The Peoples, Languages, and History of the Pyrenees Region

Sainte-Cecile Cathedral overlooking the Tarn River, Albi, France. Midi- Pyrénées / Encyclopedia Britannica 

By Dr. Friedrich Edelmayer / 05.31.2012
Professor of Austrian and Medieval History
Universität Wien


The Pyrenees region encompasses areas from the Kingdom of Spain, the Republic of France and the Principality of Andorra. It is also linguistically heterogeneous. In addition to the official state languages Spanish and French, Basque, Aragonese, Catalan and Occitan are spoken. All of these languages have co-official character in certain regions of Spain, although not in France. In the modern era, changes to the political-geographical boundary between the present states of France and Spain occurred in the 16th century, when the Kingdom of Navarre was divided into two unequal parts, and in 1659/1660 when northern Catalonia became part of France after the Treaty of the Pyrenees. However, the border area between France and Spain was not only a stage for conflict, but also a setting for numerous communication and transfer processes.


There are three states today in the area of Europe which is dominated by the PyreneesMountains: the French Republic (République française), the Kingdom of Spain (Reino de España) and, in the middle of the (high) mountains, the small Principality of Andorra (Principat d’Andorra). The border between France and Spain runs today mostly along the main ridge of the mountains and, with few exceptions, along the watershed between the rivers that meet the sea at the Spanish coast and those that meet the sea at the French coast. While Spanish citizens now mainly live on one side of the border and French citizens live on the other, and Andorran citizens are nestled in the mountains, the linguistic and ethnic division in the Pyrenees is much more diverse than the monolithic terms “Spanish”, “French” and “Andorran” suggest.

Languages and Peoples in the Pyrenees

Linguistically, the border area was, and currently is, by no means uniform. From the northwest to the southeast, the following languages can be found which, with the exception of the two official state languages Spanish and French, are still used on both sides of the border.


Basque (euskara) is found on the Atlantic coast and in the adjacent mountain valleys. In terms of its formation, it represents the oldest idiom in Europe. As it does not belong to any European language family, it is referred to as an “isolated language”.1 Although prints of Basque texts can be found in the 16th century already, the language was never used in the early modern period for official purposes. It was not until 1935, the time of the Second Spanish Republic, that Basque temporarily became the official language in the Spanish Basque region. During the first three decades of Francisco Franco’s (1892–1975)  dictatorship, public use of the language was again prohibited. A certain relaxation of this policy occurred in the mid-1960s of the 20th century. But it was only after the democratization of Spain in 1975, and especially after the Spanish Constitution of 1978, that Basque became the official regional language in the Spanish provinces of Vizcaya (Basque: Bizkaia), Guipúzcoa (Basque: Gibuzkoa), Álava (Basque: Araba) and parts of Navarre (Basque: Nafarroa). By contrast, in the historical French provinces of Labourd (Basque: Lapurdi), Soule (Basque: Zuberoa) and Lower Navarre (French: Basse-Navarre; Basque: Nafarroa Beherea), which now all belong to the département Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Basque has no official status.


South of the main ridge of the Pyrenees and farther to the east, a Romance language can be found in the valleys on the French border in the province of Huesca that is currently only spoken by few people: Aragonese (aragonés).2 During the Christian conquest of Muslim territories at the beginning of the 14th century under the kings of Aragon, use of the language had spread far, nearly reaching the Mediterranean coast. Along with Latin, the royal chancellery used Aragonese, Catalan and Occitan as administrative languages. However, when the Castilian House of Trastámara began to rule in the Kingdom of Aragon in 1412, the Aragonese nobility soon started to speak Castilian. The status of Aragonese deteriorated more and more and it became an idiom of the peasants. In addition, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Moriscos, former Muslims who had been converted to Christianity (mostly by force), were expelled from all territories of the Spanish monarchy. As a consequence, Aragonese lost more of its speakers. After the special rights of the lands of the Crown of Aragon had been eliminated during the reign of King Philip V (1683–1746) , the language’s decline was accelerated. This also occurred under the Franco government. Since Spain’s democratization, however, efforts have increased to preserve the language. The Aragonese language law of 2009 defines Aragonese, along with Catalan and Castilian, as one of the official languages of Aragon (Castilian: lengua propia; Aragonese: luenga propia; Catalan: llengua propia).3 Nonetheless, the extinction of the language remains a serious threat.


