Monasteries, Medieval villages, churches and especially castles are nowadays part of the Medieval heritage of La Garrotxa.
The Middle Ages comprises the time period between the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century, and the 15th century. These ten centuries can be divided into the Early Middle Ages (from the 5th to the 10th century) and the Late Middle Ages (from the 11th century to the 15th century).
In the first third of the 8th century, during the expansion to the west of the Muslim civilasation, the Arabs settled in a great part of the Iberian Peninsula. La Garrotxa was not an exception and it is known that it was controlled by the Muslims for more than 60 years, although there are no remains of their existence left.
To understand the present Catalonia we have to travel back in time to the 9th century, when the Catalan counties were created. The reaction of the Franc monarchs to the Muslim invasion, with Charlemagne as a leader, was to reconquer the territories around the Pyrennees. They created the Spanish March and the border with the Muslim territories was a line along the bains of the rivers Llobregat and Ter.
The need to defend the border gave rise to the creation of smaller territories commanded by a single person. Therefore the Catalans counties of the Spanish March were created, among them Besalú, and the role of the count appeared, appointed by the Carolingian kings.
Firstly, the county of Besalú was dependent on the county of Girona, but thanks to Wilfred the Hairy it became an independent county at the end of the 9th century. La Garrotxa was part of the county of Besalú, which comprised the territories between Camprodon to the villages of Banyoles and Figueres.
The capital city of the old county was Besalú, one of the most singular Medieval complexes in Catalonia, since it still preserves its Medieval structure and boasts several vestiges which take us back to the Middle Ages.
One of the most well-known counts was the count-bishop Miró Bonfill, creator of Sant Vicenç church which may be the first chuch built in the town, as well as founder of Sant Pere de Besalú monastery. However, Bernard I, also called Taillefer, was the most famous count. During his mandate (988-1020) the county of Besalú lived its golden age and became the Episcopal See.
Some years later, during William the Fat times, one of the most emblematic elements of the village was built: the Medieval bridge. It is documented since the 11th century, although at that time its shape was not like the present one. During the Medieval Age there was a toll in the tower.
During the 11th and 12th centuries the feudal society was established in all the counties connected with the Barcelona one. At that time the reconquest of what we now know as New Catalonia began.
Feudalism is a political, economic and social system of the Middle Ages. Each county was divided into small semi-independent territories called feus. The feudal lords offered protection to their peasants but, in reward, they had to work their lands and pay taxes. Only noble people or those who were favoured by the church or the counts could become feudal lords.
The peasants who worked the lands were subjected to the abusive mals usos (feudal obligations) by their feudal lords. The peasants and their families were bound to their feudal lords and could not leave the mas where they were working without their permission. They were known as Remença peasants.
It was precisely in this economic and social context that the castles, monasteries and churches were built, which, consequentely, became the origins of most towns. The population were looking for the protection of the military power, the lord of their castle or the church, thanks to the Peace and Truce of God.
In La Garrotxa there are several vestiges of old castles. They were used for protection and they also were the home of feudal lords and nobles. In Argelaguer we can still find remains of the old castle of Montpalau. Nowadays, in the centre of this village we can see the castle and the rests of the city walls in areas like the Muralla Street and in the north part of the church.
Santa Pau is a clear example of a Medieval village, in which the village was built around the castle of Santa Pau barons. The oldest part of the town still preserves its urban Medieval structure.
In Sant Joan les Fonts we can visit the fortress Juvinyà dating from the 12th – 15th centuries, which was home to the family with the same name. Inside the fortress there is a permanent exhibition about knights and Medieval past. Other places of the town also have a Medieval past: the Benedictine monastery dating from the 12th century and classified as a cultural asset of National Interest, Juvinyà castle or the Medieval bridge (13th century).
In Vall d’en Bas there are two areas which still preserve its Medieval heritage: El Mallol and Puigpardines. El Mallol was the administrative centre of the Bas viscountcy. Its castle, of which the first refernces date from 1204, was home to the viscounts of Bas and it was fortified. In Puigpardines there is also a small remain of the castle built by the Puigpardines lords between the 12th and 13th centuries. It was reformed in the 14th century and finally abandoned in the 15th century.
Other towns have its origin around the religious buildings. In this period the church became powerful, thanks to the donations of nobles and kings. Therefore, many monasteries and churches were built.
In Sant Feliu de Pallerols there is a remarkable element, the sagrera, a safe area without vandals located 30 steps away around the churches. They were created thanks to the Peace and Truce of God promoted by the bishop Oliva in the 11th century, as an reaction the abusive feudal obligations and humiliations to which the peasants were subjected by the feudal lords. All those who commited acts of violence within near the church where excommunicated and so these areas became safe.
This is how the sagrera of Sant Feliu de Pallerols, where by the end of the 13th century about twenty families and the lords lived, appeared. In the 14th century the lords of Hostoles decided to expand the sagrera surrounding the parish church, giving rise to the new willage. At the end of this century the new village was already fortified and has three entrance gates. The walls protected the city in the north, east and south, whilst in the west there was the river.
In La Garrotxa there are three examples of a sagrera, such as Riudaura, where in the 11th century the first population centre startd around the Santa Maria de Riudaura monastery. However, due to the 15th century earthquakes which gravely affected a great part of the region, the monastery was destroyed and only the round tower was left. Tortellà is similar to Riudaura and Sant Feliu de Pallerols. The urban centre, just like many villages of La Garrotxa, was born around the church and the graveyard, in the sagrera area in the 11th century.
Other population centres built around churches or hermitages are Mieres or Sant Ferriol, which have several small population centres surrounding religious temples. Some examples of this are: the Romeria or Sant Pere quarters and Santa Maria de Fares, Sant Miquel de Miana, Sant Fruitós d’Ossinyà or Sant Ferriol churches.
The Middle Ages were also characterised by the amount of conflicts resulting in wars. Therefore, towns were fortified by walls. During this time in Castellfollit de la Roca the castle located on top of a basaltic cliff was fortified. Nowadays, there are very few remains left of the Medieval walls, although typical Medieval urban structure is the same as the one of the Middle Ages.
Some historians believe the end of the Middle Ages coincides with the discovery of America, in 1492. This time also coincides in Catalonia with the Remença revolts. Verntallat became the leader of the most radical peasants in the fight against the abusive mals usos (feudal obligations) and the humiliations to which the peasants were subjected by the feudal lords. The feudal lords excessively controlled the peasants and their families, which could not abandon the mas (farmhouse) if the lord did not agree to free them. Apart from being physically abused, the peasants also had to pay abusive taxes to be able to work the land of the lord. At this point in time, Verntallat became the leading figure of the uprising and was followed by the peasants demanding justice and freedom. He managed to build a small army which allowed him to control most of the territory of the comarca of La Garrotxa and Guilleries, from where he planned incursions to attack other places in Catalonia. Verntallat’s army quickly grew in number and he created a system which allowed the volunteers to be stable. The peasants who joined Verntallat’s cause had the help of other peasants who stayed in the villages working the land, with the promise to take care of their crops while the war was on. This solidarity system allowed Verntallat and the Remences to keep fighting for many years, become stronger and, eventually, end up winning the war.
Although this event of our history may not be widely known, it is extremely significant, especially because the Remença peasants in France, for example, did not get the same rights until the French Revolution in 1789.