Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

  © Jeff Matthews       entry Sept 2012,     revised,Catalan Atlas added, May 2014

Catalan Expansion in the Mediterranean

This is a summary and review of the essay, "Catalan Expansion in the Mediterranean" (original Italian title: L'espansione catalana nell'Mediterraneo) by Alberto Boscolo. It appeared in I Catalani in Sardegna [The Catalans in Sardinia], a book of essays edited by Jordi Carbonell and Francesco Manconi, published jointly in 1984 by the Consiglio regionale della Sardegna and the Generalitat de Catalunya. I have added the image of the Crown of Aragon at the top of the text as well as the graphic paragraph markers; they are taken from the Catalan Atlas, discussed in a special box inserted midway in the article.

The Crown of Aragon at its greatest expanse
(c. 1445) includes the Kingdom of Naples.

Alberto Boscolo (Cagliari, 1920-Rome, 1987) was an historian and scholar specializing in the history of medieval Sardinia. This essay in a volume dedicated to Sardinia makes it sound as if the focus is more on Sardinia than it really is. It is really an exposition of how important the maritime state, the Crown of Aragon, was in the Mediterranean world of the Late Middle Ages (1200-1500), a period in which the Mediterranean was really "the whole world" for many people in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Many people have never heard of the "Crown of Aragon" though they may be familiar with historical near-synonyms such as Catalonia, Barcelona, and the Aragonese dynasty, and they certainly know of, even if only generally, the famous Italian maritime republics, i.e., the city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa (we can overlook Amalfi, the fourth historical Maritime republic because it was important largely before the year 1200). The maritime republics competed for commercial markets throughout the Mediterranean and often waged war against one another. Yet, one of the greatest competitors was not one of those republics, but rather the Crown of Aragon, whose commercial activities and territory stretched from Catalonia (the capital of which was/is Barcelona to the Balearic Islands (Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera), to the large islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily and then the entire mainland kingdom of Naples and all the way to Athens; it included, as well, many commercial centers along the coast of North Africa and important sites in the Middle East. Boscolo's essay is an account of the complicated rivalries among the Crown of Aragon, Genoa, and Venice (and occasionally Pisa) to dominate commerce in the Mediterranean, all set against monumental events between 1200 and 1500 such as the "Reconquest" (thus making possible the modern nation-state of Spain), (2) the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1452, and the discovery of the New World. [See also Eleanor's Falcon, Kritarchs & the Crown of Aragon.]

Boscolo sets the stage with,

We emphasize that the union of Catalonia and Aragon under a single sovereign, which occurred in 1137...was a confederation rather than an actual joining of two peoples since both parties retained their individual traditions, laws and customs. The Aragonese were dominated by a feudal noble class with agrarian and military interests, dedicating themselves to war against the Arabs and to settling and repopulating former Muslim territories taken during the Reconquest. The Catalans were dominated by a merchant class interested in expanding their influence along coastal areas.

The Catalans expanded along the coast, and their Aragonese allies were quite happy to have them do so since that expansion served as a balance to the power of Castile, expanding to the south at the expense of Muslim territories. Aragon-Catalonia had a fine fleet in the 1200s and did well financially. You thus had in Catalonia the development of a merchant middle class, which led over time to expansion in the Mediterranean into markets in the east and the development of the so-called "Island Route" or "Spice Route.

In the second decade of the 1200s, this Catalan middle class suggested to the sovereign, James I of Aragon ("the Conqueror) (1208-1276), that he should take the Balearic Islands; that happened between 1229 and 1235 at the expense of the Arabs. That began the expansion of the Crown of Aragon; from that point, historians, including Boscolo, use the terms Catalan, Catalonian, Aragonese and Catalan-Aragonese interchangeably to refer to the maritime state known as the Crown of Aragon. Taking the Balearics was not just an economic move; it was primarily a war against Arab forces on Mallorca. They were threatening the Catalan coasts, and King James is also remembered in Spanish history for his contribution to the Reconquest. Possessing the islands did not yet open the way for new markets, but it did show off the aggressive, new Catalan sea power. Further expansion took place as a result of the event known as the Sicilan Vespers, in which the Aragonese took all of Sicily from the Angevin-French (which eventually led to the Aragonese conquest of the entire Kingdom of Naples).

