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800 years of Catalan literature

The geographical area covered is the ancient Principality of Barcelona (modern provinces of Barcelona, Lleida [in Castilian, Lérida], Girona [Gerona] and Tarragona; since 1977 the autonomous Catalonia); the ancient Kingdom of Valencia (provinces of Valencia, Castelló [Castellón] and Alacant [Alicante]; the Balearic Islands: Andorra; Roselló [French Roussillon]; and Alguer [Italian Alghero], a Catalan-speaking enclave on the north-west corner of Sardinia, conquered by the Catalans in 1354.

The Catalan language

Catalan, spoken by some six million people (more than speak Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Irish or Albanian), is one of the Romance languages and reflects in its linguistic features its geographical position between Castilian to the west, and French and Provençal to the north. These versions of the opening of the book of Genesis show the relationship between the languages:


Au coumençamen Diéu creè lou cèu e la terro. Mai la terro èro vano e vuejo, e li tenèbro èron sus la fàci de l'abime, el'Esperit de Dièu vanegavo sus li aigo. E Diéu diguè: 'Que se fague la lumiero!' E la lumiero fuguè facho. E la lumiero, Diéu veguè qu'èro bono. E separè la lumiero di tenèbro. E'mé lou vèspre e lou matin, acò faguè un jour.


En el principi creà Déu el cel i la terra. I la terra era vastitud i buidor, i la tenebra era damunt la faç de l'abisme, i l'esperit de Déu planava damunt la faç de les aigües. I digué Déu: 'Sia llum'. I llum fou. I veié Déu la llum com era bona. I departí Déu entre llum i tenebra. I anomenà Déu la llum 'dia' i la tenebra anomenà 'nit'. I fou vespre i fou matí, dia primer.


En el principio creó Dios los cielos y la tierra. La tierra era caos y confusión y oscuridad por encima del abismo, y un viento de Dios aleteaba por encima de las aguas. Dijo Dios: 'Haya luz', y hubo luz. Vio Dios que la luz estaba bien, y apartó Dios la luz de la oscuridad; y llamó Dios a la luz 'día' y a la oscuridad la llamó 'noche'. Y atardeció y amaneció y amaneció: día primero.


Au commencement Dieu créa le ciel et la terre. Or la terre était informe et vide, et les ténèbres étaient sur la face de l'abîme, et l'Esprit de Dieu planait sur les eaux. Et Dieu dit: 'Que la lumière soit!' Et la lumière fut. Et Dieu vit que la lumière était bonne et il sépara la luminière des ténèbres. Et il nomma la lumière 'jour', et les ténèbres 'nuit'; et avec le soir et le matin, cela fit le premier jour.

The Middle Ages

By 801 the Franks had retaken Girona, Vic and Barcelona from the Moors. By the time of Wilfred the Hairy, Count of Barcelona (878-97), a Catalan dynasty was firmly established in north-east Spain, with its base in Barcelona. Majorca was reconquered in 1229; Valencia was taken and a separate Kingdom of Valencia created in 1238; Alacant, virtually the southern extremity of the Catalan-speaking area, fell in 1304. The Principality of Catalonia and the Kingdoms of Valencia and Aragon proper constituted a state known as the Crown of Aragon.

Initially, the literary Romance language of Catalonia was Provençal: from the 12th century, prose, and from the 15th century, poetry, began to be written in the vernacular. The earliest monuments of Catalan prose date from 800 years ago: the translation of the Visigothic legal text the Forum judicum and the Organyà Homilies.

The medieval court of Aragon was bilingual in Aragonese and Catalan; with the establishment of the Castalian Trastámara dynasty in 1412, Catalan had to share literary status with Castilian.

The earliest dated printed book from Spain was produced at Valencia by Lambert Palmart on 23 February 1475. The first printers in Barcelona were German-speakers, and presses are known to have existed before 1500 at Barcelona, Girona, Montserrat, Tarragona, Tortosa, Valencia and Valldemossa (Majorca). Of the 856 editions printed in Spain before 1500, 258 (30%) were produced in Catalonia and Valencia; of these 104 (40%) were in Catalan.

The Decadència

Whereas the Middle Ages had been the Golden Age of Catalan literature, the 16th to 18th centuries witnessed not only a curtailment of political independence but also a decline - the so-called Decadència - in quantity and quality of writing in Catalan.

The marriage of Isabella, heiress to the Kingdom of Castile, and Ferdinand, heir to the Crown of Aragon, in 1469 led to the unification of the kingdoms under a single monarch, their grandson the Emperor Charles V, in 1516. The decline of Catalan political power was marked by the putting-down of the Catalan Revolt of 1640; the extinction of traditional rights in Catalonia in 1714 by Philip V (whom the Catalans had opposed in the War of the Spanish Succession) in the cause of centralised government on the French model; and the ban on teaching in Catalan in 1768.

The Catalan revival

Catalonia, however, is traditionally one of the commercial and industrial centres of Spain: the first railway train in Spain ran from Barcelona to Mataró in 1848. The Catalan revival (both cultural and political) could count on the support of a wealthy, educated, book-buying bourgeoisie.

In Catalonia, 'Renaissance' (Renaixença) generally refers to the rebirth of literary Catalan in the early 19th century. (The 16th-century Renaissance is now called Renaixement.) One strand of early 20th-century Romanticism was the interest in non-official cultures, the exotic and the popular, and this favoured a return to the cultivation of Catalan, as it did, for example, Provençal. The landmark of the Catalan Renaissance was the publication of B.C. Aribau's ode La pàtria in 1833.

The later 19th and early 20th centuries are characterised by two currents in Catalan culture and therefore in its publishing: Modernisme and Noucentisme (the '1900s' Movement). In both, political, literary and linguistic Catalanism are present, although a traditional distinction is made between the pro-Europeanism of Modernisme and the sense of nationalist political responsibility of Noucentisme. It is to this context that the Catalanist journals La Renaixença and L'Avenç and the books which they published belong. The period 1907-14 is one of institutionalisation, with the founding of the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, Pompeu Fabra's standardisation of orthography and limited Catalan home rule under the Mancomunitat.

In the remainder of the twentieth century, the autonomy of Catalonia has varied in proportion to the liberalism of the Spanish government. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Mancomunitat was dissolved in 1923; the Generalitat, its successor with greater powers of autonomy, was restored in 1932, during the Second Republic, and closed by Franco in 1938. The beginning of the Franco regime was a low point for the Catalan language and publishing: there was no education in Catalan and only two Catalan books, for example, were printed in 1945. There followed a period of relaxation in the latter years of the regime: in 1968, 500 books were published in Catalan and in 1970 some small recognition was given to teaching in languages other than Castilian. With the return to democracy, the Generalitat was restored in 1977, followed by autonomous governments in the other Catalan-speaking areas, and Catalan teaching and publishing are enjoying new vigour.