This is episode 36 called Birth of Catalonia and in this episode you will learn:
- Why the title of the episode is misleading
- The chaos within the Carolingian Empire, like in the Emirate of Córdoba, and the government of Odalrico and Hunifredo
- The traditional, legendary story of how Wifredo the Hairy, of the House of Barcelona, seized power
- The real story of how Wifredo the Hairy became Count of Barcelona and how Wifredo’s family monopolized both secular and religious posts in the Marca Hispanica
- The gradual independence of the Catalan counties after the deposition of Carolingian emperor Charles the Fat, and how that contrasts with the myths that originated in the late Medieval period
- The first attempt to make the dioceses of Catalonia independent from the archbishop fo Narbonne
- The different popular and official repopulations during Wifredo’s rule
- Why the Christian repopulations occurred and how was life in the borderlands
- How Count Wifredo the Hairy died fighting the Banu Qasi and the continuist rule of Wifredo II
- The Legend of the Four Blood Bars, that gives a different version of how Wifredo the Hairy died and how the Senyera was created
- The legacy and importance of Count Wifredo the Hairy
- A reflection on how his historical figure is manipulated to serve the purposes of the Catalan separatist agenda
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 36 called Birth of Catalonia. In this episode you will learn about how the Catalan counties gained their de facto independence from the Carolingian Empire under Count Wifredo the Hairy, known in English as Wifred or Wilfred. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
I’ve intentionally given today’s episode the provocative and even misleading title Birth of Catalonia . On one hand, because I will talk about Count Wifredo the Hairy, Guifré el Pilós in Catalan, who is portrayed in the Catalan myths and legends as a national hero and father of the Catalan nation, and we will be able to contrast that perspective with the historical reality. On the other hand, the title is also provocative because there is no mention of a land called Catalonia in the 9th century, and what’s more, the first written reference to the demonym Catalan can be found in a late 11th century text and Catalonia itself was in an early 12th century text. So, the concept of Catalonia is a pretty late creation, and at this point the inhabitants of the future Catalonia called themselves Hispani or Goths, as opposed to the Franks. There are many theories about the etymology of the word Catalonia and I think that there are two that are both quite plausible. One claims that Catalonia derives from Gothia, which was used interchangeably with Marca Hispanica to refer to Old Catalonia, with Catalonia deriving from Gothia Launia, which means land of the Goths. The other main theory suggests that the word Catalonia derives from castlà, a term used to refer to the lords of castles, so according to this theory Catalonia would mean land of castles. This would mean that Catalonia and Castile are equivalent terms, although obviously they had a parallel rather than a shared development, as Catalonia built many castles to protect itself from Muslim raiders like Castile did.
With that said, let’s continue the narrative of the Marca Hispanica from where we left off, in the 850s, with the death of Hispano-Gothic Count Sunifredo and the failed revolt of Guillermo, the son of Bernardo of Septimania. Charles the Bald was ruling West Francia, the kingdom that emerged after the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843, but he was ruling a kingdom in chaos, similar to the situation of the Emirate of Córdoba. King Charles the Bald had reannexed Aquitaine, suppressed the revolt of Guillermo, and appointed a loyal magnate, Odalrico, to rule the Marca Hispanica, but the victories of the year 852 proved to be short-lived. The period from the year 852 to 877 is fundamental to understand the path towards the gradual independence of Gothia, the Spanish March. Charles the Bald faced many recurrent challenges to his authority: the Breton rebellions, the Viking attacks, and the revolts of the nobility and subsequent civil wars. Meanwhile, Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi attacked the Catalan counties from the middle Ebro valley, and Odalrico proved to be unworthy of the comital office.
As a result, Charles the Bald dismissed Odalrico and appointed Hunifredo of Gothia to rule the Marca Hispanica in 857. At first, Hunifredo was a loyal vassal of Charles the Bald, he actually fought the Vikings and Luis the German alongside his king. However, in 861 the Andalusi forces attacked Barcelona almost conquering it. They devastated the surrounding areas, and it was in that moment when Hunifredo realized that being loyal to the distant Charles the Bald wasn’t bringing him any benefits. That’s why it’s not surprising to find Hunifredo joining a coalition of powerful and discontented nobles of the southern part of West Francia. Provence and Aquitaine revolted too, and seeing how most of his southern dominions vanished in a moment, Charles the Bald knew that he had to act carefully. In the Spanish March the King managed to occupy the counties of Ampurias, Peralada, Girona and Besalú, but Hunifredo held on to other important counties like Barcelona and he conquered Toulouse. Nonetheless, one by one his allies were being defeated, and he knew that if he waited he would suffer the same terrible fate. He therefore left everything behind and fled to Italy in 864, thereafter vanishing from history.