The war of the Vespers lasted from 1282 to 1302. The Catalan-Aragonese victory had effects that shook the Mediterranean. It marked, in fact, the beginning of the end of papal theocracy (since the Angevins had taken Sicily in the first place with the help of the Pope), the end of the Crusades, the decline of French-Angevin commercial power and, above all, a new direction for Catalan commerce. At the time, the Pope still claimed the power to cede and distribute feudal properties, which he (Boniface VIII) did in 1297 by giving both Corsica and Sardina to James II of Aragon. Thus, in fewer than 20 years, the Aragonese came into possession of Sicily, Corsica and Sardina, three important islands where ports might serve potential commerce. There were a few obstacles: Sardinia, for example, had to wait until 1323-6 to be physically (militarily) taken by the Aragonese, and remained a place of constant turmoil due to revolts by Sardinian independence movements and constant meddling from Genoa. The maritime republic of Genoa was very uneasy at the sudden rise to prominence of this new power from the west. Before the rise of the Crown of Aragon, Genoa and Venice were the main competitors for lucrative eastern markets-Egypt, Palestine, Syria, the Black Sea, and the entire Byzantine Empire with potential gateways even to Iran. Now Genoa could be checked at almost every point on the way south and into the eastern Mediterranean.

Military alliances came into being in the early 1300s; Genoa sought aid from Pisa, and the Aragonese formed a pact with Venice against Genoa. The Genoese sent a fleet to the Catalonian coast and the Aragonese returned the favor by blockading Genoa. Genoa also tried to blockade the island of Sardinia in the 1330s. The blockade was largely ineffective although it did encourage Sardinian independence from Aragon. The entire situation worked in favor of the Crown of Aragon. It increased its power and now had commercial settlements on foreign soil, centers with their own consuls and warehouses, colonies where they were even able to impose their language and social institutions.

The hostile situation prevailed through all of the 1300s. All sides had to contend with other problems, as well. There was a plague in 1348. Populations decreased, causing agrarian and urban crises. Peter IV (aka "the Ceremonious") ruled Aragon for much of that time (1338-87). In spite of all other problems, Peter saw no choice but to declare open war on Genoa in 1351; he found a willing ally in Genoa's other great commercial rival, Venice. The war was supported by the wealthy Catalan merchant class. They were sure of a quick and certain victory, one that would lead to a greater development of Catalan commerce.

The victory for the Aragonese did not happen. The Venetian fleet (allies of the Aragonese) was devastated by the Genoese. In Spain, itself, war broke out between Aragon and Castile; Barcelona was attacked by a Genoese fleet. Peace talks in the 1360s did not help. Peace finally broke out in a treaty of 1379, and through it all the Crown of Aragon had not done badly; they still held Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, with the bonus that a separate war between Genoa and Venice had taken place! Peter IV had even managed to obtain possession of the duchy of Athens and Neopatria (the easternmost bit of blue on the map, above) and annex it to the Crown of Aragon. [It was one of the Crusader States set up in Greece after the conquest of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade.] Peter's deputy had then organized that duchy and turned it into a bulwark against the Turkish threat and opened a more secure trade route for markets in the east. Boscolo says that by the end of 1300s, Peter had left the Crown of Aragon in good shape:

Zurita* notes in his annals (book 1, ch. 64) "that the Catalan nation in those days carried on extensive relations and business with all the states of north Africa, with the provinces of Greece and Romania," and more importantly, "with the Byzantine Empire, with Syria and Egypt, and, above all, with the cites of Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria...[and that]...Catalan vessels navigated freely in the Levant" and were welcomed in all ports by their own consuls...
[ed.note - *refers to Spanish historian, Jerónimo de Zurita y Castro, whose Anales de la Corona de Aragón, was published 1562.]

[Main text continues below this box insert on the Catalan Atlas.]

The Catalan Atlas

The growth of the Crown of Aragon went hand in hand with the development of Catalan map-making, surely one of the most interesting (and most colorful!) phenomena in the history of cartography. The Catalan Atlas is the most important Catalan map of the medieval period (drawn and written in 1375). It was produced by the Majorcan cartographic school, a term used by historians to refer to the predominantly Jewish cartographers, cosmographers and navigational instrument-makers that flourished in Majorca in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The term includes those who worked in mainland Catalonia. The Catalan Atlas is attributed to one Cresques Abraham. It was commissioned by Charles V of France at a time when the reputation of the Catalan chartmakers was at its peak. The atlas that resulted, shown here, has been called the most complete picture of geographical knowledge as it existed in the later Middle Ages. It has been in the royal library of France (now the Bibliothèque nationale de France) since the time of King Charles V (1500-1558).

