A Homage to


The scourge of the Mediterranean

As the early Catalans came down from the mountains, they pushed Muslim civilisation back and began to settle on the plains. Most of the dirty work of these conquests was done by the Almogavars, devoted warriors recruited in the most rugged mountain areas of Catalonia and neighbouring Aragon, who took to war in droves and were prepared to go anywhere and do anything. Raiding parties of a dozen or so men would make lightning attacks on the Saracens, slaughtering as many of the enemy as they could before making off with everything they could get hold of. So powerful was their calling for battle that they made no distinction between war and peace, refusing ever to take a day off. Their enthusiasm can be explained by the fact that their only payment was whatever booty they managed to snatch.

Thanks in part to these rugged mountain warriors, the Catalans gradually consolidated their control of the plains and the coast and went on to conquer the nearby Balearic Islands and Valencia in the thirteenth century. There was now no holding them back. Not content with bringing the western Mediterranean under control, the Catalan fleet, along with the unfailing Almogavars, then moved on to Sardinia and Sicily, eventually taking over half of Italy as well as capturing points along the coast of North Africa. The Almogavars were unstoppable, like an army of 15,000 killer ants perpetually on the move, armed only with knives and spears and followed by wives, concubines, children and cooking-pots. In comparison, the Viking raiders we learnt about at school rank as hardly more fearsome than door-to-door salesmen.

The coarse Catalan mountain warriors crossed the Mediterranean Sea to conquer parts of Greece and rampaged over the Adriatic and Turkey with such savagery that they are remembered with horror in local folklore to this day. In Albanian legends the katalla is a sinister being that comes from the sea, a nasty ogre invoked to drive terror into the hearts of naughty children, rather like our own bogeyman but infinitely more horrible. Some Greek traditions, also, still see Catalans as the epitome of barbarousness, so that in referring to some really foul deed people might say that not even a Catalan would have done it.