Decline and revolt 1415–1660

The instability and turbulence produced by the Black Death continued in the following century, culminating in peasant rebellions and a civil war in the 1460s. In this period, Castile expanded and formed a joint monarchy with Aragon. By the sixteenth century, a new kingdom of Spain became the greatest power in Europe. Catalan fortunes were now inextricably linked to that of its much more powerful neighbour. Whilst the Compromise of Casp brought to an end a ruling Catalan house on the throne of Aragon, it did not mean a dramatic rupture in policy or strategy of the monarchy. There is little evidence that contemporaries saw developments in terms of terminal decline or political rupture. The period after Casp and until probably the 1520s is characterised by the fact that the Catalan language reaches its maximum political and cultural expansion. There was certainly nothing inherently anti-Catalan about these new Castilian monarchs who had strong degrees of popular support at various times, particularly against the native aristocracy. Although Alfonso the Magnanimous read in Spanish at his first Cortes, in Barcelona in 1416, this was so heavily criticised that the rulers did not make this mistake again and hereafter accepted the primary role to the Catalan language. It should be noted that Catalan was, throughout this time, the near universal language. Catalan retained its public religious presence as sermons were delivered in the language of the parishioners. However, in one concrete area, Catalan will lose status and this is as a courtly language as the century develops. This linguistic shift in the upper echelons of Catalan society is related to social prestige, not a policy of discrimination.1

Some issues such as economic pressures and class conflicts had already emerged in the previous century, so disputes to come should not be simply read as being caused by a change of dynasty. Whilst historians speak of this period as partly transitional to the early modern period, most of life was still in most respects medieval.2 This society remained governed by strict hierarchy and its social ordering was maintained by lord and church. Women had little autonomy or choice beyond marriage or the convent and were subject to the authority of their father which was substituted for that of the husband after wedlock. Modest autonomy might be obtained as a nun but the religious orders were strictly hierarchical and lesser in status than the male monasteries. The female population was described by one prominent writer Jaume Roig in 1460 as being sinful in their very nature.3 The church as a whole maintained an extensive system of social control and women in particular were subject to its dictates. Whilst the record testifies to the occasional instance of transgression in all social classes by individual women, these instances were clearly exceptional. The population was still predominantly rural and agricultural, and the village structure had been consolidated centuries earlier. The urban pattern of Catalonia was firmly established and Barcelona was pre-eminent, with the city of Perpinyà, beyond the Pyrenees, the second city of Catalonia. Patterns of life, including the question of religious influence, only slowly changed until the emergence of the Inquisition in the 1490s and later the Protestant Reformation. Catalonia did not waver in its loyalty to Catholicism throughout the rise of Luther and Calvin, but rather continued its own development which remained firmly within Catholic orthodoxy. Monasteries expanded and that of Montserrat increasingly came to have an important symbolic role due to its Black Madonna. The cult of Mary continued to be closely adhered to in Catalan religious culture.4

The priorities of the new Castilian dynasty of the throne of Aragon represented continuity with what had come before, including consolidating and extending territory in the Mediterranean. The imperial project of the previous century remained central. However, one pattern we have previously noted, as consequence of expansion, continued. As the realm expanded territorially and in international projection, the centrality of Catalonia and its weight within it was frequently challenged. We have noted these trends in terms of both Aragon and Valencia, and they had also occurred with revolts and pressures from Mallorca. The vast Mediterranean expansion was a further factor in this process. New territory was added, in this case the kingdom of Naples, which required lengthy conquest and was not achieved until 1442 after ten years of struggle. Alfonso proceeded to create a highly professional army which was directly loyal to him. As an indication of changing priorities, King Alfonso made Naples his capital, and from there he would deal with all peninsular affairs. Even so, the Catalan language remained the principal means of administrative and court communication under his reign.5 Yet the costs of empire placed greater strain on Catalonia than anything since the Black Death in the 1350s.6 Catalan opposition now joined with that of the Aragonese about ever-increasing military expenditure in Sicily and Italy. Catalonia was now financing a lengthy war and occupation where the only beneficiaries were the richest sectors of the merchant class, who remained a small contingent in society. New pressures emerged with an economic downturn and, with an absent dynasty, control of Catalonia was fought out between distinctive economic sectors.

Problems of Empire

Conflict with the Italian city states of Pisa and Genoa over Sardinia lasted for over 80 years, with peace not achieved until 1420. However, the Aragonese attempt to expand further into Naples reignited conflict with Genoa which was backed by the Papacy. Both saw their interests threatened by potential Aragonese domination of southern Italy. A period of brutal warfare occurred which included defeat for the Aragonese and capture of their king. In 1436, a new phase in the conquest began and in February 1443, the Aragonese king paraded through Naples as conqueror.7 The conquest of Naples was a high point of overseas expansion as ten years later Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1452, putting an end to the 1000-year-old Byzantine Empire. The trading opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean and much of North Africa came to an end for the Crown of Aragon and no further territory would be added. With the loss of these eastern markets, Italian territories became central though they required strong military pressure to subdue potential and real rebellions. Their cost placed strains on political stability. Peak empire had been reached and contraction of overseas holdings began.

