In February, 1640, surveying the ruins of his Catalan policy, the Conde Duque de Olivares, first minister of Philip IV, was bewildered and discouraged. “No king in the world,” he wrote bitterly, “has a province like Catalonia.” Truly no king did. For generations the separatist, localist Catalans had been a centrifugal force in the development of the Spanish state, defying royal attempts at centralization and Castilianization. J. H. Elliott’s excellent study of the Catalan revolt of 1640 is a highly significant chapter out of this struggle.
In Elliott’s view two fundamental revolutions took shape in the first four decades of the seventeenth century. One movement had its roots in the grievances of the disenchanted Catalan aristocracy and bourgeoisie. These two classes, frustrated in their quest for posts at the Spanish royal court, also resented the king’s penchant for appointing Castilians or Catalan puppets to high political and religious offices in the principality. Viceregal appointments went too often to a Castilian or a Catalan nobleman anxious to ingratiate himself with the king; bishoprics ordinarily went to Castilians with Catalans having to content themselves with abbacies and canonries. Questions of protocol—the privilege of wearing side arms, covering or uncovering in the king’s presence, the language to be used in Catalan sermons—were also occasions for bitter quarrels.
For the aristocracy and bourgeoisie the Conde Duque de Olivares was the principal villain. They saw in his policies (1621-1643) an attempt to infringe on traditional privileges guaranteed by medieval constitutions. Finding articulate expression for their views in the Corts, Diputacío (six-man standing committee of the Corts), and the Consell de Cent of Barcelona, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie joined to resist Olivares’ schemes to unify the empire through “one law, one king, one coinage.” They consistently opposed the Conde Duque’s efforts to collect the royal quints, his attempts to raise men and money in Catalonia for foreign wars, and his Unión de Armas by which all areas of the empire would contribute toward the common defense of the realm. When war broke out with France in 1637, the Diputacío and Consell made only half-hearted efforts to defend the principality and refused to billet troops except under limited, constitutional conditions. Atrocities perpetrated by angry Castilian troops on the unfriendly Catalans further compounded the problem. Pervading the entire conflict was the clash of temperament—Olivares’ arbitrary, high-handed methods working to further the interests of the monarchy with the independent spirit and contrary mindedness of the Catalans determined to protect their fueros. It was, as Professor Elliott so aptly describes it, the failure to balance royal law and royal necessity with local rights and local privileges.
The growth of a second revolutionary movement among the Catalan peasantry gave the revolution of 1640 a broad base. The peasants found their sources of discontent in economic depression, food shortages, and monetary difficulties. Banditry, both a cause and an effect of economic decline and bad government, and the terrible indignities suffered at the hands of Castilian troops quartered in Catalonia also increased peasant dissatisfaction. Ultimately the revolutionary sentiment of the upper and lower classes fused. The long-standing constitutional and economic grievances of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie merged with the more immediate grievances of the peasantry to spark the revolution of 1640. Favored by the troubles of Philip IV in Portugal and in other parts of Europe and the empire, the Catalans rose in open revolt, murdered the viceroy, assumed conduct of the government themselves, and sought French protection. In the end twelve years elapsed before the errant principality again fell under Spanish rule.
Elliott deserves an accolade for his well-researched, sensitively written study in causation. He has focused on a wide spectrum of forces and individuals interacting upon one another and has knit together social, economic, and political factors in his narrative in a way that makes the revolt appear inevitable, dispelling the thesis that Olivares deliberately instigated the revolution in order to bring the Catalans forcibly to their knees. As a chapter in the decline of Spain, the events leading to the Catalan revolution clearly manifested the weaknesses of the Spanish Empire in the first decades of the seventeenth century. They also demonstrated the Catalan tendency toward particularism and separatism, a perennial problem for Spain, but one which may well be, as Salvador de Madariaga argues, an obvious sign of the inherent Spanishness of Catalonia. In sum this is a superb monograph by a young scholar who is now joining the ranks of Hispanic American historians. He should be welcomed warmly.