The situation is quite different for the language of Catalan (català), which is the official regional language in CataloniaValencia and the Balearic Islands as well as the official state language of Andorra.4 Catalan is also a Romance language. It developed out of Vulgar Latin in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula from the 9th century. Like Aragonese, Catalan spread in the wake of the conquest of the Moorish territories until the 15th century, extending southward along the Mediterranean coast to the border of the Kingdom of Murcia. The first Catalan prints were published in the early 16th century. After the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516)  and Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504)  unified their Iberian monarchies in the last third of the 15th century, Catalan was gradually supplanted as a literary language. It had no difficultly, however, remaining an administrative and spoken language in the above-mentioned territories. Even the aristocracy, although increasingly under the influence of the Castilian language, continued to use Catalan for correspondence and legal documents, as shown, for instance, by the will of Gerónima de Hostalric i Gralla (died 1579), widow of Luis de Requesens y Zúñiga (1528–1576) , the governor of Milan and the Netherlands.5 Catalan of course continued to be used in large municipalities like Barcelona and in regional administrations.6

Things changed, however, after the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), as the Spanish kings of the House of Bourbon gradually established Castilian as the sole official language of the Spanish monarchy.7 Indeed, here they followed the example of their relatives, who pursued a similar policy in promoting the French language in France. Catalan was now almost exclusively reduced to religious contexts. Evidence of this can be found, for instance, on grave stones in churches and cloisters from the 18th century (such as in the Barcelona Cathedral), or in the records of the individual monasteries, such as the Poblet Monastery. Yet even on the basis of these documents, it is possible to notice that Castilian gradually displaced Catalan.8 Certainly, Catalan experienced a revival in the 19th century as part of a process referred to as “renaissance” (renaixença). After the Spanish Civil War, however, Catalan, like the other regional languages, was suppressed by Franco. During this time, people’s names were Castellanised, as were most place names. Despite Franco’s ban, the Santa Maria de Montserrat abbey held masses in Catalan, thus becoming a bastion for protecting the language. Catalan did not receive official status in Spain until after democratization in 1975 and is now strongly promoted by the three regional governments of Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. The process is known under the name of “linguistic normalization” (normalització lingüística).

In the regions of Catalonia, which were ceded to France in the Treaty of the Pyrenees from 1659 (Cerdagne – Catalan: Alta Cerdanya, Capcir, Conflent, Vallespir and Roussillon – Catalan: Rosselló), Catalan was under pressure even earlier than in Spain. In 1700, Louis XIV (1638–1715)  decreed that the language was to be banned from official documents.9 The suppression of Catalan and other regional languages in France was further reinforced by the French Revolution . French language policy changed very little until the 21st century. It was not until 2007 that the Conseil général of the département Pyrénées-Orientales – to which the Catalan-speaking cantons belong – decided to promote Catalan in the region.10 The geographical designation Catalunya Nord/Catalogne Nord is gradually being established.11 Local signs in the region and other topographical indications are also increasingly bilingual (French/Catalan).


Another victim of the language policy of the kings of France and the French Republic was another Romance language: Occitan (Occitan: occitan/lenga d’oc; French: Occitan /langue d’oc). The language is spoken north of the Pyrenees in the southern third of present-day France.12 Primarily spread through the poetry of the troubadours in the High Middle Ages, the language first suffered a severe setback during the Crusades against the Cathars in the first three decades of the 13th century. In 1539, King Francis I (1494–1547)  issued the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts,13 which made French the sole language in the kingdom for records and administration. The edict was directed not only against the Latin language, but also against Occitan. In Béarn, the ancestral land of the Bourbons, which had only been tied to the French monarchy since 1589 as a result of a personal union Louis XIII (1601–1643)  replaced Occitan in its local form (Occitan: Bearnés/biarnés; French: béarnais) with French in 1620.14 The homogeneous language policy of the French Revolution had a negative impact also on this language, which today does not enjoy official status anywhere in France. Nevertheless, in the canton Fenouillet (Occitan: Fenolhet; Catalan: Fenollet), which belongs administratively to the département Pyrénées-Orientales, bilingual topographical signs (French/Occitan) are increasingly found. Only in the Val d’Aran (Catalan: Vall d’Aran), a valley lying north of the main ridge of the Pyrenees which belongs to the Catalan province of Lleida (Spanish: Lérida), is Aranese (Occitan: aranés) – a variant of Gascon – the official language. Some linguists, however, do not see Gascon as a dialect of Occitan, but rather as a separate Romance language.

Spanish and French

The Shrinking Basque Linguistic Zone, map, 1994; source: Núñez Astrain, Luis: The Basques: Their Struggle for Independence, Aberystwyth 1997, diagram 5 between p. 77 and p. 78. With the kind permission of the Welsh Academic Press

Neither Castilian (Spanish) nor French are indigenous languages of the Pyrenees region. Instead, they penetrated into the border region as a result of the centralizing language policies of Madridand Paris. Due to the assimilation of the “indigenous people”, partially centralized repressive measures, and immigration from the Castilian- and French-speaking parts of Spain and France, all the indigenous languages of the Pyrenees region were put under pressure. While these processes were reversed south of the Pyrenees from the 1980s of the 20th century onwards, the non-French Romance languages and the Basque language are still at serious risk of dying out in the area north of the mountains . Development opportunities for these idioms, however, could be fostered by an amendment to the French Constitution, which was published on 23 July 2008 with constitutional statute 2008-724. The new Article 75-1 of the constitution now reads: “Les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France”.15

