dijous, 15 de gener de 2015

Almogavars and the Catalan Company

Almogavars is the name of a class of soldier from many Christian Aragon-Catalonia kingdoms in the later phases of the Reconquista, during the 13th and 14th centuries. Almogavars were lightly clad, quick-moving frontiersmen and foot-soldiers. They hailed from the Kingdom of Aragon-Catalonia and Kingdom of Valencia. At first these troops were formed by farmers and shepherds originating from the countryside, woods and frontier mountain areas. Later, they were employed as mercenaries in Italy, Latin Greece and the Levant.

Saracen origin of the term

The term was first used in the 10th century in the territory of Al-Andalus, to refer to small armed groups of Saracens engaged in looting and surprise attacks. The first documented historical reference appeared in the chronicle "Akhbar muluk Al-Andalus" or "Chronicle of the Moor Rasis", the history of the kings of Al-Andalus, written between 887 and 955 by Ahmad ibn Muhamad Ar-Razi, known among Arabs by the name Al-Tarij (The Chronicler) and among Christians as the Moor Rasis. In his chronicle, the historian of Qurtuba describes the territories of Al-Andalus, and upon arrival at the Ebro Valley, cites the existence of some troops called Almogavars present in the city of Saraqusta for the first time in history:

Translation to English: And the city of Saraqusta was the chamber of the Almojarifes for a long time, and was the choice of the warriors. And when they fought the city of Saraqusta, and fought all the alcalles (Moorish chiefs) and Almogavars, they chose for them.
Ahmad ibn Mahummad Al-Razi , Ajbàr mulùk Al-Andalus

Christian adaptation

The Catalan - Aragonese were the first Christians to adopt those strategies and fight like those groups of Saracens known as Almogavars, which eventually led to them being known by the same name.

Even though there were no contemporary chronicles of the events of the 11th or 12th centuries, the first time that any Christian Almogavars are mentioned is in a testimony by Jerónimo Zurita in his Annals of Aragon, which places the Almogavars in the time of Alfons I of Aragon reinforcing the fortress of El Castellar around 1105-1110 with visions of the conquest of Zaragoza:

Taking Tahuste. Almogavar guards. From there he was passing downstream and captured the seat of Tahuste next to the banks of the Ebro; which he won through the bravery and great strength of Don Bachalla. And soon after began to set people talking about war and training hard for it, they called them almogavars, in 'el Castellar' who were on the frontier against the Moors of Zaragoza.
—J. Zurita, Anales de Aragón, cap. XLI «De las guerras que el emperador don Alonso [por Alfons I el Batallador] hizo a los moros»

Socioeconomic origin

Because of the Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula, the wars of the Reconquista ("Reconquest") and the military campaigns of Al Andalus, the Christian shepherds of the Pyrenean valleys were left unable to use the valleys in winter because they had been occupied. In order to continue to survive, these shepherds had to organize themselves into bands of outlaws and penetrate the enemy domain in search of what their people needed to survive. 

During these raids, which usually lasted only a few days, the Almogavars could live off the land and sleep in the open. The knowledge required to be able to perform in this struggle was gained in their former life as shepherds, since the majority of them had grown up among the wildest mountains, where the harshness of the climate made it so that the land did not provide many resources and they had to take full advantage of the few that were present.

But after many generations of leading this new kind of life that they had been pushed into by the invaders, it seems clear that a genuine warrior spirit formed in these shepherd communities, so that they ended up not knowing how to live by any other means than making war. In addition, it was much easier to make a living through attacks lasting a few days than by working hard for the whole year. This way of life went on being adopted by the inhabitants of the areas that bordered the Muslim territories as the Christian kingdoms advanced toward the south. Also, the presence of Islamic Almogavars fighting alongside Catholic Almogavars is documented too.

Page 114r of the Chronicle of Ramon Muntaner, in which the war cries used by the Almogavars are described: "the Almogavars shout: Rise Iron! , Rise! ... What do we say? The battle was so strong and cruel, but in the end, all the Franks rose up in one cry: Aragon! , Aragon!."

They were characterized as being infantry shock troops that fought on foot, with light arms and baggage, generally with a pair of short spears (azconas), a long knife (coltell) and sometimes a small round shield as the only defense. They had full beards and dressed poorly, only in a short gown (both in summer and winter), they wore a thick leather belt and leather sandals. In addition, they always used to carry a good piece of flint with them that they struck their weapons with before going into battle, which gave off enormous sparks, which, together with their terrible cries, terrorized their enemies. Endowed with great valor and ferocity, those from the Crown of Catalonia-Aragon entered into combat to the cry of "Rise Iron! (Desperta Ferro!) Let's kill, let's kill", "for Saint George!" and "Catalonia! Aragó!".