Growing social conflict

From the late fourteenth century, tensions in the countryside intensified and on occasion led to violence and revolts against the nobles and those who supported them. This conflict occurred because the lordly class tried to halt reduction in income by intensifying demands on the peasantry.8 As an indication of their advanced consciousness, in the late fourteenth century, the remença union was created, a highly unusual organisation across Europe and testimony to a high level of peasant organisation.9 A further distinctive feature of the Catalan situation was that, in the conflict between the remença peasants, the monarchy tended to side against the lords.10 The support of the Trastàmara dynasty to peasant demands was partly out of self-interest. The peasantry was a source of income for the crown and it suited the monarchy to have a weakened lordly class.11 Given that the peasantry was by far the largest social grouping in society, there were important differences within it, with an affluent minority and a majority group of landless peasants. The landless joined the revolt, which was led by the affluent peasants, who were the most well-organised. The first wave of remences revolts took place during the second half of the fifteenth century and were initially centred in the Girona region. In 1448, King Alfons recognised the Remença Union, which was highly rare in a European context. The monarchy tried to arbitrate between the demands of the peasants while trying to also maintain the traditional social structure of society. Peasant organisation and collective revolt obtained results. In 1455, the king suspended the collection of the greatly resented mals usos, which as we have seen placed a whole range of burdens on the peasantry. Yet the major institutions of the Catalan ruling elites, the Generalitat, and the Council of One Hundred of Barcelona, interpreted the decision as an affront to their social standing. This was a deeply hierarchical society and ruling class contempt for their social inferiors was near universal. The remença conflict is one element within the Catalan Civil War (1462–1472) and peasant/lord dispute and violence both preceded it and occurred again at the war’s close.12 Conflict was not, however, confined to the countryside.

Urban conflict

The city of Barcelona had seen intermittent violent outbreaks against the city rulers throughout the medieval period but social order overall had not been challenged. The European crisis of the fourteenth century saw intermittent conflict and in time, the city of Barcelona became deeply divided into two factions. The grouping that became known as the Biga brought together the richest merchants, bankers and the landlords, including those who held rural holdings but lived within the city walls. They deemed themselves the ciutadans honrats (honest citizens) and believed they ruled by right. Their social basis had begun to change as they became increasingly proto-capitalist and invested in land, though remained urban in culture. This elite controlled not only Barcelona but also the other Catalan cities. Social tensions were rising with the vital textile sector increasingly pressured by a severe drop in prices in the 1420s. With deteriorating finances affecting the lower echelons of the city, protests of the lesser merchants and artisans began to have more force and increasingly sought to challenge the monopoly of the upper class. Thus emerged the faction opposed to the Biga that was known as the Busca. This was formed by small merchants, skilled tradesmen and artisans and sectors of the general populace. In simple terms, the class positions in both blocks were clearly demarcated. The Busca sought political reform and for the sectors it represented to be given a voice within the institutions.13 One of the main accusations of the Busca against the Biga was the mismanagement of the city’s finances and simple corruption. The Busca also sought protectionist policies for its small traders which was opposed by the Biga as the latter benefitted from free trade.

Once again, the monarchy tended to side with the less powerful, partly out of self-interest, as the urban elites together with the rural lords were the greatest potential threat to a consolidated monarchical power. The king’s hostility towards the Catalan elites was evident from the beginning of his reign when he clashed with them on countless issues.14 This ideological hostility between the king and the privileged classes became most evident in the Cortes over questions of taxation. In 1453, Galceran de Requesens, the king’s representative as lieutenant of Catalonia, suspended elections and directly appointed a new city council dominated by the Busca. This was interpreted by the ruling elites of the Biga in Barcelona as a tantamount to a coup and overthrow of the natural order. The Biga began to organise and allied with the rural aristocracy. Thus, a challenge by the middling and lower sectors of the city of Barcelona spiralled into a major institutional conflict, leading to determined resistance by the traditional order. A major fracture was opening up across Catalan society. By now, the dominant social forces in both the countryside and the cities were deeply alienated from the monarchy. In spring 1462, several leading Busca figures were executed in Barcelona. These executions and the counter-revolt by the Biga against monarchical attempts to moderate their influence created a breech between monarch and elites that now seemed unresolvable. The Biga and the rural aristocracy were now determined to remove a dynasty that did not respect their privileges. In February, a new peasant revolt had broken out in Girona. Three months later, the major institutions of the Catalan elites proclaimed the king and his queen enemies of the principality of Catalonia. They began to search for a new monarch. Thus, social conflict in both city and countryside and hostility towards the monarchy on the part of both rural and urban elites triggered civil war.