Shown above is part of the original. The Catalan Atlas originally consisted of six vellum leaves folded down the middle, painted in various colors. The leaves are now cut in half. Each half-leaf is mounted on one side of a wooden panel for display purposes. They are displayed side by side in the French National Library. Each map panel measures approximately 65 × 50 cm. (26 x 20 inches) The overall size is therefore 65 × 300 cm (about 10 feet). So, roughly, two feet high by 10 feet long. The section shown above is about two-thirds of the original. The missing panels contain text in the Catalan language (a neo-Latin language like Spanish and Italian and one of the official languages of modern Spain) on cosmography, astronomy, and astrology. These texts include illustrations and, in general, are a commentary on the state of the known world. The map is what is called a portolano map, from porto, the Italian word for 'port.' They were charts that focused on the main ports of call in the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and inland areas travelled by Mediterranean merchants and sailors of the day. The straight lines criss-crossing portolan charts represent the thirty-two directions (or headings) of the mariner's compass. They are called 'rhumb lines,' and are generated by observation and the compass. They are, essentially, point to point lines of bearing (though not to be confused with modern rhumb lines and meridians). This is similar to the compass rose displayed on later maps and charts. These maps did not take into account the curvature of the earth; as a result, they would not be helpful for navigating  across the open ocean. They were most useful in identifying landmarks at close quarters in navigation in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, or Red Sea (painted red on the right side of the map!).

The illustrations, captions and other writing on this map section of the Catalan Atlas are extensive and interesting. They contain, for example, references to the Silk Road and the travels of Marco Polo; also, the persons depicted at the bottom include historical figures,  even the Emperor of Mali seated on a gold mine! We also see traders along the trans-Saharan route (shown as a long gold swath running across north Africa). The map marks many cities, Christian cities with a cross, other cities with a dome. And the strangest thing of all: originally the Catalan Atlas was oriented with north at the bottom! It has a certain logic to it. If you are sitting on the island of Mallorca drawing a map of the Mediterranean world for Catalan sailors and travellers,  you want the world spread out before you so you move up into it, ahead of you. Africa is across from you, the Middle and Far East are on your left, and Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean are on your right. Today, however, as in this display, the map is viewed Europe-side up.

the wind rose

A wind rose is a figure or diagram on a map or nautical chart that shows the orientation of the cardinal directions,  the intermediate points, and the features of the winds from those directions. Many cultures, including the historical ones of the Mediterranean, gave (and still give) names to the winds, often based on specific geographic features (e.g. "towards the hills", "towards the sea"). Thus, tramontana in Italian is the wind from the north ("beyond the mountains). Various graphic devices such as color codes and length of spokes were often used to show typical intensity of  the winds from a given direction. There are four cardinal directions: (moving clockwise) North, East, South and West (abbreviated as N, E, S, W). Most wind roses indicate those four and at least the four intermediate "ordinal" points; thus, N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW. You can divide further into 16 and even 32 points, and many cultures will have names for all 32 winds from those directions.  (Note that those further subdivisions are, indeed, indicated on the wind rose on the left, even though they are left unnamed. This wind rose is from a different Majorcan map, not the Catalan atlas.) A wind rose of eight points, however, is very common, and the claim is made that the Catalan Atlas was the first European map to show such a wind rose, roughly in the form that survives today (on the left side of the main map, above). The names of the winds may be very similar in related languages such as as Catalan, Spanish, Italian,etc., but there may be interesting variations; for example, the names from 1375 shown on the wind rose are in  Catalan (recognizably similar to the modern Catalan names: Tramuntana N, Gregal NE, Llevant E,  Xaloc SE, Migjorn S, Llebeig SW, ponent W, mestral NW. The interesting Arabic word,  Xaloc, for SE, also exists in Italian as scirocco. As well, there are many local dialect variations of these names. At least some of the eight cardinal and ordinal names of the winds are in common use in everyday language in Italian; for example, everyone speaks of the tramontana and scirocco to mean "cold north wind" and "warm southern wind," respectively (even though, technically, scirocco means from the SE). Anyone who knows all eight, not to mention the 16 and 32 versions is probably a sailor. The names of the winds were also used for the directions, themselves; then, the Germanic invasions of southern Europe in the sixth century brought another vocabulary, producing the common one-letter abbreviations but retaining the names of the winds. Note that some of the names are upside down on this wind rose. Presumably that was to facilitate reading the name as you held the map section in your hand and rotated it to find your bearing.

