Catalonia History: 11th and 12th Centuries.

Catalonia-Catalunya: 11th and 12th Centuries.

Introduction: In the 10th century, the counts of Barcelona, who were successors of the legendary Guifré el Pilós (William the Hairy ca 840 -897), wrestled with rival counts for control over the various counties that made up Catalonia. It was also the time when Catalonia strengthened its independence as a political force by finally breaking its ties with the Frankish kingdom north of the Pyrenees.

This came in 988 when Count Borrell of Barcelona refused to renew his oath of allegiance to the Frankish king after the Franks became too weak to offer help in defending Catalonia from the razzias (raids) of the powerful Muslim caliphate of Córdoba from al-Andalus (as the Moors or Muslims called the land they occupied). 

During the 11th century, the counts of Barcelona, like their Christian rivals to the west (Castile, Navarra, Aragón, León) expanded their lands at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus following the collapse of the caliphate of Córdoba in 1031.

Still, with the marauding Alfonso I el Batallador (the Warrior) of Aragón (1104-34) as their neighbour to the west, expansion was limited mainly to the coastal regions belonging to the taifa** of Lérida (LLeida, a factional offshoot of the larger taifa of Zaragoza).

An ambitious attempt to capture the town of Valencia in 1085 was blocked by the Castilian noble, Rodrigo or Ruy Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid who at the time was serving Alfonso VI, the king of León-Castile  (**Taifas were small Muslim kingdoms that sprang up in the 11th century following the break-up of the caliphate of Córdoba)

Five consecutive counts, confusingly named Berenguer Ramón or Ramón Berenguer ruled through the 11th century into the 12th.  Of these, Count Ramón Berenguer I of Barcelona (r. 1035-1076) was the most formidable. 

Ramon Berenger I’s Sepulchre: Barcelona Cathedral.

By general consensus, it was he who shaped Catalonia as a major player among the Christian kingdoms by uniting all the counties of Catalonia under the county of Barcelona and extending Catalan influence into the south of France through the purchase of a large chunk of Provence. 

He imposed military dominance over several Muslim taifa kingdoms (Lérida/Lleida, Tortosa, Denia), and with the parias (tribute money i. e. acknowledgement of submission and payment for protection) he received from them he was able to bribe many counts into giving up their independence and accepting his leadership. 

In common with many of his fellow Christian rulers of the time, Ramón Berenguer married a woman of the French nobility (in fact, he married three times, each time to a French lady of noble blood!), and encouraged the use of the Benedictine liturgy in church instead of the Mozarab (i. e. Visigothic liturgy). 

Nevertheless, even with all his political accomplishments, Ramón Berenguer I is best remembered by many Catalan historians for having formulated the first code of laws for Catalonia, the Usatges of Barcelona, in 1068. 

Dealing broadly with sovereign law, feudal customs  (they outlined the limits of power of the monarch vis a vis the counts and the townspeople in return for their allegiance), and criminal and civil law, the Usatges were often added to and did not in fact receive final form until early in the 15th century. 

There has been considerable controversy in Catalan circles regarding what remains of the original usatges, but there is agreement that even if only a few of the articles can be traced back directly to Ramón Berenguer I, his decision to enact the usatges was a major step in a new legal system and an important move towards Catalonia’s identity. 

The usatges are seen as one of the cornerstones that define the difference between Catalan and Castilian feudalism.  In general terms, in Catalonia men were under the protection of their lord to whom they owed homage and loyalty, vassals in other words; in Castile –thanks largely to the personal liberty granted in the early fueros (charters of laws, privileges and liberties)– men enjoyed considerable freedom. 

In Catalonia, a vassal who was insulted had to appeal to his lord for justice to be done; in Castile any affront was personal, which allowed the aggrieved individual to seek personal revenge.  In these two early distinctions we see the birth of two historical and antagonistic characteristics attributed to Catalans and Castilians: the Catalan inclination for litigation, the Castilian preference for personal action. 

We can see this difference clearly in their respective attitude towards honour**: a dishonoured Catalan sought legal recompense and disputes were settled by negotiation, a dishonoured Castilian sought revenge.  (**An affront to personal honour becomes one of the major themes of Golden Age drama in Spain; the protagonists are invariably Castilians, as are the most of the authors.  It was a theme that did not catch on in Catalonia.).

In the early years of the 12th century, the future of Catalonia looked promising despite the predatory activities of Alfonso I el Batallador of Aragón and the imperial ambitions of Alfonso VI of León-Castile and his heir Alfonso VII (both of whom assumed the title of Emperor). 

A sense of collective identity can be detected in the appearance for the first time of the word “Cathalonia.”  Important too, the town of Tarragona had been conquered (1099) and there had been further consolidation in Provence through marriage. The greatest danger for Catalonia at this moment was the possible union of its powerful Christian neighbours Castile and Aragón, but an unusual set of circumstances in fact produced an unexpected twist: the merger of Catalonia and Aragón.

