The beginning of the fight against the plague in the 15th-century Crown of Aragon

Dr. Albert Reixach Sala, University of Lleida

Resumen: Esta entrada presenta una investigación en curso sobre los inicios de la lucha contra la peste en la Corona de Aragón tardomedieval. En concreto, se fija en la introducción de nuevas medidas pragmáticas para hacer frente a la pestilencia y otras enfermedades contagiosas impulsadas desde los gobiernos urbanos de Cataluña, Valencia, Mallorca y Aragón desde mediados del siglo XV. Estos mecanismos suponían un avance importante con respecto a las respuestas tradicionales ligadas a la interpretación en clave religiosa de una catástrofe como un estallido epidémico. Además de reconstruir la secuencia de la aparición y la evolución inicial de este despliegue de acciones, entre las que destacan las ligadas al control de la movilidad en tiempos de contagio, se avanza hacia varias explicaciones para entender la geografía, cronología y razones principales de este desarrollo. Un desarrollo que anticipa la narrativa predominante centrada en las ciudades italianas durante los siglos XVI y XVII.

Resumen: Aquesta entrada presenta una recerca en curs sobre els inicis de la lluita contra la pesta a la Corona d’Aragó tardomedieval. En concret, se centra en la introducció de noves mesures pragmàtiques per fer front a la pestilència i d’altres malalties contagioses impulsades des dels governs urbans de Catalunya, València, Mallorca i Aragó des de mitjan segle XV. Aquests mecanismes suposaven un avanç important respecte a les respostes tradicionals lligades a la interpretació en clau religiosa d’una catàstrofe com un esclat epidèmic. A més de reconstruir la seqüència de l’aparició i l’evolució inicial d’aquest desplegament d’accions, entre les quals destaquen les lligades al control de la mobilitat en temps de contagi, s’avança cap a diverses explicacions per entendre la geografia, cronologia i raons principals d’aquest desenvolupament. Un desenvolupament que anticipa la narrativa dominant centrada en les ciutats italianes dels segles XVI i XVII.

Abstract: This blogpost presents ongoing research on the early efforts to combat the plague in the late medieval Crown of Aragon. Specifically, it focuses on the introduction of new pragmatic measures to address pestilence and other contagious diseases, driven by the urban governments of Catalonia, Valencia, Mallorca, and Aragon from the mid-15th century. These mechanisms represented a significant advance over traditional responses tied to religious interpretations of catastrophes such as epidemic outbreaks. In addition to reconstructing the sequence of the emergence and initial evolution of these actions —particularly those related to controlling mobility during times of contagion— the research explores various explanations to understand the geography, chronology, and main reasons for this development. This development anticipates the predominant narrative centred on Italian cities during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1348 the municipal authorities of Tortosa bought an orchard close to a parish church of the city to bury part of the extraordinary number of dead who had fallen victim to the plague during that summer. In order to mitigate divine wrath and prevent pestilence, in 1384 the city council of Manresa issued an ordinance prohibiting blasphemy, gambling and other moral sins. With the same purpose, in many years, such as 1362, 1371 or later until the Early Modern period, the rulers of Barcelona, like the ones in other Catalan and Aragonese towns, organised processions to seek the intercession of the Virgin and other saints. For instance, in Girona, prior to finally entrusting themselves to Saint Sebastian, they could not resist the attraction to the local patron saint, Saint Narcis, while in Majorca, until the end of the 15th century, saint Praxedis was the figure of reference when the situation was becoming more complicated. If all this was not enough, more resources could be mobilised. That is why in many places in Catalonia, at the end of the 15th century, pilgrims were sent to Saint James of Compostela with a first stop at the quintessential Catalan sanctuary, Montserrat. At times when the extraordinary increase in the daily death toll was beginning to frighten the population of several communities throughout the Crown of Aragon, bells were prevented from tolling and  to wear mourning garments was limited (as in Lleida in 1384).

Like in other years during that period, two pilgrims were sent by the city of Girona to Santiago de Compostela to request divine intervention to stop the plague, in: Municipal Archive of Girona, Municipality, City council acts, year 1488, f. 50r: [https://pandora.girona.cat/viewer.vm?id=2832557&lang=en&page=119] (10.06.2024).

Yet, not everything was limited to ritual actions in dealing with epidemic outbreaks. Progressively more practical measures were attempted. In this sense, from the late 1420s onwards the municipal government of Barcelona appointed a clergyman (and later a surgeon) to keep an exhaustive count of the daily deaths registered in the different parishes of the city at times when there were signs of an outbreak of epidemics. Apart from monitoring mortality, the second quarter of the 15th century saw a further step forward in a number of settlements. In July 1420 the authorities of the small town of Terrassa, and in November 1429 those of Cervera, prohibited the entry of people coming from infected places, with an emphasis on avoiding the reception of sick people by innkeepers. Indeed, in many urban centres in Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon, from the mid-15th century onwards, the closure of the town walls was promoted for this purpose; a closure that ended up affecting local people who saw their mobility limited during epidemic outbreaks. In this sense, in the city of Valencia, it was the same Queen Maria (wife of Alfonso the Magnanimous who was on the verge of fulfilling his Neapolitan dream) who issued the first travel ban in times of pestilence.