Then we have two different stories about who ruled the Spanish March before Wifredo the Hairy, one is the traditional story, considered now legendary, and then the historically accurate version. In the 12th century chronicle Gesta comitum barcinonensium the origins of the House of Barcelona and the rise of Wifredo acquire a legendary character. According to legend, Wifredo was the son of a Catalan count of Conflent, in modern southern France, who was assassinated by Count Salomón of Urgell-Cerdanya, incorrectly referred to as the Count of Barcelona. In the Chronicles Wifredo’s father is confused with another man named Wifredo, Count of Barcelona, although the latter never existed, and Wifredo’s actual father was Sunifredo, Count of Barcelona between 844 and 848. Following the legend, the Count of Flanders, that’s right, Flanders, then raised him, but Wifredo did something that no one should ever do. He had sex with the daughter of his protector and left her pregnant. Was it that difficult to think with your brain instead of your dick? Obviously, the Count of Flanders was furious, but he didn’t kill Wifredo nor expel him. Instead, he forced Wifredo to swear on his mother’s grave to avenge the assassination of his own father and become the Count of Barcelona in order to marry the daughter of the Count. As the story goes, Salomón was a Frankish aristocrat disliked by his Hispano-Gothic subjects, especially the sons of the deceased Count of Barcelona. Eventually, Wifredo the Hairy and his brothers rebelled and assassinated Salomón, allowing Wifredo to fulfill the promise he’d made to avenge his father. What an epic story, right?
Nonetheless, that’s not the real story. Salomón didn’t succeed Hunifredo, and Wifredo and his brothers didn’t revolt against the Carolingian Empire. A Frankish noble named Bernardo of Gothia received a great chunk of the Marca Hispanica, while he became the ruler of Girona as well as Besalú a few years later. Bernardo of Gothia, as some of his predecessors, began to accumulate the comital office of more and more counties, thus becoming a potential threat to the stability of the Carolingian Empire. Meanwhile, Wifredo the Hairy succeeded Salomón pacifically as Count of Urgell and Cerdanya in 868 or 870. As I mentioned in the previous episode, there was still instability in the south and the Count of Toulouse was assassinated, leading to the independence of the Counties of Ribagorza and Pallars in 872. However, the real threat was a rebellion that started in 877, when King Charles the Bald was on his deathbed. Again, the entire southern part of West Francia took up arms against central authority, and the conflict continued after Charles the Bald passed away and was succeeded by his son Louis the Stammerer. The rebellion was then suppressed and Bernardo of Gothia was stripped of his assets and comital offices.
But from then on, things would never return to the earlier status quo, with Gothia and the neighboring region of Aquitaine becoming gradually independent. Louis the Stammerer invested Wifredo the Hairy as Count of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Besalú, apart from Urgell and Cerdanya which he had already ruled for several years. Moreover, his brother Miró the Old became Count of Conflent and Roussillon, the two counties that are just above Catalonia, on the French side of the Pyrenees, while his cousin Suñer II was Count of Ampurias. I mention all these counties because I want you to understand that Wifredo and his family controlled the entire Marca Hispanica, what we call Old Catalonia, although as we will see the interests of Suñer and Wifredo clashed. Wifredo the Hairy lived in a time of a profound political crisis of the Carolingian dynasty, and we can only understand his figure in that context. Louis the Strammerer died just two years after ascending the throne, and two of his heirs died soon after that too. Meanwhile, the Normans were freely raiding West Francia, and the Frankish magnates elected Charles the Fat, King of East Francia, to rule West Francia too and thus reunite the Carolingian Empire.
However, Charles the Fat proved to be incapable of ruling and was labelled a coward over his handling of the 885 Siege of Paris. In that siege though, the Count of Paris Odo proved to be a very competent military leader and he was thus elected King of West Francia, displacing the Carolingian dynasty and starting a new dynasty, the Robertians. From Wifredo’s perspective, the end of Carolingian rule ended his fidelity to the Carolingians. However, even before that happened Wifredo didn’t show a particularly strong commitment to the successors of Louis the Stammerer. The counts of the Marca Hispanica had adopted a passive attitude towards what was happening in the distant core of West Francia. They didn’t participate in the suppression of several revolts, nor in defending West Francia from Norman attacks. When Odo was elected King of West Francia, Wifredo didn’t do anything to support a Carolingian pretender, and instead he was 100% focused on ruling Old Catalonia and amassing more estates, and I think this lack of intervention in the core of West Francia is what allowed him to ultimately succeed in consolidating a dynasty, unlike his predecessors. In the end, local magnates and authorities had to fill the power vacuum that Carolingian authority had left.