The Catalan Civil War

The Catalan Civil War of 1462–1472 was a multi-layered conflict, with urban clashes between the Biga and Busca, the remences against the landowning class and the elite-dominated institutions against the king. The war included participation by other realms including Castile and Portugal on the side of the Catalan institutions. The king of Aragon sought assistance from France and offered in exchange remaining Catalan possessions beyond the Pyrenees, the counties of Rosselló and Cerdanya. This was a fifth of the Catalan population and although it was later returned, it suggested that this zone could be bargained with. The implication of other powers was an indication that the question of Catalonia could be used to challenge Castile as became evident in other periods. The civil war was a long slow one of attrition with the monarchy gradually accumulating victories. During the conflict, what we can term a form of national sentiment at a level of ruling elites emerged. This was not only the defence of economic interest and privilege but also in a gradually emerging sense that they were acting in the defence of local Catalan institutions against a non-Catalan monarchy. As we have noted earlier, national sentiment did not exist at a popular level in this period in most of Europe, but it was increasingly evident at elite level. In contrast to the modern period of nationalism, the peasants and the lower classes did not see the conflict in national terms and sided with the monarch, who was Castilian. In 1472, after ten years of struggle, peace was signed. Catalan elites which had rebelled against the monarchy was now a greatly diminished force.15

The aftermath of civil war

In 1472, the civil war ended with the Peace of Pedralbes. The monarchy had survived the challenge to its authority and could proceed to the accumulation of greater power, as was occurring in other European monarchies. Though the Catalan elites had sued for peace, that the war had lasted ten years testified to their organisational strength. The victorious monarchy had no wish to see the social order upturned. The peace agreement saw the monarchy betray its own peasant supporters. The concessions made to them in the 1440s were withdrawn and most of the lordly privileges were restored. This was cemented by the awarding of further privileges to the lords by the new monarch Ferdinand in 1481. The royal privileging of its former enemies directly led to a new peasant rebellion in 1484 known as the Second Remença Revolt, led by Pere Joan Sala. After an initial peasant victory, this second revolt was crushed. The main leaders were executed, including Pere Joan Sala, who was hung, drawn and quartered. Yet the revolt disturbed the monarchy and in a new policy change, King Ferdinand promulgated the Guadalupe Arbitral Award. This sought to balance the opposing class interests of peasant and lord. Many former rights of the lords were abolished but the peasantry was required to provide compensations to the feudal lords. Formal legal servitude was abolished.16 This is believed to be the first document issued in Europe on the release of serfs. The main beneficiaries were the most affluent sectors of the peasantry who had financial surpluses that enabled them to pay costs and purchase their own farm. The majority sector of the peasantry emerged in a worsened condition and Guadalupe meant a reinforcement of the feudal domination.17

However, whilst Guadalupe only benefitted a minority of the peasantry, it still remained an exceptional document in comparative European terms. Between the French jacqueries, the English peasants revolt and the German peasants war, the usual pattern was repressive violence and defence of the existing order. Furthermore, this partly successful rebellion fed into a narrative of Catalan liberty that would become deeply ingrained.18 The notion of the Catalan peasant increasingly became associated around a hard-working individual, inherently conservative and deeply attached to the land. In later centuries, the Catalan small farmer became representative of the virtues of the country as a whole which were claimed to be industrious and natural to commercial exchange. Here of course was a contrast to Castilians who had squandered the vast wealth of overseas conquest and were to be plunged into centuries of poverty and marginalisation. The outcome in the long term of the reforms to land entailed a major transformation in the Catalan countryside, where the small farm centred on the traditional mas-type farmhouse became the focus of development. A market in land emerged and marriage alliances were conducted as opportunities to expand and consolidate holdings.19 A more complex system of social stratification emerged with the richer peasants able to consolidate their gains. These sectors could now hire wage labour, whether impoverished day labourers, and increasingly immigrants of Occitan origin.20 A virtuous cycle now began as prices rose and the population grew.21

