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)

  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). []

Alfons V. and his predators – Control through Goodwill

Laurin Herberich, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Zusammenfassung: Alfons V. el Magnànim war nicht unbedingt für seine kulante Haltung bekannt, wenn es um Politik ging. Nachdem er die Genuesen, Mamluken, Venezianer und die meisten anderen Seemächte des östlichen Mittelmeeres nach seinem Herrschaftsantritt im Jahre 1416 antagonisiert hatte, hatte er sich sicherlich einen gewissen Ruf verdient. Um so überraschender ist seine Reaktion auf eine Seeraubanschuldigung der Venezianer aus dem Jahr 1424. Kann man ihm aufgrund dieser etwa Kulanz attestieren? Basierend auf bisher unbeachteten Dokumenten des venezianischen Senates kontextualisiert und dekonstruiert Laurin Herberich diese scheinbar kulante Geste des Magnànims.

Abstract: Alfons V. el Magnànim was not necessarily known for his goodwill when it came to politics. After having antagonised the Genoese, Mamluks and Venetians and most other maritime powers in the Eastern Mediterranean since his ascension to the throne in 1416, he had cultivated a certain reputation to say the least. The more surprising is his reaction to an accusation of maritime predation by the Venetians in 1424. Was this goodwill he was showing? Working from so far unconsidered documents of the Venetian senate Laurin Herberich contextualises and deconstructs the Magnànim’s supposed gesture of goodwill.

Alfons V. el Magnànim pursued an ambitious sea power policy in the Eastern Mediterranean in the face of already established maritime powers like the Mamluks, Genoese and Venetians.1 Against the Mamluks this policy, which mostly relied on maritime predators, was implemented in the form of punitive raids on coastal areas.2 Against the dominant Christian maritime powers in the Eastern Mediterranean Alfons’ policy became visible in incidents of maritime predation.3 Because most other key staging areas for predatorial and mercantile ventures were already occupied by Venice and Genoa,4 the Crown’s sea experts sailed from Sardinia, Sicily and especially Rhodes.5 The Hospitallers ruling the latter since 1312 to Venice’s chagrin6 and its competitors delight7 even provided individuals with predation licenses from at least 1413 onwards.8 Nevertheless Venetian merchants were now and then forced to anchor in Rhodes, if they wanted to take part in the Levant trade.9

This was the plan of Venetians Nicolaus Torellio and his associates heading for Damiette from Crete in late July 1423 on the vessel of patron Michael Maurothodoro. His vessel was forced to anchor in Rhodes harbour due to bad weather.10 After a couple of days two Catalan vessels pulled into port.11 The Catalans under their captain Moysius Servente proceeded to detain the Venetians on their own ship for several days, while they robbed them, carrying Venetian goods to their own cochae and even selling them to bystanders in the harbour. Somehow the Venetian merchants managed to appeal to the Grandmaster for help,12 but he refused.13

A possible explanation for his refusal is that Moysius Servente had received a predation license from the Rhodian authorities. This is likely for two reasons. The first is that during the following restitution negotiations the Venetian senate was convinced this was the case.14 The second reason is that there are other incidents of maritime predation in Rhodes harbour, after which the Hospitallers were more than happy to help Venetian victims document their damages and press charges.15

Although Moysius Servente had thus seemingly operated under a Rhodian license, the senate openly stated that it would prefer to receive restitution from the Crown of Aragón instead, because Venice winning the restitution negotiations would lead to more maritime predation in Rhodes harbour and because the Crown could afford to loose some money.16 To get Alfons to restitute the damages, the senate wanted the Hospitallers to support Venice’s restitution claim.17 Keenly aware that delaying the case would be a disadvantage for Venice,18 the senate attached the Servente case to several other cases19 it was demanding restitution for.20