The History of the Pyrenees Region

In the 15th century, the Pyrenees region was split politically into several entities. South of the mountains, along the lower reaches of the Ebro, which empties into the Mediterranean, there were two realms of the Crown of Aragon. One was on the coast, the Principality of Catalonia with its capital Barcelona; the other was to the west, the Kingdom of Aragon with its capital Zaragoza. Whereas Aragon had its border with the Kingdom of France on the main ridge of the mountains, that is, where the Spanish-French border still runs today, Catalonia was larger. In the north, this principality included the counties of Roussillon (Catalan: Rosselló) and Cerdagne (Catalan: Cerdanya), which King John II (1398–1479) , however, pledged to the French King Louis XI (1423–1483)  in 1462 to secure his support in the Catalan civil war. King Ferdinand II of Aragon finally succeeded in 1493 in recovering the two counties from Charles VIII (1470–1498) , who was at the time conducting his wars in Italy.16

Both kingdoms, Aragon and Catalonia, had been ruled by kings of the House of the Castilian Trastámaras since 1412. After Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I, the Castilian heir to the throne, both monarchs ruled their realms together from 1479 onwards. Since the Aragonese king spent most of his time outside of his territories in Castile, viceroys were appointed – in Catalonia since 1479 and in Aragon since 1517. This tradition came to an end at the beginning of the 18th century with the centralization of the Spanish monarchy under King Philip V, who abolished the privileges of the Aragonese lands.

In the 15th century, there was another independent monarchy in the west of the Kingdom of Aragon: the Kingdom of Navarre with its capital of Pamplona (Basque: Iruñea). The territory of Navarre extended in the north beyond the main ridge of the Pyrenees. Lower Navarre with its main capital of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Basque: Donibane Garazi) also belonged to the kingdom. In the Middle Ages, the Navarrese controlled with their territory a strategically important crossing over the Pyrenees, which was moreover frequented by pilgrims who travelled to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

However, as the smallest of the independent kingdoms, Navarre soon fell prey to the political pressure from its powerful neighbours France, Castile and Aragon.17 All three monarchies tried to gain control over the kingdom. In 1425, Blanca I (1385–1441)  from the Capetian House of Evreux-Navarre, daughter of King Charles III of Navarre (1361–1425)  and Leonor of Trastámara (1387–1415) , ascended to the throne of Navarre and married the above-mentioned John II of Aragon, who was also crowned king. After the death of Blanca I, the son of this marriage, Prince Charles of Viana (1421–1461), should have in fact been crowned king because of his parents’ marriage contract. John II was not willing, however, to vacate the throne for his son. Consequently, in 1451, ten years after the queen’s death, a civil war broke out in Navarre between the supporters of Charles and those of John II. Tensions would continue to flare up repeatedly, even after the two rivals were long dead. In 1479, Leonor I (1425–1479), daughter of Blanca I and John II, and widow of Count Gaston IV of Foix (1423/1425–1472) , was made queen, but died two weeks after her coronation. The throne of Navarre went to her young grandson, Francis I of Navarre (-Foix) (1469–1483), who was still a minor, and, after his death, to his sister, Catherine I of Navarre (-Foix) (1468–1517). During this time, Ferdinand II of Aragon, also a son of John II, but from his second marriage, intensified his efforts to get the kingdom under his control. And even Charles VIII of France intervened in the succession dispute, since Madeleine de France (1443–1495) was the mother of Catherine and his aunt. The old civil-war factions were on the side of Catherine, on the one hand, and that of Ferdinand II, on the other.

Catherine of Navarre married John (Jean) III of Albret (1469–1516) . Because of this “French” marriage, the influence of the French king in Navarre, with whom Ferdinand II of Aragon was already fighting for supremacy in Italy, seemed to increase further. The king thus strongly supported the faction of the so-called Beaumontese, who had turned against Queen Catherine and her husband. When Catherine also wanted to marry her son Henry II (1503–1555)  to a daughter of Louis XII of France, Ferdinand II of Aragon used this as a pretext to occupy the Kingdom of Navarre in 1512. In 1513, the estates of Navarre in Pamplona (albeit only the faction of the Beaumontese) declared Ferdinand II king. In 1515, the estates of Castile decided in Burgos to incorporate Navarre into the Castilian crown, maintaining, however, Navarre’s special rights. Representatives of the estates of Navarre were not present at this meeting.