The medieval chronicles narrate a very different story regarding the independence of the Catalan counties. According to the Gesta comitum barcinonensium, the Muslims attacked the Marca Hispanica and almost conquered it. Wifredo then requested aid from the King of West Francia, but he had other priorities, and instead he proposed to turn over Barcelona to Wifredo and his descendants if he defeated the Muslims. As you can imagine, the heroic and skilled military leader Wifredo expelled the infidels and that’s how the Catalan counties became hereditary and independent from Frankish authority. But the historic reality is that the process of independence was more gradual, the Catalan counties were de facto independent but the counts still sought to legitimize their rule with a false and only apparent image of submission to a Frankish ruler. The failure of Hugh Capet to respond to the request of military aid from Count Borrell II, led Catalan counts to stop recognizing Frankish rulers, while the French didn’t renounce to their claim on Catalonia until 1258. Moreover, as we will see later, Wifredo did not prove to be a very capable military leader, as the Muslims defeated him twice, one with fatal consequences.
The tendencies of political autonomy in the Marca Hispanica had a parallel development in the ecclesiastical sphere. Ever since the Muslim conquerors destroyed the metropolitan see of Tarragona, the dioceses of the Marca Hispanica depended on the archbishop of Narbonne, in Septimania. Not everyone was happy with the situation, so a priest named Esclua was proclaimed archbishop of Urgell with the power of the former metropolitan of Tarragona. Esclua wasn’t alone and he enjoyed the support of Ramón of Ribagorza-Pallars and Suñer of Ampurias. This event is important because it was the first attempt to make the diocese of Old Catalonia independent from Septimania, but although initially Wifredo supported or at least accepted the pretensions of Esclua, he was soon unhappy with the situation. Wifredo the Hairy had a good relationship with the archbishop of Narbonne, and he was not happy to see how Esclua had ceded part of the territory of the dioceses of Urgell to create the bishopric of Roda de Isábena, in Ribagorza-Pallars. Things got worse when his cousin Suñer of Ampurias refused to accept the new bishop of Girona and subsequently tried to conquer Girona. Despite the failure to achieve his ambition, Suñer went to the court of Odo of West Francia and pledged his allegiance. His efforts proved futile, and in the end the interests of Wifredo and the archbishop of Narbonne prevailed. Esclua was deposed and Suñer excommunicated, but the bishopric of Roda de Isábena continued to exist. The solution wasn’t found due to the intervention of Odo, but instead it was solved by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities of the region, more proof of the de facto independence of the Catalan counties.
And what was the most important achievement of Wifredo’s rule? Well, he followed the trend of the Christian repopulations of Asturias, or more accurately, his subjects followed that fashion and he later defended them. The repopulations in Old Catalonia were basically a popular initiative, not something that the Count ordered as was the case in the Kingdom of Asturias. Popular initiative with the protection of the Count of Barcelona characterized the repopulation movement of Catalonia of the 9th and 10th centuries. The main target of these repopulations was the County of Osona, in the heart of Catalonia, which had been depopulated some decades ago. The County of Osona separated the coastal counties from the Pyrenean counties, and since Wifredo ruled both sets of counties, it made sense to repopulate Central Catalonia to connect them. Just like the decadence of the Carolingians allowed him to act autonomously, the anarchy within the Emirate of Córdoba allowed Wifredo the Hairy to consolidate and expand his possessions.
To start with the repopulations, the Count of Barcelona founded two monasteries, the monastery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses and the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll, both granted with extensive estates and several privileges. Wifredo gave Santa Maria de Ripoll to his son Radulfo, who later became abbot of Ripoll and bishop of Urgell, and Sant Joan de les Abadesses to his daughter Emma. We can say that Wifredo’s decisions were influenced by nepotism, to place his kinship in positions of power and increase the wealth of his family. That’s how Wifredo’s family basically monopolized the key secular and religious posts of Old Catalonia. Emma became the abbess of Sant Joan de les Abadesses and she was by all accounts an impressive and fearsome woman, expanding the monastery’s estates which resulted in her controlling a territory almost as big as a county. She often acted autonomously, and even against the interests of one of her brothers, that’s why I say she was fearsome. She was driven by a strong religious fervor and she did all that to build a scriptorium, a Medieval center to write, copy and illuminate manuscripts. On the other hand, the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll headed by her brother Radulfo left a longer-lasting legacy, as it became the most important cultural center of Old Catalonia and one of the most renowned scriptoriums of Europe.
