Historical Analysis of the Catalan Identity

by Flocel Sabaté (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 464 Pages


The book derives from an European Science Foundation project about the cohesion of European regions developed between 2010 and 2013. Flocel Sabaté led into this framework a team of fourteen scholars looking for the reason of the cohesion and permanence of Catalonia from Middle Ages to current days. This collective book arrives at an updated explanation, far from neoromantic visions and attentive to social vectors, such as socioeconomical convergence, external and internal perception, social representation, institutional development, creation of a justificative discourse and influence of the law, the language, the art and other cultural items.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Catalonia among the Longstanding Regions in Europe
  • Medieval Roots
  • The Medieval Roots of Catalan Identity
  • Modern History
  • The Centuries Ushering in Modernity: Identity, State and Nation
  • “Catalans” and “Spaniards”: Two Chosen Peoples for a Single Promised Land
  • Catholics and Catalans: Religion in Catalan Identity in the 16th and 17th Centuries
  • France and the Formation of Political and Social Identities in 17th Century Catalonia
  • Catalan National Identity in the 18th Century. The War of the Spanish Succession and the Bourbon Regime
  • Contemporary History
  • The Contemporary World: An Increasingly Noticeable Distinct Identity
  • Catalonia: Unique Consciousness and Collective Identity in the First Half of the 19th Century. Notes and Considerations
  • The Advent and Politicisation of Distinct Catalan Identities (1860-1898)
  • What Made Catalonia Unique (1901-1939)
  • Catalan Identity in the Years of a Spanishist Dictatorship
  • Cross-cutting topics
  • The Language: Vehicle for Transmission of Catalan Identity throughout History
  • A Survey of the Legal History of Catalonia and its Historical Rights
  • Architecture, Power and Identity in Medieval Catalonia: Challenges of Recovering and Re-creating Identity
  • Series Index

← 6 | 7Preface

Joandomènec Ros

Institut d’Estudis Catalans

At the end of Notícia de Catalunya, Jaume Vicens Vives said:

El primer resort de la psicologia catalana no és la raó, com en els francesos; la metafísica com en els alemanys; l’empirisme, com en els anglesos; la intel·ligència, com els italians; o la mística, com en els castellans. A Catalunya el mòbil primari és la voluntat d’ésser1.

The first trait of the Catalan psychological makeup is not reason like the French, meta­physics like the Germans, empiricism like the English, intelligence like the Italians or mysticism like the Castilians. In Catalonia, the most important impetus is the drive to be.

Another eminent thinker, Josep Ferrater Mora, in Les formes de la vida catalana2, mentioned the four concepts that he believed defined Catalan culture and society: continuity, seny (“wisdom”), measure and irony. When did this drive to be first appear? Were seny, measure, irony (we shall leave continuity for later) traits of the earliest Catalans?

This collective volume does not strive to go so far, and it’s a lucky thing: the media still report on that grotesque statement made by a Spanish politician claiming that the Spanish nation has three thousand years of history… In the words of this book’s coordinator, Flocel Sabaté, the authors of the texts have “tried to untangle the reasons that have kept Catalonia together and somehow prolonged the defining features with which population itself has identified, and which have been the object of outside perception”. That is: what we Catalans are like, and what characteristics define us to ourselves and to the world.

Obviously, the first characteristic is being recognised (by ourselves and others) as belonging to a unique nation different to all others. And this ← 7 | 8happened quite early on, in the Middle Ages (in the late 9th century, based on document sources, or perhaps earlier, although there are no sources to confirm it). While the origin of the words català (“Catalan”) and Catalunya (“Catalonia”) are still shrouded in mystery, they were used quite early to distinguish the nationals and the nation. The different authors of this book, which is the outcome of a European research project, survey the advent of these terms over the course of the centuries and the features that were associated with them, and they discuss the unique features that shape the Catalan identity; that is, our hallmarks.

