A “Pestilential Disease” – Piracy in Times of War in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon 

Dr. Victòria Burguera i Puigserver, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Resumen: La violencia marítima en el Mediterráneo bajomedieval podía adoptar variadas formas en diferentes contextos. Así, la concepción de los piratas y la percepción de la piratería eran igualmente diversas dependiendo de los actores en cuestión. Detrás de la amenaza percibida por las ciudades de la Corona de Aragón en la primera mitad del siglo XV, se esconden intereses cambiantes y competencias a nivel interno y externo ¿Y si el rey y los piratas estuvieran en el mismo equipo?

Abstract: Maritime violence in the late medieval Mediterranean could take various forms in different contexts. Thus, the conception of pirates and the perception of piracy were equally diverse depending on the actors involved. Behind the threat perceived by the cities of the Crown of Aragon in the first half of the 15th century, there were shifting interests and competitions both internally and externally.What if the king and the pirates were on the same team?

2nd April 1440. The galleys of the Majorcan Ponç Descatllar, the Valencian Jaume de Vilaragut and the Catalans Bernat and Galceran de Requesens lay an ambush in the mouth of the Ebro River from which the ships passing through the area cannot escape.1 They are engaged in rounding up and looting ships carrying wheat and other supplies to various coastal cities, including the capital of the principality of Catalonia: Barcelona.

The Barcelona authorities, along with those of the city of Tortosa, the closest city to the conflict zone, are the first to take notice of the events. The skippers, who are subjects of the king and members of his fleet, used force and their rank to capture people, plunder ships and even threaten, torture and mutilate those who resisted them. The rulers of the city will devote all their efforts to have them declared public enemies, so that they can be prosecuted, imprisoned and judged for their actions.2 Through about twenty letters exchanged by the Barcelona authorities and their representatives in the courts with Queen consort Mary of Aragon, King Alfonso the Magnanimous and other authorities, it is possible to reconstruct the discourse developed by the municipal leaders to criminalise the acts of the skippers, who were close to the monarch and members of his fleet.3

It had been a long time since the Catalan-Aragonese monarchy had had sufficient means to undertake military campaigns on its own. Thus, for the conquest of Naples, apart from counting on the economic support of the cities under his dominion and drawing on old personal ties, the king appealed to his subjects to join his war of conquest.4 The king would gain a private force at his disposal to help him pursue his own objectives, while the participants (only those with the economic strength to arm large warships, i.e. mostly nobles and members of the urban oligarchy) would find a path to political, economic and social advancement.5 Their position in the monarch’s inner circle, along with the latter’s need and dependence on their ships for his war, turned many members of the royal navy into veritable time bombs, in a position to potentially act with impunity.

Powerful cities affected by their excesses, such as Barcelona, were forced to organize flotillas on several occasions to pursue them,6 in what was conceived at the time as a “pestilential disease”.7 Thus, despite the king’s numerous foreign enemies, maritime violence was sometimes more an expression of domestic unrest than the result of external competition.

Yet, in addition to the harm these patrons may have caused the monarch’s own subjects, there was another underlying issue. Behind the expressions referring to their “insatiable appetite” and “lack of shame”, together with accusations of being “a pirate, murderer, limb mutilator of great inhumanity and viciousness”,8 there was the latent conflict between the urban elites of the city of Barcelona and the monarchy, resulting in an armed conflict years later: the well-known Catalan Civil War.

The dialectic and rhetoric used by the municipal leaders to criminalise said patrons is fully embedded in the process of the criminalisation of piracy as a whole. And, curiously, in this case the process was not the result of an attempt at state reaffirmation by the monarchy, as historiography has pointed out in other contexts.9 On the contrary, it was the expression of a force contesting the king’s interests, in accordance with the plurality of powers typical of medieval times and so characteristic of the territories that made up the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon.


Photo: Niçard, Pere, Sant Jordi, in: Wikimedia Commons, URL: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sant_Jordi_Pere_Niçard.jpg] (05.04.2023)



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Victòria Burguera i Puigserver (2023, 5. April). A “Pestilential Disease” – Piracy in Times of War in the Late Medieval Crown of Aragon . Blog der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Iberomediaevistik. Abgerufen am 22. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/psgb

  1. The development of this episode, together with a study of the subterfuges used by one of the skippers, Ponç Descatllar, to escape the judicial process to which he was subjected for having practiced piracy, has recently been published in: Burguera i Puigserver, Victòria A. “Jutjar els actes de pirateria a la Corona d’Aragó baixmedieval. El cas de Ponç Descatllar (1440)”, Anales de la Universidad de Alicante. Historia medieval, 24 (2023), pp. 67-90. https://doi.org/10.14198/medieval.24205. []
  2. The first three were declared public enemies and persecuted as such, but only Ponç Descatllar was imprisoned and prosecuted, albeit temporarily. In fact, the legal proceedings against him, compiled by the Barcelona bailiff after he was captured by a fleet armed by the leaders of that city, is one of the few examples of cases of illegitimate attacks on the seas belonging to the Crown of Aragon that have been preserved until today. []
  3. The letters are kept in the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona (AHCB), specifically in the registers of Lletres closes (sent) and Lletres comunes (received). []
  4. Sáiz Serrano, Jorge (2008). Caballeros del rey. Nobleza y guerra en el reinado de Alfonso el Magnánimo (Valencia: Publicacions de la Universitat de València), pp. 22, 65. []
  5. Burguera i Puigserver, Victòria A. (2020). Els perills de la mar. Pirateria, captiveri i gestió del conflicte marítim a la Corona d’Aragó (1410-1458), (Unpublished PhD dissertation), Universitat de Barcelona, pp. 177-185. []
  6. Ibidem, pp. 301-307. []
  7. AHCB, 1B. VI-7, ff. 37r-v. 4 abril 1440. []
  8. The latter were mentioned by the Barcelona councilors against Ponç Descatllar. AHCB, 1B. VI-7, f. 51v. Barcelona, 26 April 1440; ff. 56r-57v. Barcelona, 7 May 1440. []
  9. For instance, in medieval England (Heebøll-Holm, T. K. (2020). “Towards a Criminalisation of Piracy in Late Medieval England”. In L. Sicking; A. Wijffels (eds.), Conflict Management in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, 1000-1800 (pp. 165-186). Leiden/Boston: Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004407992_010) or France (Prétou, Pierre. (2021). L’invention de la piraterie en France au Moyen Âge. Paris: PUF). []

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