A Medieval Catalan Noble Family:
the Montcadas, 1000-1230

John C. Shideler


[1] The history of the Montcada family from A.D. 1000 to 1230, besides being fascinating in itself, mirrors important changes in the political, social, and economic life of Western Europe. By the year 1000 the influence of Carolingian institutions (and their Visigothic counterparts in Spain) was weakening, soon to be overcome by innovations that established a society ordered by feudal relations. In Catalonia both political and social changes were spurred by increases in population and wealth that became especially notable in the late tenth and early eleventh century. Dozens of castles were built during this period, reflecting the emergence of a new type of lordship that confiscated for a growing military class the increasing profits of the land. Castle lords became the de facto rulers in this society until kings and princes established themselves at the summit of the feudal hierarchy, drawing the military strength of knights into the service of their states.(1) In this period of the high Middle Ages the principality of Catalonia developed into an important feudal monarchy.

The area of Western Europe that acquired the name Catalonia occupies the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, spilling over the Pyrenees where they reach the Mediterranean to encompass the peaks and valleys of the modern French department of the Pyrénées Orientales.(2) This roughly triangular territory is relatively [2] small -- its three sides measure approximately 125 miles on the north, 150 miles on the west, and 200 miles along the coast -- but it has always been important as a border region between the larger realms of what are now France and Spain.(3)

At the dawn of the second millennium, a Christian population that had settled earlier in areas of mountain refuge had just begun to occupy the lower valleys and plains of Catalonia. For three centuries this region had formed a buffer between the Christian realms to the north and Muslim-controlled Spain to the south, and during this time it had acquired an identity all its own. Led by the counts of Barcelona, the military class of Catalonia began to export their arms and armies to the south, opening a window to the Islamic world and encouraging the flow of gold into the Christian north. The next generation of Catalan warriors subdued neighboring Muslim rulers, and for decades the politics of Catalonia remained centered on the flow of tribute into the count's hands.(4)

By the end of the eleventh century Catalonia no longer lived in isolation from the larger Christian world. To the west, intense political maneuverings were taking place in the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre, and the dynastic and courtly squabbles they produced reverberated as far away as Catalonia. The deeds of the Cid, who once captured and ransomed the count of Barcelona and his men, are but one indication of the wider context in which Catalonian history now unfolded.(5)

But Catalonia in these times was more naturally concerned with events to its north. Across the Pyrenees the princely houses of Languedoc and Provence regularly supplied daughters to become countesses in Catalan courts. In these regions of similar native tongue the counts of Barcelona emerged as powerful rivals to [3] the counts of Toulouse.(6) Throughout the twelfth century this competition grew, especially after 1162, when Catalonia's dynastic union with Aragon gave the princes of Catalonia the title of king. Strengthened by a complex of feudal relations that stretched from the confines of Gascony to the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, the count-kings of Catalonia-Aragon worked to extend their domination all along the Mediterranean littoral.(7) Their policies might have succeeded had it not been for the arrival in the Midi of northern French crusaders sent by the pope to extirpate the rampant Albigensian heresy.(8) The battle of Muret in 1213 not only brought defeat to the united southern forces, it also cost Pere I of Catalonia-Aragon his life and made his heir a ward of the pope. A dozen years later the Midi was lost to Catalan influence, and the nobility of Catalonia redirected its energies to reconquering the Balearic islands and the Valencian coast.

The period that ended around the year 1230 thus marked a turning point in the history of Catalonia-Aragon. It also closed a chapter in the history of the Montcada family, from its origins in the early eleventh century to its temporary loss of influence in the 1220s, after the death of all four leading members of its lineage. During these two hundred years the Montcadas took part in the political, social, and economic developments that characterized institutional change throughout Western Europe. It was a period in Catalonia when counts lost and regained control over the aristocracy, when the bases for a "feudal monarchy" were laid, and when the economic benefits of authority were spread to a wider class of individuals whose social behavior was governed by the rules of knighthood. The history of the Montcadas, like that of other noble [4] lineages that participated in the feudal transformation of Catalonia, began in this period.

