Barcelona, a Society and its Law: 11th-13th Centuries

Barcelona, a Society and its Law: 11th-13th Centuries

By Tomàs de Montagut

Catalan Historical Review, Vol.1 (2008)

Abstract: The legal system in Barcelona in the Lower Middle Ages – which we regard as a synthesis of rights (usages, customs, privileges, laws, and so on) and organization (municipality, universitat de prohoms, consulates, etc.) – had already attained maturity in the 13th century. It was first and foremost the outcome of the self-interested wishes of its leaders, the prohoms, or patricians, who directed the growth of Barcelona society, a development which was of clear benefit to them and enabled them to consolidate and perpetuate themselves as a social group by means of legal forms and formulas, relating to the individual, family and society, which were suitable for and orientated towards their aim of assuming the political and financial leadership of the city.

The considerable degree of autonomy achieved by Barcelona society in the 13th century thanks to its public and private legal institutions endured until the 18th century, when the new Bourbon dynasty abolished the municipal self-governing institutions.

Introduction: “Ubi societas ibi ius”: this aphorism, coined by a distinguished Roman jurist, tells us that all societies generate their own law. The correlative, however, is also true — “ubi ius ibi societas” — and reminds us that wherever we find law, it is because a society is in existence.

In another article we undertook a more detailed analysis of the legal system in 13th century Barcelona, which was made up of customs, privileges and some incipient regulations which interacted with the city’s own political and administrative institutions. The latter took shape between 1249 and 1284 in the wake of a series of royal privileges setting up the municipality, or universitat, of Barcelona, endowing it with legal personality, and regulating the constitution and functions of its ruling magistrates and its consultative and governmental assemblies.

However, the full significance of this legal system, which was specific to Barcelona, becomes clear only in the context of the society that produced it. The summary offered in this article will be based on a succinct overview of the valuable contributions made by Professor Stephen P. Bensch in his fundamental work Barcelona and its rulers, 1096-1291. His book remains to this day a seminal study of the history of Barcelona from the 11th to the 13th century by virtue of its insightful, penetrating approach, the relevance of the themes addressed, and its congruency and clarity of exposition.

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