Bandits, Brigands and Highwaymen

Bandits, Brigands and Highwaymen

The nobility of medieval Catalonia, like the nobility of the West's globalised industries today in their treatment of the rural population of the South, had the unpleasant habit of taking their privileges a bit too far. In the second half of the fifteenth century, though, the Catalan peasants started to join forces against them and exercise both passive resistance, by not paying taxes, and active resistance, in the form of armed mobilisation. In an attempt to stop the revolt, the Catholic King Ferran II tried to patch things up with what is known as the Guadalupe sentence, without much success. Six years later, in 1492, this same king himself suffered an unmistakable demonstration of the social unrest, in the form of a failed attempt on his life by Joan de Canyamars, a remença peasant, or serf, who managed to wound him in the neck with his sword, but was captured and hacked to pieces on the spot.

Another way of rebelling against the system and escape financial hardships at the same time was to take to the hills. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, banditry became a part of life in Catalonia, as in many other countries. Periods of famine as a result of poor crops drove many people to form organised gangs to attack and rob rich farmhouses, kidnap and ransom the well-off, forge money, murder, relieve foot-travellers of their possessions or hijack the stagecoaches that carried the royal bullion. Rather than simple bandits, these rural activists always defended the poor from the rich, which made them popular heroes in the fight for justice. The takings were often shared with the villagers, who were happy to lend a hand in return whenever necessary. But the best evidence for their fame are the celebrations held in many parts of Catalonia in memory of their deeds and the fact that many streets and squares are named after them. People who sheltered bandits and who were known as fautors included judges and officers of the king.

Far from being a free for all, these gangs of bandits were organised in a military hierarchy, with a leader who was often an all-powerful despot. The number of people in these bands could vary from the 20 or so who followed Perot Rocaguinarda at the start of his banditry to the 100 men behind Joan Pons or the 200 in Felip de Queralt's gang. One exceptional case was the small army of 700 people deployed by Tomàs de Banyuls, Lord of Nyer, on some of his exploits. Don't think these bandits were always simple folk standing up to the nobility or to the king's henchmen. In fact, two feudal lords gave their names to two bands that are emblematic of Catalan banditry: the nyerros and the cadells. The first were named after the Lords of Nyer and the second after the Lords Cadell of Arsèguel, who led the band for a time but then turned to hunting bandits down. On the basis of people's affinity to one or other of these bands, support networks built up that had so much power in all areas of society that they almost ended in civil war.

In an attempt to bring the situation under control, the defenders of established law and order had the perverse idea of organising what was known as the Coronela, which were local vigilante groups made up of armed civilians, very often forced to take part under threat of fines or other punishment. In addition, they resorted to practices still used today by the governments of countries like Israel, Colombia, Sudan and others, which is the violent, unjust and anti-ecological scorched-earth policy. Castilian soldiers under the vice-roy's orders destroyed the belongings of suspects and their families, demolished houses and castles of fautors, burned or cleared woodland so that bandits had nowhere to hide and on one occasion, in Roda de Ter in 1626, imprisoned the entire village. Sometimes those accused of banditry could reduce their sentence by enlisting in the king's army or by defecting and informing on their accomplices. What usually happened, though, as in the case of the legendary Serrallonga, was that they were hung, drawn and quartered in the brutal and bloodthirsty fashion of the time. Of course, in those days there was no such thing as the electric chair, lethal injections or island prisons like Guantánamo. It would be interesting to see who exactly were the real brigands: those who have gone down in history as such, or those who are disguised as well-doers, protected by the absence of declassified documents which will one day unmask them.