return to n║49

by Pilar VÚlez
director of the frederic marÚs museum

This year, Barcelona is celebrating the 750th anniversary of the creation of the city's municipal government. In was in 1249 when King James I conceded the city the privilege of self-goverment. Thus, over more than four hundred fifty years, the responsibility for the administration of Barcelona rested with the "Consellers" (executive councillors) and a main governing body called "Consell de Cent Jurats" ( Council of One Hundred Magistrates), until the defeat suffered in 1714 during the War of the Spanish Succession. The period of greatest splendour in that long era of self-government coincides with the Lower Middle Ages, the centuries during which Barcelona developed and shaped its urban personality, while Gothic consolidated itself as the style characteristic of the city's artistic language. Gothic Barcelona also provided the setting for the most prosperous period in the history of the Consellers' government. The following dossier is intended to present our readers with an accurate profile of the city at that time.

by Xavier HernÓndez Cardona and Joan Santacana Mestre
historians at the university of barcelona

In the mid-13th century, the layout of Barcelona displayed a peculiar aspect : the old Roman walls which, in a manner of speaking, marked the perimeter of the city, appeared to be completely surrounded by a string of newly-founded smaller towns that kept expanding. In the times of King James I, in parallel with the significant organizational and economic changes that were taking place during that period, the city authorities decided to build a series of new walls that would establish Barcelona's territorial boundaries more precisely, making a clear-cut distinction between the urban nucleus proper and the surrounding area, while also serving as a protection against outside enemies.

The 13th century walled city's perimeter extended over some 5.000 metres, including an open seaward part, and enclosed a 131 hectare urban area, whereas the size of the Roman walled city had not exceeded 10 hectares. Barcelona thus covered an area of land ten times larger than in earlier times. (...)

From the second half of the 13th century onwards, in parallel with the expansion of Gothic, the urban style par excellence, Barcelona underwent an extraordinary architectural as well as urbanistic development which would leave indelible marks on the city and shape its personality forever. (...)

The construction of a new cathedral began around the end of the 13th century : the old Romanesque cathedral remained enclosed within the building site and it was gradually dismantled while the new construction was being erected. Surrounding the new See of Barcelona, numerous ecclesiastical outbuildings and palaces were built, among them the "Pia Almoina", the Deanery and the Archdeacon's house. Besides, the Episcopal Palace, the Sant Sever hospital, the Canons' House and other neighbouring constructions were remodelled and enlarged.

(...) The old urban nucleus within the Roman walls was characterized by a disproportionate concentration of social and political power that manifested itself in the large number of institutional seats and other important buildings in a relatively small area. The Monarchy, the Church, the Municipal institutions, the Catalan Generalitat autonomous government, all the powers that be had erected their seats next to each other, a fact that was undeniable proof of the structure-providing role Barcelona played in the construction of Catalonia, and vice versa, because it also proved that Barcelona was the product of the situation in its vast and restless hinterland.

The first "counts-kings" of the Catalan-Aragonese Crown had made Barcelona their de facto capital, but they also managed to take advantage of the valuable initiatives the growth of the city itself had generated. A strong and rich Barcelona was in fact a guarantee of sustained power for a Crown that provided institutional cohesiveness to a feudal state the members of which tended to display centrifugal tendencies. Such a symbiotic relationship between the Catalan-Aragonese Crown and the city really benefited both parties. Barcelona, as a Royal City, enjoyed special privileges as well as the Crown's support in all its undertakings, while the Crown recognized and used the increasingly powerful influence of a city that nevertheless remained loyal as a basis for the legitimization of its own authority.

The city of Barcelona was becoming the true driving force behind the Catalan-Aragonese Crown, more particularly in terms of international politics and influence, at the same time as its instrumental role in the country's territorial structuring was being confirmed. (...)

Barcelona experienced a truly vertiginous development during the 13th and 14th centuries; the city expanded immoderately and its population increased up to 40.000 inhabitants or maybe even more, aside from the transients. Barcelona was growing inwards, following increasingly complex working and organizational patterns, as well as outwards, asserting its institutional influence and making great strides on the strength of its citizens' private initiatives. During the 13th century, the city achieved full recognition as a major administrative, social and economic centre.

As an institution, Barcelona asserted its direct authority over an increasingly vast area; the whole plain surrounding the city was under its juridiction, but the city's influence extended over a much larger area. Many Catalan towns wished to free themselves from feudal rule and endeavoured to put themselves under the juridiction of Barcelona, geographical distances notwithstanding. (...)