Around 1400 there was a period of peace between Aragon and Genoa. Aragon was still concerned with independence movements on Corsica and Sardinia, and Genoa had problems of its own caused by members of the ancient nobility who were trying to recover some of their lost land. They turned to foreigners for help. Boscolo devotes quite a bit of space to the person of the Duke of Milan, Phillip Maria Visconti (1392-1497), one of the most brilliant politicians of his age and to his involvement in the affairs of Genoa (material that I shall not deal with here).

Aragon finally put down the Sardinian rebellions in the early 1400s, but the most important thing to happen to the Crown of Aragon in the 1400s was its decision to move on the Kingdom of Naples, itself, to expand the Italian part of the "Crown" from Sicily onto the mainland. That occurred in 1442 during a war of succession in Naples at the end of one of the worst, most squalid few decades of any European state in medieval history-every dark and scurrilous act that you can imagine happening, indeed, happened in Naples, and the fact the Alfonso the Magnanimous, the ruler of Aragon, took over the kingdom of Naples (claiming to have "united the two Sicilies") was a great good. (See Angevin Naples Simplified!)

The take-over increased Catalan-Aragonese dominion and power in the Mediterranean at a point when something was about to happen that would make it all irrelevant: the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1452, putting an end to the 1000-year-old Byzantine Empire. In a single stroke, the commercial markets in the eastern Mediterranean largely dried up for Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and the Crown of Aragon. The Crown of Aragon's problems worsened when King Alfonso decided to move to Naples. There then developed in Catalonia, itself, an increase in factionalism-small merchants, artisans, wealthy merchants, the important families who ran the city, all watching out only for themselves. An economic crisis followed. Alfonso died in1458, the crisis grew worse, Catalonia was engulfed by civil war.

The collapse of eastern markets then causes a strange thing to happen; Aragon and Genoa are no longer at war because there isn't really much left to fight over. Suddenly, more familiar names start to crop up: Ferdinand II ("the Catholic") of Aragon marries Isabel of Castile in 1469. Genoa takes advantage of the new trend towards unity in Spain and of the peaceful state of affairs with Aragon to seek markets in the west. Genoa sets up shop in western Spain, in Castile, which is fine with everyone since there isn't much out there but a bunch of water and the edge of the world, anyway, right? But hasn't Henry the Navigator shown that there is money to be made along the west coast of Africa? And who knows?-maybe you really can get to the Indies by sailing south around Africa, and maybe, more directly, by going west! (I know! We'll call them "Indians"!) There is a thriving Genoese commercial presence in Seville, and it is precisely within this community that there arises the impetus to send Columbus off to see what's out there.


Boscolo makes no mention of how the expansion by Aragon and rival Italian maritime republics into Mediterranean markets might have been affected by another series of events just at the time that the Catalans were starting to spread out. A series of vicious Mongol raids on Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus (among other sites) occurred between the 1240s and 1260s. The devastation destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate (centered in Baghdad), which at the time ruled the Middle East and much of North Africa. The devastation put an end to the famed "Golden Age of Islam" and disabled the powerful Arab fleets that had once carried Islam to Spain and had taken Sicily and even parts of the southern Italian mainland. There were no Arab fleets left to stand in the way of European activity in the East. Very strange to the modern reader was the potential cooperation by the Mongols with European powers to destroy what was left of Muslim faith and rule in the area. In 1262, the Mongol leader, sent a note to Louis IX of France, stating his intention to capture Jerusalem for the Pope if the French would send a fleet against Egypt:

From the head of the Mongol army, eager to devastate the perfidious nation of the Sarasins (...) good-willing support of the Christian faith (...) so that you, who are the rulers of the coasts on the other side of the sea, endeavor to deny a refuge for the Infidels, your enemies and ours, by having your subjects diligently patrol the seas.
None of that came to pass. Indeed, the Mongol effect might have been temporary since Islam quickly regrouped in Egypt under the Mamluk warrior class that rapidly formed its own Caliphate and fought and defeated the Mogol invaders by 1300. The Mamluks were absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1500s, at which point the "capital" of Islam moved to Constantinople. I did say it was speculation.

Other souces:
-May, Tmothy M. (2003). "The Mongul Presence and Impact in the Lands of the Eastern Mediterranean" in Empire, Crusaders, Condottieri and Cannon; Medieval Warfare in Socities around the Mediterranean. Eds. L.J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay. Brill publ. Leiden.
-Robson, J.A. "The Catalan Fleet and Moorish Sea-Power (1337-1344)" in The English Historical Review
Vol. 74, No. 292 (Jul., 1959), pp. 386-408. Oxford University Press.]

to history portal            to Sardinia index

Copyright © 2002 to 2017