This is Part One of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Introduction & Background

No region of Spain has been more in the news lately than Catalonia. And this region is also, by chance, the most visited part of the country, mostly thanks to Barcelona. So what sets Catalonia apart from the rest of Spain? In this series of posts I hope to give you some suggestions of an answer.

Catalonia (Cataluña in Spanish, Catalunya in Catalan) is a triangular plot of land that sits at the northeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula. To the north is France, to the south Valencia, to the west Aragón, to the east the shimmering Mediterranean. Divided into four provinces—Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Leida—the region is home to more than 7.5 millions people (about 16% of Spain’s total), most of whom are concentrated around Barcelona, the region’s capital. This storied city is the second biggest in the country, after Madrid, and is in the top ten largest of Europe.

The history of Catalonia is deep and complex. After the fall of Rome it came under the control of the invading Visigoths, and then eventually the invading Moors. After that it was made a sort of Frankish protectorate, serving as a heavily militarized buffer zone between the Carolingian empire and the Moors of the Iberian peninsula. The region became more and more independent until it was essentially autonomous; the hereditary title of Catalonia’s ruler was the “Count of Barcelona.” In 1137 one of these, Ramon Berenguer IV, married the daughter of the King of Aragón, effectively joining the two lands.

Eventually the Kingdom of Aragón came to comprise the whole eastern part of the Peninsula, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Then, in 1469, Isabel of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragón, thus swallowing up Catalonia into yet another large polity—the beginnings of Spain as we know it.

From the very beginning there was some tension in this unification. Catalonia, you see, has always been a mercantile area. Its Mediterranean perch makes it an ideal place for trade by sea. As such, Catalonia has historically been prosperous and liberal—with democratic institutions and limitations on centralized power. (Barcelona’s “Council of 100,” a group of 100 citizens from every rung of society, was one of the first democratic institutions in post-Roman Europe). This tendency has continued to the present day, with Catalonia typically voting for the left; and the region remains one of the wealthiest in the country. Castille (comprising the Western, inland half of the country), on the other hand, has a history of centralized rule and militarism; and many parts of Castille, then and now, are poor and agricultural.

This tension was dealt with, originally, by preserving the liberal institutions of Aragón—not only in Catalonia, but throughout the kingdom. (J.H. Elliot’s book, Imperial Spain, covers this subject and more with admirable clarity.) But Catalonians have a habit of backing the wrong horse when wars break out. This happened in the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), when the death of the last Hapsburg ruler, Charles II, without an heir (he was the feeble product of inbreeding) led to a fight for the Spanish crown. Full of anti-French sentiment due to the French occupation of Barcelona after the Franco-Spanish War (1635 – 1659), the Catalans rallied against the French Bourbon candidate to the throne. Unluckily for them, it was this candidate who eventually won the war and became Philip V.

Philip V was the grandson of Louis XIV of France—that famed “sun king” who brought about so much political centralization north of the Pyrenees. Philip V emulated his grandfather in this centralization, eliminating the Catalan institutions with his Nueva Planta decrees and replacing them with those of Castile. (He emulated his grandfather in another way, building his own version of Versailles in La Granja.) These decrees made Castilian Spanish the official language, thus limiting the use of Catalan. Clearly the new king had little scruples in curtailing the freedom of a people who had opposed his ascension to the throne. The same dynamic played out, three hundred years later, when Franco conquered Catalonia, forbade the use of Catalan, and eliminated the Generalitat (the name for Catalonia’s government).

In spite of this political oppression, Catalonia continued to be an economic powerhouse during Franco’s rule. As a result huge numbers of Spaniards from poorer regions, notably Andalucia and Estremadura, moved to Catalonia. This adds a touch of irony to the recent independence struggles, since many present-day Catalans are “first-generation,” so to speak, being descended from Spaniards.