Catholic Monarchs

The accession to the throne of Ferdinand the Catholic and Isabella of Castile in 1479 as joint monarchs did not mean the fusion of two different realms. This was a marriage and alliance between two separate kingdoms. They never used the title of kings of Spain. It was a union that adopted the decentralised structure of the Crown of Aragon but on a wider scale.22 Catalonia retained its own institutions, currency and customs and was not required to provide soldiers except for the defence of its own territory. This joining of two kingdoms was neither conquest nor assimilation. In 1479, the office of viceroy was created, to act as a liaison between local elites in Barcelona and the monarchy. The viceroy was the direct symbol of the authority of the monarch and the character of an individual viceroy might be key to preventing local alienation.23 As the role became normalised, viceroys increasingly came from non-Catalan regions and became a source of resentment. Rather than there being a point of rupture between Catalonia and the rest of the kingdom, we see the gradual erosion of previous privileges. Some might be reversed after local protests but we can view a broader pattern of standardisation of practices within the wider kingdom. New institutions were devised to administer a vastly expanded kingdom including changes to the selection of local officials. The Supreme Council of Aragon, created in 1494, was devised as an advisory body to the monarchy. Provided it was perceived to respect local traditions, it was broadly accepted amongst Catalan elites. However, as well as potential clashes around legal domains, a royal court established Castilian Spanish as the language of the monarchy, courtiers and diplomatic relations. The Spanish language rose in status and became the form of communication amongst the nobility and those entering military service. A similar process at the highest levels occurred with the church, with the gradual appointment of Castilian-speaking officials. However, the ordinary priesthood and the parishioners remained overwhelmingly Catalan speakers. Learning and using Spanish became the indispensable means for political and social ascent. Thus, important sectors of Catalan society accepted the new dispensation and married into the Castilian nobility. Whilst Catalan was not abandoned, social advance usually required the knowledge of Castilian. The two main Catalan institutions, the Generalitat and the Consell de Cent, had seen their status across society greatly damaged by the civil war and the new strategic alliance between Catalan and Castilian elites seemed to offer a degree of social stability to this stratum.


In 1493, King Ferdinand obtained the return of the last remaining territories beyond the Pyrenees, Rosselló and Cerdanya, to Catalonia from France. However, the fact that these territories had been ceded once meant they became the centre of renewed conflict and were invaded again in the 1520s. War between France and Spain became a near constant in the following century and Catalonia was inevitably impacted by its frontier zone status. Whilst the return of Rosselló and Cerdanya to Catalonia was welcomed, resentment was greatest over the role of the Inquisition under the new monarch. This was not necessarily a religious opposition to the search for heresy. The Inquisition in Catalonia dates from the end of the twelfth century. From the thirteenth century, the Inquisition became institutionalised in the Crown of Aragon, always under papal control to repress heresy, including that of the Cathars, as we have seen.24 A particularly repressive period occurred under the Dominican inquisitor Nicolau Eimeric (1356–1399), a cleric from the city of Girona, who even questioned the Catholicism of Ramon Llull and his followers.25 Eimeric wrote a manual for inquisitors which established a range of signs that indicated the presence of the Devil. This manual was adopted in the conquered territories of Latin America, though in Catalonia the Inquisition became largely inactive after his death.

Under Ferdinand, a new Inquisition was introduced throughout the kingdom. Previous Inquisitions had been administered by the church but this new version was directly subordinated to the monarchy. This Inquisition thus became a powerful political tool. Opposition to the introduction of the new Inquisition was intense in the Crown of Aragon, especially by the Catalan institutions, which resisted the introduction of the Holy Office because they considered it a tool in the service of monarchical authoritarianism.26 The medieval period where a monarch was only moderately higher in status but not able to fully control the aristocracy was now over. This new modern centralising monarchy sought to accrue ever greater powers. Thus, the issue of the new Inquisition was a conflict over jurisdictions between the monarchy and local institutions. The Holy Office was thus established in Barcelona in 1487 and the autos-de-fé began. As elsewhere, this initial role of the Inquisition was the persecution of Jewish converts to Christianity though many were simply tried in absentia.27 Between its introduction and 1505, the Barcelona court tried more than a thousand people, more than half of whom had already gone into exile in previous years. It is unlikely that the Jewish population of Catalonia even reached 5 per cent in this period as the pogrom of 1391 had made many leave. In May 1492, the expulsion of the Jews was promulgated in Barcelona. Five centuries or more of residence of Jewish populations came to an abrupt end and Jewish expertise departed with them. Only within the Jewish communities were there minor opportunities for women and this was now brought to an end. Catalonia barely had a Moslem or Protestant population and subsequently Catholicism was central to the making of Catalan identity, or at least its conservative variant.

Even so the Inquisition in Catalonia had a comparatively modest impact. We now know that the institution as a whole was surprisingly cautious and slow moving and, together with local reluctance to collaborate, the Holy Office in Catalonia could not be termed a success. In over 90 per cent of the urban areas, during more than three centuries of existence, the Holy Office never once even appeared.28 Reluctance to collaborate was greatest when inquisitors were Castilian in origin, though it would have been impossible for the institution to function without substantial support at the middling levels. For a brief period between 1507 and 1518, with the appointments as inquisitors of the native Bishop of Vic and Lleida, and of Tortosa tensions eased. However, new measures were passed in 1518 that essentially meant the form of the Inquisition was common to both Castile and Aragon. A pattern of harmonisation that was followed in other areas produced ever greater resentment. As we have seen, privileges and appointments to those from other areas of the kingdom continued to be a slow burning source of discontent.