The story began when the religious Alfonso I el Batallador of Aragón died without heirs in 1134, and left his kingdom to three military-religious orders: the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Holy Sepulchre.  This eccentric bequest was immediately challenged by the nobles of Aragón who proclaimed Alfonso’s brother, Ramiro –at the time a monk and bishop elect–, as King Ramiro II.

To complicate matters, Alfonso VII of Castile (r. 1126-57) also laid claim to the throne, and backed this up by marching into Zaragoza at the head of a large army.

Petronilla and Ramón Berenger IV.

Ramiro managed to negotiate himself out of trouble,married a French princess, and then frustrated Alfonso VII by pledging his two-year old daughter, Petronilla, and his kingdom to Ramón Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona, in 1137. 

At this point, Ramiro returned to his monastery (still retaining his royal title!), and Ramón Berenguer IV became effective ruler of a new political entity: Aragón-Catalonia. The name given to the new entity was the Crown of Aragón, although Ramón Berenguer continued to call himself Count of Barcelona (when asked why, he is reported to have said: “Because I would be least of kings, but the greatest of counts” (Eaude 50).
(Successors of Ramón Berenguer and Petronilla were titled King of Aragón and Count of Barcelona, and the Catalan branch of the dynasty belonged to the House of Barcelona.)   

Modern national sensitivity plays a role in questioning some terminology here. Most Catalans prefer to call the union of Aragón and Catalonia the  Catalan-Aragonese Confederation or the kingdom of Catalonia and Aragón!  Historically, however, Aragón took precedence because it was a kingdom whereas Catalonia was a conglomeration of counties.

A matter of language, perhaps, but at a time of hierarchical distinctions, it was important; and it gives rise to an anomaly whereby the golden age of Medieval Catalan history –the 13th and 14th centuries– becomes subsumed in the history of Aragón! 

As if this was not enough salt to rub into these historical wounds, Catalans also fret that the names of the subsequent rulers are Aragonese: Alfonso, Pedro etc… and gone are Ramón, Berenguer, Guifré.  And a little more salt… non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings, thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and Petronilla, is Alfonso II, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I.
For a succinct explanation of the difference between the terms “Crown of Aragón” and “Kingdom of Aragón,” see

The merger between Aragón and Catalonia in 1137 came with some conditions that suggest a recognition by the Aragonese that they were in fact the lesser partner: e. g. they had to argue that their customs, privileges (fueros) and institutions be retained.  This was undoubtedly better for the Aragonese nobility than the possible alternative of union with the much more powerful Castile.

Still, the union with Catalonia was not a “lived happily ever after” affair; there were frequent conflicts where interests clashed.  For example, the Aragonese, being an inland community, were not always supportive of Catalan maritime dreams, and being close neighbours to Castile frequently felt the attraction of the larger kingdom, especially when they saw their interests subordinated to those of Catalonia.  The marriage was, in many ways, one of convenience more than mutual admiration.

Crown of Aragón, Other Christian kingdoms and al-Andalus ca. 1150

The new crown got off to a good start when Ramón Berenguer IV conquered Tortosa (1148) and Lérida (LLeida 1149) and reaffirmed Catalan control over Provence. His successor (Alfons I r. 1162-96) added his bit, taking the towns of Caspe and Teruel, but Ramón Berenguer IV’s grandson, Pere I (Pedro II of Aragón r 1196-1213), found himself entangled in a religious conflict that in the end cost him his life and Catalonia its territory in the south of France.

This was the time when the famous Albigensian controversy erupted in the south of France, embroiling several interested parties: the papacy, the king of France, the powerful count of Toulouse, and Catalonia.

The Albigensians, or Cathars to many, were heretics who taught that matter is evil and that Christ did not take really undergo human birth or death. To counter this heresy, the pope called for a crusade, a call that was answered by Philippe Auguste, king of France, although less for religious reasons than for an opportunity to expand his kingdom to the Mediterranean. 

The man who headed the northern barons and was charged with cleansing the region was the ruthless and ambitious Simon de Montford, who in 1208 unleashed a vicious war against the Albigensians that lasted over 15 years.  Pere I (Pedro II of Aragón) was involved at the same time in the crucial campaign against the Almohads at the Battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212), and initially attempted to find a peaceful solution.  

His decision to side with the Count of Toulouse (to whom he was related by marriage), not only led to his death in the battle of Muret in 1213 but set in motion events that would lead eventually to the end of Catalonia’s rule in Provence (1246) in the face of northern French expansionism.

Capdeferro, Marcelo    Historia de Cataluña Barcelona 1967
Carrasco, Juan et al    Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford UP 2008.
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992
Mestre I Godes, Jesús    Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
Image of Petronilla and Ramón Berenguer IV:
Image of Ramón Berenguer I’s sepulchre: By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,,_Count_of_Barcelona