An Inventory of Resistance: Notes on Catalan Language Politics in Literature

Perhaps part of the uniqueness of Catalan comes from this awareness of its influence on and disconnection from Castilian and European traditions.

Part I: The Nineteenth Century

At first, I was hesitant to write an article on the uses of the Catalan language in literature throughout recent history. After the referendum for Catalan independence held this past October 1, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, and the subsequent episodes of violence that occurred in the region, the topic has come to be a sensitive matter for any national. However, where there is a language, there is a literature, and the history of Catalan is one of stubborn resistance. It is my contention that the history of a language is somehow lived out in those who speak it, insofar as a sentiment of ambiguity still informs contemporary critical debates on the usefulness and adaptability of Catalan literature. “Is Catalan literature diverse enough? Can it cultivate all genres? Is it economically viable?” are questions that have resonated among critics and the public alike. Catalan literature inherits a sense of shame from its own fruition, and it is this feeling that I want to explore with this genealogy of usages.

This is not a history of Catalan literature and the texts featured here have not been selected according to an aesthetic canon. This is an archive of perceptions of Catalan language and literature as experienced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the literary resurgence known as La Renaixença in Catalan literary history (parallel to which political Catalan nationalism as we know it unfolds) to the relatively normalized literary field in existence today. While certainly not the only appropriate approach, in what follows I present a succession of events from the nineteenth century that Catalan historiography has employed to explain the evolution of the uses of the language.

The Law

The history of Catalan language and literature is marked by its tensions with Castilian Spanish. Throughout the nineteenth century, Catalan was the general language of the Catalan population, despite the repression carried out by several centralist governments following eighteenth-century impositions of Castilian law following the Bourbon replacement of the Austrian dynasty following the Guerra de Successió (War of the Spanish Succession). As a result of the legal repression of Catalan that accompanied these events, the language was excluded from public environments.

There are several written testimonies that exemplify these circumstances. For example, the Constitution written at the time, the Constitución de Cádiz (1812), did not include any mention of the linguistic plurality of the territory, which implied the officialization of Castilian. The text was influenced by the Jacobean concept of nation-state, which identified a state with a sole identity, justifying the centralist endeavors of future governments. Another example of legislation that did not favor linguistic plurality was the Ley Moyano de Instrucción Pública (Moyano Law of Public Instruction), approved in 1857, whose Article 88 states: “The Grammar and Orthography from the Spanish Academy will be the only mandatory text [. . .] in public education.” [1] These events were followed by various explicit prohibitions of the language in public and private environments, such as the civil registrars in 1870 or even in telephone conversations in 1896.

The Literature: La Renaixença

It is important to understand that if these prohibitions were put into place, it must be because there was something to prohibit. The nineteenth century is full of contrasts and, despite bans, it was a period of increasing awareness about the Catalan language and its marginalization. The main apparatus of resistance to national restrictions of language is the period in literary history that has traditionally been defined as La Renaixença (The Resurgence), which emerged in opposition to La Decadència (The Decadence), a concept that roughly describes the literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries and that is characterized by a decrease of literary production in Catalan. Conventionally, La Renaixença has been defined as a progress of recovery of Catalan literary production and dated between 1833, with the publication of the ode La Pàtria (The Homeland) by B. C. Aribau, and 1877 when Àngel Guimerà and Jacint Verdaguer received an award at the Jocs Florals (Floral Games) in Barcelona. [2] Most of the Renaixença writers participated in a Romantic aesthetic while also partaking in the nationalist spirit that characterized Romanticism throughout Europe. One of main traits of La Renaixença, which developed in parallel to expressions of political nationalism, was the unearthing and glorification of the history of Catalan literature that came before the Decadència. This glorification is often evoked in contrast to the Castilian tradition. Perhaps the text that best exemplifies this tension is J. Rubió i Ors’s prologue to his poetry collection Lo Gayter del Llobregat (The Bag-piper from Llobregat, 1841), in which he discusses the shame that accompanies Catalan language, but also goes a step further and claims that Catalan literature can aspire to independence from the Castilian language:

Catalonia can still aspire to independence; not political, since it cannot yet be compared to other nations, which can step up to the game, on top of the volume of their history, with armies of thousands of men and fleets of hundreds of vessels; but literary […] Catalonia was for over two centuries the master in literature above other nations; why can’t it cease to remain in the humiliating role of disciple or imitator and create its own literature, separate from the Castilian? Why would it not reestablish its jocs florals and its Acadèmia del Gai Saber, and surprise the world with its tençons, its love chants, sirventesos, and albades[3]

Note that this fragment implies that there was still space for a Catalan literature at the time this prologue was written, although this depends on Castilian culture and language. In some of these texts, one can find the idea of a faux-Catalan literature written in Castilian where its condition of Catalan is not defined by its language but by its topics, which were mainly historical.