This is the famous description of an Almogavar, written by Bernat Desclot in his chronicle entitled Llibre del rei en Pere d'Aragó e dels seus antecessors passats (Book of King Peter of Aragon and of his past ancestors):

These people who are called Almogavars live for nothing more than the profession of arms. They don't live in the cities or the villages, but rather in the mountains and forests, and fight every day against the Saracens: and enter the Saracens' land for a day or two, pillaging and taking Saracens captive; and that is how they live. 
And they endure harsh living conditions which others could not endure. They could well spend two days without eating if necessary, eating herbs of the fields with no problem. And the adalids (leaders) who lead them know the country and roads. And they do not wear more than a tunic or shirt, be it summer or winter, and they wear leather breeches on their legs and leather sandals on their feet. And they wear a good knife and a good shoulder strap and a flint steel in their belt. And they each carry a good lance and two spears, as well as a leather shoulder bag, where they carry their food. And they are very strong and very quick, for escape and for pursuit, and they are Catalans and Aragonese and Saracens.
Bernat Desclot, , Libre del rei en Pere e dels seus antecessors passats, cap. LXXIX.

However, one has to keep in mind that these descriptions are not complete and that the description of the Almogavars, as much in clothing as in arms or way of life, differs more or less depending on place and time. Thus, the previous description of the Almogavars, which describes them as people living not in villages but in remote areas such as forests and mountains, as well as the description of their weapons, only refers to Almogavars of the time indicated, and probably earlier centuries. 

Their basic characteristics were lifelong dedication to war, not just as a profession but as a way of life, perfectly adapted to the conditions of the border with the Saracens, remuneration, based on looting and the sale or rescue of prisoners, frugality and resistance to fatigue, light weapons and hierarchical organization.

Requirements and military rank

The requirements the Almogavars had to meet were compiled by King Alfonso X in the Siete Partidas, among which were fitness and endurance, as well as agility. Also in this legal code is found the codification of their ranks.

Adalid (leader)
From the Arab word dalid (guide, conductor), was the highest rank in the Almogavar force. The Adalid required wisdom, courage, intelligence and loyalty in order to guide the army on appropriate routes and to avoid danger, as well as knowledge of the land to avoid secure places for shelter, with adequate water, firewood and grazing, and to know how to track the steps of the enemy. 
Among these functions were to prepare and organise expeditions and sole authority to make all decisions about raids, and he had a status similar to that of a knight (lower nobility). 
To appoint an Adalid, twelve Adalids or, in their absence, other authorised officials met and swore in the name of the king that the candidate had the necessary talents to perform this duty. After this oath, the king or other official presented him with a sword and baldric. Then he stood on a shield and the king or his representative unsheathed the sword and placed it in his hand. The adalids lifted their new colleague high, facing eastwards, and he made a pattern in the air with his sword, in the form of the cross and said:

-I, N, challenge all the enemies of the faith in the name of God and of my Lord and King and of his land

He then did the same facing the other cardinal points of the earth. The ceremony concluded, the adalid sheathed his sword and the king said to him:

-From henceforth you are an Adalid.

Initially this was a lifelong responsibility, but from the end of the 14th century it became hereditary, which brought the Adalid still closer to the lower ranks of the nobility. They went mounted on horses.

From the Arabic, 'al-muqaddem', 'the captain', 'he who leads'. He was of a lower rank and a captain of autonomous Almogavar groups; for this he was required to be knowledgeable about war and about leading his group, to have motivation, to know how to motivate his peers and to be light, to be faster and to be able to hide easily in addition to being fair, as set forth in Title XII, Act V of the entries (the Partidas):

They now call Almocadenes those who formerly were usually called leaders of the peons, and these are very advantageous in war; in places they can go in among the soldiers and accomplish things that those on horseback could not do. And so when he has there any peon that wants to be Almocadén has to do this: first to come to the Adalids and show them for what reasons have to deserve to be so, then they should call twelve Almocadenes and make them swear to tell truth if that who wants to be a man Almocadén itself having four things: the first war to be knowing and guiding those with him they belonged; second, it endeavored to undertake the facts and strive to yours: the third to be light, as this is something that should be much the peon to achieve what any soon to take, and for knowing as well garrison when it was great need, the fourth is to be loyal to be a friend of his master and campaigns he leads. And this should be taken into account by the leader of peons.

The Almocaden was an Almogavar of demonstrated experience who was accepted as a leader by the Almogavars of his group. Just like the two previous grades, it also seems to be mounted on a horse, although we only have the reference of two Almocadenes on horse, and we are not sure it has always been the case.

