BLTC Press Titles

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The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

The Characters of Theophrastus


Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

History of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella

by William Hickling Prescott


The political institutions of Aragon, although bearing a general resemblance to those of -Castile, were sufficiently dissimilar to stamp a peculiar physiognomy on the character of the nation, which still continued after it had been incorporated with the great mass of the Spanish monarchy. It was not until the expiration of nearly five centuries after the Saracen invasion, that the little district of Aragon, growing up under the shelter of the Pyrenees, was expanded into the dimensions of the province which now bears that name. During this period, it was painfully struggling into being, like tie other states of the Peninsula, by dint of fierce, ununintermitted warfare with the infidel.

Even after this period, it would probably have filled but an insignificant space in the map of history, and, instead of assuming an independent station, have been compelled, like Navarre, to accommodate itself to the potent monarchies by which it was surrounded, had it not extended its empire by a fortunate union with Catalonia in the twelth, and the conquest of Valencia in the thirteenth century.1 These new territories were not only far more productive than its own, but by their long line of coast and commodious ports, enabled the Aragonese, hitherto pent up within their barren mountains, to open a communication with distant regions.

The ancient county of Barcelona had reached a higher degree of civilization than Aragon, and was distinguished by institutions quite as liberal. The sea-board would seem to be the natural seat of liberty. There is something in the very presence, in the atmosphere of the ocean, which invigorates not only the physical, but the moral energies of man. The adventurous life of the mariner familiarizes him with dangers, and early accustoms him to independence. Intercourse with various climes opens new and more copious sources of knowledge; an increased wealth brings with it an augmentation of power and consequence. It was in the maritime cities scattered along the Mediterranean, that the seeds of liberty both in ancient and modern times, were implanted and brought to maturity. During the Middle Ages, when the people of Europe generally maintained a toilsome and infrequent intercourse with each other, those situate ! on the margin of this inland ocean found an easy mode of communication across the high road of its waters. They mingled in war too as in peace, and this long period is filled with their international contests, while the other free cities of Christendom were wasting themselves in civil feuds and degrading domestic broils. In this wide and various collision their mor il powers were quickened by constant activity; and more enlarged views were formed, with a deeper consciousness of their own strength, than could be obtained by those inhabitants of the interior, who were conversant only with a limited range of objects, and subjected to the influence of the same dull, monotonous circumstances.

Among these maritime republics, those of Catalonia were eminently conspicuous. By the incorporation of this country with the kingdom of Aragon. therefore, the strength of the latter was greatly augumented. The Aragonese princes, well aware of this, liberally fostered institutions to which the country owed its prosperity, and skilfully availed themselves of its resources for the aggrandizement of their own dominions. They paid particular attention to the navy, for the more perfect discipline of which a body of laws was prepared by Peter the Fourth, in 1354, that was designed to render it invicible. No allusion whatever is made in this stern code to the mode of surrendering to, or retreating from the enemy. The commander, who declined attacking any force not exceeding his own by more than one vessel, was punished with death.' The Catalan navy successfully disputed the empire of the Mediterranean with the fleets of Pisa, and still more of Genoa. With its aid, the Aragonese monarchs achieved the conquest successively of Sicily. Sardinia, and the Balearic Isles, and annexed them to the empire.' It penetrated into the farthest regions of the Levant; and the expedition of the Catalans into Asia, which terminated with the more splendid than useful acquisition of Athens, forms one of the most romantic passages in this stirring and adventurous era.'

But, while the princes of Aragon were thus enlarging the bounds of their dominion abroad, there was probably not a sovereign in Europe possessed of such limited authority at home. The three great states with their dependencies, which constituted the Aragonese monarchy, had been declared by a statute of James the Second, in 1319, inalienable and indivisible.' Each of them, however, maintained a separate constitution of government, and was administered by distinct laws. As it would be fruitless to investigate the peculiarities of their respective institutions, which bear a very close affinity to one another, we may confine ourselves to those of Aragon, which exhibit a more perfect model than those either of Catalonia or Valencia, and have been far more copiously illustrated by her writers.

The national historians refer the origin of their government to a written constitution of about the middle of the ninth century, fragments of which are still preserved in certain ancients documents and chronicles. On occurrence of a vacancy in the throne, at this epoch, a monarch was elected by the twelve principals nobles, who prescribed a code of laws, to the observance of which he was obliged to swear before assuming the sceptre. The import of these laws was to circumscribe within very narrow limits the authority of the sovereign, distributing the principal functions to a Justicia, or Justice, and these same peers, who, in case of a violation of the compact by the monarch, were authorized to withdraw their allegiance, and, in the bold language of the ordinance, "to sbustitute any other ruler in his stead, even a pagan, if they listed."' The whole of this wears much of a fabulous aspect, and may remind the reader of the government which Ulysses met with in Phaeacia; where King Alcinous is surrounded by his "twelve illustrious peers or archons," subordinate to himself, "who," says he, "rule over the people, I myself being the thirteenth."' But whether true or not, this venerable tradition must be admitted to have been well calculated to repress the arrogance of the Aragonese monarchs, and to exalt the minds of their subjects by the image of ancient liberty which it presented.'

The great barons of Aragon were few in number. They affected to derive their decsent from the twelve peers above mentioned, and were styled ricos hombres de ttatura, implying by this epithet, that they were not indebted for their creation to the will of the sovereign. No estate could be legally conferred by the crown, as an honor (the denomination of fiefs in Aragon), on any but one of these high nobles. This, Vol. I.—3.

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