Internal development

Within the new expansive and expanding kingdom, the territories of the Kingdom of Aragon were not directly involved in the project of American colonial conquest, as Castile had funded the initial enterprise. The kingdom of Aragon was neither participant nor beneficiary, which was further reflection of both realms’ autonomous development. For later Catalan historians and in popular memory, this has often been interpreted as discrimination against a Catalonia that was excluded from the vast wealth of American conquest. However, in the same way that Catalonia did not benefit from the proceeds of conquest and empire, Catalonia avoided the later negative consequences. Spanish decline after the exhaustion of silver and other mineral deposits was dramatic and continued for hundreds of years. Imperial overstretch, near constant warfare on a range of fronts, ultimately produced the collective impoverishment of Spain. By the eighteenth century, Catalonia had begun a period of rapid economic advance and much of Spain remained behind until well into the twentieth century. In time a narrative of Catalan industriousness compared to Castilian backwardness would be constructed and which still has resonance today. More important for future relations between Castile and Catalonia was the ever-growing disparity between the kingdoms, in terms of population and size. By 1520, the Catalan population was unlikely to be more than 250,000.29 The overall population of Castile may have been six million placing it within the largest European kingdoms of the time and more than double that of England. In terms of territorial extent, the Crown of Castile was triple that of Aragon, excluding its new Latin American holdings. Certainly, after civil war and social conflict, the Catalonia of the sixteenth century embarked on a period of modest growth and recovery. In particular, Barcelona and Girona were slowly growing as were areas inland. Whilst agriculture as yet provided little in terms of surplus and the lords were reluctant to support innovation in this period, for a few decades a period of decline was gradually halted. However, a new plague arrived in 1588. This epidemic was the most devastating since the Black Death and spread throughout Catalan territory. This was once again a bubonic plague. Whilst the epidemic of 1588–1590 reduced population, it was not comparable in scale to the Black Death. Both the population and the economy recovered quite rapidly.

Occitan immigration

Immigration filled the demographic gap caused by plagues and crises. It is likely that population decline reached its low point around the time of the Catalan civil war in the 1470s.30 Population rose overall in the early sixteenth century by some 20 per cent, but the rate accelerated to about 75 per cent between the 1550s and the 1620s. As an indication that Catalonia was recovering, a major role in population growth has been attributed to substantial immigration.31 The French wars of religion had created enormous disruption and instability and through the linguistic closeness of Occitan and Catalan, and the comparative ease in crossing the Pyrenees, new arrivals were facilitated. The religious conflict was compounded by a more or less continuous state of war between the kingdom of France and the Spanish monarchy. Tensions did exist with the newcomers. An overwhelmingly Catholic population was suspicious of anything that smacked of Calvinism and at times the French were simply the enemy that ravaged Catalan territory. However, more important was the fact that a growing Catalan economy could accommodate the immigration. Furthermore, much of Catalonia was under-populated. The Occitan immigration was vast in scale and by the 1620s, Catalonia had increased its population to around 475,000, a more than doubling in a hundred years.32 Some zones had Occitan populations of around 20 per cent, with cultural and linguistic affinity facilitating integration.33 Occitan surnames survive but in time little cultural or linguistic legacy was left behind.

Barcelona and urban stagnation

By the 1520s, the population of Barcelona was unlikely to be over 25,000 and the city had long ceased being a dominant power in the Mediterranean and had lost markets in North Africa. Trade was no longer a major source of revenue and land became the centre of attention, even for urban-based elites. This was a form of proto-capitalist profit seeking in land which laid the basis for later development. Within the Iberian peninsula, the city of Barcelona was only eighth in terms of size and be described as at best a small- to medium-sized city. As we have seen, the Catalan city had lost its status as the capital of the kingdom and court was transferred to Naples. The gradual process of fusion of Castile and Aragon further reduced the importance of the city. The two other main Catalan cities, Perpinyà and Girona, had also been negatively affected by war with France and were subject to periodic sieges and the plundering of the surrounding countryside. Barcelona faced a long period of stasis and the city ceased for a period to be a dominating presence across the geography of Catalonia. The city was further disrupted by the arrival of plagues. With a Catalan aristocracy increasingly integrating with that of Castile, we can term this period an intermediate phase before the emergence of new social sectors engaged in trade in a new capitalist form. By the 1580s, we can begin to discern urban revival and the emergence of new elites engaged in cultural patronage.34 However, greater potential expansion was limited by the constant piracy along the coast. Usually based in North Africa, these pirates took advantage of conflict between Spain and France to attack the Catalan and Valencia coast. Major actions included the sacking of towns such as Cadaqués and Palamós, as well as Badalona, which was just 10 miles from Barcelona. Catalonia had still not obtained a form of stability that would allow for sustained economic growth.