Within the city's walled perimeter, you could find a mixed, wide-ranging social universe, a motley population in which residents coexisted with transients. The city's aristocracy was comprised of a few families, the "honourable citizens". That urban oligarchy constituted the "mà major" and would form the main body of the urban patrician class whose members would group together in a kind of party called the "Biga". (...)

The city's population also included a series of socially marginal groups as well as slaves from Eastern and African countries. Jews formed another important community. They lived in the area of the Larger and Smaller "Calls" (as Jewish quarters were called in Catalonia), within the old walled Roman city; they had the use of several synagogues and would soon become a flourishing community whose main line of business was financial transactions and money-lending, or other very specialized trades.

From the 13th century onwards, a large number of convents of diverse kinds occupied a significant part of Barcelona, more particularly outside the old walled Roman city, in the Raval area.

The great Gothic, cosmopolitan and universal Barcelona thus thrived in its true heyday but, from the middle of the 14th century, external as well as internal events and conjunctures sparked off a whole series of variables that the city proved unable to either prevent or overcome. Barcelona eventually outlived that long succession of crises and even managed to maintain its position, though it became somewhat fossilized, but the city lacked the capacity for further expanding its area of influence and the power it had built up during that former glorious period. A major contributing factor to this decline was the "Black Death", the epidemic of bubonic plague that scourged the city and spread over Catalonia as it did over the whole of Europe. In the year 1348, the plague broke out in Barcelona where it would cause up to three hundred deaths per day.

The war led by Pepe the Ceremonious against Castile proved to be very costly, but worse conflicts would come afterwards. (...)

The impact of the situation in Turkey is also to be taken into consideration. In effect, the expansion of the Ottoman empire through the Balkan Peninsula, Anatolia, Palestine and Northern Africa made it harder for Westerners to gain access to the commercial ports that used to be part of their trading routes in the East, thus contributing to the general decline of Mediterranean trade. (...)

Barcelona's unfavourable strategic situation in relation to the Atlantic was another hindrance. So, at the beginning of the 16th century, Barcelona's days of power and splendour were numbered. Even though Barcelona would continue to be a large and important city under the Hapsburgs' rule, it would never again be the decisively influential and powerful urban centre it used to be in the Middle Ages.

by SebastiÓ Riera Viader
historian, historical archives of barcelona

(...) King Jaume I died two years after he had conceded that last privilege. His son, Pere the Great, would later be led to take the final steps which culminated in the creation of Barcelona's municipality. The privilege granting the city some degree of self-government had initially been conceded in 1274 for a period of ten years. However, at the time when it was due to be renewed, Catalonia and its king were facing a very delicate military and political situation. In the year 1282, Pere the Great had conquered the island of Sicily, an action which had prompted the outbreak of a war with Philip III of France, who considered that the Catalan-Aragonese Crown's policy of expansion in Italy was prejudicial to his own interests. In an attempt to mobilize the support of all the kingdoms that formed the feudal state under his rule, King Pere the Great summoned a general meeting of the "Cortes", the Catalan-Aragonese parliament. During that meeting, held in Barcelona in 1283, the representatives of the city presented the king with a series of petitions aimed at reinforcing Barcelona's municipal autonomy. In answer to those petitions - opportunely negotiated at a time when the Catalan-Aragonese king was politically weakened and in a rather difficult position -, Pere II officially conceded the privilege called "Recognoverunt proceres" to the city of Barcelona on January 11th, 1284.

Such a privilege served to confirm the provisions regarding the city's municipal government included in Jaume I's earlier decree, generically as well as perpetually - until then, all Barcelona's municipal privileges had in fact been conceded on a provisional basis - and to ratify the pre-eminence of the "Consellers" (members of the city council) over the "Veguer" in local terms. The contents of the "Recognoverunt proceres" document, corroborated by subsequent Catalan-Aragonese kings, became the real foundation of the municipality's statutes, eventually completed and extended through the concession of additional privileges in later years.

At the beginning, the different municipal activities and meetings took place in the Royal Palace itself. However, the "Consell de Cent" (Council of one Hundred) soon chose the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina, a magnificent Gothic building, as its official seat, holding its sessions in a set of rooms close to the gate house. That situation lasted until 1369 when, due to serious disagreement between the Council and the inquisitors - who were Dominican - the "Consellers" decided to move to the Framenors convent as a temporary arrangement, while they were building their own seat. The "Saló de Cent" (the Hall of One Hundred), the most important space within the new building, was ready as soon as 1373, and the Gothic façade was completed in 1402. Barcelona could at last boast a "Casa de la Ciutat" (City Hall) worthy of its position.