After the Venetian envoys had returned to the senate on June 13th 1425, they reported success. Curiously though el Magnànim had dragged Moysius Servente in front of the Venetian envoys offering them to imprison him like Venice had demanded, but only, if all other maritime predators, for whose misdeeds the Venetians were demanding restitution, would be punished like Servente. This the Venetian envoys had declined, because they knew, as they said, that the king could not possibly get a hold of all of them and thus would have never payed restitution for the other cases. So they agreed to the financial restitution of all cases, including Servente’s.21 But did king Alfons V. decide to pay the 4.649 ducats demanded by Venice for the Rhodes incident, which he had not sanctioned, just as a gesture of goodwill?22

No matter if Moysius Servente was a maritime predator with a Rhodian license uncontrolled by the Hospitallers or an unlicensed one uncontrolled by the king of Aragón, control is a possible explanation for the latter’s ‘goodwill’. If Alfons V. wanted to assert his authority over his subjects capable of maritime predation, indebting them to himself might have been a good idea. Uncontrolled maritime predators could be a financial and political liability. By taking on political and especially financial responsibility for their misdeeds, he was increasing the number of ships he could use to project his sea power in the Eastern Mediterranean without getting drawn into undesired conflicts.

Photo: Grünenberg, Konrad von, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, Bodenseegebiet ca. 1487, in: Chart. A 541, folio 16v–17r, URL: [https://dhb.thulb.uni-jena.de/receive/ufb_cbu_00025778urn: nbn:de:urmel-ufb-152779-8-0011] (08.10.2022).

