Authoring the Past: History, Autobiography, and Politics in Medieval Catalonia

Authoring the Past: History, Autobiography, and Politics in Medieval Catalonia

by Jaume Aurell


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Authoring the Past: History, Autobiography, and Politics in Medieval Catalonia by Jaume Aurell

Authoring the Past surveys medieval Catalan historiography, shedding light on the emergence and evolution of historical writing and autobiography in the Middle Ages, on questions of authority and authorship, and on the links between history and politics during the period. Jaume Aurell examines texts from the late twelfth to the late fourteenth century—including the Latin Gesta comitum Barcinonensium and four texts in medieval Catalan: James I’s Llibre dels fets, the Crònica of Bernat Desclot, the Crònica of Ramon Muntaner, and the Crònica of Peter the Ceremonious—and outlines the different motivations for the writing of each. 

For Aurell, these chronicles are not mere archaeological artifacts but rather documents that speak to their writers’ specific contemporary social and political purposes. He argues that these Catalonian counts and Aragonese kings were attempting to use their role as authors to legitimize their monarchical status, their growing political and economic power, and their aggressive expansionist policies in the Mediterranean. By analyzing these texts alongside one another, Aurell demonstrates the shifting contexts in which chronicles were conceived, written, and read throughout the Middle Ages.

The first study of its kind to make medieval Catalonian writings available to English-speaking audiences, Authoring the Past will be of interest to scholars of history and comparative literature, students of Hispanic and Romance medieval studies, and medievalists who study the chronicle tradition in other languages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226032320
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/11/2012
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 964,089
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jaume Aurell is associate professor in the Department of History and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Navarra, Spain.

Read an Excerpt

Authoring the Past

History, Autobiography, and Politics in Medieval Catalonia

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03232-0

Chapter One

Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium as Genealogy

Iste liber ostendit veritatem primi comitis Barchinonae.

This book shows the truth of the first count of Barcelona. << Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium >>

The Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium, one of the founding historical texts of Catalan medieval historiography, was originally written in Latin at the monastery of Ripoll at the end of the twelfth century. Quickly translated into Catalan, it was then reproduced in many different versions during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Conceived as a genealogy of the Catalan counts—mainly those of Barcelona, Urgell, Besalú, and Cerdanya—it aimed to illustrate the long, glorious, and legitimate history of the counts of Barcelona, who had received the title of kings by the time the text was written. The Gesta Comitum, the first Catalan genealogical text, foreshadows many of the future trends in Catalan medieval historiography. The place of its composition, the monastery of Ripoll, at that time the pantheon of the Catalan counts, served as a center for the preservation of their written history. In spite of its evident negotiation with legend in some passages, the Gesta Comitum was regarded from the beginning as a reliable historical source, and most of the Catalan chronicles and historians drew on it for their historical writings until the nineteenth century. Thus, considering its chronological precociousness, textual originality, and contextual significance, the Gesta Comitum deserves particular attention.

The Gesta Comitum unveils the historical context within which it was constructed. Catalonia experienced important transformations in the twelfth century. One of the most significant was access by the counts of Barcelona to the title of king, when they inherited the Crown of Aragon, the neighboring kingdom, as a result of their bold dynastic policy. Ramon Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona, acceded to the throne when he married the daughter of Ramiro the Monk, king of Aragon, in 1136 and Ramiro retired to a monastery. This union between the Aragonese and Catalans formed what is known generally as the Crown of Aragon. The Aragonese and the Catalans were two very different peoples in their geographies (the first, land-locked; the second, with access to the Mediterranean), laws, customs, institutions, economic activities, and political ambitions. Nevertheless, they managed to form a political union. Ramon Berenguer, who never took the title of king for himself, was careful to preserve that union, strategically balancing Aragonese and Catalonian interests, a policy that his successors adopted.

After Ramon Berenguer's death in 1162, his son Alfonse the Chaste (1162–96) inherited both the county of Barcelona—which at that time included the other counties of Catalonia and was the primus inter pares over them—and the kingdom of Aragon. Further, twelfth-century Catalan society witnessed the aggressive expansion and conquests of both Ramon Berenguer III and Ramon Berenguer IV. With increasingly efficient powers of fiscal collection, the spread of the Usatges as a unified juridical code, and the establishment of the Peace and Truce of God as a guarantee of social and economic stability, the court of Barcelona become an important political and cultural center.

As a result of generations of consolidation of power, the counts of Barcelona began to consider their lineage exceptional. This renewed consciousness inspired them to construct a historical genealogy that would support and explain their position, legitimize their dynasty, and justify their aggressive policy of expansion into Provence. This was done without taking the trouble of scrutinizing the historical truth. On occasion, facts were manipulated. The counts of Barcelona sought to strengthen their power by devising a narrative of beginnings that would validate their position as kings.

