In Marca Hispanica IV: Sacalm and Tona, and nationalist sentiment 889-2008

It’s everywhere in Catalonia, we found, not just in stickers on the walls in the cities, sometimes even sheets of A4 posted up like cheapskate posters in whatever space is to hand, peeling in the frequent rain; not just spray-painted on the roadside as you leave the towns and head into the hills, but really in a great many places. What am I talking about? This flag:

Flag of Catalonia

The most impressive example we saw was on the road from Arbúcies to Vic, on the way down from the hills around the rather lovely landscape of Sant Hilari Sacalm, which look like this:

Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm

No flag there, but just over the crest, coming down off the hill onto a viaduct that took us across the next precipitous valley, one approaches the bridge from an oblique angle, which meant that we had plenty of time to observe that flag painted vertically up all sixty feet of the far side’s concrete piling. Invisible from the viaduct, impossible to miss from the hill, and testimony to a good few nights’ work with ropes and cradles I rather think! Strong convictions are at work here. These flags were often accompanied by slogans, most obviously the perennial “Catalunya no es Espanya!” but sometimes more serious ones like (I translate) ‘three hundred years of occupation and resistance!’. It’s a live issue here. The Catalan language was suppressed by Franco, and until the early 1970s, you could be jailed for speaking it in public. Although the language is now declining again, stickers saying “En català si us plau!”, ‘In Catalan, please!’, were not uncommon sightings during our stay. And we managed to be there during the General Elections, too, in which across Spain as a whole both mid-right and socialist parties gained seats and the socialists stayed in power. In Catalonia the right did not make any ground, and the country’s only remaining deputies from l’Esquerra, the far left party, were elected in Catalan seats. The paper next day was saying how Catalonia’s Socialists had kept Zapatero in power. Lots of people remember Franco in Catalonia. And as a consequence, the flag gets everywhere.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

We found it on top of a hill in a place called Tona, to the south of the city of Vic. I’d wanted to come to Tona because it’s documented very early. The church you see in the background of that picture, Sant Andreu, is eleventh-century as it stands but we have a consecration act from 889 which saw an earlier Sant Andreu set running by Bishop Godmar of Osona, almost the only sign that this very frontier place was in contact with the wider structures of authority for about forty years. They seem however to have had their own structures of authority, and I do mean structures: that tower in the foreground may be the oldest medieval building in Catalonia. Here it is in its full glory, viewed from across the ditch that separates it slightly from the rest of the hill:

The Castell de Tona

As you can see it’s been slightly reconstructed, but we don’t really know how old it is. It’s much more weathered than the church, and it basically looks like a Roman guard-tower. Its floor has been dug and remains that could have been late Roman were found, but archaeological opinion is unsure whether what we’re actually looking at here is a Roman tower itself or a medieval replacement, a question which is complicated because there’s no evidence that Tona was ever on a Roman route that might have merited a guardtower. Dates suggested have gone all the way from the fourth to the eleventh centuries. It’s a good place to put a tower, locally, but the landscape is pretty weird round here, full of sedimentary piles called turones, and as you can see…

The turones around the Turó del Castell de Tona

… you can’t really see very far from the hilltop.

The controversy over dating extends to the church. As I say, the existing fabric is eleventh-century, very early Romanesque, but when it was briefly dug in 1943, they found foundations of a smaller stone church beneath its floor. Now, prevailing opinion is that a stone church is very unlikely to have been put up on this hill in 889, though the local stone, of which the tower is made, is pretty easy to work. That implies either, that the foundations they found were from late tenth-century, and that church was almost immediately replaced by the current one; or else it implies that the stone church was there from much longer ago. At Santa Margarida de Martorell they have extensively dug a church that turns out to have been standing, subject to various alterations, since at least 351, and other places like Casserres and Olèrdola suggest that a hilltop like this could well have been the centre of a late antique necropolis. Sure enough, the one other test excavation that’s been done up here, at a place on the hill called Pla de les Lloses, ‘plain of bones’, turned up burials, but as the `dig’ was only a hole 50 cm by 50 cm, exact dating was tricky, and the ceramic sequence round here is almost useless for this anyway: the material culture as it survives in the record irritatingly fails to change at all during all these huge changes we feel sure peasant society was experiencing in the tenth and eleventh centuries :-) (It does however spread.) So the very old church, perhaps being reconsecrated in 889, is a definite possibility.

But they don’t say it’s an ancient church in the document, and at Olèrdola it’s been suggested that the church was actually much later than the burials. However, what the parishioners at Tona do seem to say is that they are different from others for whom the same scribe, a very elaborate priest based at Vic who goes by the name of Athanagild, writes. At Tona, the people who endow the new church are called viri illustri, and the others homines commanentes, terms which are straight out of the late Roman lexicon and which don’t appear in any other charter of the area and period. Furthermore, one of those endowing the church, whose son Albaro will be its priest, indeed, is called Centuri, in Latin centurius, in English Centurion, and we know from later documents (which are how I got into this wild spot’s history) that he had another son who also bore that name, and was identified by his father in an age when hardly anyone was. So this is an odd setup, and I’ve wondered before now why these people apparently thought of themselves as Romans; in fact I did it out loud at Queen Mary University of London not so long ago, which is why I’m not giving my usual cluster of references: this will be in print before long and you can get them from there.1 I suspect, however, that the answer is that they knew they were Romans because there was this tower that everybody knew perfectly well had been left by the Romans on their hill. I don’t know that it actually is that old, but I’m pretty sure that their strange romanitas here stems at least in part from their very Roman-looking focus on the hill. And I suspect that that in turn makes them quite likely to have built themselves a proper, Roman-style, meaning stone, church. That in turn brooks a reasonable amount of coordinated labour and appropriation of surplus, which is what I want to know about. So I made sure I’d been here:

A certain historian standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona

But there was the initial point, somewhere back there. In Tona they seem to always have had a long sense of their past. 889 is not forgotten here: also on the hill with the various Iberian remains, the perhaps fourth-century mini-castle, the Romanesque church and the undatable burials hidden below the surface, and with the torn but proudly fluttering Catalan flag on its pole, is this memorial to the founders of the first-documented church of Sant Andreu here. Centuri’s name is in the middle of the eleventh line:

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

And from that memorial to something that happened eleven hundred years ago and isn’t detectable in anything except one flaky charter, you can look down on the now-thriving town:

View of the town of Tona from the Turó del Castell

And you can hear the Catalan flag fluttering off to your right, and it’s not just in one’s own mind that that tower, charter, church, memorial, town and flag are connected. When they say “Catalunya no es Espanya!” they know that the difference goes back to ‘Carlemany’ and that events of eleven hundred years ago are still significant because of the different, non-Castilian past to which they connect the people today, who fear for the dissolution of their language and whose support the political parties of the area have to court with talk of independence. That flag would have meant nothing to Centuri, who probably had his own strong views about centralised government, but it’s rooted, quite literally, in what he did, because the fact that that is known is part of what makes it possible to fly it.


1. It will be Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú’” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London forthcoming), ISSN 1460-051X, ISBN 0 902238 56 6. I’ll let you know when it can be ordered :-)

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5 responses to “In Marca Hispanica IV: Sacalm and Tona, and nationalist sentiment 889-2008

  1. Readers of this should probably know, if they haven’t come here from there, that some of my assertions here about Catalan national feeling have been challenged in comments on this post at Cliopatria.

  2. Pingback: Musical Catalan frontiersmen « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XVI: the actual research target « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, III: who’s a lord and who’s not? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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