The second phase of the tasks of repopulation under Wifredo the Hairy occurred in the plain of Vic, the heart of the County of Osona and a no man’s land that saw a very intense effort of colonization. The city of Vic used to be the most important urban center of the Ausetani, a Pre-Roman people of the region, and during the Roman and Visigothic periods it remained the most important urban center of the sparsely populated heart of Catalonia. However, the city was destroyed during a revolt in 826, carried out by both Hispano-Goths and Muslims, and only the old Roman temple was left standing. More than 50 years after its destruction, Vic and the diocese of Osona were restored. A third area of interest was the region of Llusanés and Berguedá, below Urgell, but there the repopulation process was slower and it was entirely left to private initiatives.
The area around Cardona, along a tributary of the Llobregat river and between Urgell and Barcelona, was particularly strategic. Because of that Count Wifredo directly intervened to colonize and protect Cardona, and he conceded cartas pueblas and erected fortresses. The last target of Wifredo’s repopulations was the comarca of Bages, that includes the city of Manresa and the mountain of Montserrat. The bulk of the settlers of all the regions I’ve mentioned came from the overpopulated Pyrenees. The Pyrenean settlers had no other choice but to occupy the more fertile but less secure lowlands to feed themselves. A 9th century census of Urgell indicates that the Pyrenees had a similar population density than it currently has, but of course agriculture was much more primitive and less productive than it is now. The French historian Pierre Bonnassie stated that “the Pyrenees, in the 9th and 10th centuries, were not only overpopulated, they were saturated.” Still, even after colonizing the plains the settlers usually founded towns in hilly places, and mountains continued to offer shelter, along with caves, castles and fortresses. The landscape of Old Catalonia wasn’t that different from that of the County of Castile.
Like in Castile, León, Portugal, and other borderland societies, the settlers of the plains of Old Catalonia lived in a very hostile and inhospitable environment. They endured famines and aceifas by the Muslims raiders, as well as less obvious difficulties. From the contemporary texts of the borderlands, it’s clear that those living there felt fear, disheartenment and loneliness. Solidarity and collaboration between neighbors was not an option, but a necessity to survive in the inhospitable borderlands. Because of that, it’s not strange to see how slow the process of the Christian repopulations was. In the borderlands, possessing a fortress was key to political and economic power. Walled cities like Barcelona or Girona functioned as refuges for dispersed settlers who had the courage and necessity to settle in the borderlands.
And why was building castles important? Again, because the Muslims were a threat, they were the hegemonic force in the Iberian Peninsula, and Christians had to adopt a more defensive approach. For example, in the 890s the Banu Qasi were still powerful and they controlled Lérida, in the western part of modern-day Catalonia. The Banu Qasi felt threatened by the Catalan repopulations and fortifications and in response they fortified Lérida, but Wifredo the Hairy interpreted this as a provocation and attacked them. This is another example of how war initiatives were not a competence of Córdoba or the Frankish court anymore, but a decision of regional lords. Wifredo was defeated, and the Banu Qasi under Lubb ibn Muhammad launched a campaign against Barcelona. As a result, Count Wifredo was killed in action in August 11, 897, although medieval propagandists made up a story of his death that I will discuss in a moment. Wifredo bequeathed his dominions to his heirs, although that custom of dividing the inheritance among sons hindered the unification of the Catalan counties. At first, his sons Wifredo, Miró, Sunifredo and Suñer tried to jointly-govern the Catalan counties, giving pre-eminence to the eldest brother, Wifredo. This system was aimed at preventing the fragmentation of the family heritage and consolidate the new dynasty of the House of Barcelona. However, this system proved inefficient and impossible to sustain as soon as the successors of Wifredo the Hairy also had descendants.
When King Odo of the Robertian dynasty died in 898, the Carolingian dynasty was restored to the throne of West Francia under Charles the Simple. Wifredo II of Barcelona and the other heirs of Wifredo I then travelled to the Carolingian court to get their respective comital offices recognized, but you can notice that this was made a posteriori.Thanks to this meeting, Wifredo II gained the right to mint coins and started to use the title of Marquis or Princeps. The rule of Wifredo II was characterized by him implementing the exact same policies as those of his father. He founded monasteries and increased the family wealth with the acquisition of new estates, and also continued the role of protector of those who settled in the borderlands, although he didn’t expand the Catalan counties beyond the Llobregat river. In 911 or 912 Wifredo II died, and his youngest brother Suñer became the Count of Barcelona, Girona and Osona. I leave the narrative of Catalonia here because it coincides with Abd al-Rahman III becoming Emir of Córdoba.