The coordinator of the volume, who was also the lead researcher in the project, recognises that “the political and social model” influences identity, “which […] contributes to consolidating the discourses of collective identity […]. Therefore, the cohesion of a region should be sought not so much in physical or even cultural features but in the evolution and acceptance of the different elements that articulate power and its fit within the land, always superimposed over the social and economic realities”.

These social and economic realities are far-ranging, and they are examined by the different authors to a greater or lesser extent. Identification with the land, the language, the religion, the politics, the literature, the history, the law, the flag, industry, Europeanism, associationism, Nova Cançó, architecture and art have been the catalysts of our identity at different points in time.

Likewise (as Cristian Palomo, another author, notes), much of Catalan identity comes from the misdeeds of the Spaniards (standing army, civil servants) and the French (invasions, several wars); here I would add the anti-­Francoism of the second third of the 20th century. Therefore it is a response to an aggression (physical, against the people and assets, or psychological, against the language, customs and law). This reaction against the outside enemy, which binds a society together, is a well-known phenomenon in human societies, and it poses a disturbing question: should we thank the enemies that our country has had throughout its history for our collective identity? An opposing phenomenon is assimilation, which also occurs and works in the opposite direction: the dilution of the identity of a small or vanquished country within the all-encompassing identity of a larger or victorious one.

This is a clear parallel with a well-known ecological phenomenon, and it is one of the modest handful of non-historical, but instead biological, contributions, that I can make to a fascinating historical treatise of ← 8 | 9the topic at hand. It refers to the morphological and behavioural differences in the species of living beings of similar ecological niche (that is to say, of function) and morphology in those geographic areas in which their respective distributions overlap: each species tends, through divergent evolution, to differ more from the other that in the situations in which their distribution does not overlap (and, therefore, they do not compete), where behaviour and morphology are more homogeneous. There is a segregation (morphological, ethological, ecological, etc.) to avoid competing for the same resources when the distribution is sympatric3.

There is yet another factor which merits an ecological interpretation: given that from very early on Catalonia was a country that was frequently transited, as it still is today, what led it to achieve the “Catalanisation” of those who came here from elsewhere either peacefully or through war? What is it about this physical environment, as well as cultural environment (language, character, institutions; that is, the culture) that “grabs” them? Is it the country’s genius loci that makes it stand out from the other countries on the Iberian Peninsula or Europe and renders it so appealing? (Here we mean genius loci not in the classical architectural or artistic sense but precisely as the entire set of features that define the region, the country and Catalan identity).

And finally we have the biological approach. Studies of the DNA of the Y-chromosome of the bearers of around 50 Catalan surnames4 show, among many other findings, an appearance and later consolidation of the surnames centuries ago, with the family lines that bear these names having a wide variety of backgrounds (Occitanian, German, French, Italian, Arab, Jewish, etc.). Since our earliest days, we have been a melting pot, a country of ethnic diversity. Perhaps now would be the time to add to the historical and geographic names of Catalunya Vella (“Old Catalonia”) and Catalunya Nova (“New Catalonia”) Catalunya Novíssima (“Extremely New Catalonia”) to denote the entire population of the Principality today, a blend of diverse roots and the outcome of this constant integration, yet with the common feelings and objectives of a shared identity.

← 9 | 10Precisely this mixture of different people and cultures in a clearly defined social entity unique from its surroundings is notable, because it seems logical that the features of the original Catalans would have become blurred. The mixture of peoples (and genes) from different places should have homogenised not only the morphological features but also the social and cultural characteristics into a totum revolutum in which no particular identity would stand out but instead they would together become more similar to the countries around them, the origin of many of the immigrants. Yet that has not been the case. Instead there has been a kind of adaptation to this genius loci mentioned above. It is that “drive to be” that Vicens stressed, and to be different to others and to share with their fellow countrymen aspirations, customs, pursuits and beliefs.