Catalonia and the Habsburgs

Over the course of the sixteenth century, the monarchy of the Crown of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile was unified under a single monarch under the Habsburg dynasty. This was a new and distinctive form of monarchy and entailed the construction of new narratives of kingship. Spain became the world’s leading power, administering the largest European territory since Charlemagne. Across Europe, whether in England under the Tudors, France or Portugal, monarchies were engaged in processes of creating state administrations and centralisation. This period is marked by the decline of feudalism and transitions to a capitalist form of economy. We also find that European territories are the most dynamic centres of social and economic change, processes that contributed to and facilitated the early form of the nation state. It is in this context that we can discern the increasing integration of Catalonia within Spain and its empire. The comparative size of Catalonia compared to a greater and ascendant Castile gave a degree of inevitability to these trends. Madrid, established as capital of Spain in 1561, accumulated power and centrality, becoming the sole court. Amongst Spanish ruling elites, the ancient rights and privileges of the territories of Aragon, including Catalonia, and local attachment to them, were seen as archaic.

Each monarchical regime has its own distinctive character, and in part depends on the person of the monarch. Some Spanish monarchs exhibited a degree of recognition and understanding to their territories, whilst in other reigns, Catalonia was barely visited at all. We have noted the sources of tensions, including that of the Inquisition. With the emergence of the Protestant Reformation, Spain became the embodiment of religious orthodoxy and central to the European defence of Catholicism. Philip II became the personal incarnation of the Counter-Reformation, his reign lasting 40 years. Philip was determined to crush Protestantism in his dominions and embarked on a lengthy war against the Netherlands. This decades long conflict had major negative consequences for the Spanish economy. As part of the Catholic counter-attack, the Inquisition was expanded and study outside of Spain was prohibited, to prevent access to Protestant heresy. Whilst Protestantism barely impinged on the Catholic orthodoxy of Catalonia, in 1569, inquisitors in Barcelona arrested representatives of the Generalitat in a dispute over jurisdictions. This was one instance of many that contributed to growing fracturing in relations between the local institutions and a remote monarch who only visited Barcelona twice in 40 years. Whilst the broad trends were pointing towards absolutist monarchy in Spain, the king, at war on a range of fronts declined to pursue full political centralisation at this time.35


Spain’s imperial project had been funded by the largest deposit of silver yet found in the world. This silver was usually transferred from South America to Spain via the well-secured ports of the Netherlands. However, the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule, in the second half of the sixteenth century, led to a change in policy and the Mediterranean now became the preferred route for the transfer of bullion. Thus was born the route through Barcelona. Royal convoys also passed through Lleida, as well as Zaragoza to reach Barcelona. Small-scale banditry had long been an issue in the territory due to reduced opportunities on the land and plague. The vast wealth now being transferred throughout Catalan territory changed the dynamic of banditry into something new and highly organised. This new banditry was distinctive because it included the involvement of nobles.36 The potential riches were so great that the new banditry, which co-existed with the old form, became a lord-led form of private warfare. Banditry became a new tool of feudal rivalry and by the late sixteenth century, two main groupings had emerged known by the nicknames of nyerros and cadells.37 As an indication that this form of bandit was an unusual social formation, religious opinion aligned with both groups. The bishop of Vic even dedicated a sonnet in 1609 to one leading bandit.38

Thus, when we speak of banditry in this period we are speaking of two distinctive forms. One variant which had deep roots was that of the small grouping usually defined as the outlaw. As elsewhere such as with Robin Hood, some bandits obtained both local support and social prestige.39 This tradition of banditry created its own myth-history through individuals such as Perot Rocaguinarda, or Joan Sala Ferrer, known as Serrallonga, who was executed in 1634. Catalan topography, containing within some of the most mountainous areas within the Iberian peninsula, was ideally situated to provide refuge as were other areas which were inaccessible to those without local knowledge. The second larger form of banditry became not only a means to accrue vast wealth but also a source of institutional conflict between Catalan elites and the monarchy. Repressive measures by the king’s representative caused bitter conflicts of jurisdiction with the Catalan authorities.40 As well as aristocratic involvement in the banditry, higher Catalan officials declined to participate in the persecution and often provided protection to the bandits. In this sense, what was deemed crime in the eyes of Castile found protection amongst the higher strata of Catalan society.41 Catalonia became strongly associated in Spanish and other eyes as one of Europe’s leading zones of banditry. This issue became one more symptom of a growing estrangement between the Catalan ruling elites and the Spanish Empire.