Since the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, Catalonia has gained much of its previous autonomy. Now the Catalans have their own police force (Mossos d’Esquadra), their own parliament and president (in the aforementioned Generalitat), and control of their own educational system. The Catalan language is presently (along with Castilian, Basque, and Gallego) enshrined as one of the four national languages of Spain. It is the primary language of instruction in Catalan schools—a fact that bothers many Spaniards I’ve spoken to—and a major object of ethnic pride in the region (and thus not to be confused with Castilian Spanish!). This fact notwithstanding, Castilian is widely spoken and almost universally understood in Catalonia.

(It should be noted that Catalan is not only spoken in Catalonia. Many also speak the language in Valencia and in the Balearic Islands; but for political reasons they are officially called different names in these places. Nevertheless it is only in Catalonia where it is the primary language of instruction and where it is exerts such a powerful cultural force.)

Catalan is a Romance language with obvious similarities to its neighboring Romance languages, Castilian and French. But none of these are mutually intelligible. Knowing Spanish, in other words, will not allow you to fluently understand spoken Catalan. Both the pronunciation and the vocabulary of Catalan are strikingly different from Spanish; and consequently many Catalans speak Castilian with a marked accent. To get a taste for this difference, compare the Catalan beginning of the Lord’s Prayer (“Pare nostra, que esteu en el cel; sigui santificat el vostre nom; vingui a nosaltres el vostre Regne…”) with the Spanish version (“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre, venga a nosotros tu Reino…”). With about ten million speakers—four million of them native, and many of them passionate—and a strong literary tradition, Catalan is in no danger of disappearing.

Languages, by their nature, are relatively closed systems; the difference in grammar and accent between neighboring languages prevent them from freely mixing, though individual words travel easily enough. (Languages are also more easily controlled by official bodies bent on keeping them “pure.”) But nothing prevents cultures from being so mixed. Thus while traveling from Valencia or Aragón into Catalonia there is not any especially noticeable cultural differences. It is not anything like, say, going from Spain to Portugal or to France; which makes me scratch my head when I see Catalonia described in English media as having “its own culture.” In my experience the cultural difference between, say, Madrid and Granada is far more striking than that between Madrid and Barcelona. To give just one example, typical Spanish foods, such as tortilla and paella, have made their way into Catalonia; and typical Catalan foods, such as butifarra, fuet, and toast with tomato, have become staples in Spain.

More generally, in terms of eating habits, dressing habits, and basic lifestyle I fail to see much of a difference between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But some difference is certainly perceived within Spain and Catalonia. The stereotype in Spain, as far as I can make out, is that Catalans are more hardworking, stingy, and reserved than other Spaniards. I have not spent nearly enough time in Catalonia to give the Catalan side of the story.

More tangibly, Catalonia has several distinctive customs. Their most famous dance is the sardana, a bouncing circular style, accompanied by traditional oboes. More impressive, for me, is the tradition of Castell, which is the art of making giant human pyramids. I have unfortunately never seen it in person, but the pictures make it look incredible. (Click the links for videos.) Also worthy of note is the Catalan tradition on the Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Day, April 23), in which boys give girls a rose, and girls give boys a book.


I cannot write this post in good conscience without discussing the Catalan independence movement. Nevertheless I hesitate to, considering how divisive this issue is within Spain. Trump’s presidency is scarcely less controversial and absorbs hardly more media attention than the Catalan crisis does here.

Open displays of patriotism in Spain are quite rare, largely because of the nasty odor left by Franco’s nationalist regime. But in the wake of the Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017—which was not authorized by the Spanish government and which eventually led Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to declare independence—Spaniards started putting up flags on balconies and windows all over Madrid. Puigdemont’s declaration also provoked more decisive action from the Spanish government: article 155 of the Spanish constitution was triggered, which dismissed the Catalan government and led to direct rule from Madrid, until new elections were held in December. Puigdemont, meanwhile, fled into exile in Belgium.

But why was Puigdemont led into such precipitate action? Well, the roots of Catalan separatism extend far into the past. As we have seen, there were important institutional and cultural differences between Castile and Aragón; and these persisted long after their unification. We have also seen that the Spanish government has several times abolished Catalonia’s institutions and banned its language. But I do not think any reasonable visitor to Barcelona today would conclude that the Catalans are oppressed; indeed, they have regained their historic autonomy.