Having reached this point, I cannot fail to mention an imaginary example of cultural isolation in much older human communities than the ones examined in this book, but it may serve to capture how the lack of isolation can dilute those cultural differences. It comes from the original version of Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind:

For example, there’s every reason to believe that a forager band that lived 30,000 years ago on the spot where Madrid now stands would have spoken a different language from one living where Barcelona is now situated. One band might have been belligerent and the other peaceful. Perhaps the Castilian band was communal while the Catalan one was based on nuclear families. The ancient Castilians might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits, whereas their Catalan contemporaries may have worshiped through dance. The former perhaps believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense. In one society, same-sex sexual relationships might have been accepted, while in the other they were taboo5.

(The Spanish version of the book6 – my doing – is faithful to this original, but curiously, in the Catalan version of the same book7, the places are changed and the customs of their inhabitants are, too: whereas the author makes the comparison between Madrid and Barcelona, the translator makes it between Barcelona and Lleida. Might this be an attempt to make the text more politically correct?).

← 10 | 11But let us return to this book. There may be more aspects we could consider, beyond the historical, linguistic, legal and architectural ones; other cultural traits (myths, literature, music – choral singing, the sardana dance – and art), the economy, the geography, immigration itself, sports, politics…). Some of these issues are addressed in a collective work8 that shares some of the objectives and authors with this book, and that also concludes that we Catalans have a clearly distinct identity from the peoples around us:

s’ha produït en la Catalunya contemporània la fixació d’uns trets identitaris col·lectius que amb una intensitat major o menor han acabat contribuint a la fixació de […] la moderna identitat nacional catalana9.

In contemporary Catalonia, certain collective identity traits have been established which have ended up contributing, more or less intensely, to establishing […] the modern Catalan national identity.

The Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC) is also known for being a key piece in the forging of this Catalan identity, especially in the sphere of culture, for over a century. If we survey the IEC’s research, activities and publications since it was founded by Enric Prat de la Riba in 1907, we realise that it has shaped the cultural identity of Catalonia and the Catalan-speaking lands through its active research, study, publication and dissemination of scholarship in Catalan in fields like Romanesque art, archaeological excavations, cartography of vegetation, biomedical research, laying the foundation and setting the rules for the Catalan language and geographic studies, to name only a few areas of research.

Aware of the outstanding research that this book has produced, the Presidency of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans did not hesitate to help get it published. It worked with the Department of the Presidency of the Generalitat de Catalunya to produce an English-language version which will ensure that it reaches all points on the globe. The work deserves it, and the historical circumstances that Catalonia is currently experiencing clearly advocate on behalf of this book’s second international life.← 11 | 12

1Jaume Vicens, Notícia de Catalunya (Barcelona: Edicions Destino, 1982, p. 225.

2Josep Ferrater, Les formes de la vida catalana i altres assaigs (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1980).

3Ramon Margalef, Ecología (Barcelona: Omega, 1974).

4Neus Solé-Morata, Jaume Bertranpetit, David Comas, Francesc Calafell, “Y-chromosome in surname samples: Insights into surname frequency and origin”, European Journal of Human Genetics (forthcoming); Jaume Bertranpetit, dir., Un atles genètic i lingüístic dels cognoms catalans (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 2014).

5Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind (London: Harvill Secker, 2014), p. 57.

6Yuval Noah Harari, De animales a dioses: Breve historia de la humanidad (Barcelona: Debate-Penguin Random House, 2014), pp. 60-61.

7Yuval Noah Harari, Sàpiens. Una breu història de la humanitat (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2014).

8Jordi Casassas, coord., Les identitats a la Catalunya contemporània (Cabrera de Mar: Galerada, 2009).

9Jordi Casassas, “Introducció”, Les identitats a la Catalunya..., pp. 9-15.

← 12 | 13Catalonia among the Longstanding Regions in Europe


Universitat de Lleida and Institut d’Estudis Catalans

Why do some territories retain their identity throughout the centuries despite border changes or the lack of state recognition? What are the reasons that bind regions together, and why do they differ from place to place? Is it physical or human geography? In other words, when speaking about regions we are actually speaking about the people who have brought them to life over the centuries and who therefore adapt to different situations of cohesion and survival under motivations that can vary depending on the places or time, through the acceptance of referents and of quite differing values, be they cultural, economic, social, dynastic or others.