From the late sixteenth century, the social order provides increasing evidence of social fluidity. Population recovery and growth produced new societal pressures. Whilst a few are able to improve their social status through trade or land consolidation, others now fall into an extreme poverty. We move away from the medieval form of social structure into a hybrid model that contained medieval continuities with features that we can term proto-modern. Changes in ownership forms of property meant the building of a new legal infrastructure. Reduced opportunities on the land meant options for many only included seasonal work as farm labourers and we find a rise in begging and vagrancy. We see the construction of the categories of the deserving and undeserving (idle) poor with only the former entitled to charitable assistance, particularly on the part of the organisations of the Church.42 Charity was overwhelmingly organised within a religious context. In a society in flux, crime adopted an increasingly violent character.43 The emergence of a precarious form of existence outside of the feudal tradition of mutual assistance led to a clear escalation of robbery and other means of survival.44 In this context, we see increasingly the social construction of crime. A distinctive criminal category emerged which only impacted on women.


For around a hundred years from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century, the witch-hunt was particularly intense and affected all of Europe. In a collective wave of persecution mostly centred in the German lands, parts of France and Italy, and Switzerland, at least 60,000 executions were carried out. The wave of repression affected both Catholic and Protestant zones. In general terms, the Spanish monarchy was an exception to the witch-hunt as issues of heresy came within the control of the Inquisition and mass hysteria around witches was subordinated to its procedures. Even so what became by far the worst witch-hunt in early modern Spain broke out in Catalonia. It began north of the Pyrenees in 1614, in the Rosselló zone and continued until 1622. It marks the worst episode of witch-hunting that Catalonia has ever experienced. This craze for persecution began from below and occurred outside of the auspices of the Inquisition.45 The repression against women accused of being witches spread producing between four hundred and a thousand accused. Leading Catalan theologians and jurists called witches a ‘plague’.46 Although the total number of those executed remains unclear, it seems likely that there were at least 150 executions in 50 different locations, mostly found in the central zone of Catalonia.47 Those accused in Catalonia were charged with crimes similar to other persecutions in Europe, being accused of a range of relationships with the devil, including sexual relations. Witches were believed to be part of a universal sect which was presided over by the devil, and whose main aim was to attack the Christian world. All ills befalling communities from the birth of a disabled child or animal to poor harvests were attributed to a witch in a persecutory cycle. The floods of 1617 were given a religious inflection and interpreted as divine punishment. The wave of trials and executions was brought to an end in 1622, when the royal authorities decreed that all accused of witchcraft were to be transferred to the jurisdiction of the local court. Most were soon released and the collective hysteria that had appeared in these years gradually abated.

Towards rupture and revolt

From around the 1580s, the modest recovery of previous decades accelerated producing a general pattern of economic growth until around 1630. The population grew further, and economic activity diversified, though this was an economy geared for export. Surpluses were small but the absence of major shortages was an improvement on previous periods. Barcelona finally embarked on a sustained period of revival, in particular through the textile industry. Rural aristocrats increasingly moved to the Catalan capital as it developed. In parallel, the fusion of the old nobility with the merchant class gave rise to a new urban class formation. However, the fact that major roles were increasingly given to Castilians produced local tensions.48 For a variety of reasons, many of the territories of the vast Spanish kingdom had accumulated grievances by the early seventeenth century and we should situate developments in Catalonia until 1660 within a wider crisis of the Spanish Empire.49 In time Spain would lose the Netherlands, Portugal, Naples and it nearly lost Catalonia. The decline of Spain has long concerned historians with the causes usually attributed to relentless spending on war as well as the exhaustion of silver supplies from the Americas placing the finances close to breaking point. The recovery that Catalonia had begun to experience stalled in the 1630s.50 Economic conditions became grave in much of Spain and although Catalonia was less dramatically impacted, a deteriorating economic context fed into a growing political distrust. In 1617, Catalonia had been subject to the worst torrential rain and flooding known, which can be situated within a more general period of climatic instability.51

As we have seen, some sectors of Catalan society had become politically integrated with the Spanish realm, whilst those based within the local institutions continued to see themselves as representing a native political tradition. In this latter sector, loyalty to the wider institutions of the monarchy was particularly weak.52 The new ruling class that was being forged again prioritised their dominant role in the local institutions over any abiding loyalty to the monarchy. By the 1620s, Catalonia seemed so marginal to the concerns of the wider empire, that the king of Spain no longer felt it necessary to visit the region to carry out the traditional oath to uphold local privileges. Local discontent had been growing due to a perception that these rights were no longer respected by officials, who were usually of non-Catalan origin. With the outbreak of renewed war between France and Spain in 1635, the situation reached breaking point as the geographical location of Catalonia placed it again on the front line. We have noted the ever more explicit trends towards monarchical absolutism, part of a pattern exhibited in other European countries. It was the long-standing exemptions of contributing to military costs that caused a dramatic change in policy led by the king’s advisor, the Count-Duke Olivares. A Catalan contribution was sought repeatedly in the parliaments held between 1626 and 1632. The new demands of Olivares were interpreted as a naked power grab by Madrid. A centralising political administration was resisted by the Catalan institutions.


