‘You have to know the past to understand the present’, said Carl Sagan. This phrase does apply to certain issues more than to others. In Spain, you can hardly understand the quest for independence of Catalonia if you don’t know the history of this autonomous community. Catalonia has played an important role in Spanish history since the Middle Ages, as have the medieval power blocs of Aragon and Castile. We have divided this history into 4 chronological timeframes. This is part 2 about the 14th to 17th centuries. You can read part 1 here.
Centuries of Social and Political Tensions
The 14th and 15th centuries were characterised by economic setbacks, political and social tensions for Catalonia. Social tensions were those between farmworkers and the powerful landowners. This eventually lead to an uprising in 1462 and a ten-year civil war. The political tensions mainly concerned the degree of independence within the Aragonese kingdom. These conflicts weakened Catalonia and allowed France to annex the provinces of Rousillon and Cerdanya.
On a map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1470, before the completion of the Reconquista, the following states can be distinguished: Portugal (more or less the same borders as the present), the remaining Moorish empire (the kingdom of Granada, roughly the present provinces of Granada and Malaga), the kingdom of Aragon (roughly present-day Aragon with the current autonomous regions of Catalonia and Valencia), the Basque Country, and, occupying more than half the surface, Castile (present-day Castilla y Leon, Madrid, Castilla La Mancha, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Extremadura, Murcia, and the already recaptured areas of Andalusia).
Discovery of America
The successful completion of the Reconquista and the discovery of America in 1492 caused the carefully preserved balance of power between Castile and Aragon to appear in Castile’s favour. Castile focused on the Atlantic Ocean and the revenues from the Americas. Aragon remained focused on the Mediterranean with Valencia dominating Catalonia in the course of the 16th century. Despite the abundant income from the new world, Phillip II and his successors struggled structurally with financial shortages. This was mainly due to ambitious international politics and warfare. But because of the war against the rebellious Dutch, Spain went bankrupt three times during that spell.
The inhabitants of Castile could no longer bear the ever-increasing tax burden. As a result, this also forced the kings to impose taxes on distant Catalonia. Catalonia felt that it received little in return for the tax money paid to Castile. And this clouded its relationship with Madrid. Spain under the terms of the old confederation came under increasing centralist pressure for financial reasons. The term ‘unionism’ reflects this tendency and suggests a common interest in giving up autonomy and transferring financial resources. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the taxes imposed from Castile were largely passed on to the population by the Catalan administrators (Generalitat). As a result, this regularly led to social unrest.
During the 30-year Franco-Spanish War, many Spanish soldiers were stationed in the border region (Catalonia). This meant an extra burden for the already impoverished population. During a peasant revolt in 1640, the popular fury seemed to be mainly directed against the Count and the Generalitat. This was diverted by the Catalan administrators towards Madrid and thus culminated in a war for Catalan independence. The Catalan Republic was proclaimed with the French Louis XIII as its patron. French troops encamped in Catalonia. In 1652 the Spaniards expelled the French from Catalonia once again but at the peace of 1659, the Catalan areas north of the Pyrenees fell to France.