When the latest changes in Europe’s ideologies and structure in the late 20th century were veering towards models of political articulation that would bring new frameworks between regions and supra-state structures, territorial identifications and referents re-emerged, either spontaneously or induced, yet in all cases they often harked back to longstanding territorial invocations. Historians welcomed the challenge of inquiring into the raison d’être of certain regions’ secular identifications precisely as some political scientists were simultaneously revisiting expressions such as neo-medievalism to refer to the return to societies with identifying features that were quite similar to those from prior to 1648, that is, polycentric societies that were characterised by the permeability of borders, the ambiguity of authority, the transnationalism of the elites, a supranational system of values, the transfer of communication and the combination of local identities and globalising authorities1. The variety of situations necessitated a comparative analysis which would more deeply explore both the respective studies and the interrelations in order to ascertain what they had in common.

← 13 | 14With this shared goal, in 2007 numerous European historians embarked upon a fruitful joint reflection on these issues. This led to a Europe-wide research project carried out between 2010 and 2013 with the support of the European Science Foundation. The project has been dense and complex while yielding its fruit: eight teams have performed their own research on their respective regions, while a shared reflection was undertaken in order to attain an exchange of relations with which we could define the essential points of the topic at hand. This book is thus the culmination of the efforts of the team of researchers who conducted the specific research on Catalonia as part of this project. We have studiously striven to explore the reasons that have kept Catalonia together and have somehow contributed to the survival of the defining features with which the people have identified themselves, which have also been perceptible outside Catalonia. In this way, inquiring into the cohesion of Catalonia is synonymous with rising to the challenge of revising traditional explanations which might be now obsolete, and to historically analyse Catalan identity using modern scholarly tools and comparing it to its European setting.

1. Research issues

At the turn of the 20th to 21st centuries, a new epistemological approach to the study of history is gaining ground2 at the same time as a new global vision is being sought3. This is clearly the consequence of the worldwide changes taking place at the same time, which are imposing on every society contradictory stimuli swinging between globalization and a reinforcement of the local4. All of this dovetails with the striking political changes in the articulation of Europe, especially in terms of the increasing permeability ← 14 | 15of the borders among European Union member states and the delegation of competences to supra-state entities. This in itself is shattering the model accepted since the Treaty of Westphalia in 16485, which was based on fully independent states behind their respective borders, an approach that had been reinforced since the 19th century6 by the assumed equivalence of nation and state7, adapted to a series of specific cases8, which actually swallowed up supra-national states after World War I9. At the same time, the early 20th century ideological alternatives which interpreted the nation-state as an instrument of domination and the encroachment of capitalism in favour of the interests of the bourgeoisie also inevitably referred to packages of collective identity, albeit at times with other referents as well10.

These identities are based on cultural features that are in the blood of those who participate in them, thus infusing an indelible, non-­transferrable mixture of language, nation and people, as Herder posited in the early 19th century11. In any event, from a different perspective, a few decades earlier Rousseau advised not only promoting but also basing society on national identities, as he viewed them as remote from the motives of politicians and yet part and parcel of the values that truly keep each society together12. Society, therefore, might have a cohesive meaning in itself. Not for nothing: since the 17th century, societies have been expressing a cohesive meaning around the consideration of patriotism, with all the connotations inherent in the belonging and specific feeling of affection entailed in ← 15 | 16identifying with a given human collective and the land it occupies13. This nonetheless refers to the notion of collective solidarity that characterises the different organisational aspects of society in the modern centuries14.

