20.01.05 Vargas, Constructing Catalan Identity

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Rutger Kramer

The Medieval Review 20.01.05

Vargas, Michael A. . Constructing Catalan Identity: Memory, Imagination and the Medieval. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. pp. xiv, 197. ISBN: 978-3-319-76743-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rutger Kramer
Radboud University, Nijmegen

About midway through the first part of his latest monograph, Michael Vargas reminds the readers that “this book is not a standard political or cultural history” (51). Instead, his goal is “to reflect upon the relationship between the past and the present”, and thereby propose a way of looking at modern Catalan identity as a product not of the history of the region, but of the way present-day (mis)conceptions about Catalonian history have informed more recent developments in the North-Eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The result of his efforts is a book that reads more like a long essay than a short historical study, but which is no less thought-provoking and stimulating for it. Indeed, Vargas’ Constructing Catalan Identity is not a standard history, but takes the reader on a fascinating journey through one historian’s thoughts on a highly complex set of circumstances: a carefully written book that should nonetheless be handled with care.

This is also a timely book. The region of Catalonia, and the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, has been in the limelight again recently, both in the current media cycle--especially the ongoing developments following the referendum for independence in 2017--and within the field of medieval studies--where recent publications such as Cullen Chandler’s Carolingian Catalonia: Politics, Culture, and Identity in an Imperial Province, 778-987 (Cambridge, 2019) or Vicente Lledó-Guillem’s The Making of Catalan: Linguistic Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Times (Cham, 2018) show various ways in which the perceived Otherness of Catalonia can be a catalyst for ongoing research. Combined with the still-growing interest in medievalism and the increased awareness of the way the past is used and abused to fan the flames of political discourse, Vargas’ monograph appears poised to become part of a larger debate. In that sense, the fact that the author is quite open about his own agenda may be a boon to the book as a whole, as his convictions may serve as a better conversation-starter than his observations. And even those who disagree with this ultimate conclusions about Catalan identity (for instance, those who find themselves drawn towards the conclusions reached in Gabriel Tortella’s Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth (Cham, 2018), which approaches the issue from an altogether different angle) will be taken by Vargas’ lively and engaging style of writing, rendering the book accessible to academics and students as well as people who are simply interested in Catalonia’s past, present and future.

After the introduction (1-16), in which the author explains his personal reasons for writing the book the way he did, Constructing Catalan Identity is divided into two parts. The first of these, “Inventory” (17-90), is about what Vargas has dubbed the “component parts of Catalan collective memory” (15): a series of examples from medieval history that are still visible in Catalan landscapes, customs and mentalities. The second section, “Making Meaning” (91-181) is aimed at looking “how meaning is made as Catalans reconfigure the parts according to changing circumstances” (15). This section is finished by an epilogue (167-181) which, if only for reasons of editorial elegance, would probably have worked better as a separate counterweight to the introduction, but which does a solid job of tying the various strands together and explaining how the events of 2017 were not only part of long-term developments, but also caused by the way those involved would perceive the moyenne durée-history of Catalan-Castilian relations.

The “Inventory” of Catalan identity consists of “Events and Accidents” (21-28); “Princes and People” (29-50); “Patrons, Protectors and Creative Defenders” (51-68); and “Castle, Coast, and Cathedral” (69-90). The first of these aims to show the events taking place within Catalonia, and how these already marked the region out as different from the rest of Spain. It is in the memory of medieval history, Vargas argues, that we should look for the roots of what he calls “Catalanism”. From this point of departure, he moves on to descriptions of (popular images of) the legendary leaders of Catalonia, and how their actions are seen to have contributed to processes of state formation on the peninsula. Mixing fact with fiction, Vargas here explains the legacies of Wilfred the Hairy (r. 870-897), Ramon Berenguers I (1023-1076) and IV (1114-1162), and James I (1208-1276), as well as Pau Claris (1586-1641) by focusing on the stories told about them rather than their actual deeds. This approach is added to by the inclusion of stories about the wholly fictional Comte Arnau and Otger Cataló, who was allegedly responsible for naming the region: powerful people who played a role in shaping Catalonia, and whose stories have taken on epic properties in the modern mindset. The next chapter follows a similar tack, but looks at more spiritual component parts instead. It describes the impact of competing saints’ cults (to wit: Eulalia, Mary, and George) as well as the influence of “Catalans, who, having captured the powers of a particular muse, turned their creative efforts to the defense of Catalan interests” (51-52): poets, architects, and especially the many people involved in the creation of the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors. The inventory concludes with a series of reflections on space and architecture and how these anchor the Catalan popular imagination to the land. Moving from the Montserrat mountain range or the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Vargas also uses this chapter to make the point that buildings can represent negative memories as well: to many inhabitants of Barcelona, the infamous Montjüic Castle stands as a lasting representation of Spanish overlordship and abuse of power.

