The Catalan counties were originally a buffer zone between Christian-controlled territories in what is now modern France and Muslim Hispania. Known as the Spanish March, the Catalan counts were vassals of the Franks. The Count of Barcelona became the most important and Guifré el Pilós was the first to pass the title on to his heirs. In 987 AD Count Borrell stopped paying vassalage to the Franks and the territory that was to become Catalonia effectively gained independence.
A common Spanish argument is to claim that Catalonia never existed either as a country or as a nation. Therefore, the Principality has no legitimate claim to want to exist as a sovereign state in the present. A quick Google search for 'Cataluña nunca existió' or 'Catalonia never existed' will throw up dozens of articles originally published in national and provincial newspapers in Spain as well as numerous blog posts.
These opinions are based on an education system that has consistently written Catalonia out of school history books. This in turn is based on the 19th century concept of Spain as a nation state. In order to shine some light on the argument, once again we have to go back to the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711.
Pushing Back The Southern Frontier
By 719, through a combination of conquest and pacts with local Christian nobles, all of the Iberian peninsula was under Saracen control apart from a few remote areas in the north. These mountainous enclaves were both difficult to control and of little interest to the invaders. The Moors continued north into Frankish territory mainly via the natural corridor to the east of the Pyrenees, which is now the border between modern France and Catalonia.
Spanish historians focus on the Battle of Covadonga in 722 as the turning point of what they call La Reconquista or the Christian Reconquest of Spain. In actual fact, Covadonga was little more than a skirmish probably involving a few hundred combatants. The first major reverse for the Saracen army actually came a year earlier in 721 at Toulouse. In a battle involving thousands of troops on both sides, Odo of Aquitaine defeated the Umayyad Muslim army besieging the city.
Arab historians agree that the Battle of Toulouse was a total disaster. The fateful date and the so-called Balat Al Shuhada of Toulouse would be still remembered in memorials by Al-Andalus Muslims for the following 450 years because it halted the Muslim progress north.
Covadonga, on the other hand, is never mentioned other than by Spanish nationalist historians from the 19th century onwards. From a geographical and territorial point of view, it is pretty obvious that there was much less at stake for both the invading and defending armies.
The Spanish March
Although the fledgling Christian territories centred around the Kingdom of Asturias were consolidated over the next century or so, more legendary battles of Spanish Christian heroes against Moorish infidels are conspicuous by their historical absence. Meanwhile in Septimania, the Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated the Saracens at the major Battle of Poitiers-Tours in 732 and in 759, after the Battle of Narbonne, his son Pepin the Short drove them out of his realm into Hispania. All this, however, is French history and obviously of no concern to Spanish schoolchildren.
From 760 onwards, Pepin and then his son, Charlemagne, who ruled the Carolingian Empire from 768, began creating a buffer zone between Frankish territories and Muslim Hispania. Known as the Marca Hispanica or Spanish March, this buffer territory eventually stretched along the whole length of what is now the Spanish-French border. The only exception was a small western section, which was already controlled by the Basques.
The Frankish forces moved south taking the most strategically important territories in turn. The first county to be conquered was Roussillon with Vallespir both in modern France in around 760. By 785, the Franks were expanding into Hispania and took the county of Girona with Besalú followed by Ribagorza and Pallars in 790. Urgell and Cerdanya were conquered in 798, probably along with county of Empúries with Perelada although the exact date for this is uncertain. So the first region to be consolidated was the vulnerable passageway between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean that straddles the modern French-Catalan border.
After a series of struggles, the County of Barcelona with Osona was taken by Frankish forces in 801 so the rump of what was to become Catalonia was now under Frankish control. The River Llobregat just south of Barcelona formed a natural border between the Marca Hispanica and Muslim territory. At this point the town of Barcelona was of particular strategic importance to the Franks and would have been reinforced significantly.
The western territories, which were more protected by the Pyrenees, were taken after 800. However, they didn't remain under Frankish control for long. Pamplona and Sangüesa, became independent in 817 and formed the hub of what would become the Kingdom of Pamplona, later Navarre. Jaca broke away in 820 and over the next century was to develop into the Kingdom of Aragón and eventually incorporated Sobrarbe and parts of Ribagorza. Both these landlocked kingdoms were to expand significantly over the next few centuries as the mainly Basque and Hispano-Roman population pushed south taking territories from the Moors to the west of the Pyrenees.
A Territory Defined
Catalonia has often been described as a terra de pas or passageway because of its strategic importance. For this reason, the Eastern territories remained tied to the Carolingian crown and became known as the March of Gothia. The area had an autochthonous Hispano-Roman population but there was also an influx of Jews and Muslims. The region was also heavily repopulated by Goths from Septimania in modern France. Consequently, the Catalan counties were ethnically different from the territories on the other side of the Pyrenees and began to develop their own language.