In reality, there is a clear continuity between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age through the concepts of community and social solidarity15. Medieval rules are precisely the ones that provide the needed theological, philosophical and legal validity16, thus complementing the legal formulations that upheld participative figures, which are quite clear in the political system17. The often-invoked concern with the common good18 was found at the core of the respective justifying discourses, which sought a favourable position in the discussion and gestation of the balance of an agreed-upon power as the only possible way of governing19. This is the participative formula promoted by the diversity in possession of power, by the roots of the estates, while it is also able to complete the political and social tensions with a painstakingly devised political and legal theory: “ideal government and the mixed constitution”, to put it in the consolidated words of James M. Blythe20.

← 16 | 17Repeatedly since the 13th century, this European context, characterised by group solidarities21 and representative invocations22, identified certain collectives as nations, as the bearers of certain shared cultural features23. This is the same term that designated specific peoples – Germanorum natione24 – in the classical world and early Middle Ages, the reason why in the 3rd century Tertullian was able to refer to the natione iudaeorum, just as in the 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux mentioned Saint Malachy as natione quidem Hibernus25. Under the parameters of the late Middle Ages, one expected the members of a given nation to show similar behaviours, like a new, higher circle of solidarity26. The goal was to capture a unit of behaviour and even feeling, as if it were a single body27 that had evolved jointly from a specific founding moment in accordance with the coeval justifying narratives28. The consolidation of sovereign power over ← 17 | 18a specific nation29 or over a plurality of different ones30 could not avoid the diversity of power in the conception at the time, leading to the consolidation of the estates31 and their corollary invocation of representativeness32. In the 14th century, the duality between the sovereign and the estates allowed the latter to increasingly be viewed as representative of the “land”.

In this way, the political and social model, which entails the need to justify representativeness33, contributes to consolidating the discourses of collective identity. The institutional approaches that stem therefrom, through the implementation of an articulation over the land, shape it and enable society, territory and institutions to become intertwined. Survival is only guaranteed when the institutional framework matches the social reality already in place, such that the territory becomes a mirror of the social reality and, for that very reason, can host an institutional structure in line with the social, economic and jurisdictional reality34.

The cohesion of a land, therefore, should be sought not so much in certain physical or even cultural features but in the evolution and acceptance of different elements that articulate power and its fit within the region, always within given social and economic parameters. The bonds between the capitals and their areas of influence create coherent territorial units in a Europe of cities and regions, while the local social and economic elites that set up their interests there also promote discourses that justify their access to political power in order to broaden the scope of their position and that of the territory they formally represent. The culmination ← 18 | 19of this dynamic in institutional formulas consolidates the trajectory. This is a quite coherent dynamic within late medieval ideological parameters, which stand on Roman law, Aristotelian referents and the adaptation of Christianity, thus creating a conceptual context which can fit the different realities. For this reason, even though they wielded similar arguments, the evolutions were so different around Europe, in line with the respective balance of forces that might exist in each place.

In any event, the state consolidations in the Modern Age sought a centrality that collided with the medieval participative models35. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the institutional structures with which the whole was governed clearly gained ground in the different European countries, while the different social and territorial referents were integrated, which gave rise to differing degrees of fit with the spatial cohesions inherited from the Middle Ages36. In fact, by thus consolidating a superior state framework, the exit of the Middle Ages has been posited as the shift de la région à la nation (“from the region to the nation”), meaning the time when all the inferior or intermediate stages lost prominence37. However, the levels of solidarity and bonds under the state constructions were retained in many cases and in different scenarios, often coupled with clear socioeconomic capitalities endowed with differing degrees of cultural features and differing levels of social representativeness and political participation.

This constancy gave rise to different formulas of fit and in all cases led to assumptions of collective identity in certain regions which, drew from the appropriate historical tales. This, in turn, led to constant looping between historical explanations and justifying discourses in a different direction, all of them sharing the projection into the past. Clearly, the map of Europe was constantly shifting with contrasting tensions under different interests, with contrasting collective identity discourses which sought justification in a remote historical origin and its evolution. This is a reality ← 19 | 20that blurs the vision of the past while also spurring the historian’s role. The non-negligible challenge of this was captured by Eric Hobsbawm:

The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society. The problem for historians is to analyse the nature of this “sense of the past” in society and to trace its changes and transformations38.