One persistent feature in Catalan separatism is a concern with taxes. Catalonia contributes more to the national government in taxes than it receives back in services. Catalans see this as a form of theft, and this is hardly a new complaint. As Gerald Brenan said in his 1943 book on the Spanish Civil War:

“We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live,” the Catalans would say. And they would go on to point out that, although their population was only one-eighth of that of Spain, they paid one-quarter of the State taxes and that only one-tenth of the total budget came back to their province. These were much the same complaints that their ancestors had expressed in 1640.

The Catalans may feel, in other words, that the lazy Spanish are stealing their hard-earned money; while the Spanish think that the Catalans are greedy and selfish. In any case, provided that the taxes contributed by Catalonia are not used for frivolous purposes, but are redistributed to the poorer regions of Spain, this tax deficit seems perfectly normal to me. All over the world rich regions pay more than they receive in services, in order to bolster up the poorer regions. Thus I have trouble seeing why this issue has been so bothersome to the Catalans. Further, I have difficulty believing something as dry as a tax deficit could be the true emotional driving factor in the independence movement.

Perhaps looking for a special cause is misguided, anyhow. For, as Gerald Brenan also pointed out: “The Catalan question is, to begin with, merely one rather special instance of the general problem of Spanish regionalism.” In the 1980s and 90s Spain had another separatism crisis: the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, which killed hundreds of people in their quest to achieve Basque independence. And regionalism is a major feature of Spanish culture more broadly. The English traveler Richard Ford perceived this as far back as the 1840s; and Spain’s leading philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, wrote a book about this very problem in 1922.

Nevertheless, it is true that Catalans have been especially proud of their independence. As evidence of this, Robert Hughes cites the medieval Catalan oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown:

We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are not better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.

It seems clear to me, especially after reading a collection of pro-independence writers, What’s Up with Catalonia?, that many Catalans want independence for its own sake—not for anything to do with taxes. Well, whatever the reason, the percentage of the population in favor of independence has been hovering somewhere around 50% in recent years. The pro-independence coalition which brought Puigdemont to power had a narrow majority; and though control of Parliament was retained after the most recent elections, their percentage of the votes fell to 47.5%.

In a time when Spain is relatively peaceful and Catalonia has a considerable amount of autonomy, why are millions of Catalans in favor of seceding from Spain? Separatism has a long history in Catalonia, but serious efforts for separatism only flare up once in a while. Why this should be so is an extremely complex question, of course; but I am inclined to agree with Joseph Stiglitz in blaming the European debt crisis.

The crisis of 2009 hit Spain hard, with economic contraction and unemployment comparable to the Great Depression; and it took a long time to even begin to recover from the shock. True, the situation has been improving recently, albeit slowly; but I think Tocqueville’s maxim applies here: “the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps towards reform.”  In other words, when things are at their worst, as in a crisis, people are unlikely to try to change the political order; yet when the crisis abates somewhat, the memory of suffering lingers on and the disaffected regain the time and resources to point fingers. The economic suffering of the debt crisis is why, I think, so many Catalans have focused their energy on the tax imbalance.

While the Catalan independence movement can be seen more broadly as but one manifestation of regionalism within Spain, it is also but one manifestation of separatism in Europe. In a continent full of ethnic groups notoriously unable to get along, this is no surprise. The wealthy north of Italy might be the closest case to Catalonia, with the industrious inhabitants of Veneto and Lombardy resenting their support for the poorer south—though Scotland, Northern Ireland, Bavaria, and Flanders are also afflicted by this tendency.

It is difficult for me to envision how this separatism would play out. Should every ethnic group get its own polity? And if so, what qualifies as an ethnic group? These centrifugal forces, if successful, could divide Europe into a checkerboard of nations. Yet if Europe is to be competitive in the coming years, poised between the United States and China, it needs more integration, not less. Only as a continent working together will Europe have the clout to greatly influence world affairs. And I sincerely hope it does, considering how attractive the European way of life has proven.

But enough of these dreary political matters. Let us take a look inside this region, beginning with its capital city.

8 thoughts on “Homage to Catalunya: Introduction & Background

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