The date was September 11. The year was 1714. The city of Barcelona was the last redoubt in the War of Spanish Succession. The armies of the Bourbon dynasty were inside the city. On that day, Catalunya would fall to the Bourbon armies. Felipe V (Philip V, of the House of Bourbon) would become the first Bourbon king to rule over Spain. Catalunya would lose its centuries’ old Usatges, or constitutional laws.
The Usatges (meaning “rules” or “customs in law”) were the founding charter of the first constitutional democracy in Europe. Under the rule of the Count of Barcelona, Ramón Berenguer I, El Vell (“the Old”), who reigned as Catalan king from 1035 to 1076, the Usatges became the first codification of medieval regional law. They established a process for choosing the Count of Barcelona, who would serve as an elected king of Catalunya.
The reason for the codification of the Usatges was to clarify what laws should determine legitimacy, not only in political rule, but also in economic and civic activity. Catalunya was a loose-knit principality, often presided over by more than one feudal lord; its laws dated from Roman and Visigothic times, and there could be confusion as to which system took precedence.
In 1251, Jaume I el Conqueridor (James I of Catalunya, “the Conqueror”) asked the Catalan Corts to make the Usatges the principal foundational law of Catalunya (to put an end to some medieval judges’ practice of using either Gothic or Roman law instead). By that time, the Usatges had established the governing structure for the city and county of Barcelona. And since the Count of Barcelona would rule as Catalan king, this made the Usatges the most effective guide for the region.
The Consell de Cent was established as part of the city government of Barcelona, under the Usatges. It amounted to the first modern parliament in Europe, or indeed anywhere in the world. The Council of 100 was filled with representatives of the nobility, the trade guilds, and of certain geographical areas. It became the preferred method for legislating and for deciding who would hold the title of Count of Barcelona.
Historian Robert Hughes, in his book Barcelona, the Great Enchantress, put it like this:
The Consell de Cent was by a long way the oldest proto-democratic body in Europe. It enshrined the principle that, in a good and well-shaped society, things should happen by contract based on mutual regard rather than by divine right.
Catalunya had established a kind of democratic rule, where even the king was subject to elections. Centuries later, Ferdinand of Aragon—known as one of the founders of the Inquisition, and a co-sponsor, with his wife Isabel of Castille, of the voyages of Columbus—held the title Count of Barcelona, and after his reign, what we now call Spain continued to be a group of separate kingdoms and principalities, ruled by competing monarchs, systems of laws and dynasties.
It was on September 11, 1714, that the Bourbon dynasty took control of the city of Barcelona and so the territory of Catalunya, establishing unified rule from Castille. The city was subjected to military occupation that lasted a century. A massive citadel was constructed, from which the population was subdued by regular use of military force. The Usatges were nullified and Catalunya’s centuries’ old system of democratic principality was dissolved.
Since that day, the people of Catalunya have been subject to many different forms of cultural, economic and military occupation. Their language has been banned on many different occasions, and their population barred from high office, from international trade, and from holding their own family lands, titles or trades. Those interludes of relative permissiveness have time and again been interrupted by authoritarian crackdowns.
To speak with any native Barcelonés over the age of 80 is almost certainly to speak with someone who knew of a relative or friend jailed or enslaved by the Franco regime for using the Catalan language or for daring to speak against the regime. Around the city, and across Catalunya, on Sundays, one can see rings of Catalans dancing the Sardanas, the regional folkloric dance, with smiles and teary eyes, still celebrating liberty from that history of tyranny.
It is this particular legacy of oppression and deprivation that motivates the Catalan independence movement. The Usatges, and true regional sovereignty, have never been restored. The historical interruption in Catalan self rule, that began 299 years ago today, persists. Though the Catalan independence movement is nonviolent, it has gathered a lot of momentum among both conservative and liberal Catalans, since the onset of harsh austerity measures instituted by Madrid.
In the district known as La Ribera, close to the Passeig del Born, next to the Basílica Santa María del Mar, there is a concave-floored public square called El Fossar de les Moreres (Boneyard of the Martyrs). Rising from the depressed floor of the square, toward the cathedral, is a red quarter-circle arc tipped with an eternal flame: it honors “the patriots who have given their lives in defense of Catalunya and her ancient laws”.
The square serves as a kind of Tomb of the Unknowns, and is specifically dedicated, in a poem by Frederic Soler, to “the martyrs of 1714″. Every 11th of September, the square is filled with Catalans who come to honor their region, their history, their culture and their language, and who—whether separatist in inclination or not—generally seek to win more autonomy for their regional and local governments.
Today, on the 299th anniversary of the loss of Catalan sovereignty, over 400,000 Catalans joined hands across the region to “vote with their feet” for a referendum on independence from Spain. The demonstration may have been even larger than the official estimate, and Catalans around the world joined hands symbolically to lend their support to the event.
Robert Hughes also said of the Consell de Cent of pre-1714 Catalunya, that:
The most famous political dictum of early Catalunya was uttered there—the unique oath of allegiance sworn by Catalans and Aragonese to the Spanish monarch in Madrid. “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws—but if not, not.”
There is now a proposal under consideration—which the central government in Madrid is taking steps to oppose, and which it says would violate the Spanish constitution—to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2014, the year that would mark 300 years of Madrid-centered rule. There are strong arguments for and against both the vote and independence itself, but the history that motivates the desire for a restoration of true sovereignty remains very much alive.