2. Our ESF research project

The positing of similar historical roots which, adapted to the respective circumstances, govern the processes of social cohesion and, as a corollary, territorial cohesion, that were shared in medieval Europe led a group of European historians to seek a scientific and institutional framework of collaboration in order to engage in regional research while also enjoying an opportunity to compare their findings. To this end, in 2007, under the coordination of Dick de Boer, medievalists from twelve European universities began to explore the possibilities offered by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme to inquire into the Europe’ historical roots. Soon, however, we noticed that the ideal framework was the Eurocores Programme, through which the European Science Foundation had been stimulating partnerships among research groups from different countries on common issues since 2005. The specific sub-programme entitled European Comparisons in Regional Cohesion, Dynamics and Expressions (EuroCORECODE), whose first call for participation was being prepared in 2009, took shape as the ideal venue for a comparative study on the formative origins and elements of cohesion of the European regions.

Given this, throughout 2008 and 2009 a group of medievalists from different European research groups held scholarly meetings in Bochum39 and Wassenaar. The purpose of these meetings was to fine-tune a common research plan in order to seek the elements at the core of the social cohesions that have strengthened numerous regions so much that they have ← 20 | 21been able to survive over time and through different historical evolutions, including the articulation of the states under national invocations. To do this, we needed to examine a wide range of factors and compare the most important reasons in each individual case, such as physical space, language and other cultural elements, the importance of dynasty, the dynamics of social cohesion and the discourses legitimising different groups. Therefore, we had to establish a broad, extensive Europe-wide research project that would enable us to more deeply analyse the importance of the different elements in given regions while also comparing them in order to achieve a comprehensive, reliable picture. With these purposes in mind, duly expressed in the research goals, and with a working plan designed Europe-wide, in 2009 we submitted the research project to the European Science Foundation, and it was approved and promoted so that the research could be conducted between 2010 and 201340.

Thus it was that in 2010 we embarked upon the studies through a scholarly kick-off meeting held in Copenhagen. Given the obvious complexity stemming from the plurality of factors and the large number of researchers who had to be coordinated in a research project that was actually an entire web of projects in order to gain further insight into each region while also moving towards a view of the whole, it was necessary to devise a specific research project in each of the regions being studied, all under joint academic coordination. These regions included Guelders-Lower Rhine, Bohemia, Livonia, Portugal, Schleswig-Holstein, Silesia, Transylvania and Catalonia41. This is a range of regions chosen carefully, within the possibilities afforded by European financing, which enabled us to compare regions where the factors behind cohesion were perceived to be quite varied, and which have evolved under quite diverse historical fates, although the awareness of regional identity has persisted in all of them. Two working levels were proposed, each to be explored over the course of three years: one performed by each team in the respective region they were studying aimed at capturing and outlining the key elements of the process in the ← 21 | 22region, while also taking note of its corresponding evolution; and a second more complex comparative level aimed at attaining a global, Europe-wide perspective that would weigh the different factors that played a role and the reasons why these factors became more or less important depending on the place and the circumstances. For the benefit of scholarly research, we also added a third level by holding scientific meetings with the two other projects that the European Science Foundation was financing within the same sub-programme42. This enabled us to attain broader and more extensive comparisons, such as between the founding periods, modern and even contemporary periods and today, as noted in the working meetings held in Glasgow, Alba Iulia and Arnhem between 2012 and 2013.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
History Regional identity National identity Language Catalonia
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 464 pp., 30 b/w ill., 13 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Flocel Sabaté (Volume editor)

Flocel Sabaté is professor of Medieval History in the University of Lleida (Catalonia, Spain), member of Institut d’Estudis Catalans and related to the academies of History of Spain, France and the United States. He has served as invited professor at the universities of Paris-I, Poitiers, México, Yale and Cambridge, and is doctor honoris causa by the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (Argentina).


Title: Historical Analysis of the Catalan Identity
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