Catalan Democratic Traditions

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris


The Count of Barcelona's position as effective ruler over the Catalan counties was based on agreement with the other nobles. The different realms of the Crown of Aragon retained their own laws and were united as a confederation. Barcelona's role as a seaport led to the development of an urban merchant class that rivalled the power of the nobility. All these factors led to a political philosophy known as pactism and some of Europe's earliest democratic documents and institutions can be traced back to medieval Catalonia.





Chapter 6: Catalan Democratic Traditions

Catalonia's position as a terra de pas or passageway between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe has definitely marked its history as has its location on the Mediterranean. A natural meeting point for different cultures, the territories that Catalonia came to occupy were also of strategic importance to invaders, who came from both north and south and also from the sea.

As the land is poor in natural resources, such as precious metals or wheat, the inhabitants had no choice but to go abroad and trade in order to survive. Due to Catalonia's reliance on foreign trade, a merchant class developed very early on to rival the oligarchy of the nobles.

Early trade guilds were established to regulate local commerce and administer taxes. Consequently, a prosperous and powerful middle class grew up and towns tended to be governed by committees including representatives of the nobility, the church and the merchants and guilds.

The Catalan counties remained vassals of the Franks for longer than other territories in the north of the Iberian peninsula. The House of Barcelona gradually grew to dominate the Marca Hispanica until the title of Count of Barcelona became hereditary under Guifré el Pilós in 897 and declared independence from the Franks under Borrell II in 987. However, the Count of Barcelona was still primus inter pares, first amongst equals, and could only maintain ascendancy over the other counts by consensus.

This contrasts sharply with the political development of landlocked Castile, which was centred on military conquest from and defence against the Moors for more than 250 years longer than the kingdoms of the Crown of Aragon. Jaume I conquered Valencia in 1238 whilst the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Kings wasn't completed until 1492.

A military society would develop along different lines to a society based on trade and commerce. The nobility were military commanders normally subject to direct orders from the king. The control of newly conquered territories was ceded to the noble who conquered them. The land-owning nobles owed allegiance to the king and this relationship favoured absolute monarchy.

As territory was acquired quickly by military means, it was allotted as rewards to nobility, mercenaries and military to exploit in large estates known as latifundia. These gifts finished the traditional small private ownership of land, eliminating a social class that had also been typical of Al-Andalus under the Moors. This didn't happen in Catalonia where peasants were smallholders jealous of their land rights and strongly motivated to get the best out of their plot.

The nobles of Southern Castile and Andalusia were often absentee landowners, who were more interested in the life and intrigues of the royal court than making their large estates more efficient. The population in Southern Spain were not smallholders but an underclass of jornaleros, landless peasants, who were hired by the latifundists as day workers for specific seasonal campaigns. The Castilian peasant class lived for the most part in abject poverty and the absence of a dominant class of merchants and tradesmen meant that early democratic structures did not develop in the same way as they did in Catalonia.

As J.H. Elliot points out in Imperial Spain, a corollary of this was that the Castilian nobility tended to have a distaste for work and commerce considering it below them. A Castilian noble became wealthy as a result of land acquisition not work. The long-term effect of this was a mistrust of Jews, who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and the consequent economic and financial problems of the 16th century. A modern symptom is the belief that Catalans are mean and avaricious because the region remains the industrial and commercial powerhouse of Spain.

Cultural, economic and territorial differences between Castile and a Crown of Aragon, with Catalonia at the forefront, have led to different political visions for Spain. Unfortunately, a centralised government ruled by an absolute monarch or for large periods of the 20th century, a dictator, with heavy influence of both the military and the church has generally held sway.

Catalans are very proud of their democratic traditions and their defence has been a major motivation throughout their history. La Diada, the Catalan National Day celebrated every year on September 11th commemorates the abolition of the Catalan political institutions and charters in 1714 and serves as a reminder that Catalonia wants its traditional democratic rights returned.

Peace and Truce

Just like other embryonic countries in Western Europe, the confederation of counties that would become Catalonia began joining together at the same time as the development of feudalism. The first rudimentary agreements of what is known as pactism by Catalan historians were formulated in the 11th century during the reign of Ramon Berenguer I.

Being Count of Barcelona gave few guarantees in terms of territorial control. Barcelona had the Saracen threat immediately to the south. Political instability led to infighting between nobles in the territories of the north. These were violent times. Not only counts and viscounts of rival dominions but anyone with a castle, a horse or even a big sword was apt to cause trouble.

The level of violence was such that the Bishop of Vic and counsellor to Counts of Barcelona, Abbot Oliba called Assemblees de Pau i Treva or Assemblies of Peace and Truce for the first time in 1027. This was the first attempt to define a set of norms for the feudal power struggles and a relationship of mutual allegiance between the barons and their ruler. Safe zones known as sagreras were established around churches and the nobles promised not to fight battles between Thursday and Sunday.

A Catalan Magna Carta

The Pau i Treva agreements may appear trivial but peace is a prerequisite for political stability. They created conditions that paved the way for later pactism and more formal systems of government. Large sections of Pau i Treva were included in the proto-democratic documents compiled a century later when the Counts of Barcelona had also become Kings of Aragon.

The Usatici Barchinonae, El Liber feudorum maior and Les Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium were all compiled between 1170 and 1195. The best known document is the first of these, the Usatges de Barcelona, although there is a great of overlap between the three.

The Usatges de Barcelona was a proto-democratic document that revised and extended the relationship between the monarch and his land-owning or clerical subjects. They were compiled in 1173, forty years before the roughly equivalent Magna Carta was drawn up in England in 1215.