As a result of the events since 1512, the Kingdom of Navarre was broken up into two unequal parts. Both Queen Catherine I and her husband and their son Henry II tried to regain the lost kingdom. As an operational base they used their French royal fiefs Béarn, Bigorre (Occitan: Bigorra) and Foix (Occitan: Fois) from the House of Foix and Albret (Occitan: Labrit), Périgord(Occitan: Peiregòrd), Limoges (Occitan: Lemòtges ) and Turenne (Occitan: Torena) from the House of Albret. Added to this was the support of the French, as Henry II of Navarre was married to Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492–1549) , the sister of Francis I of France. Because Charles V (1500–1558)  – who, during all his life, fought numerous wars on all possible European fronts with the French king – ruled in the Spanish territories since 1516, the disputes over Navarre should be viewed as one of the elements of the conflict between the House of Habsburg and the House of Valois. Negotiations over a return of all Navarre to the House of Albret-Foix failed, as did the French-North-Navarrian attempts at re-conquest. In 1530, however, the troops of Charles V made a definitive withdrawal from Lower Navarre because the funds for defending this part of the kingdom could no longer be raised. This allowed Henry II of Navarre to rule at least a small part of his kingdom himself. Since 1530, the border ran between the Habsburg part of Navarre and that of the ancestral kings, which is to say, along the main ridge of the Pyrenees. A border was once again fixed that is still recognized today.

Henceforth, there were two monarchs who bore the title King of Navarre. Charles V and his successors controlled the vast majority of the kingdom on the south side of the Pyrenees. Henry II had to settle for a small part of the ancient kingdom, a little more than ten per cent of the total territory. His political power did not derive from his royal title, but rather from his above-mentioned French fiefs. In 1555, the daughter of Henry II, Jeanne III of Navarre (Jeanne d’Albret) (1528–1572) , succeeded to the (North) Navarrian throne. Jeanne, who actively promoted Protestantism within her territories (she proposed, for example, publishing the Catechism of John Calvin (1509–1564)  in Occitan and had the New Testament translated into Basque), had married Antoine de Bourbon (1518–1562)  in 1548. In 1572, the son from this marriage took over governing the northern parts of the kingdom as Henry III (1553–1610) . When the Valois line came to an end in France in 1589, Henry III of Navarre was the next heir to the French throne, which he could also ascend after some turmoil as Henry IV of France. From then on until 1789, he and his successors held the title “King of France and Navarre”, and his dynastic rivals in the south of the Pyrenees held the title “King of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Navarre, etc.”. North Navarre was, however, already integrated into the kingdom of France in 1620. At this time, the other territories that were formerly possessions of the Houses of Albret and Foix also lost their special rights. Spanish Navarre was able to maintain its privileges within the monarchy much longer. Because the kings were also mostly absent there, they installed viceroys as in Catalonia and Aragon.18 Because the Navarrese had been loyal to Philip V during the War of the Spanish Succession they were allowed to keep their privileges. For this reason, there were nominally viceroys in Navarre until 1843, although the last of the viceroys had already lost his position by 1840.

As the Basque provinces south of the Pyrenees belonging to the Castilian crown had only a short border in common with the French territories – of which ca. ten kilometres run along the middle of the Bidasoa River (French: Bidassoa) – the border between the territories which would later be part of Spain and those which would later be part of France remained stable from the year 1530 and corresponded almost entirely to the current borders. The Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, however, would bring about significant modifications in the Mediterranean region.

The backdrop to these events is to be found in the pan-European conditions after 1618. After the outbreak of that war in the Holy Roman Empire which would later come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War, the Spanish monarchs Philip III (1578–1621)  and Philip IV (1605–1665)  supported their relative, Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637). This, in turn, increased tensions with France, which entered the war in 1635. The hostilities, which had previously largely affected Central Europe, now also broke out at the Pyrenees’ border. In 1638, French troops laid siege for two months to the important Spanish border fortress Fuenterrabía (Basque: Hondarribia) in Guipúzcoa. This called for a rapid response from the Spanish monarchy. Support for border defence came not only from Castile and the Basque provinces, but also from Aragon and Valencia. Catalonia, however, refused to take part in a war that was not on its own borders. The favourite of Philip IV, Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, better known by his title Conde-Duque de Olivares (1587–1645) , opened up another front against France in the Mediterranean area, not least with a view to discipline the Catalans. Many soldiers were moved to Catalonia. The quartering in the winter of 1639/1640 fuelled popular discontent.19 In May 1640, a revolt known as the “Guerra dels Segadors” (the Reapers’ War) broke out. Angry farmers stormed the Barcelona palace of the viceroy Dalmau III de Queralt i de Codina, Conde de Santa Coloma (1593–1640)  and killed him on Barcelona beach while he was trying to flee.