The chapters in the first part are engaging and full of interesting information, seemingly catering as much to tourists as to people researching Catalonia for scholarly purposes. Throughout, Vargas has started from the present, and used every methodological tool available to explain his points. This sometimes leads to a somewhat haphazard reading experience, as informative passages are interspersed with methodological digressions (ranging from anthropology and psychology to philology and folk studies) and we are given many previews of the second part already. This, combined with the colloquial style and an over-abundance of signposting, might be off-putting to readers used to the conventions of the genre, but should not detract from the contents offered. More vexing in this part is the sometimes bewildering combination of information and generalisation: whereas written sources are approached with scrutiny, the explanations for the modern mindset are given in the broadest of terms, in which “Catalans” are given credit for many things without it being backed by, say, anthropological fieldwork. It is here already that the essayistic nature of the book becomes apparent, as a more stringent use of terms and methods might have helped the argument take shape a bit more clearly.

The second part of Constructing Catalan Identity consists of showing how these building blocks come together at various points in time to present people who identify (or not) as Catalan with options to give “meaning and purpose” to the “stories [they] tell about themselves” (94). It starts with some reflections on “Decadence and Renaissance” (95-114), two key concepts in Catalan historical self-awareness. “Decadence”, in this context, denotes a period of decline from the late Middle Ages to the modern era. This decline, interestingly, has been blamed both on Spanish interference and on Catalans who allowed this interference to take over, once more highlighting the difficult relation between Catalan past and Spanish present. The counterbalance to decadence is the Renaixenca, a cultural movement that started in the nineteenth century with a view towards returning Catalonia--and the Catalan language--to prominence by reinventing the mythologies of the medieval period. This was never a “historian’s” movement, but always a “social project” aimed at convincing modern Catalans that the reality of their identity could be historically justified. Vargas continues with a similar juxtaposition, this time between “Medievalizing and Modernizing” (115-135), a chapter that looks at various strategies of reinterpreting and reimagining the landscapes described in chapter 5. It is perhaps the highlight of the book, challenging the reader to think about their own perceptions of “old” and “new”, and what uses of space may tell us about not just our own preoccupations but also the powers at play behind the decisions to restore, modernize, tear down or rebuild. Each of these, Vargas argues, has a place in the construction of the Catalan landscape, and each of these impinges on the identities of inhabitants and visitors alike. The final chapter, simply titled “Fighting Words” (137-165) delves deeper into the questions raised by the persistence of one of Catalonia’s most prominent identity markers: the language. All that preceded, Vargas posits, the stories, the declines, the protests, the renaissances, have been expressed in either Catalan or Castilian, and each time that decision mattered.

This second part is easily more methodologically challenging, although the readers taken by Vargas’ style and convictions might not notice it like that. However, it is here in the sections where the book is engaged in “Making Meaning” that some shortcomings also come to light. One of these is that, as much as the introduction and the book as a whole show the author’s engagement with theoretical concepts and willingness to retain a nuanced stance, he just as often speaks about “Catalans” as a group that, though diverse, is an entity that can be described in collective terms with collective agency. The interplay between the leading figures and politicians on the one hand and the popular response to their initiatives on the other could thus be treated more carefully, as Vargas occasionally falls into the very trap he cautions more pro-Spanish historians to avoid. In that sense, three things are especially conspicuous in their absence. Firstly, a more thorough engagement with medieval Catalonia’s dealings with its neighbors to the North and South: the Muslims and the Franks are mentioned in the course of the narration of the myths, but to understand these roots it would have been interested to probe deeper into the way the underlying discourse and dynamics between the powerful and the storytellers would have changed over time. Secondly, although the Franco regime and its destructive stance towards the history of the region is often mentioned, it is never made quite clear what the impact of the government’s educational policies might have been: to what extent is the “renaissance” of Catalonia a response to a perceived lack of knowledge in the very recent past. Finally, Vargas’ self-professed sympathies for the Catalan cause, while never a hindrance to his scholarship, do stand in the way of his willingness to engage with the causes and consequences of nationalism and its impact on Catalonian identity. Again, this ismentioned and marked as problematic in general terms, but this reviewer could never shake the feeling that the author was willing to give Catalonian nationalism the benefit of the doubt, whereas other nationalisms were weighed and found wanting.

These issues are why the book should be handled with care. They are, however, by no means reasons to ignore Vargas’ arguments: his transparent stance vis à vis his own preconceptions is commendable in that respect, as he never gives the reader the impression of “objectivity”. In fact, this may well be one of the book’s greatest strengths. Vargas has written an unconventional book by the standards of medieval academia. But then again, these are unconventional times, and books like these, where an author uses their knowledge of a region and their expertise with the historian’s craft to make points that are of immediate political value, might be just what we need to realize the ongoing relevance of medieval studies--while making the general public aware of the complexities involved in trying to explain whatever is going on in the present.

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