The revolt of 1640 emerged through two distinct strands: the institutional rebellion of local elites and a popular rebellion led by the peasantry. Early in the war with France, Catalan territory was the battleground with repeated French incursions. Large numbers of Castilian forces were increasingly stationed in the region, and their billeting fell upon the peasantry. We have noted the deteriorating economic conditions, and the housing and feeding of troops became a major source of grievance. It is in this context that Olivares launched what was called the union of arms, meaning that all the territories of the monarchy contributed to the imperial army and required Catalonia to contribute 6,000 soldiers. In the Catalan case, this clashed with its long-standing exemption, which only provided for forced recruitment to defend the territory of the Principality. However, the other two main regions, Aragon and Valencia, supported the new measures and did not rebel. These territories continued their independent political development. The indiscipline of Castilian troops, resentment at another war with France and the attempted erosion of a long-standing political exemption produced the Catalan revolt of 1640.53 Rebellion began with a peasant uprising in June 1640 which the increasingly alienated Catalan elites chose to support, though they remained fearful that it might turn against them. In one sense, these elites had little choice after peasants entered Barcelona and attacked those associated with the monarchy. Catalonia broke with the Spanish monarchy and became a protectorate of France. Catalan forces thus aligned themselves with the French in the war against Spain.

This conflict not only had purely political connotations but was also a class and social war. For over ten years, Catalan territory became subordinated to France though local traditions were upheld. The Generalitat, initially led by the cleric Pau Claris, embodied the political revolt, including a short-lived Republic. Initially, elite interests aligned with those of the peasantry but Catalan rulers became increasingly divided and fearful of the popular war of the peasantry. Peasant grievances now centred on the lodging and feeding of French troops, who had simply seemed to displace one force for another. Anti-French sentiment became as common as that against the Spanish monarchy and institutions. Thus, the revolt saw the peasantry find new oppressors to turn against.54 In 1650, in the final phase of the conflict, the Mediterranean plague (1647–1651) arrived in Catalonia. It decimated the population in a number of areas and reached Girona and Barcelona. This event contributed to the end of Catalan resistance and Barcelona submitted in 1652, bringing to an event the revolt of the Catalans. Whilst Catalonia was restored to the monarchy, Portugal achieved its separation from Spain, which contributed to the general pardon issued by the Spanish monarchy. A renewed commitment to respect Catalan traditions and institutions was made.

Territorial rupture

In parallel to the revolt of the Catalans and the Portuguese, the Thirty Years War came to an end in 1648 and further confirmed the greatly diminished status of Spain. France intervened in both the Portuguese and Catalan revolts and saw them as opportunities to weaken their Spanish rival. The peace agreement between France and Spain of 1659 had major implications for Catalonia. French troops had remained in the zone of Rosselló and Cerdanya. We saw earlier how this zone had been bargained during the Catalan civil war but was returned in 1493. Now in the context of an ascendant France and greatly weakened Spain, this zone was demanded by the French as the price of peace. A new permanent frontier was now imposed between Spain and France in the peace treaty of 1659. This represented a dramatic loss, as Perpinyà had continued to be the second most important city of Catalan territory. Revolts took place against French rule on several occasions, the most serious in 1470. Repression was harsh, with land confiscated and summary executions. In 1672, the Catalan language was displaced by French in both schooling and the church. Further restrictions followed and by the mid-eighteenth century, the language had been largely displaced by French for all public uses. This loss of this area has remained a part of Catalan historical memory and the zone is still called today Catalunya Nord (northern Catalonia). For Catalans, this has further significance in that this territorial loss has been accepted in Spanish political culture whilst that of Gibraltar continues to be a source of contention and resentment. In the Catalan civil war of 1462–1472, we have seen how the conflict had little that could be termed a national conflict, with the mass of the Catalan peasantry siding with a Castilian monarch against Catalan elites. Yet the revolt of 1640, complex and with distinctive positions in Catalan society, can be partly framed within a national context.55 Thus, whilst 1640 was not a nationalist rebellion in the modern sense, neither was it simply a popular revolt absent of a national component.56 Yet the war was later remembered and is still framed by some as a nationalist revolt and the short-lived appearance of the first Catalan Republic is still honoured. Once again, in historical memory, it is the framing of events that matters.


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