When in 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed, it ended the conflict between France and Spain, which had been continuing since the Thirty Years’ War. The borders between the Pyrenees were drawn anew; among other things, the Roussillon came under French rule. Another part of the contract was the marriage of a Spanish princess with Louis XIV. This was supposed to stabilize the peace agreement, but eventually led to another conflict: Due to this marriage, the French monarchy gained a claim to the Spanish throne. After the Spanish line of the House of Habsburg had ceased to exist, this claim became one of the causes of the War of the Spanish Succession. / Nicolas Sanson (1600–1667), Les monts Pyrénées, où sont remarqués les passages de France en Espagne, map, between 1692 and 1695; source: Jaillot, Hubert: Atlas françois, compilation des cartes de Nicolas Sanson, Paris et al. 1692–1695, Wikimedia Commons

The revolt spread throughout Catalonia. When the Castilian troops marched in, the Catalans not only signed a mutual assistance pact with France, but also declared their principality in 1641 to be a republic under French protection. Shortly thereafter, Louis XIII was recognized as Count of Barcelona. The old feudal ties with the medieval Frankish kingdom were thus re-established. In 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ended the war in Central Europe, Franco-Spanish negotiations broke down, in particular over the Catalan question. The war would subsequently continue for more than ten years. When the Treaty of the Pyrenees was finally signed in 1659,20 the Spanish king had to relinquish the Spanish county of Roussillon and the northern part of Cerdagne to France .21 France had thus gone beyond its “natural” border in the south, for the Segre (French: Sègre) in the valley of Cerdanya flows into the Ebro. It is interesting to note that in this treaty Louis XIV is referred to as King of France and Navarre (Roy de France et de Navarre – Rey de Francia y de Navarra), whereas Philip IV is called the Catholic King of the Spains (Roy Catholique des Espagnes – Rey Cathólico de las Españas). The parties of the treaty apparently wanted to avoid other disputes pertaining to the title “King of Navarre”. In any case, the plural form of the Spanish title implicitly included all of these kingdoms.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed by the Spanish and French negotiators Luis Méndez de Haro y Sotomayor, VI Marqués de Carpio (1598–1661)  and Cardinal Giulio Mazarini (Jules Mazarin (1601–1661) ) on the so-called Pheasant Island (Spanish: Isla de los Faisanes; French: Île des Faisans – Île de l’Hôpital – Île de la Conférence; Basque: Faisaien uhartea – Konpantzia) in the Bidasoa River between Irún (Basque: Irun) and Hendaye (Basque: Hendaia). The island, which is today no more than 2,000 square meters, remains the smallest condominium in the world. To this day, the uninhabited island is alternately administrated by France for half a year and by Spain for the other half.

In 1660, the details of the border in Cerdagne/Cerdanya needed be clarified again.22 The negotiations were held in the small town of Llívia. The Franco-Spanish treaty that was signed there designated the 33 villages that were to belong to France. Llívia, northeast of the Spanish city of Puigcerdà in today’s Girona province, had a town charter. The Spaniards used this as a pretext for not relinquishing it to France. Llívia remains today a Spanish enclave, completely surrounded by French territory. It continued to present opportunities for quarrels until 1868, when the precise boundaries were finally drawn between the enclave and France.23 In the 20th century, a bridge was even built over the French national road, so that the extra-territorial road connecting Llívia with the mother country would have no crossings. It was not until the Schengen Agreement that the problems surrounding Llívia were finally completely disposed with.

The borders between Spain and France were fixed in 1659/1660 just as they are recognized today. Subsequent treaties only specified particular border points. For example, a contract was signed in 1764 which alleviated some confusion between Catalonia and Roussillon.24 In 1785, the border of Navarre was clarified25 and in 1856, 1858, 1862, 1863, 1866 and 1868 treaties were signed in Bayonne (Basque and Occitan: Baiona) which established the border’s final demarcation.26 Some minor border adjustments in the 20th century which became necessary because of road and tunnel construction in the Pyrenees do not require further comment.

While the Pyrenees formed a natural border between France and the Iberian territories, subjects and their rulers found that the mountains did not always provide the necessary degree of protection they would have desired against attacks from their respective enemies. For this reason, numerous fortifications can be found throughout the Pyrenees area, only a few of which will be mentioned here. Since the mountains could not easily be crossed by large armies, the sites are mainly located on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast.


[LEFT]: The plaque calls attention to the importance of the fortifications for the stabilization of these borders. It was unveiled in 2008 in Mont-Louis on the occasion of the inclusion of Vauban’s edifices in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The inscription reads: “The FORTIFICATIONS OF VAUBAN, inscribed in the World Heritage List, represent at the end of the 17th century the apogee of bastioned defence systems. They helped to define the borders of Europe and influenced military architecture throughout the world for more than two centuries.” / Photo by Friedrich Edelmayer
[RIGHT]: In 2007, Catalan nationalist circles in France still spoke out vehemently against the inclusion of Vauban’s structures in the World Heritage List, accusing Vauban of participating in the suppression of the Catalan language and culture. Thus pamphlets appeared at the 39th Catalan Summer School in Prades (16–25 August 2007) that heavily criticised the French policy in the 17th century and accused Vauban of complicity in the oppression of the Catalans. The four-page text concludes with the words: “What is Vauban’s significance? … All this clearly indicates the desire to militarily suppress the Catalan people, their culture and language. Now that you know the truth, do you still think it is appropriate to honour Vauban? We should show a minimum of respect for our ancestors who suffered so much. Let’s say ‘no’ to including Vauban and his military constructions in the UNESCO cultural heritage.” The organization responsible for the leaflet was “La Federació per la defensa de la llengua i la cultura catalanes”, founded in Perpignan in 1980, cf. / Edelmayer’s Private Ownership