The municipality's system of government did not substantially vary from the time of the concession of the "Recognoverunt proceres" privilege until the middle of the 15th century. The reason for the changes that took place at that time was the serious crisis that had been affecting Barcelona from the middle of the 14th century on. There were in fact numerous contributing factors to that uneasy situation : the imbalance between agrarian production and the population's actual food requirements; the demographic crisis and the decrease in the city's population after a period of severe epidemics; the financial crisis prompted by numerous cases of bankruptcies among private banks and the excessive indebtedness of the institutions; the significant reduction in the volume of international trade - and therefore in profit -; the social crisis that hit the agrarian community and resulted in the emergence of the "Remença" peasants' movement. The crisis also had more clearly political aspects that stemmed from the confrontation between an authoritarian conception of the monarchy, defended by the sovereigns and their entourage, and the radical, pact-orientated conception championed by the country's oligarchies.

More concretely in Barcelona, the crisis manifested itself through the breaking-off of the "statu quo" which had made goverment by the city's oligarchy (the so-called "honourable citizens") possible since the establishment of the municipal institution. The gap between social groups had considerably widened and there were increasingly strong attacks on the oligarchical goverment. The city was actually divided into two factions or parties : the "Biga" and the "Busca". The "Biga" - the Catalan word for "beam", the thick bar of wood that supports the weight of a building or, symbolically in that case, the weight of the city - was mainly formed by the "honourable citizens", which is to say the members of the upper bourgeoisie - that, in some cases, had ties of kinship with the lesser aristocracy -, some enriched merchants who had made their fortune in the large-scale importation trade, and other persons of independent means. The economic measures taken by the "Bigaires" - members of the "Biga" - from the municipal governing bodies they controlled ran couter to the interests of the social sectors linked to productive economy, represented by local craftmen. The latter therefore decided to group together within a party called the "Busca" - i.e. the splinter of wood, the sprig, as opposed to the "Biga", the beam -, a party that also welcomed the participation of a few "honourable citizens", mainly merchants and artists who individually chose to side with the "Busca" as a matter of personal preference.

However, according to the legislation in force at that point in time - let's recall that executive municipal power rested with the councillors appointed on the basis of a co-optation system -, the "Biga" was guaranteed the perpetuation of its predominance in the municipal goverment. In such a political context, a tactical alliance between the monarchy and the "Buscaires" - members of the "Busca" - was forged, given that both parties happened to have the same ennemy : the powerful urban oligarchy that was as much opposed to the monarchy's claim to pre-eminence as to the reformist politics upheld by the "Buscaires".

As King Alfons the Magnanimous had taken up residence in far-off Naples, the solution to the conflict was left in the hands of his lieutenant generals, so that first Queen Maria and, in later years, Galceran de Requesens had to take over the responsibility for the situation. In 1452, the queen started by giving the "Buscaires" official permission to group together in the "Sindicat dels Tres Estaments i Poble de Barcelona" (Syndicate of the Three Estates and the People of Barcelona). But that measure did not prove sufficient because the "Buscaires", even though officially organized, were still denied access to actual municipal power. More drastic steps had to be taken. So, on November 30th, 1453, lieutenant general Requesens ordered the suspension of the election of the "Consellers" and appointed a new city Council whose members were chosen among the "Buscaires".

The new Council hastened to put its programme into effect (i.e. protectionist measures, devaluation of the currency, reorganization of the municipal administration) so as to favour the sales of domestic products in relation to imports and be in a position to reduce taxation.

This state of affairs was flagrantly illegal, even though it had the support of the monarchy. Consequently, in 1455, in an attempt to solve such a delicate situation, King Alfons the Magnanimous, who still resided in Naples, conceded a new privilege that modified the city's system of government. That privilege established a fixed election pattern determining the composition of the municipal institutions, which is to say the representation of the different "estaments" (estates, or social groups) on the city's governing bodies. (...)

The new privilege was intended to institute a more balanced and equitable distribution of municipal power. And, even though the so-called "honourable citizens" continued to hold a pre-eminent position - more particularly manifest in the fact that the first two "consellers" were always chosen among them - and were over-represented in relation to their actual demographic weight, the members of more popular "estaments" were at least guaranteed a stable participation in all the city's basic governing bodies, including the possibility of becoming "Consellers".

Nevertheless, that privilege did not immediately have the positive effect it was intended to achieve. (...)