Nonetheless, in several places contagion could come not only by land, but also by sea. This is clearly seen in the exceptional case of Mallorca. There, already in 1414, the government had mechanisms to expel people from the island, who werebelieved to come from contagion hot spots. The strategy later seems to have been replicated in Barcelona. In 1458 the rulers of the Catalan capital prevented the arrival of vessels from Majorca and even ordered the expulsion of Majorcans: they justified the decision partly as retaliation for the treatment received by Barcelonian citizens on the island in the previous year. Controlling ships on arrival at ports or setting up checkpoints at the gates of city walls seems more affordable than the first attempts at real cordons sanitaires in the open. One of the first cases can again be found on  Majorca. In 1467, the representatives of Sóller, on the northern coast, tried to avoid the arrival of infected people from the city by placing guards at the crossings of the paths that gave access to the valley of this small town.

Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, some progress was made in other measures that have become a benchmark in the fight against pestilence. For example, in 1501 the authorities of Cervera built provisional barracks in which people returning to the town had to spend periods of preventive confinement (or quarantines which, indeed, in most places in that period did not yet really consist of 40 days). In 1509 the jurors of València, for the same purpose, rented a farmhouse on the way to the seaport of the city. Around the year 1476, in Majorca, what historians would call a ‘health board’ was set up with a doctor at the healm and by-laws containing many revealing details. For instance, they refer to the interest of lighting bonfires in front of the houses of plague sufferers, or they allude to the prohibition that no one should act as a physician without a license by the members of the board, also responsible for controlling the action of the gravediggers  or notaries who drew up wills for the dying. In October 1482, the notary Jaume Safont from Barcelona noted an  an unprecedented episode in his diary. In the Catalan capital the royal lieutenant had ordered the expulsion of the remaining inhabitants of a house, in which some people had died in strange circumstances. In general, there was an increased rigour in the institutional response against epidemic outbursts.

Certainly, all of the above-mentioned actions, although perhaps lacking an obvious connection, are part of the heterogeneous range of strategies implemented by municipal authorities in the Western dominions of the Crown of Aragon to cope with epidemic diseases during the first phase of the so called second plague pandemic, which began with the catastrophic outbreak between the years 1347 and 1351. Broadly speaking, while all the ritual actions arising from the interpretation of epidemic outbursts as “acts of God” can be traced back to the Black Death (or even before), in the area under investigation more pragmatic mechanisms did not emerge until the first half of the 15th century.

Faced with this great diversity of documented episodes, the historian’s task is twofold: to reconstruct the sequence of measures throughout the territories of Catalonia, Valencia, Majorca and Aragon and to explain the who, when, why and where of some reactions and, especially, of new mechanisms.1 In this regard, the relatively wide range of sources preserved in northeastern Iberia prove the agency of municipal governments in the whole process. However, it remains to be determined what role medical experts may have had and to find reasons for the apparent dissociation between university medical knowledge and urban governance. This should be connected with other fundamental issues such as possible changes in the way diseases and their diffusion patterns were perceived by  authorities or policymakers in general. After all, it is possible that the war against the plague in the Crown of Aragon was initiated in a certain way and at a certain time due to a whole set of conditioning elements that were not only ‘scientific’ but also linked to the institutional landscape and the political and social context of its urban centres.

In short, to study the long list of actions mentioned above, scholars must combine several perspectives and try to be as pervasive as the invisible enemy itself (again borrowing a fortunate expression from Carlo Cipolla in his description of the challenge of epidemics in military terms) that terrorised pre-modern societies. And this without forgetting that, as we experienced very recently, global diseases can also threaten our world.

Selected bibliography:

Agresta, Abigail. “From Purification to Protection: Plague response in Late Medieval Valencia.” Speculum 95 no. 2 (2020): 371-395.

Carmichael, Ann G. “Contagion Theory and Contagion Practice in Fifteenth-Century Milan.” Renaissance Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1991): 213-256.

Cipolla, Carlo M. Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Italy. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Cohn, Samuel K. The Black Death Transformed. Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Arnold, 2003.

Nicoud, Marilyn. “À l’épreuve de la peste. Médecins et savoirs médicaux face à la pandémie (XIVe-XVe siècles)”, Annales HSS 78 no. 3 (2023) : 505-541.

Reixach Sala, Albert, “Frenar el contagio por tierra y por mar en Cataluña y Mallorca en el siglo XV: en los albores de los cordones sanitarios.” Reti Medievali Rivista, 24 no. 2 (2023): 51-87.

Roca Cabau, Guillem. “Medidas municipales contra la peste en la Lleida del siglo XIV e inicios del XV.” Dynamis 38 no. 1 (2018): 15-39.

Photo: Fragment of frescoes from the chapel of Saint Sebastian in Lanslevillard (Savoy, France), from the end of the 15th century, URL: [https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Europe/France/Chapels-of-Southern-Alps/Saint-Sebastien-Lanslevillard/i-nLxb8Db] (10.06.2024).

  1. Based on the existing scholarly literature on the phenomenon, they are two main aims of the research projects “Beyond the Black Death. Epidemics and mortality crises in northeastern Iberia, 11th-16th centuries: reconstructing cycles, measuring effects, analysing responses (EPIDEMED) (PID2020-117839GB-I00) funded by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and also the research project The social dimension of health crises in Lleida and its region in the European context: from the Black Death to COVID-19 (IlerCriSan) funded by Indest – University of Lleida. []

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). []
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