As I was saying earlier, there’s a folktale about the death of Wifredo the Hairy, known as the ‘Legend of the Four Blood Bars’, which recounts the origins of the coat of arms of the Crown of Aragon, or Senyera. This legend is a very late invention, the first written text that mentions it dates back to the 16th century, and it has similarities to the folktale of how Fernando III of Castile created the coat of arms of the House of Córdoba after conquering the city. According to this legend, King Louis requested the help of his vassals to defend West Francia from the Norman attacks. The Normans were defeated, but the Count of Barcelona was fatally wounded. Then King Louis visited Wifredo in his deathbed and Wifredo only had a single request: he wanted a coat of arms to attach to his golden shield. The King pulled closer to him, wet his hand with the blood coming from Wifredo’s wounds, and wiped his four bloody fingers from the top to the bottom of the golden shield. He then said “this is your coat of arms” and that’s how a golden shield with four red lines became the coat of arms of Catalonia and then the Crown of Aragon. The true origins of the Senyera, the Coat of Arms of Aragon, are unclear and there are different theories. Some heraldic historians and experts defend an Aragonese origin, while others claim that it has a Catalan origin. The only thing that’s clear is the first ruler who used the four bars for sure is Alfonso II of Aragon and I of Barcelona, and since it was first used after the dynastic union happened it makes the whole question of its origins more confusing.
It’s undeniable that Wifredo was a relevant figure for the history of Catalonia and Spain, but Wifredo wasn’t the national hero portrayed in medieval and nationalistic chronicles of the 19th and 20th century. It’s wrong to say that Wifredo heralded Catalonia independent, or to believe in any of these nationalistic myths that I’ve commented in this episode. In fact, the Kingdom of Catalonia never existed, although Catalan counts were all related by blood and most of the times they cogoverned and there was a certain unity of action. Despite all this, no historic figure is mythicized unless he was really relevant, even if his importance is only appreciated retrospectively. I’m thinking about Pelayo of Asturias, El Cid, or Fernán González, a Count of Castile that I will examine relatively soon. Wifredo the Hairy is important because he was the founder of the House of Barcelona, that continued to rule the County of Barcelona and later the Crown of Aragon until 1410. Perhaps more importantly, Wifredo the Hairy was the first count to leave his domains to his sons, without the intervention of a Frankish king. That meant that authority and property became inseparable concepts, as counts stopped being appointed and removed by a king and instead their authority became hereditary. Therefore, Wifredo and his succession was a step towards the independence of the Marca Hispanica, the future Catalonia.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss my own personal experience of seeing how Catalan nationalists still use the figure of Wifredo the Hairy for their separatist agenda, and Catalan nationalism in general. Some school textbooks today detail all the legends that I’ve discussed and present them as historical facts. Books about the legend of the four stripes of blood are popular among children under the age of 7, and yes, most of the time the title specifies that it’s a legend, but a child doesn’t have a critical mind. The same happens with other manipulated national narratives, like Pelayo and the Reconquista, and I’m sure the same occurs in every country. But that’s not my point today. You can say that I’m overreacting and no one becomes a Catalan separatist because he or she was taught that the flag of Catalonia was created with the blood of Wifredo the Hairy. But if throughout your life and especially your formative years you are taught that legend and that Catalonia is a millenary nation, concepts that never existed such as the Catalano-Aragonese Crown, that the War of the Spanish Succession was a war against Catalonia to repress the Catalan institutions and language, or that Lluís Companys was a saint, if you are taught all this then it’s natural to believe in it. After 40 years of Catalan nationalists controlling education and the regional media, what’s weird is that there are still young people like me who feel Spanish. I’m like a black sheep, I mean almost all my family and friends are separatists, and the future doesn’t look bright, because if nothing is done to reverse this situation, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see separatists really becoming a majority in one or two decades. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode we will return to the narrative of the Emirate of Córdoba, with the Umayyads losing control over almost all al-Andalus. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and materials to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of the podcast, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Medium, because you will find exclusive content that I’m sure you will enjoy. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
CALIPHS AND KINGS, 796-1031. Roger Collins
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VI. ESPAÑA CRISTIANA (711-1038). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTÒRIA DE CATALUNYA. VOLUM II. EL PROCÉS DE FEUDALITZACIÓ. Josep M. Salrach
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
HISTORIA MEDIEVAL DE LA ESPAÑA CRISTIANA. Editorial Cátedra
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license