In any event, King Ferran II did not revoke the privilege conceded in 1455 entirely, he only modified it. The more significant reforms consisted in a reinforcement of the honourable citizens' political weight, the access of the lesser aristocracy to the city's government, along with the introduction of a new election system according to which municipal government officials were appointed by lot. Thus, if the privilege conceded in 1455 was never actually put into effect in its original form and terms, once reformulated and modified by Ferran II, it would stay in force for a very long time, more exactly until the dissolution of the "Consell de Cent" itself, in 1714.

by Teresa Vinyoles i Vidal
historian, university of barcelona

The agrarian environment

The essence of the city was marked by the activities of its craftmen, sailors and merchants but, like all other cities in those times, it still had a somewhat rural atmosphere. It would not be before the year 1300 when the city authorities would forbid the free circulation of pigs - which Barcelona residents reared for their own consumption and which most probably fed on the garbage people used to throw out in the streets - throughout the city; people also used to thresh grain in whichever place they found convenient, and there would not be specific regulation limiting the use of such improvised threshing floors within the city until the year 1335, even though, in the later fifteenth century, people were still threshing grain on the grounds traditionally situated on carrer dels Tallers.

A few market-gardeners and farm-labourers lived within the city, more particularly in the Raval neighbourhood. Most city dwellers grew fruit and vegetables either in their back yards or in the gardens located in the Sant Pau area, or even outside the city walls, on a stretch of land that served as the city's vegetable garden and vineyard. Moreover, in the later fifteenth century, Barcelona residents still used to tread grapes right in front of their houses and some of them also reared chickens and hens in their back yards and lofts.

The parishes situated within the territory surrounding the city were inhabited by peasants and many of them lived under the authority of some ecclesiastical or secular lord. A few middle-class people had invested their money in land and lived part of the year in their country houses scattered all over the plain surrounding Barcelona; they managed these rural estates themselves and lived essentially on farming revenues.

The urban environment

The city was incorporating more and more urban features. Defence was a main priority - as evidenced by the building of the city walls -, but greater care was also taken of the appearance of the city. In the year 1302, the authorities ordered all graffiti to be washed off from the walls. This fact proves that at least some residents could write, that a few even dared to write or draw pictures on the walls and that, obviously, the city councillors did not share the same aesthetic criteria as those ancestors of our modern graffiti artists.

In order to preserve some open spaces within the city, the "Born" - an area that was used for organizing festivals and contests - was enlarged. The inhabitants of urban Barcelona spent a lot of time in the streets, where many diverse public events were held. The authorities regulated such street activities, and the town criers shouted out news and official announcements about prohibitions to the sound of their trumpets. In most aspects, the feel of the medieval city was one you got through your senses; visible symbols and oral messages could be understood by all, given that the majority of citizens were illiterate. In the market-places and in the churches, around the public fountains and even around the gallows, crowds of saunterers would eagerly gather together, simple people ready to marvel at anything that came their way.

Among other novelties, at the end of the 14th century, the people of Barcelona decided to provide money for the founding of a bell of enormous size that would strike every hour, day and night, from the newly built bell tower of the city's Gothic cathedral, set in motion by two bell-ringers who used an hourglass to measure the passing of time. The new bell, manufactured in Barcelona and paid for by the citizens themselves, was carried on carts decorated with branches to the porch of the cathedral, where the bishop proceeded to baptize it, giving it the name of Honorata, in the presence of the city's head councillor, who acted as "godfather".

The maritime environment

The activities of the people of Barcelona are in large part connected with trading and sailoring. The city's seashore section is a particularly dynamic space. During the 14th century, that vitality manifested itself in the construction of large buildings and significant town-planning reforms. The new Santa Maria church, a veritable sea cathedral, was built at that time.

In the "Ribera" (seashore) area, merchants and street porters moved about incessantly, going about their business; ship captains hired sailors who signalled their agreement by joining the palms of their hands in a vigorous smack which committed them to a long journey to some unknown, overseas place from which they might never come back. New boats and ships were lowered to sea in front of the Fusters buildings. At times, the beach was invaded by flocks of mutinous rowers; the presence of pirate ships, detected by the sentries who kept watch in the look-out posts located on the Montgat and Montjuïc hills, was signalled by lighted candles in the daytime and by night; there were even some sea battles off the coast of Barcelona, including ship boardings that could be seen from the beach. Male and female slaves were disembarked from the slave traders' ships and brought to the "Llotja" quayside market to be sold, while shipwrights and caulkers were putting the finishing touches to the boats that were to be put to sea.

