Catalan Language and History

For a sizable chunk of its history, Barcelona was ruled by outsiders. Five early events stand out:

  • In 801 the Holy Roman Empire, under Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, conquers Barcelona. Catalonia becomes a military buffer zone against the advance of the Moors.
  • In 987 the Frankish vassal Count Borell II of Barcelona refuses to swear loyalty to the Empire, and Catalonia becomes a de facto independent feudal state.
  • In 1137 Catalonia merges with Aragón. The two realms are nominally equal, but Catalonia wields less power.
  • In 1469 Fernando of Aragón marries Isabella of Castile; in the emerging single state of Spain, Catalonia loses most of what remains of its political and economic clout.
  • In 1714 Carlist Catalonia picks the wrong side in the War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona falls to Felipe V, who abolishes the last of Catalonia’s surviving rights and privileges.

Early in its grip on the Iberian peninsula, the Roman Empire took over a little town built by a tribe known as the Laietans and established, in 133 BC, a colony called Colonia Favencia Julia Augusta Paterna Barcino. After Rome’s decline, in the 4th century, Barcelona enjoyed a golden age as the Visigothic capital, under the rule of Ataulf and the Roman empress of the West, Galla Placidia (388–450), daughter of Theodosius I and one of the most influential and fascinating women of early European history. Ataulf was assassinated in Barcelona in 415; his successors moved their capital to Toledo, leaving Barcelona in a secondary role through the 6th and 7th centuries. The Moors invaded Iberia in the 8th century; and in 801, the Franks under Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious captured Barcelona and reconfigured Catalonia as the Spanish March—a buffer zone at the edge of the Moorish empire, which then extended to just south of Barcelona itself.

Over the next two centuries the Catalonian fiefs grew ever more independent. In 985 the Frankish King Lothair failed to reinforce Barcelona against a Moorish attack, and in 987 the counties of Catalonia renounced their fealty to the Empire, becoming an independent federation with Barcelona as its capital. The marriage in 1137 of Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Catalonia to Petronella, daughter of King Ramiro II of Aragón, united the two feudal states. The crown of Aragón, with Barcelona at its center, controlled the Mediterranean until the 15th century. The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragón and Isabella of Castile and León in 1474 brought Aragón and Catalonia into a united Spain. Barcelona suffered a decline with the discovery of the Americas in 1492, when the focus of maritime trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Madrid became the seat of Spain's royal court in 1562, but Catalonia retained certain autonomous rights until 1714 when, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the victorious Felipe V suppressed all expressions of Catalan identity. Not until the mid-19th century would Barcelona experience the so-called Renaixenca, a rebirth of nationalism that recalled its former glory.

Barcelona grew stronger throughout the early 20th century. After the abdication of Alfonso XIII and the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalonia recovered much of its former freedom—only to lose it again in the Civil War. When the war ended, Catalan identity was brutally suppressed; books in Catalan were burned, towns were renamed in Spanish, and the Catalan language was banned. This repression lasted until Franco’s death in 1975, when Catalonian home rule was granted; Catalonia’s parliament was reinstated in 1980. Catalan is now Barcelona’s co-official language, along with Castellano (Castilian Spanish). Street names are signposted in Catalan, and the media publishes and broadcasts in Catalan. The culmination of this rebirth was the staging of the 1992 Olympics: roads, promenades, beaches, marinas, and neighborhoods were created. During the Summer Games, Catalonia announced its national identity to the world. In 2004, the city hosted the first Universal Forum of Cultures. The Forum site, with its convention center, parks and auditoriums, anchors the new Diagonal-Mar development, stretching from Plaça de les Glòries to the mouth of the Besòs River, punctuated with the works of renowned architects like Jean Nouvel, Oscar Tusquets, and Herzog & de Meuron.

Catalonia’s 2006 Autonomy Statute, approved under the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, devolved still more power into local hands. Catalans today think of themselves as Catalans first and Spanish citizens second—even more under the conservative (and stubbornly anti-federalist) Partido Popular and its coalition partners, in power since 2011. Catalans are less than pleased with the share that comes back to them, of tax revenues rendered unto Madrid, and with what they regard as the PP's heavy-handed interference in their "internal" affairs; referenda and mass demonstrations in Catalonia in 2014 and 2015 indicate that nearly half the population would support a complete breakaway from Spain. In the September 2015 regional elections, a coalition of pro-independence parties won a narrow majority in the Catalan Parliament, with a nearly 80% turnout of eligible voters; since then local sentiment has shifted, as more Catalans come to favor some form of federal state, with more autonomy for the region, but it is still unclear how far or how fast the Parliament will push their separatist agenda.

Learning a few Catalan phrases will give you a much warmer reception than the usual Spanish. A friendly "bon dia" (good day) goes a long way.

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