Historic military significance

The Almogavars were considered one of the best infantries of their era. In an age where the cavalry was the favored weapon of armies and where the model of the chivalric ideal was a continuing myth, the Almogavars used the terrain to their advantage, fought at night and always went on foot without wearing armor, which gave them great mobility. Ramon Llull gave them so much importance as the crossbowmen and knights heavy armoured, and his view the only way to effectively combat Islam and recover the Holy Land was to start the war for the Spanish border and then defeating the Moors of Al-Andalus, go to North Africa and gradually moving up to the Levant, considering Almogavars as a key part of his plan. In the year he wrote his chronicle (1315) the Almogavars were at the height of their fame, and had achieved renown throughout the Mediterranean for their exploits in Tunisia, Sicily and in the Catalan Company.

The Almogavars usually fought in small, autonomous groups of five to fifteen men, when they were carrying out border incursions, since they counted on surprise. In times of open warfare, the groups were made more numerous and we find mention of twenty or thirty comrades per group. Also, very rarely, some almogavars participated in corsary operations against Granada.

It also must be emphasized that they were not exactly an army, but formed a very hard way of life, and they did not usually have any job: they took everything from their raids, so that in times of peace, they were a great nuisance for any leader. The primary activity of these groups was to carry out small raids in enemy territory with the objective of taking livestock and capitves and then selling them. In times of war, these activities were encouraged by the kings and local nobles, who gave up the King's fifth of the booty obtained.

They were born during the violence of the frontier between the Islamic and the Christian world, and actually were often the cause of the frontier tensions. The frontier with the Saracen, not very attractive for people who wished for a life of quiet work, was a refuge for adventurers, of people who enjoyed living with risks and who lived by the fist and by looting enemy territory. During the wars they joined the army, most of the time without a salary, but in exchange for rights on the loot, and being fed.

Presence in the Crown of Catalonia-Aragon

The Almogavars of the Crown of Aragón are the best known because of their deeds and international protection, both in the Mediterranean expansion and in the Catalan Company, an Almogavar unit of great fame.

Peter the Great with his Almogavars in the battle of
Coll de Panissars. 1866. Bartomeu Ribó Térriz

The formed a numerous host, as Peter III of Aragon (1276-1285) led 15,000 of them in his expedition to Tunisia and Sicilia, and they also fought in the actual Catalonia land during the crusade against the Crown of Aragon, under the leadership of Roger of Lauria, participating in the battle of the pass of the Panizas (in Aragonesse (now known as Catalan language): Coll de Panissars).


Almogavar-style troops during the conquest of Majorca
The Catalan, Aragonese, and later, Valencian Almogavars played an important role in the advance of the Crown of Catalonia- Aragon against the Islamic States, participating moreover in countless raids, in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), in the crusade against Majorca (1229-1232) and in the conquest of Valencia (1233-1245). In 1232, Almogovar armies took the strategic enclaves of Ares and Morella, opening the doors to the conquest of Valencia. When the Moorish rebellion in Murcia took place in 1264, and James I went to this kingdom to the aid of his son-in-law, he says in his Chronicle that while he was in Orihuela, studying how to take the capital to end the rebellion, "two Almogavars from Lorca came at midnight and knocked on the door" to alert him that, from Lorca, they had spotted a large contingent of Moors who headed towards Murcia.

War in Sicily and crusade against the Crown of Aragon

On 30 March 1282, Peter III of Aragon waged war on Charles of Anjou after the Sicilian Vespers for the possession of Naplesand Sicily. The Almogavars formed the most effective element of his army. Their discipline, ferocity and the force with which they hurled their javelins made them formidable against heavy cavalry of the Angevin armies. They fought against cavalry by attacking the enemies' horses instead of the knights themselves. Once a knight was on the ground he was an easy victim of an Almogavar.

Between 1284 and 1285, the Crusade against the Crown of Aragon was declared by Pope Martin IV against King Peter the Great of Aragon. This crusade was declared based on King Peter's intervention in Sicilian affairs against the papal will. Most of the conflict took place in Catalonia, although the first episode took place in the frontier of Navarre and Aragon. The Almogavars were at the service of King commanded by King Peter or Roger of Lauria.

Roger of Lauria had much more control over his captains than the enemies did. His crews were made up of specialized troops, instead of the more generic types used by his enemies. His archers were used initially, while his oarsmen Almogavars stayed under cover. These Almogavars were much more agile than the heavily armored knights with swords, as his enemies often used, especially on the moving deck of a galley at sea. Roger used trickery to disguise the size of his force. In addition, he sometimes kept some of his galleys hidden, to attack the rear of the enemy after the battle had started.

Roger was also infamous for the ruthless sackings and the devastation of his actions, often driven only by greed and personal advantage. On the other side, his reputation alone possibly caused some enemies to lose heart during a battle.

The Catalan Company

In 1302, the Peace of Caltabellotta ended the war in southern Italy. 4,000 Almogavars, under the leadership of Roger de Flor ("Roger Blum", a former Knight Templar), formed the Catalan Company in the service of the Emperor of the East, Andronicus II Palaeologus. This company was organized to fight against the Turks, defending the Byzantine Empire. Both kings of Aragon and Sicily agreed with this strategy as a viable alternative to having the Almogavar army standing unemployed in their realms.