The first Montcada belonged to that aristocracy of the post-Carolingian era which ruled Catalonia in service to the counts of Barcelona. Foremost among these officials were viscounts, whose delegated authority came from the count, and vicars, whose secular office brought comital rule (rule by the counts) to even the smallest rural centers of habitation. This created a kind of Hausadel, a tightly knit military class of magnates -- great men -- who were regularly present in the count's palace but who also represented the count throughout his lands.

The founder of the family, Guillem de Montcada, had been vicar in two castle outposts located at some distance from Barcelona, and he held rights to other lands elsewhere. But sometime after 1020 Guillem established himself at Montcada, a castle situated near Barcelona and the center of comital power. From this point on, the family became a lineage, with a patrimony to maintain and a name to pass on.

The territorial lordship of Guillem de Montcada and his successors developed during the eleventh century, as castle lords in Catalonia took advantage of comital weakness to sweep away the institutional constraints that the counts, as guarantors of public order, had previously maintained. Though the lords of Montcada remained loyal to their count throughout this period of troubles, they were certainly affected by the political developments that made them increasingly independent territorial magnates. Later, by the time the last baronial resistance to comital power had been overcome -- between 1050 and 1070 -- the lords of Montcada no longer served as intimate advisers to the count. They concentrated their efforts instead on exploiting the economic prerogatives of lordship in their domains in the county of Barcelona and on protecting the fortunes of their kin in the archdeaconate of Barcelona. Until the end of the eleventh century they succeeded in both objectives.

The Montcada patrimony was only one of several major territorial lordships in the region of Barcelona at the dawn of the twelfth century. But its importance grew immensely with the marriage of the Montcada heiress to Guillem Ramon [II]. For Guillem Ramon was both heir to his father's lordships in the Vallès [5] and to the seneschalcy of Barcelona -- an office which in Catalonia conferred additional rank and distinction upon one of the count of Barcelona's closest supporters. Designated in his marriage contract as heir of the Montcada domains, Guillem Ramon also inherited from his father lordships in three counties -- Barcelona, Osona, and Girona -- and entry into the count's inner political circle. At once the question was posed: Would Guillem Ramon's behavior as territorial lord compromise his position as seneschal with the counts?

The seneschalcy of Barcelona was created by the comital family in the mid-eleventh century, at a moment when the countship was under attack, to bolster the prestige of a powerful magnate who supported legitimate authority. A generation later Count Ramon Berenguer I rebuffed the attempt of his seneschal to make the office hereditary. In conferring the seneschalcy upon Guillem Ramon [I] in the late 1060s, the count was placing his trust in a new man from the county of Girona. Guillem Ramon's association with the count had the effect of increasing his influence in Catalonian politics, especially after the assassination of Ramon Berenguer II in 1082. Throughout the last quarter of the eleventh century and well into the countship of Ramon Berenguer III, Guillem Ramon retained his title, though by this time he was no longer the count's handpicked official. As a baron of independent stature, he was able before his death in 1120 to pass on his title and fiefs to his son, Guillem Ramon [II].

The conflicts that erupted between Guillem Ramon [II] Seneschal and Count Ramon Berenguer IV in the mid-1130s (to be described in detail in Chapter Four) were kindled by the seneschal's pursuit of his interests as territorial lord of Montcada and by the count's insistence that every generation of vassals affirm his dominant position within the feudal hierarchy. When the seneschal's independent behavior prompted the count to meddle with Guillem Ramon's marriage, the seneschal retaliated, and hostilities were quelled only when Guillem Ramon submitted completely to his lord. From that moment on, Guillem Ramon became a devoted ally of the count in his quest to unite Catalonia with Aragon, to advance the reconquest southward down the Mediterranean coast, and to expand the influence of the house of Barcelona in the Pyrenees, Provence, and Languedoc. This role in the count's court enabled [6] the seneschal to acquire new rights of lordship in Tortosa and Lleida, to install Montcadas in the viscounty of Béarn, and to act as regent during the minority of Alfons I.

