The importance of medieval Catalonia to contemporary culture

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In an edition of the journal Sàpiens, readers were asked to choose the twelve greatest heroes in Catalan history. Interestingly, no fewer than five of the elected were medieval men (and a woman), among whom Jaume I (d.1276) and Ermessenda, countess of Barcelona (d.1058) were judged to be the greatest (and second greatest) of all Catalonia’s heroes, beating men like Francesc Macià and Antoni Gaudí into third and eleventh place respectively. Judging by this result, the medieval past of Catalonia still looms large in the popular conscience of the modern country. However, the question of medieval Catalonia’s contribution to contemporary culture is a topic far too vast, too many-faceted, too rich, to be meaningfully discussed in a brief paper of this nature and I will limit myself to just a few thoughts.

When we talk of medieval Catalan culture we tend to think in the first instance of the great influence and impact of its art and architecture – the treasures of ‘Catalan’ Romanesque and Gothic produced in Catalonia or by Catalan artists and craftsmen – or we emphasise the incredibly rich corpus of medieval Catalan literature – the chronicles, the poetry. And then there are the riches that can be found in Catalonia’s archives, near-unrivalled in all of medieval Europe in terms of extent and variety, that reveal so much about the land and its people. Medieval Catalonia with its authors, scribes, craftsmen and master builders appears outstanding: we tend to see in Catalan art, architecture, music and literature, if not always the earliest, then surely among the most impressive, examples of their kind.

All of this has been said on many occasions, by many, both professional and less so, and has been refuted by perhaps almost as many. So rather than regurgitating, and with such constraints of space, what has been said countless times before, be it via the pens of justly gratified Catalan patriots or through the soberly impressed evaluation of art and literary scholars, let us take a different view.

If we understand ‘culture’ as do the editors of the Chambers English Dictionary, then we ought in fact to consider much more than the arts in all their guises. ‘The result of being cultivated’ or ‘refinement in manners and thought’, and especially ‘the attitudes and values which inform a society’ force us to consider ‘culture’ as a much wider concept than that which the ‘artistic’ frame would allow.

I would therefore propose to move beyond the magnificence of the medieval Catalan artistic heritage for a moment and consider the contributions, admittedly not always immediately visible, and certainly not always grand, of the rest of that same society. I am referring to generations of those, unseen and unheard in history, who have allowed that culture to be carried through the decades and centuries and through the countries and continents; who have, indeed, ‘shaped the attitudes and values which inform this society’, and who are ultimately behind the crucial yet unsung contribution of medieval Catalonia to contemporary culture, in its widest sense.


by Karen Stöber

PhD in History. Researcher at Universitat de Lleida (UdL). Member of the Advisory Council of InTransit.

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