Bernat Desclot, in his chronicle Libre del rey en Pere d'Aragó e dels seus antecessors passats.

"Aquestes gents qui han nom Almugavers son gents que no viven sino de fet de armes, ne no stan en viles ne en ciutats, sino en muntanyes e en boschs; e guerreien tots jorns ab Serrayns, e entren dins la terra dels Serrayns huna jornada o dues lladrunyant e prenent dels Serrayns molts, e de llur haver; e de aço viven; e sofferen moltes malenances que als altres homens no porien sostenir; que be passaran a vegades dos jorns sens menjar, si mester los es; e menjaran de les erbes dels camps, que sol no s'en prehen res. E los Adelits quels guien, saben les terres els camins. E no aporten mes de huna gonella o huna camisa, sia stiu o ivern; e en les cames porten hunes calses de cuyro, e als peus hunes avarques de cuyro. E porten bon coltell e bona correja, e hun fogur a la cinta. E porta cascu huna llança e dos darts, e hun cerro de cuyro en què aporten llur vianda. E son molt forts e molt laugers per fugir e per encalsar. E son Catalans e Aragonesos e Serrayns."

"These people called Almogàvers are people who live by arms, not in towns nor in cities, but in mountains and woods; and they fights Saracens every day, and they enter Saracen territory for a day or two stealing and taking a lot from the Saracens, which belongs to them; and they live from this; and they suffer many bad things that other men cannot sustain; like going two days without eating, and they eat the plants in the fields, that often they do not eat anything. And the scouts that guide them, know the paths through the territory. And they wear nothing more than a smock or a shirt, whether it is winter or summer; and on their legs they wear leather garters, and on their leather sandals. And they carry a good knife and a good belt, and a fire starter on their waist. And each one carries a spear and two spears, and a leather bag in which they carry their food. And they are very strong and very light to flee and attack. And they are Catalans and Aragonese and Saracens."

Historical Military Importance

The Almogàvers were considered on the best infantries of the period, at a time when the cavalry was the preferred weapon and the knightly ideal was the one to follow. The Almogàvers used the ground to their favour. They fought at night, travelled on foot and didn't wear armour, which meant they were very mobile. 

It should also be pointed out that they weren't really an army but rather they lived a very hard life. They fought while their wives and children watched and learned how to fight.

The old, the women and the children travelled with them and they had no skills because they got everything by looting, which made them a great nuisance in times of peace.

They were the result of frontier violence between the Islamic and Christian worlds, and in fact were often the cause of a lot of the border tension. During wars, they offered their services to the army often without pay but rather in return for food and the right to loot.

Military Ranks

As they weren't part of the army, their hierarchical structure was very simple.

  • Adalil: The highest rank, who rode a horse and led the troops. He was nominated by the King in times of war.
  • Almogatèn: He travelled on foot and was the intermediate rank, often nominated by his companions.
  • Almogàver: He travelled on foot and made up the majority of the troop.


Brief Military History of the Almogàvers

Wars Against the Saracens

We know of their existence from the 13th century, when groups of a dozen fighters made forays lasting two or three days into Saracen territory. These were normally led by an Almogatèn and only when an attack was more important, an Adalil was named by the King.

They lived from the booty that they got on their forays. They were only armed with a knife, a lance and two short spears, dressed in a smock or short shirt, breeches and sandals and were considered to be strong, frugal and agile.

From the name, it is clear that the Amogàvers origens can be found in Saracen bands with a similar name that employed similar tactics.

These bands were named al-mogauar by the Arabs, which meant those that caused riots. Similarly, the ranks within the bands also had Arabic names: the guides were known as adalí, from the Arabic al-dalla, which means guide, and the leader of the raid was known as the almogàten, from al-mucaddem, which means he who leads. 

The fact that they were a sizeable could be seen when Pere the Great (1276-1285) took 15,000 Almogàvers with him on his campaigns in Tunisia and Sicily. They also fought in Catalan territory during the crusade against the Crown of Aragon, under the command of Roger de Llúria, at the Battle of the Coll de Panissars.

Italian Wars

When Jaume II gave up the Catalan-Aragonese control of Sicily in 1295 at the Peace of Anagni in order to be able to ally with his former enemies, the King of Naples, Charles II of Anjou and the Pope, his brother Frederic didn't want to leave the island. 

The Catalans armies who were in Sicily and Calabria took sides. Those who remained loyal to King Jaume served the Anjou and the Tuscan Guelph League and fought in wars on the Italian peninsula.

Two leaders who stood out on the side of Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII, in 1312, Dalmau de Banyuls and the Aragonese nobleman, Diego de Larrat.

The former formed a company of between 800 and 1,000 knights and 1,500 foot soldiers in the service of Venice in order to recapture Zadar, which had revolted in 1313.

The Catalan Company of the Orient

Many Amogàvers stayed in Sicily to fight for the son of Pere, Frederic II of Sicily but after the Peace of Caltabellotta (1302), they found themselves out of work. 

This was when the Catalan Company of the Orient was formed and Roger de Flor (1268-1305) led 4,000 Almogàvers to Constantinople, where they fought in the service of Andronicus II Palaeologus against the Turks in Asia Minor. It was here that the battle cry Desperta Ferro! or Iron Awake! was made famous, when the banged their swords and spears against the rocks.

Roger de Flor was murdered in Adrianople, currently Edirne, on April 4th 1305, which further angered the Catalans, who were already annoyed that the Greeks hadn't kept their agreements after the Turkish problem had been solved.

After the heroic two-year resistance of Gallipoli, the Almogàvers left in 1307 leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, which became known as the Catalan Vengeance.

Involved in the battles was Ramon Muntaner,who was treasurer of the company and would later write up his experiences in a famous chronicle. During this period, Berenguer d'Entença and Bernat de Rocafort became enemies until the former was murdered in 1306.

In the year 1310, the company established itself in Athens, where they inflicted a devasting defeat on the Duke of Athens, Walter of Brienne, and his Athens army at the Battle of the Cephissus.

It was then that the Duchies of Athens and Neopatria were established under the nominal vassalage of the Kingdom of Sicily. The duchies remained under Catalan control until 1388, when they were occupied by the Venetians.

Peninsula Wars

The Almogàvers who didn't take part in the Greek adventure distinguished themselves in the war against Castile (1296-1304), in the Crusade against Almeria (1309), in the campaigns in Granada (1330-1334), against the King of Mallorca (1343-1344), in expeditions to Sardinia (1353, 1354 and 1367) and another war against Castile (1356-1369)

From 1384-1385, smaller companies of between 30 and 100 Almogàvers participated in a war against the Count of Empúries. A little later, they defended Catalonia against an invasion from the Count of Armagnac in 1390 and another by the Count of Foic from 1396 to 1397.

During the 15th century, there were still groups of Almogàvers involved in the Italian wars under Alfons the Magnanimous but they became increasingly less important. 

When the Kingdom of Granada fell in 1492, the frontier between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula disappeared and so did the atmosphere that had led to the existence of the Almogàvers. 

However, their influence lived on into the modern age under the auspices of the Miquelets, who used similar tactics and were particularly important in The War of the Spanish Succession between 1705 and 1714.

More than anyone else, the Almogàvers spread the Catalan language around the Mediterrananean.




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