In the twelfth century, vernacular genealogies emerged in Europe as a way for noble families to maintain their authority in the face of the establishment of the new royal families. Genealogy intersects with historical narrative when noble families begin to perceive the vertical structures that organize them into lineages. The appearance of the genealogy as a literary genre in the twelfth century illustrates the noble families' growing historical self-consciousness, displaying their aim to affirm and extend their place in political life. When raised to the royal level, as in the case of the Gesta Comitum, genealogies took on the overtones of a dynastic myth. But whether aristocratic or royal, genealogies were expressions of social memory that strove to consolidate current social and political status and preserve it for future generations.

In this context, the Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium took definitive shape in genealogical form. The first Latin version of the text was written between 1180 and 1184. Its basic structure (a single story followed by a schematic succession of genealogies) seems to have been inspired by the beginning of the biblical Genesis. After recounting in detail the odyssey of the dynasty's founder, the text continues with a summary, selection, and description of the more outstanding deeds of the counts of Barcelona and of the other counts of Catalonia, from the time of Wilfred the Hairy at the end of the ninth century to the crucial marriage of the count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer IV, to the daughter of King Ramiro of Aragon, through which the counts of Barcelona also became kings. Subsequently, the Gesta highlights the patrimonial and hereditary configuration of the dynasty of the counts of Barcelona, stressing the gradual assimilation of the counties into a single principality, mentioning women only in relation to the men who were their fathers or husbands.

With the Gesta's creation and dissemination, narrative genealogies effectively replaced the schematic and diagrammatic early medieval annals (such as those written in the monasteries of Cuixà and Ripoll) in Catalonia and heralded the emergence of the multiple narrative chronicles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the autobiographies of Kings James and Peter and chronicles by Ramon Muntaner and Bernat Desclot, all of them analyzed in this book. Thus, the political experiments of the new times generated innovative historical genres in tune with the transformed political and social context, for which the genealogical Gesta Comitum functions both as representative historical writing and textual image.

The Gesta Comitum's Collective Authorship: Creation and Manuscript Transmission

Though the precise authorship of the Gesta Comitum remains uncertain, we can locate the place of its composition and attend to its collective authorship. As noted earlier, all the evidence points to the text's having been written by the monks of the monastery of Ripoll, an influential Catalan religious and cultural center. By the end of the tenth century, Ripoll had replaced Sant Miquel de Cuixà as the central repository of the Catalan counts' historiographical documents. Ripoll amassed an astounding collection of historical annals. During the first half of the eleventh century, the abbot-bishop Oliba organized the historiographical activity of Ripoll, regulated the scriptorium, and founded a poetic and historical center that preserved the memory of the counts until the emergence of the other Catalan royal pantheon, the Cistercian Abbey of Poblet, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. As a consequence, Ripoll preserved the counts' corporal and historical vestiges for many years, giving this monastery its status as a historical guarantor. Moreover, Ripoll was the necropolis where the counts of Barcelona had been buried for centuries. The epitaphs in honor of the counts' ancestors had been written since time immemorial by the monks of Ripoll, so it follows that they were the best equipped to write their genealogies. The Aragonese monarchs turned to the monks of Ripoll to harness their historical authority as guardians of tradition.

The Gesta appears as a compilation of historical records rather than as a new historiographical text. The monks reproduced the historical material available in the abbey. Their predecessors had patiently recorded the gesta (events, facts, deeds) of the different Catalan counts upon their deaths. In time, these records constituted an important historical patrimony, which took written form as a serious, chronological enumeration of those events (annals). In the twelfth century, when the monks of Ripoll prepared to establish, more or less officially, the origins of the dynasty of the counts of Barcelona, the genealogical method proved to be the most effective in achieving that aim, replacing the traditional annals.

Though the monks of Ripoll had long experience in compiling chronologies in the annals, their decision to deploy another genre became crucial for Catalan historiography. The Gesta's more detailed—though still schematic—description of each count replaced the unadorned chronological register of the annals, whose only coordinates were time and space, a static world with no room for deeds and personalities. The Gesta also illustrates the shift from a central focus on the two universal authorities (the Carolingian empire and the Papacy) to the emergence of local power—the counties of Barcelona, Urgell, Besalú, and Cerdanya. Although the superior power of the Carolingian empire is still noted in the new historical texts, this step from the universal and schematic to the local and more narrative explanation demonstrates an important shift in the self-representation of Catalan authorities, who fought at the time to win autonomy from the neighboring Frankish kingdom. The political focus stressed the succession of the local counts rather than the Frankish kings, who at that time acknowledged the legitimate power of the counts of Barcelona. Significantly, the date of the writing of the first manuscripts of the Gesta—the second half of the twelfth century—corresponds to the moment when the monks believed that the declaration of the obiit of the count (the annals) no longer sufficed and that the full story demanded the recounting of his gesta as well.

The original twelfth-century version of the Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium was revised and expanded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Scholars have identified three different versions of the text: the original (Gesta I), written in Latin between 1180 and 1184; the intermediary (Gesta II), written in Catalan from 1268 to 1269, probably an adaptation of a previous Latin version; and the definitive (Gesta III), in Latin and completed about 1303.11 Some scholars mention a fourth version of the Gesta, but it has recently been concluded that it should be considered a different historical text (El llibre dels reis—the Book of the Kings). All of these manuscripts are, essentially, additions to Gesta I that take up the narration where Gesta I leaves off. For the purposes of this book, I will center on the first version of the text, Gesta I, because I want to acknowledge the first real moment of the Gesta's inscription, the moment of transformation of the counts of Barcelona into kings.