Beyond the political dimension, the movement also supposed a reactivation of the literary apparatus in Catalan. With this, there is a will to synchronize Catalan literature with European aesthetics and values, to make it part of the present again, which involves an acceptance and development of the past. This tension is still present in Catalan literary criticism today in regard to questions of innovation and influence. Perhaps the best example of this and one of the most significant events of this period was the restitution of the abovementioned Jocs Florals in 1859, which awarded poetry in three different categories: homeland, faith and love. These awards reactivated the Catalan literary field and privileged poetry among other forms of writing. In spite of this, a sentiment of melancholy is often associated with Catalan language throughout La Renaixença, especially in its initial stages. Perhaps one of the poems that best represent this is Bonaventura Carles Aribau’s La Pàtria (The Fatherland)—a nostalgic ode to the Catalan language and tradition that was felt to be fading away—which is considered the text that inaugurated the movement. The fourth octave of its 1833 version is as follows:

It still pleases me to speak the language of those wise men,
Who filled the universe with their traditions and laws,
[. . .]
Dead, dead to the ingracious that, when in his lips
For strange reason the native accent sounds, doesn’t cry,
that when he thinks of his home, is not consumed or misses it,
Nor picks from the sacred wall the lyre of his grandparents! [4]

As can be seen in this quote, the essence of a tradition that is perceived as something from the past is identified with both home and the language—or, more concretely, with literary creation (“the lyre of his grandparents”). The sentiment of loss stems from the ingratitude with which the descendants of these “wise men” rejected their traditions and laws to embrace Castilian culture. The poem works as an ode that barely conceals a call to action, imbued by a wish to encourage their contemporaries to also choose to write in Catalan.

Yet poetry is not the only genre that experienced this resurgence. Even though the movement favored poetry as its primary medium, there was also significant dramatic and narrative production.

In regard to drama, the popularization of the entr’acte at the beginning of the nineteenth century gave rise to an emergence of a theatrical apparatus in Catalan. Its main representative was Frederic Soler, who wrote on quotidian situations and sentimental conflicts. Simultaneously, Víctor Balaguer cultivated a Romantic theater, writing tragedies of classical inspiration and romantic dramas. Taste later evolves towards the realist drama, the maximum exponent of which is Àngel Guimerà, often considered one of the greatest playwrights in Catalan, who moved from dramas of romantic influence to pieces based on complex characters of quotidian inspiration that depict the societal tensions at the time in regards to class and origin (rural versus urban).

In terms of narrative, Romantic tendencies evolved towards a genre influenced by European realism and naturalism. Praised by Émile Zola for his novel La Papallona (The Butterfly), Narcís Oller is the maximum exponent of the genre, combining realism and sentimentalism to describe the conflicts stemming from the bourgeoisie, the industrial revolution and the emergence of the city.

All in all, La Renaixença evolves in the reactivation of Catalan culture as a public affair, from the lyre of their grandparents to the printer of their grandchildren. Discourses of nostalgia and abandonment are progressively exchanged for an urgency to create and to situate these creations in line with contemporary European aesthetics while preserving a sense of originality and drawing a clear path from tradition.

The Codification of the Language

In parallel to these literary tendencies, the end of the nineteenth century also saw a process of normalizing the language with a campaign initiated by the newspaper L’Avenç and continued in the twentieth century by Pompeu Fabra. However, even before this period, one can find clear examples in which writers attempt to codify the language, such as in Ballot’s Gramatica y apología de la llengua cathalana (1814). In its introduction, the author expresses regret for the abandonment of the language in the region:

[…] the rejection of our language by some has reached such an extent that they have even desired to confine it to oblivion. And since the effects of such a detestable attitude can already be felt, […] I have considered it appropriate to print this grammar, not only to disprove the murmuring zoilus, but also to prepare a document of authentic writing that ensures the perpetuation of its existence. [5]

These early voices respond to this sense of urgency signaled above by mediating a conflict also marked by tradition and modernity: the tension between a language anchored in the past or a language that accepts its evolution and, in this case, its interference, acquired after centuries of partial literary activity. This tension will be partially resolved during the twentieth century, with the codification of the Catalan language in a standard variation.