  1. Coulon, Damien, The Commercial Influence of the Crown of Aragon in the Eastern Mediterranean (Thirteenth–Fifteenth Centuries), in: The Crown of Aragon. A Singular Mediterranean Empire (Brill’s Companions to European History, 12), ed. Flocel Sabaté, Leiden 2017,p.294; Ashtor, Eliyahu, Levant trade in the later Middle Ages, Princeton 1983, ND 2014, pp. 365–367. []
  2. Ashtor, Levant trade, 1983, ND 2014, pp. 222–226, 283–285, 300. []
  3. Balard, Michel, Le Commerce en Méditerranée orientale: Diffusion des Produits, Capital humain, Conflicts politiques (XIIIe-XVe S.), in: La Corona Catalanoaragonesa, l’Islam I el Món mediterrani. Estudis d’Història medieval en Homenatge a la Doctora Maria Teresa Ferrer I Mallol (Anuario de Estudios medievales, Anejo 71), ed. Josefina Mutgé I Vives, Roser Salicrú I Lluch, Carles Vela Aulesa, Barcelona 2013, pp. 23–25. []
  4. Unali, Anna, Marineros, Piratas y Corsarios Catalanes en la Baja Edad Media (Isla de la Tortuga, 8), Sevilla 2007, pp. 137–174. Having collided with Genoa over Corsica and Sardinia in the years between 1419 and 1423. []
  5. Katele, Irene, Captains and corsairs. Venice and Piracy. 1261–1381, Diss. Ann Harbour 1986, pp. 35, 43, 46–47; Ferrer i Mallol, Barcelona i la política mediterrània catalana: el Parlament de 1400-1401, in: 14. Congresso di storia della Corona d’Aragona. Sassari-Alghero 19-24 maggio 1990 sul tema La Corona d’Aragona in Italia (secc. 13-18), vol. 2 (vols. 1-2), ed. Maria Grazia Meloni, Sassari 1995, pp. 428–439; Coureas, Nicolas, Piracy in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean during the Later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries), in: Mésogeios 12 (2001), p. 200; Bonneaud, Pierre, The Influential Trade: Community of Western Merchants on Hospitaller Rhodes (1421-1480), in: Union in Separation. Diasporic Groups and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean (1100-1800) (Viella Historical Research, 1), eds. Georg Christ, Franz-Julius Morche, Roberto Zaugg, Wolfgang Kaiser, Stefan Burkhardt, Alexander Daniel Beihammer, Rom 2015, p. 398; Id., Els Hospitalers Catalans a la fi de l’Edat Mitjana. L’orde de l’Hospital a Catalunya i a la Mediterrània, 1396–1472 (Els Ordes Militars, 11), Lleida 2008, p. 161. []
  6. Vann, Theresa, Hospitallers and Piracy on Rhodes, 14th-16th centuries, in: Seeraub im Mittelmeerraum. Piraterie, Korsarentum und maritime Gewalt von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit (Mittelmeerstudien, 3), eds. Nikolas Jaspert and Sebastian Kolditz, Paderborn 2013, p. 251; Luttrell, Anthony, The Hospitallers in Cyprus, Rhodes, Greece and the West, 1291–1440. Collected studies (Variorum collected studies series, 77), London 1978, V, p. 201; Id., Studies on the Hospitallers after 1306 (Variorum collected studies series, 874), Aldershot 2007, XVI, pp. 66–67; Bonneaud, The Influential Trade, 2015, pp. 395–397; Ashtor, Levant trade, 1983, ND 2014, pp. 365–367. []
  7. Coureas, Piracy, 2001, p. 200; Ashtor, Levant trade, 1983, ND 2014, p. 391; Balard, Commerce, p. 27. []
  8. Luttrell, Anthony, The Hospitaller State on Rhodes and its Western Provinces, 1306–1462 (Variorum collected studies series, 655), Aldershot 1999, VIII, pp. 177–178, 180; Bonneaud, Le prieuré de Catalogne, 2004, p. 154; Vann, Hospitallers and Piracy on Rhodes, 2013, pp. 251, 260. []
  9. Bonneaud, The Influential Trade, 2015, p. 397. []
  10. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 24–27, Régestes des délibérations du sénat de Venise concernant la Romanie, vol. II: 1400–1430 (Documents et recherches sur l’économie des pays byzantins islamiques et slaves et leurs relations commerciales au moyen-âge, 2), ed. Freddy Thiriet, Paris 1959, p. 209, reg. 1902; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 2–4, Documents inédits relatifs à l’histoire de la Grèce au moyen âge (Μνημεια Ελληνικης Ιστορις), vol. 1,3, ed. Kōnstantinos N. Sathas, Paris 1882, p. 258, reg. 832, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 211, reg. 1913;ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 1–4, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
  11. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 27–28, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 4; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 258, reg. 832, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 211, reg. 1913. []
  12. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 28–30, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902; ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 1–2, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
  13. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 33–35, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 13–19, Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 258, reg. 832, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 211, reg. 1913. Even the local notaries refused to officialy confirm their damages, cf. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 35–36, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902; ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 19–20; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 258, reg. 832, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 211, reg. 1913. []
  14. The senate negotiated with the government of Rhodes for more than a year after the incident to get the grandmaster to restitute the damages, cf. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 1–2, 24–27, 39–42, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902, ASV.Misti.55.52v (06.09.1424), l. 1–18; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, pp. 272–273, reg. 848, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 220, reg. 1953. It also threatened the Hospitallers with what was likely a reprisal action by the capitano del golfo several times during the negotiations calling Rhodes a port of call for maritime predators, cf. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 39, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902, ASV.Misti.54.163v (13.12.1423), l. 24–25; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 258–259, reg. 832, Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 211, reg. 1913, ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 15–19, Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834, ASV.Misti.55.52v (06.09.1424), l. 29–31; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, pp. 272–273, reg. 848; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 220, reg. 1953. []
  15. ASV.Commemoriali.9.141v, l. 1–8, 26–29. Libri.9.142r, l. 1–10, 12–28. []
  16. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 6–13, 15–19; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834. Likely because the Hospitaller government was too weak to get the restitution payment back from its predator. []
  17. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 13–15; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834. []
  18. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 4–6; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834. []
  19. ASV.Misti.54.167v (30.12.1423), l. 11–13; Sathas, Documents, vol. 1,3, p. 260, reg. 834; ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 8–16; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
  20. ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 1–5, 13–16; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
  21. ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 5–16; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
  22. ASV.Misti.54.141v. (28.08.1423), l. 39–42; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 209, reg. 1902ASV.Misti.55.125v (13.06.1425), l. 13–16; Thiriet, Sénat, vol. II, p. 228, reg. 1991. []
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