On the beach, you could hear people shout in many different languages from all parts of the Mediterranean. Not very far away, you could buy a bowl of "mal cuinat", a very simple kind of broth that people were allowed to sell only in that area and at the door of the brothel near by, a broth that meant at least a hot meal for sailors and other transient people. The fishermen's cabins constituted a particularly problematic neighbourhood, to the extent that the city councillors often ordered their men to search the place for stolen fruit and vegetables. After the erection of the sea wall, the Ribera neighbourhood was eventually integrated into the city proper. Fishermen and other people of small means ventured to build new cabins in areas increasingly far away from the urban nucleus, all along the coast, from the edge of Barcelona's walls up to Montgat.

The working environment

The streets of the city were narrow and made even smaller by the hindering presence of stone benches, tables and counters. The atmosphere was of unceasing activity; as the fever for building did not show any sign of subsiding, carts carrying stones from the quarries dug out of the Montjïc hill could be seen everywhere in the city. Religious and civil edifices were built on the pattern of the new Gothic style, which gave the city a more elegant and sober appearance.
Many craftsmen used to work in the streets for a large part of the year; eventually helped by their wives or children, they also sold the objects they had made themselves on the public thoroughfare, displaying their products on makeshift counters or racks fitted with canvas covers that protected them from both the rain and the sun's rays.

The city authorities regulated the areas and paths which pack animals were allowed to go through. Some craftsmen advertised their trade by hanging signs that could be clearly seen from a distance; the taverns, inns and other places where people could buy and drink wine were marked out - at least from the 14th century onwards and by order of the Councillors - with a branch hung over the door.

The markets stretched over areas filled with improvised stalls; each particular product - wheat, millet, cabbages, cherries, oil, wine, straw, etc... - was sold in a specific area; on working days in the morning, the marketplaces were thronged with people who moved around in a jumble of shouts, colours and smells.

The festive environmen

The arrivals of visiting kings and other great personages, news of military victories, presentations of relics, royalty weddings and births, and even the funerals of important persons were celebrated with great pomp and ceremony. There also were other festivities of a more popular and spontaneous nature, marked by bonfires, fireworks, street decorations made of branches, music and dancing. Those were occasions when city residents were expected to wear their best clothes and, during the celebrations marking some particularly significant events, people in mourning were even officially requested not to dress in black, so that the whole city might convey an atmosphere of cheerfulness. In those times, public festivities had a both solemn and somewhat flamboyant feel about them.
The bonfires or "alumares" were symbols of great jollity; they were lighted either in the belfries or on the city walls as a way to celebrate military victories or the arrival of some important personage, for example when the Prince - the King's son-in-law - came to Barcelona in 1503 : according to accounts of that visit, "as was the custom", bonfires were lighted on the walls of the city, on surrounding hilltops and in nearby towns.

Starting in the Born Neighbourhood, cavalcades went through the city on New Year's Day and Saint John's Day; competitions among crossbowmen were organized and the winner was awarded a jewel that the city had paid for. The "quintanes" were chivalrous games during which men on horseback had to knock down the figure of a soldier - traditionally placed on a wooden board - by charging at it with their lances. They also staged simulated sea battles, for which the beach provided the perfect setting.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church steadily intervened in order to assert its control over those street festivals, so that some popular gatherings were eventually assimilated and synthesized into religious processions. A particularly important event was the "Corpus Christi" procession which served as a pretext for the amalgamation of different popular cultural events into a single, visibly christianized celebration : the city's streets and churches filled with a festive atmosphere : entertainments, street decorations made with branches, bonfires, music, theatre performances, dancing, people disguised as angels and devils, fantastical cardboard animals, etc.... The presence of those huge and impressive figures of chimerical animals, made of strong cardboard and brightly painted, that danced together with other street entertainers in the broken glare of the fireworks, was a feature peculiar to that festival.

In the evening

In the evening, the deep ringing of the so-called "seny del lladre" (the thief's set of bells) signalled that it was time to close the entrances to the city and for its inhabitants to lock the doors of their homes. After dinner, people stayed at home, sitting in front of the fireplace in winter and close to the window in summer. In those medieval times, there was practically no street lighting, so that people had to carry some kind of light if they had to go out at night; otherwise, if they walked about in the dark looking furtive, they might be suspected of some malevolent intention. But nights were usually quiet, their silence only occasionally broken by groups of young people who had gathered to sing or yell out insults at someone, or by some lover singing romantic aubades to the girl he was courting.