Catalan Historical Review, No 1 (2008)

James I and his Era : Brief Analysis of a Major Political and Cultural Inheritance

Antoni Riera i Melis


James I, like his contemporaries Emperor Frederick II and Fernando III of Castile, was a major figure of the Mediterranean and Iberian Middle Ages. The scope of his achievements fully justifies the scientifically rigorous and forward-looking analysis of his work and inheritance being undertaken in 2008 by the peoples who were once part of the Catalan-Aragonese crown. For indeed, though some of his enterprises reveal insufficient foresight, a lack of vision of the future, much of what we are today in the demographic, economic, social, political and cultural spheres — and much of what we are not — was initially forged during his reign.

Great personages, however, do not arise from nowhere or operate in a void: they are always the fruit of earlier ages and act within a particular context. Their powerful actions, moreover, produce an impact on their own era, causing it to evolve in accordance with their projects and building up a legacy. So what were the essential traits of the historical context of James I? When he occupied the throne, the final phase in the long period of demographic and economic growth fuelled by the feudal system all over the Western World was drawing to a close; a strong upsurge in trade was getting underway, closely associated with structural surpluses of farm produce caused by the reclaiming of barren land for two hundred years, increases in the amount of money in circulation and the availability of credit, and advances in technology and thought. During the first two-thirds of the 13th century, the development of long-distance trading gave shape to western Europe along the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboards and boosted the role of the bourgeoisie in economic, political and cultural life. It was a period of transition, during which the new Roman law vied with ancient feudal norms and the concentration of power in the hands of monarchs who no longer considered themselves merely the leading members of the nobility laid the foundations of the new territorial states. It was an age when sovereigns strove to make inroads into seigneuries that enjoyed immunity so as to recover jurisdictional and fiscal control over all the lands in their respective kingdoms; an age of rebellious nobles and administrative and tax reform, of the advance of ius commune over consuetudinary law. And it was then that curricula were renewed in the nascent universities, starting with law and medicine. While all these changes were taking place, the crusaders' last enclaves in Holy Land were slowly waning under pressure from the Mamluks, the Mongols were advancing on eastern Europe, and Christianity was fast gaining ground at the expense of Islam in the western Mediterranean.

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