The important Castilian border fortress Fuenterrabía in the Basque Country has already been mentioned. Its counterpart in Catalonia was undoubtedly Salses in Roussillon, whose construction north of Perpignan was commissioned by Ferdinand II of Aragon at the end of the 15th century to effectively protect the recovered county against possible French attacks. Both Fuenterrabía and Salses were highly controversial in all the wars between the two monarchies.27After the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the latter fortress fell to France. Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban (1633–1707)  not only restored this fortress, but he built two new, modern fortifications to protect the newly acquired territories: Villefranche-de-Conflent (Catalan: Villafranca de Conflent) in the valley of the Têt (Catalan: Tet) and Mont-Louis (Catalan: Montlluís) on a mountain pass along the border of Cerdagne.28 These fortifications were important factors in guaranteeing the stability of the political boundaries from the second half of the 17th century onward , although, for geo-strategic reasons, Vauban would have preferred all of Cerdagne to be returned to Spain, because it was difficult to defend.29

Neighbouring Cerdagne in the west is the Principality of Andorra, one of the smallest states in the world. Andorra was able to preserve its independence, despite the unification efforts of the French and Spanish monarchs. This is essentially due to the fact that Andorra had been ruled since 1278 as a condominium: it was governed, on the one hand, by the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia and, on the other, by the above-mentioned Counts of Foix.30 As discussed above in connection with the history of Navarre, all the rights and territories of these counts fell to the House of Bourbon (which supplied the French kings from 1589 onwards) by means of inheritance. Since 1589, therefore, Andorra was ruled by the French king and the bishop of La Seu d’Urgell. This, consequently, made it impossible to integrate Andorra into either the French or the Spanish monarchy, allowing the country to retain its independence.

Andorra’s independence was actually only threatened seriously once: during the French Revolution. After the king’s execution, the representatives of the Republic no longer recognized the office of the co-princes. By 1806, however, Napoleon I (1769–1821)  already had the previous state of affairs restored. The French head of state would become the co-prince of Andorra, regardless of whether France was a monarchy or – as today – a republic. Since the Andorran Constitution of 1993, the two co-princes share the office of head of state, but have only purely representative functions. Since Andorra was admitted to the United Nations that year and to the Council of Europe in 1994, Catalan finally became a recognized international language. For the Catalan nationalist parties in Spain and France, however, this represented only a minor success.

Transfer and Communication Processes in the Pyrenees

Although the Pyrenees can only be easily crossed on the side of the relatively “flat” Atlantic coast and thus constitute one of Europe’s geographically most complex areas, quite dense transfer and communication processes can be observed. This is due to several factors.

The above-mentioned political formations kept on crossing over the mountains’ main ridge, which led to intensive contacts between the north and south. Thus, the Frankish Empire established already in the 8th century a borderland against the Arabs in what is now Catalonia, which cooperated closely with the Frankish north for the purposes of border defence. Many a Frankish warrior moved to the south, where the war against the Arabs promised glory, honour and, above all, material gain. The Principality of Catalonia, which was later formed out of the Spanish March, extended north and south of the main ridge of the mountains until the 17th century. Commercial interests united the principality’s parts across the mountains. The same is true for the Kingdom of Navarre, which controlled major pass roads through the main ridge of the Pyrenees until the 16th century. Andorra, for its part, assumed a key position between the north and the south, not only because of its two co-princes, but also as a centre for smuggling.

Both sides of the Pyrenees were also linked to each other through strong trade contacts. In the modern period, too, olive oil, salt and wool were brought to the north from the south. Travelling in the opposite direction were livestock (sheep and pigs), iron goods or Atlantic fish which, for example, made their way to Aragon via Bordeaux and Toulouse. These trading contacts were even maintained during the Franco-Spanish War from 1635–1659.31


[LEFT]: The Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel de Cuxa goes back to the 9th century. It is located in the French Pyrenees, about 45 kilometres west of Perpignan. It was part of the Way of St. James and able to benefit from the influx of pilgrims coming from France across the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. As a highlight of Romanesque architecture, it also demonstrates how this architectural style spread across Europe. / Photo by cancre, Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: The Cathedral of Santa Maria d’Urgell – the image shows the cloister and the tower of the facade in the background – is another example of the Romanesque style in the Pyrenees. / Photo by Ermengol Patalín, Wikimedia Commons


