The crown of Aragon and Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries

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The 13th century is the century of the Europeanization of Europe. It was a time when various monarchies expanded their borders to include those territories inhabited both by non-Christians (Muslims, Cathars and Pagans) and Christians that were not a part of the feudal and Roman Catholic system (such as the Celtic countries or the Byzantine Empire). Military conquests were not the only means of expansion. The Mediterranean was a principal route of commerce, and it was here that the three Italian maritime Republics of Genoa, Venice and Pisa fought for supremacy.

The Crown of Aragon, and specifically Catalonia with regard to commercial aspects, participated in both avenues of expansion: that of military conquests, with the incorporation of Mallorca and Valencia; and that of commerce, with the creation of a network of consulates in the principal ports of the Mediterranean. This network led to the establishing of the oldest code of maritime laws in Europe: the Book of the Consulate of the Sea. (In Catalan: Llibre del Consolat de Mar).

Within this context the Crown of Aragon found itself clearly inferior, as at the start of the century it was a state with a sphere of action and a specific weight in the European panorama that was limited to the Iberian Peninsula. This was even more the case after the battle of Muret in 1213, where along with the life of King Peter the Catholic, any possible expansion into Occitan lands was extinguished. Seen from a demographic – and thus financial and military – perspective, the Crown of Aragon could not compete with the power of France and Castile; from a commercial perspective, the Italian Republics had a clear advantage with regard to commercial networks and a well-established merchant/military fleet.

Despite these circumstances, however, the patience - and above all the intelligence – of certain monarchs, particularly Peter the Great (1276-1285), allowed the Crown of Aragon to compensate for its demographic and financial inferiority with decisive and daring action. It wasn’t long before the Crown reached a level of absolute European protagonism. The conquest of Sicily, Malta and Djerba in 1282/83 gave the King of Aragon the control of the central Mediterranean and consolidated the large North African markets for the Catalan merchants. This protagonism rose to such a level that at the start of the 14th century an expedition of Almogàver soldiers even attempted to conquer Byzantium.

At the same time, this military expansion was both preceded and accompanied by a wise policy of matrimonial ties with the principal European royalties. King Peter who, symbolically, became heir of the Emperor Frederick II, knew how to dominate the European diplomatic chessboard, and he wove a network of relations that went from England to Byzantium, from the German Empire – by way of Hungary and countless Italian cities – all the way to Egypt. In addition, using the innovative control of the spread of news and propaganda, the eyes of all of Europe were watching Barcelona for the first time in history. Everyone was waiting to learn what the monarch would do, or how he planned to defeat the Crusade - organized by the Pope and the King of France -that had invaded Catalonia in the summer of 1285.

At times of maximum intensity it was a protagonism marked by the strength of certain key figures, as much on the battlefields (such as the King himself or the invincible Italian-Catalan Admiral Roger de Llúria), as within the domain of technical or scientific thinking. Some well-known figures on the European stage were the canonist Saint Ramon de Penyafort, the visionary and doctor of kings and popes Arnau de Vilanova or the indefatigable Ramon Llull.


Dr. Stefano M. Cingolani

Medieval Historian. Visiting professor at the University of Barcelona and the Pompeu Fabra University. Specialist in Catalan Lieterature and Catalan Historiography of the period between the 10th and 15th centuries. Member of the InTransit Advisory Council.

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