The political turn

As we have explored throughout this article, writing in Catalan during the nineteenth century implied a political choice. However, it was not until the second half of the century that La Renaixença took a political turn, coinciding with a divergence of economic interests between the Catalan and Castilian bourgeoisies. One of the most representative texts of the period is the Memorial de greuges (1885), written by Valentí Almirall and later presented to the reigning monarch at the time, Alfonso XII, describing the linguistic conflict and proposing a regionalist strategy to govern the country. A year later, the same author published Lo Catalanisme (Catalanism), in which he describes the linguistic situation in terms of slavery: “The sign of being a slave was to have to speak the language of the master, and we are carrying this stigma upon us.” [6]

This was followed by both the Missatge a la reina regent (1888), composed by Àngel Guimerà and signed by more than two thousand people, and the Bases de Manresa in 1892, presented as a keynote speech from the political party Unió Catalanista, which both demanded that Catalan become the official language of Catalonia: “The Catalan language will be the only one that with official status will be used in Catalonia and in its relations with the central governing power.” [7]

As these texts show, political nationalism is organized around a sense of linguistic pride. The language appears as one of the cohesive factors of an identity that is not legitimized by its political representatives. This linguistic struggle and sense of pride continues into in the twentieth Century, albeit reduced during the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco, which actively persecuted the Catalan language.


Many of La Renaixença’s values still permeate contemporary critical discourses: sentiments of awkwardness and dependence, somewhat akin to shame, along with the political condition of the decision to write in Catalan continue to appear. After centuries of prohibition, Catalan literature has long lived with its eyes down, head averted, but its interruptions have become part of its identity. Perhaps part of the uniqueness of Catalan comes from this awareness of its influence on and disconnection from Castilian and European traditions. The Catalan tradition has often been depicted as partial. However, in my opinion, due to this self-consciousness, it has managed to attain a delicate balance between innovation and tradition which has often been interpreted as a symbol for a broader political will.

[1] “La Gramática y Ortografía de la Academia Española serán texto obligatorio y único [. . .] en la enseñanza pública.”

[2] This literary award inspired by medieval literary production became one of the main institutions around which La Renaixença was organized.

[3] “Catalunya pot aspirar encara á la independencia; no á la política, puix pesa molt poch en comparació de las demes nacions, las quals poden posar en lo plat de la balansa, á mes del volúmen de llur historia, exércits de molts mils homes y esquadras de cents navíos; pero sí á la literaria [. . .] Catalunya fou per espay de dos segles la mestra en lletras dels demes pobles; ¿perqué puix no pot deixar de fer lo humiliant paper de deixeble ó imitadora, creantse una lliteratura própia y á part de la castellana? ¿Perqué no pot restablir sos jochs florals y sa acadèmia del gay saber, y tornar á sorprèndrer al mon ab sas tensons, sos cants de amor, sos sirventesos y sas aubadas?”

[4] “ [. . .] Pláume encara parlar la llengua d’aquells sabis
Que ompliren l’univers de llurs costums é lleys,
[. . .]
Muyra, muyra l’ingrat que al sonar en sos llabis
Per estranya regió l’accent natiu, no plora;
Que al pensar en sos llars no s’consum ni s’anyora,
Ni cull del mur sagrat las liras dels seus avis. [. . .]”

[5] “[. . .] ha arribat á tal grau y exces lo aborriment de alguns á nostra llengua, que fins han desitjat fer perdre lo us y exêrcici de ella. Y com se sentian ja los perniciosos efectes de tan detestable máxima [. . .] me ha peragut del cas imprimir aquesta gramatica, no sols pera desmentir las impugnacions dels zoylos murmuradors, sino pera que sia al mateix temps un document ó escriptura authéntica, que assegure y perpetúe la sua exîstencia.”

[6] “Lo signe de l’esclau era tenir que parlar la llengua de l’amo, i nosaltres portem aquest estigma al damunt.”

[7] “La llengua catalana será la única que ab carácter oficial podrá usarse a Catalunya y en las relacions d’aquesta regió ab lo Poder central.”

Manel Mula Ferrer (Palma, 1992) is our Editor-at-Large for Spain. He has graduated in Catalan Language and Literature at the Universitat de les Illes Balears (2014) and holds a master’s degree in Cultural Studies awarded by Goldsmiths, University of London (2015). He is interested in the intersections between critical theory and literary studies and has researched the concept of the extraordinary and its implications in affect theory and the philosophy of history (“On the Extraordinary: Flatness, Problematisation and Repetition” in Antae, 2:3) and on the different modes of attachment found on the online dating phenomenon. He is currently part of the research group LiCETC, where he researches Catalan cultural studies.


Read More Essays:

  • papablo papapablo

    The Constitution of Cádiz (1812), did not include any mention of the linguistic plurality of the territory, nor do I include any mention of gastronomic, musical or cultural plurality. Neither was different between blond, dark-skinned or red-haired, caucasian, mediterranean, creole o philipine Spaniards, because it speaks of all and for all Spaniards.
    If for some it is important in what language it was written, for others, what was important was what it said.
    The Spanish nation comprised from Cape Horn to Alaska, from Finisterre or Mahon to Philipines. All of them were recognized as Spanish citizens.