The Almogavar campaign in Asia Minor took place in 1303 and 1304, and began with a series of great military victories, reaching the Cilician Gates and cornered Turks to the interior Anatolia. When the Almogavars insisted in receiving the agreed payment, the Byzantine Emperor refused. In 1305, Roger de Flor and his lieutenants were assassinated by orders of the Emperor while meeting to discuss terms on their compensation. This assassination may have been instigated by Genoese merchants, who were conspiring to keep their own position of influence and power.

This betrayal resulted in the surviving Almogavars, who resisted for two years a siege in Gallipolli and concentrated on the region of Thrace, leading off the Catalan Revenge, a war of extermination and systematic looting against the civilian population of the Byzantine Empire between 1305 and 1307 in revenge and retaliation for the murder of Roger de Flor and the attempted annihilation of the Company while it was stationed at Gallipoli.

The Duchy of Athens

Coat of arms of the Duchy of Neopatria.
After a period of internal conflict, the Great Company left the line and moved to Greece where was hired by the Duke of Athens, who didn't pay what they agreed to, so the Almogavars marched against the Duchy of Athens, under the rule of the French House of Brienne. In March 1310, Duke Walter V of Brienne and all his knights were defeated and slain by the Almogavars at the Battle of the Cephissus, or Orchomenus in Boeotia. They then divided the wives and possessions of the Frenchmen by lot, and summoned a prince of the house of Aragon to rule over them.

The culminating achievement of the Almogavars was the foundation of Aragonese rule over the duchy of Athens. Although the duchy eventually fell, even today the King of Spain still holds the title of 'Duke of Athens and Neopatria'.

Late period

The Catalan- Aragonese Almogavars also distinguished themselves in the war against Castile (1296-1304), where they participated in considerable numbers, but in the 14th century their numbers dropped drastically because of the end of major wars of expansion and because of a large number of them went to take part in the expedition of Peter the Great to Sicily, of which many never returned but instead continued fighting in Italy, having enrolled in Guelph armies or in the Catalan Company.

Almogavars 15th century
The vacuum left never refilled, but yet were so remarkable in the crusade against Almeria (1309), in the campaigns of Granada (1330-1334), against the king of Mallorca (1343-1344), in expeditions to Sardinia (1353, 1354 and 1367), and yet again against Castile (1356-1369), but on the latter they no longer made up the bulk of the infantry but were rather special units for dangerous and explorers raids. At 1384 -1385 some small groups of 30 to 100 Almogavars participated in the war against the Earl of Ampurias. Shortly after, they defended the Catalonian principality against the invasion attempt done by the Armagnac count in 1390 and the next attempt of the Foix count from 1396 up to 1397. In the 15th century, still there were groups of Almogavars in the Italian wars of Alfonso the Magnificent.

Cultural and linguistic legacy

Negative connotation of Almogavars

Almogavars were also known as "Catalans" in Byzantine Empire territories. The presence of the company left its mark on the folklore and the popular legend of the different regions where they spent, including as far as the Balkans and Greece. Devastation caused by Almogavars troops has created a negative connotation in some places 

In the Greek regions of Attica and Boeotia, a popular saying included: may the revenge of the Catalans fall on you, while in the region of Parnassus, the following saying was popularized: "I will flee from the Turks to fall into the hands of the Catalans".

Almogavar with a knife
In Bulgaria, the expressions "Catalan" and "son of Catalan" mean "evil man, soulless, torturer". Ivan M. Vazov in the poem Pirates, first published in 1915, includes the Catalans with the Turks as the greatest oppressors of the Bulgarian nation, while in Albania the word "Catalan" means "ugly and wicked man." Likewise, "Catalan" or "Katallani" is designated in Albanian folklore as a monster with one eye, reminiscent in many ways the Cyclops Polyphemus. This cyclops is represented by a wild blacksmith who feeds on human flesh. He also has no knees, so he can not bend, and long legs like masts of a ship. He faces a young hero named Dedaliya. This tradition, in various versions, is usually called by the title of Daedalus dhe Katallani, Daedalus and Catalan.

Almogavar legacy in contemporary culture
Recently, in addition to having been rescued from the past to be represented in numerous parades, Almogavars have inspired some works of fiction :

In Assassin 's Creed Revelations, a video game produced by Ubisoft, there is a unit called " Byzantine Almogavar " based on Almogavars.
In Spain, the Paratrooper Brigade VI is called "Almogávares".
Currently Almogavars are one of them most popular units of the Moros y Cristianos feasts, since the founding of the Company of Almogávares of Villena in 1955.
Lurte, Aragonese folk metal group evokes Almogavars in its music.

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