[LEFT]: The architecture of the Cistercians, too, spread from the Pyrenees to the entire Iberian Peninsula. The church of the monastery of Santa María de Veruela, located on the Aragonese-Navarrese border and built in the 12th century, is a good example of this “pure”, unadorned style. / Photo by ecelan, Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: Burgos Cathedral, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, goes back to 13th century. It was built in the Gothic style and primarily follows the models of the cathedrals of Normandy and Burgundy. The construction, however, is already marked by increasingly decorative panelling. / Photo by FAR, Wikimedia Commons

The pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela were also of great importance in the Pyrenees region. The apostle’s alleged grave was discovered in Galicia in the 9th century. The rulers in the narrow and mountainous north of the Iberian Peninsula, which had remained under Christian control, quickly discovered the opportunities offered by the Santiago cult: some of the pilgrims who prayed at the grave of the apostle could later be deployed in the war against the Moors. The veneration of St. James was therefore greatly promoted. The vast majority of the pilgrims who flocked to the Iberian Peninsula had to cross the Pyrenees. While the majority chose the above-mentioned route over Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, more southerly passes were also used. Associated infrastructure such as churches, monasteries, hospices, roads and bridges sprang up everywhere. Their designs were inspired by the innovations in the central areas of Europe. Romanesque, Cistercian and Gothic styles spread along the pilgrimage routes. The Pyrenees had a special intermediary position. An especially large number of facilities for the pilgrims were built here due to the region’s geographical segmentation, resulting from the multitude of dense and narrow valleys. Highlights of Romanesque architecture, such as the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll (Girona), Saint-Martin-du-Canigou (Catalan: Sant Martí del Canigó, Conflent), Saint-Michel de Cuxa  (Catalan: Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Conflent) and the Cathedral of La Seu d’Urgell (Lleida)  show how this style was concentrated in the Pyrenees, before spreading to the Iberian Peninsula. Of similar trend-setting significance for Cistercian architecture on the Iberian Peninsula were the monasteries of Santa María la Real de la Oliva (Basque: Santa Maria Olibakoa) in Navarre, Santa María de Veruela in Aragon , right on the border to Navarre, and Santa Maria de Poblet and Santes Creus in Catalonia, although the latter two monasteries are located somewhat south of the Pyrenees region. And, finally, the French Gothic style also came to the Iberian Peninsula with the pilgrims, as is impressively demonstrated by the Cathedral of Burgos in Castile .

On the other hand, cultural influences also travelled from the south to the north. Thus, Josep Sunyer i Raurell (1673–1751)  from Manresa (Barcelona) practiced his trade as a very popular Baroque altar carver both south and north of the border. After he worked, for example, in Puigcerdà (Girona) in 1695, he could be found the following year in Prades/Prada in Conflent.32 He was able to pursue his trade undisturbed on both sides of the border, even though Spain and France were at war with each other. In fact, he soon established a workshop in Perpignan/Perpinyà, built numerous altars in Roussillon and, moreover, continued to work south of the border.

The Pyrenees region, however, was also the area where one could seek protection from political persecution. Depending on the political situation in the respective territories, streams of refugees regularly flowed across the Pyrenees. Catholics fled to Spain from France during the religious wars of the 16th century,33 as did many French nobles who wanted to escape the Republic’s animosity during the French Revolution. In the 20th century, it were left-wing Spaniards who sought refuge in France from Franco’s troops and then, above all, Jews, who were able to flee persecution from the German Reich and its supporters in Spain. Finally, in 1944, anti-Franco guerrillas attempted to overthrow the Spanish dictatorship and marched into the Val d’Aran.34 Although they were soon repulsed by the fascists, the incident once again clearly shows that the Pyrenees region, regardless of its political structure, has always been both a border and a bridge.

Throughout the modern era, the Pyrenees region experienced growing centralization originating in the centres Paris and Madrid. However, since the Schengen Agreement at the latest, the border running through it is only of minor importance. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Catalan and Basques efforts for independence will ultimately be successful. Regardless of the outcome, it is to be hoped that the particular languages of the region will again be given the official status they no doubt deserve due to their cultural merits.