We must not confuse the Usatges de Barcelona with democracy but they certainly laid the base for a pacted relationship between those vying for power in the embryonic country.

Their spirit is summed up by the famous contract between Jaume I and his nobles. "We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws - but if not, not."

Democratic Institutions

By the reign of Alfons the Chaste, the Principality of Catalonia was united by the same language and a set of Visigoth laws, which had been updated for a feudal society. Very slowly a precocious parliamentary system began developing as a limitation of royal power.

The 11th century Cort Comtal was an early manifestation but it wasn't until the establishment of the Corts Catalanes by Pere the Great in 1283 that Catalonia had its first legislative body. Representatives from the nobility, the clergy and the urban merchants met to take legal and administrative decisions and Catalonia had its first governmental institution. England was to develop similar systems a few decades later so the Corts Catalanes are often considered the earliest rudimentary parliament in Europe.

Jaume I was not just a warrior king but also a political reformer. Realising the powerful merchant city of Barcelona required a special kind of government, in 1265 he had established a city council of three members elected by a hundred prohoms or important men. This institution was to grow into the celebrated Consell de Cent or Council of One Hundred, which was to govern Barcelona for the coming centuries.

Less than a century later, in 1359, the permanent commission of the Corts Catalanes developed into a permanent institution, the Diputació del General, known as the Generalitat from the 16th century onwards, and the Principality of Catalonia now had its own government. This was consolidated in the 15th century and remained in place until its abolition by Felipe V in 1714.

The two institutions of Barcelona City Council and the Generalitat still face each other across Plaça de Sant Jaume in Barcelona to this day. It is humbling to think that the origins of the present Catalan government date back to the medieval period. In fact, the Palau de la Generalitat stands on the site of the Roman Forum so political decisions have been taken in the same location for more than 2,000 years.

International Maritime Law

Another major Catalan contribution to early European law was the Llibre del Consolat de Mar or the Book of the Consulate of the Sea. This was a compilation of mercantile and maritime law, which was adopted as common law of Mediterranean trade standards and still forms the basis of much maritime mercantile law.


The importance of the Port of Barcelona and the growth of the Catalan trade meant that Catalonia established consuls in all the important ports of the Mediterranean. Wherever Catalans traded, they expected the same conditions to apply.

The Consolat de Mar was first compiled by Pere the Great between 1320 and 1330 in Valencia. It was the king's way of ordering the southern port city to comply to the norms and customs of the Port of Barcelona. By the 15th century, the book had been translated into Italian, French and Castilian.

The Consolat de Mar served as the basis for loading and unloading practices and customs duties not only in the Mediterranean but also across the Atlantic and in the rest of Europe as Castilian influence spread under the Habsburgs. It was the basis for maritime law in most European countries until the end of the 18th century and remained Spanish law until 1829. It was translated into English in 1874 and was even used as the basis of a US court ruling in the early 20th century.

Catalonia was able to make a major contribution to early European law not only because it was the dominant state of a medieval Mediterranean empire but also because its merchants left their influence even further afield. Pactism was the core of the Crown of Aragon and allowed the component states of the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation to retain their own legal and political systems.

Some have attempted to trace a continuum between the political structure of the medieval Crown of Aragon and republican federalism, which along with the political Catalanism of the end of the 19th century, impregnates 20th century Catalan nationalism. This is arguable but, as a historical precedent, the old Crown of Aragon still symbolises an alternative Catalan model for redesigning the Spanish state. A system recognising the rights and differences of Spain's different nationalities would have provoked fewer tensions than the autocratic centralism that was imposed by Castile.

Pactism, the medieval equivalent of modern constitutionalism, marked the difference between the people of Catalonia and its ruling dynasty, between the subjects of the realm and their king. However, this could not yet be described as democracy. The concept of citizen does not substitute that of vassal and nor was there an equality of rights. The Corts were not elected by universal suffrage and nor were they in any other European country either. Similarly, the Diputació del General or Generalitat was oligarchic in nature.

Antagonistic Political Models

The political make up of the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation contrasted sharply with the system of government in rival Castile, which was autocratic and centralised. This was fine whilst the two territories remained separate but problems began as Castilian influence on the Crown of Aragon increased.

Following the death of Marti the Humane, the last in line of the Catalan House of Barcelona, Fernando I of  the Castilian Trastámara dynasty came to the throne. This signified a change in political culture and the first clashes between Catalan pactism and Castilian absolutism.

The situation worsened with the marriage of the Catholic Kings, Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon, and went further downhill under the Habsburgs. When Felipe II made Madrid capital of the Spanish Empire in 1561 resentment of a centralised Castilian government grew.

The first Catalan rebellion came in 1640 with the War of the Reapers and, following the War of Spanish Succession in 1714,  all Catalan political rights and institutions were abolished by the absolutist Borbón King Felipe V.

The history of Catalonia since 1714 has involved repeated attempts to recover the democratic institutions lost under Felipe V. In the last 300 years, Catalans from all shades of the political spectrum have lobbied for greater autonomy and more recognition of Catalan cultural and linguistic differences.
 
The current calls for independence from Spain are a reflection that most Catalans don't feel represented by the centralist political model. If the truth be known, they haven't done for centuries. The recovery of the traditional charters and institutions has always been central to the Catalanist argument.

Now Read Chapter Six of Catalonia Is Not Spain - Barcelona - Capital of an Empire



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