Gesta I was composed in four stages. The first part, which may be considered the primary text, was written between 1180 and 1184. The second, third, and fourth sections are, in fact, no more than successive additions to the primary text: the first written between 1200 and 1208, the second between 1214 and 1218, and the third completed in 1276. Since only one manuscript copy of the original version has survived (Paris, BN lat 5132, ff. 23v–25v), we can easily trace the process of its inscription by observing the different handwriting of each of the seven scribes who transcribed it. The three first scribes wrote the prime narrative (chapters 1 through 8), which tell the story of the counts of Barcelona from Wilfred the Hairy to Ramon Berenguer IV. The chronological range of the story extends from 878, with Wilfred becoming a count of Barcelona, to the death of Ramon Berenguer IV in 1162.

Although we can identify several scribes by differences in the handwriting and spelling of the text, this primary manuscript seems to have been authored by only one monk. Chapter 8 opens with: "ut me superius scripsisse memini, Borrellus Barchinonensis comes genuit duos filios" (as I recall having written above, Count Borrell of Barcelona begot two sons). The author clearly refers to a part of chapter 3, written by himself, in which he employs almost identical expressions to describe Borrell's two sons, Ermengol of Urgell and Ramon Borrell of Barcelona. In addition, at the end of chapter 3, he outlines the structure of the text, from chapter 4 to chapter 8: "Sinamus autem loqui ... et exponamus primitus ..." (Let us not yet speak of ... and let us first set forth ...). The only break in the authorial unity of the text until chapter 8 would be chapters 1 and 2, which recount the legend of Wilfred the Hairy, because they are clearly composed from a different source at an earlier time. Yet all the evidence shows that the author of the primary Gesta text deliberately included the legend of Wilfred in the first narrative genealogy of the Catalan counts.

Further, the succeeding chapters (9 to 11) were clearly written later, as demonstrated by their distinct grammatical and narrative style. The copyists are also different: the fourth scribe (chapter 9) wrote down the section on Alfonse the Chaste, the first countking of Aragon. The fifth and sixth scribes (chapters 10 and 11) recorded the story of King Peter the Catholic (Pere el Catòlic) and the childhood of his son James I (1196–1213). Finally, the seventh scribe (chapter 11) copied out the historical narration of the reign of James I (1213–76). We lack more specific information about the date of composition of each version, but we can infer it by considering the period of the last king written about. In any case, these three additions, in spite of their evident historical and historiographical importance, do not offer the narrative coherence of the primary text.

Owing to its effectiveness as genealogical compilation, the Gesta Comitum was considered from the end of the twelfth century as the official, legitimate, and trustworthy historical account of the counts of Barcelona. Medieval chroniclers and modern historians used it as a source of historical knowledge, and the copyists frequently blended it with other historical texts in the same volume, especially in vernacular versions. To be sure, there are clear differences between the Gesta's manuscript transmission in Latin and in Catalan. The Latin manuscripts are usually isolated, while the Catalan versions usually combine the Gesta with other juridical and historical texts. A manuscript from 1335, signed by Ramon Ferrer, presents the Gesta together with the Usatges, a manuscript practice that has been interpreted by some historians as evidence of the juridical use and dimension of historical texts. In a 1345 document, also signed by Ramon Ferrer, the Gesta is published with the Llibre vert, which also includes an abstract of the four Gospels, a biblical genealogy from Adam to Jesus Christ, a chronicle of the Roman emperors, a chronicle of the Roman pontiffs, and, finally, a Cronica regum Francie. The only text in Catalan of this compilation is the Gesta Comitum. Another copy, from the fourteenth century, blends the Catalan text of the Gesta with part of Bernat Desclot's chronicle and continues with a section of Ramon Muntaner's. These medieval copyists used the same title, which eloquently evidences the status of the Gesta as the earliest historical text on the Catalan counts and counties: "Genealogy of the Counts of Barcelona, Urgell, and other Counts, taken from the very old parchment of the archive of the monastery of Ripoll."


Excerpted from Authoring the Past by JAUME AURELL Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction I

Part I Historical Writings and Historical Authors 19

1 Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium as Genealogy 21

2 King James I and his Chivalric Autobiography 39

3 Bernat Desclot: The Historian and his Chronicle 55

4 Ramon Muntaner: Ruler, Knight, and Chronicler 71

5 King Peter's Llibre and Royal Self-Representation 91

Part 2 Theories and Interpretations 109

6 The Shift in Historical Genres 111

7 The Dawn of Catalan Autobiography as Chronicle 133

8 The Authorial Logic of the Historical Text 155

9 Catalan Chroniclers and Poetic License: History, Epic, Fiction 177

10 The Emergence of Political Realism 199

Conclusion 221

Notes 229

Index of Names 311

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