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  1. Trask, The History 1997.
  2. Cf. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt, Lexikon 1992.
  3. See Boletín Oficial de Aragón, no. 252, from 30 December 2009, online: [30/05/2012].
  4. Cf. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt, Lexikon 1991.
  5. Testament of Gerónima de Hostalric (Estalrich) i Gralla 1579; see also the correspondence of the Consell de Barcelona with Garcia de Toledo, viceroy and general commander of the 1560s, both in the Archivo de la Casa de Medina Sidonia. The list could be easily extended.
  6. Cf., for example, Sans i Travé, Dietaris 1994–2007.
  7. Cf. Muñoz González / Catà i Tur, Repressió borbònica 2005, pp. 189–194. A very significant passage is cited there from a report by the Bishop of Segorbe from the year 1715: “… de un rey, una ley, y una moneda; a que se puede añadir, y una lengua, por lo que se podría prohibir el uso de otra que la castellana. ” (“… of one king, one law and one currency; to which can be added of one language, explaining why the use of another language besides Castilian could be prohibited”, transl. by C.R.), Muñoz González / Catà i Tur, Repressió borbònica 2005, p. 190.
  8. Cf. Gual Vilà, Poblet 2007.
  9. Cf. for a general discussion on the French language policy in the territories acquired in 1659, Jané Checa, Catalunya i França 2006, pp. 212–241.
  10. The text of the relevant charter is available online: [30/05/2012].
  11. Cf. Baylac-Ferrer, Catalunya Nord 2009.
  12. Cf. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt, Lexikon 1991.
  13. “Et pour ce que telles choses sont souvent advenues sur l’intelligence des mots latins contenus esdits arrests, nous voulons d’oresnavant que tous arrests, ensemble toutes autres procédures, soient de nos cours souveraines et autres subalternes et inférieures, soient de registres, enquestes, contrats, commissions, sentences, testaments, et autres quelconques, actes et exploicts de justice, ou qui en dépendent, soient prononcés, enregistrés et délivrés aux parties en langage maternel françois et non autrement.” (“And as these things often occurred with regard to the comprehension of the Latin words contained in these decisions, we now want all decisions and all other procedures – whether at our highest courts or other subordinate and inferior courts, and whether they are registers, surveys, contracts, orders, judgments, wills, and whatever kind acts and documents of the judiciary or those that result from it – to be proclaimed, recorded and delivered to the parties in the French mother tongue and not otherwise.”, transl. by C.R.), Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, 1539, Article 111. The complete text is available online: [30/05/2012].
  14. Deniau, La francophonie 2003, p. 82.
  15. “The regional languages are part of the French heritage.”
  16. Muxella, Joan II 2009; Edelmayer, Die spanische Monarchie 2007, p. 129.
  17. On the following, see Esarte Muniain, Navarra 2001; Esarte Muniain, Represión y reparto 2007.
  18. Martínez Arce / Sesé Alegre, Algunas precisiones 1994.
  19. On the following, see Edelmayer, Die spanische Monarchie 2007, pp. 192f.
  20. Cf. Casals, El Tractat dels Pireneus 2009; Edelmayer, Die spanische Monarchie 2007, p. 198.
  21. Digitalized peace treaty of the Pyrenees, 07/11/1659, provided by the Leibniz-Institute of European History, Project Europäische Friedensverträge der Vormoderne [30/05/2012].
  22. The problems surrounding this border demarcation are depicted in detail in Sahlins, Boundaries 1991; cf. also the brief discussion in Franke, Franzosen, Spanier oder Katalanen? 1998.
  23. A digitalized version of the treaty which was signed on 11/07/1868 is available online: (pp. 448–470), see pp. 458–460 for the section on Llívia [04/06/2012].
  24. A digitalized version of the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded in Perpignan/Perpinyà on 12 November 1764 is available online:[30/05/2012].
  25. ^ A digitalized version of the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded in Elizondo on 27 August 1785 is available online:[30/05/2012].
  26. The respective border treaties are available online:[30/05/2012]. In Article 27 of the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 2 December 1856, the status of the Pheasant Island is also definitively settled, with reference being made to the shared historical memories that are connected with this island: “La Isla de los Faisanes, conocida también con el nombre de Isla de la Conferencia, á la cual tantos recuerdos históricos comunes á ambas naciones se refieren, pertenecerá pro indiviso á la España y á la Francia.” (“Pheasant Island, also known as Conference Island, which ties the two nations together with so many shared historical memories, will belong to Spain and France undivided”, transl. by C.R.), pp. 121–126. The border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 28 December 1858, ibidem, pp. 142–155; the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 14 April 1862, ibid., pp. 290-295; the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 27 February 1863, ibidem, pp. 304–318; the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 26 May 1866, ibidem, pp. 401–409; the border treaty between Spain and France, concluded at Bayonne on 11 July 1868, ibidem, pp. 448–470.
  27. Cf. Casals, La frontera 2009, pp. 122f.
  28. Hachon, Vauban 1991.
  29. Cf. Sahlins, Boundaries 1991, p. 70.
  30. On the following, see Belenguer, Historia d’Andorra, 2007; Guillamet i Anton, Andorra 2009.
  31. Poujade, La frontera pirinenca 2008.
  32. Jané Checa, Psico(socio)logía e identidad 2008.
  33. Gual i Vilà, La immigració occitana 2009; cf. also Peytaví Deixona, Catalans i occitans 2005.
  34. Most recently, Rodríguez Marcos, El valle de la libertad 2010.

Originally published by EGO: Journal of European History Online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.



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