In the slightly more than half a century that separated the death of Guillem Ramon [II] Seneschal from the deaths of his grandson and great-grandson at the conquest of Mallorca in 1229, the political fortunes of three main Montcada branches (Montcada-Vic, Béarn, and Tortosa-Lleida) continued to be linked to the interests of the count-kings of Catalonia-Aragon. In the reign of Alfons I, Ramon de Montcada [I] served as counselor and ambassador, plying the waters of the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Pisa and even Constantinople on behalf of the count-king. Though his principal heir, Ramon de Montcada [II], seemed less adapted to this role, his second son, Guillem Ramon [IIIJ, reestablished the seneschalcy as a Montcada patronymic and added royal blood to his lineage. In Béarn, Guillem de Montcada [II]'s son Gastó maintained the influence of the crown of Aragon in a viscounty whose limits extended to the frontier with English Gascony, and he provided political support for the house of Barcelona in its numerous interventions in Occitania.

Only in the principal branch of the family was a lord of Montcada without close political ties to the house of Barcelona. Here an absence of affinity grew into enmity -- with tragic results for the archbishop of Tarragona, who was murdered by Guillem Ramon de Montcada [I]. This event did not prevent Guillem Ramon de Montcada's son, Guillem de Montcada [III], from wielding the influence that the lordship of Montcada imparted to him. Nor, for that matter, did it block the return to political life of his father, once he had paid for his crime through exile and had obtained apostolic absolution. For the Montcadas' eminence equaled that of the most important baronial families in Catalonia during the early years of the reign of Jaume I, and by their numbers alone they exercised a preponderant role in maintaining political stability -- or inclining it in their favor. Such maneuvering occurred in a dramatic way during the 1220s, when for personal profit Guillem de Montcada [III] led resistance against Jaume I, only to emerge within a few years as the count-king's most highly-valued adviser (a development recounted in Chapter Five).

This book describes the political and social context in which [7] the Montcada family was founded, its relation to the church of Barcelona in the pre-Gregorian era, and the economic significance of the new form of exploitive lordship in the eleventh century. It analyzes the contributions of Guillem Ramon [II], the Great Seneschal, to twelfth-century political society, and the social ascension of the Montcadas, which culminated in the first third of the thirteenth century. Finally, it compares the structure of Montcada lordship in "old" Catalonia and in "reconquered" Catalonia.

Note for Introduction

1. For a general orientation to this period, see Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel, La mutation féodale, Xe-XIIe siécles (Paris, 1980). This synthesis supersedes on many points Marc Bloch's La société féodale (1st ed., Paris, 1939).

2. The origin of the name Catalonia has been the subject of much scholarly debate. One modern linguist, Paul Aebischer, has argued that the site and name of Montcada were so evocative that they generated the name, but this theory has been received with little enthusiasm by philologists and historians. See Frederic Udina Martorell, El nom de Catalunya, Episodis de la historia, no. 23 (Barcelona, 1961), pp. 36-37.

3. The Spanish March, the object of several military campaigns under Charlemagne and his successors, retained for centuries its memory of Carolingian authority, which induced Catalan scribes to date documents by Capetian regnal years until the mid-twelfth century.

4. For the history of Catalonia in the tenth and eleventh centuries, see Catalogne. On the collection of tribute, see pp. 662-80.

5. For the history of Spain during the time of the Cid, see Ramon Menendez-Pidal, La España del Cid, 5th ed., 2 vols (Madrid, 1956).

6. See Charles Higounet, "Un grand chapitre de l'histoire du XIIe siècle: La rivalité des maisons de Toulouse et de Barcelone pour la prépondérance méridionale," in Mélanges d'histoire du moyen age dédiés a la mémoire de Louis Haiphen (Paris, 1951), pp. 313-22, and Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals, "A propos de la 'domination' de la maison comtale de Barcelone sur le Midi de la France," in Annales du Midi (1964), 76:315-45.

7. See Thomas N. Bisson, "Mediterranean Territorial Power in the Twelfth Century," in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1979), 123:143-50.

8. A useful orientation to this problem is Walter L. Wakefield, Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France, 1100-1250 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974).