As the region had such military value, the Franks weren't going to let the Catalan counties go so easily. The local rulers remained vassals of the Carolingan empire and received the title of count. When a count governed several counties, he became a duke or Dux Gothiae and if the county formed a border with the Muslim Kingdom, the Frankish title of Marquis de Gothie was bestowed.
The most powerful counts aspired to the Frankish Germanic title of Prince of Gothia or Margrave, often rendered in English as Duke of the March. Given the Barcelona's location on the Muslim border and its growing importance as a port, the Counts of Barcelona were often the strong men of the region and normally held all the aforementioned titles.
The situation throughout the whole of the Christian-controlled territories in the north of the Iberian peninsula was not dissimilar. There were constant battles for power over the next few centuries. Provinces became kingdoms and territories divided and united as heirs married heiresses. Battles were fought between rival princes and borders were constantly redrawn. The Kingdoms of Asturias, Cantabria and Vasconia metamorphosed into the Kingdoms of León and Navarra and the County of Castile. However, the continual power struggles meant borders were far from stable and the names of the kingdoms or counties changed constantly.
The Ascendancy of Barcelona
By 870, no single overlord ruled large areas of north-western Iberia but on the north-eastern coast things were beginning to come together. Born in 840, Guifré el Pilós, which in English translates prosaically as Wilfred the Hairy, was named Count of Urgell and Cerdanya by the equally prosaic King of the Franks, Charles the Bald.
Guifré became Count of Barcelona, Osona and Girona in 878 and added Conflent to his list of titles in 896. By his death a year later, he effectively ruled most the Catalan territory north of the River Llobregat. Although still nominally a vassal of the Franks, Wilfred the Hairy was the first Count of Barcelona to make his titles hereditary and so founded the dynasty of the House of Barcelona.
Incidentally, Guifré el Pilós has a similarly legendary status in Catalan history as Pelayo or El Cid do in Spanish history. He is responsible for the legend behind the creation of the Catalan flag, la Senyera.
The story goes that the Catalan troops under Wilfred the Hairy and the Frankish forces commanded by Charles the Bald were fighting the Saracens. Wilfred got wounded in battle and as the Catalans were still vassals of the Franks, they did not have a flag of their own. They would have to go into battle the following day without either their leader or a standard to follow.
As Wilfred lay wounded in his tent, Charles the Bald came to his bed and plunged his hand into the wounds. He then wiped his fingers across a golden shield. The Catalan flag had been created. Four red stripes on a yellow background. To this day, the Senyera is known as Els Quatre Dits de Sang or the Four Fingers of Blood.
This is obviously the stuff of legend. The Senyera was actually first used as the standard of the House of Barcelona by Count Ramon Berenguer II in the 11th century. All nations have identity myths and Catalonia is no different. The County of Barcelona was one of the many embrionic states coming into existence on the Iberian peninsula at the time.
In the same way as in the rest of Christian Iberia, counts, lords and kings divided up their possessions unequally among their offspring provoking future border disputes and wars of succession, so did Wilfred the Hairy. However, the title of Count of Barcelona generally took pre-eminence over all others and Guifré el Pilós was succeeded by his son Borrell I (897-911), Sunyer (911-947) and Borrell II (947-992).
During Borrell II's reign, another important change occurred. In 985, Barcelona was sacked by the Muslim warlord Al-Mansur and a debilitated Frankish Empire was unable to come to Borrell's aid. As a result, Borrell II declared null and void his vassalage to the Frankish king. The County of Barcelona, which by this time covered most of what is now modern Catalonia, effectively became an independent state.
The Franks took some time to recognise this change in sovereignty, which is why maps exist still showing the Catalan counties as Frankish territories well into the 11th century. However, the relationship between lord and vassal had long been broken and the Counts of Barcelona ruled without interference.
A Sovereign State
Dominated by the County of Barcelona, the Catalan counties comprised a territory where the Catalan language was spoken and was Catalonia in all but name. The Count of Barcelona was primus inter pares or first among equals. His dominant position over the other Catalan counts was based on agreements and pacts. For this reason, Borrell II's heir Ramon Borrell was never crowned king and the territory remained a county.
Most Catalan historians regard 987 as the date when Catalonia became a sovereign state and the millennium was celebrated in 1987. The problem for Spanish nationalists, though, is that the territory ruled by the Counts of Barcelona was neither called Catalonia nor had a king. This is why they claim that Catalonia has never existed.
The argument is hardly valid. Many countries that exist today have never been kingdoms. Furthermore, the County of Castile, the standard-bearer of Spanish identity, didn't separate from León and become a kingdom in its own right until 1065. The Castilian rulers were also counts at the same time as the Counts of Barcelona ruled Catalonia.
Spain as a political entity was at least 500 years away from existing in even its most limited form. The origins of modern Catalonia are no more questionable than those of modern Castile and much less so than the origins of modern Spain.