History of Girona: from ancient times to modern era

History of Girona: from ancient times

Foundation of Gerunda

The first settlers were the Iberians of the Indigees tribe, located in the higher settlements that surround and enclose the Girona plain, such as the gorge of the current Sant Julià de Ramis, which was the most important. In the wake of the Sertori wars (82-72 BC), towards 77 BC, Pompey built an oppidum (fortified walled square) on Via Heraclea (future Via Augusta) to defend it and fight against the sedentary Sertori, the faction of the Populares, who had risen armed with the Roman Hispania against Sulalla of the faction of the Optimates who controlled the power in Rome. It is then, for these military needs, that the Roman occupants founded the original Girona, which was called at that time Gerunda, whose etymology has not yet been clarified, although it could mean “between the Undarius”, name of the current river Onyar in the Iberian language.

The new city of Gerunda was settled by the previous inhabitants of the town of Sant Julià de Ramis, who, apparently, were forced to move to the Girona oppidum. Thus, the Roman Girona was considered a defensive stronghold on the entrance of the Via Augusta to Hispania and became an important center of the region, with defined rural territory around the city of Girona. In short, both parts formed the city of Girona, the essential and basic piece of Roman territorial organization. Although Gerunda was inland and far from the coast, it had a good connection with the Roman port of Empúries, the first Roman stronghold in the peninsular northeast, colonized in the Second Punic War by the Greek settlement that already existed there.

Gerunda urban, economic and political structure

The structure of the city of Gerunda was unusual. It did not follow the standard grid plan, nor the habitual centurations of the Roman cities. As it was raised on the Via Augusta for strictly military reasons, its plan is totally irregular. Nevertheless, the basic parts of a Roman city can be distinguished: the cardo maximus, the forum. The existence of any decumanus maximus could not be documented. The cardo maximus was located on the Via Augusta on its section in the interior of the city, which is currently Carrer de la Força. The forum was located in the current square of the Cathedral. The temple of the city was probably where the cathedral church of Santa Maria de Girona is today.

The distribution of the city on river terraces made mobility difficult in the center and all the decumanus maximus (streets lined east to west) had to be transformed into stairs. Most are still preserved today, reformed and modified over the years. The other great element of the city was the wall. It was built in two phases: one was executed upon founding of the city and the other towards the end of the third century AD. Visible differences allow them to be easily identified, since they use stones of different compositions and forms. The second phase was executed in response to the defensive needs that the German incursions in Hispania caused. The walls were not only used for military purposes, but served to define the boundaries of the city (called pomerium) and separate it from the rest of the territory.

The city’s political structure followed the standard requirements of any Roman city. We must not forget that Gerunda was a city in a distant and small province, insignificant in the eyes of Rome. The city was probably governed by the Latin law, which was not exactly the same as Roman law. In practice, the free inhabitants of the cities of Latin law had a more restricted citizenship than the inhabitants of cities with Roman law. The mechanism to obtain a full citizenship was the cursus honorum, the political or public career.

It was for this reason that the Roman magistratures were coveted by the ambitious citizens, although they were very expensive, since all the public expenses were responsibilities of a magistrature and were assumed to be funded by the magistrate himself. Gerunda, as a Roman city, had the usual institutions, such as ordo decurionum (the municipal Senate, with legislative power), the duumvirate (two magistrates associated with the executive branch, elected annually) and edilat (two subordinate magistrates in charge of the public services of the city). We should not forget to mention the religious positions, that, deep down, were also political positions. The center of municipal politics was ordo decurionum.

Finally, to close this section, one can not fail to mention the other part of Gerunda: the outer, rural territory. It was the area of agricultural and manufacturing production where the uilae was concentrated. That is to say, the agriculture-supply centers of the city, most of the time, owned by landlords who lived in the city and delegated the administration to their subordinates (uillicus). Gerunda’s economy activity was concentrated on cereal, olive, vineyards, sheep, beef and goats, and a moderate amount of ceramics.

The arrival of Christianity and the end of the Roman Girona

The first Christian community of Gerunda appears documented around 304-305 AD, in the middle of Diocletianic persecution. It is believed that one of the religious diffusionists, in the area, Sant Feliu de Scilla (Mauritania) died in martyrdom, he arrived to the city by means of the maritime trade routes. Therefore, Sant Feliu became the first and only martyrdom of the city and its original saint, until he was displaced by the apocryphal Saint Narcís, a tradition imported during the high medieval era. The erection of a martyrium (tomb of a holy martyr) in the current burg of Sant Feliu, and the remains found such as those of the possible sarcophagus of the saint (4th century AD), show the existence of a primordial Christian community, that must have been strong and powerful (the sarcophagus marbles are of great quality and made in Rome by the best relief schools). A 404 AD document speaks of a bishop of Gerunda, strongly reproved by the Council of Toledo. Likewise, the existence of an episcopal palace and a basilica has been documented, although its site could not be identified.

Girona did not escape changes: it embarked on the reforms of Diocletian (284 – 305 AD), suffered from the Germanic incursions (IV-V centuries AD), and at last saw the Roman Power undone over the territory as a new Power was installed, which, in some cases, followed previous policies. The only Power that was not undone and that adapted to change was the Church, which survived and expanded through those years (IV-VI centuries AD). Girona continued to exist and kept the bishop tied to the metropolitan headquarters in Tarragona. Some abrupt changes of population have been observed in the area, which in some cases may be considered real regressions in relation to the Roman period. The most notable change was the erection of a castellum, in the 3rd century, on the ancient ruins of the Iberian settlement of Sant Julià de Ramis, to protect the plain and the city of Girona from the numerous attacks that the territory was exposed to with the political and military decomposition of the empire.

Middle Ages

Early Middle Ages

Visigothic and Muslim domination

At the beginning of the 5th century, the fragmentation of the West Roman Empire was taking place. The Tarraconense province passed to the domain of the Visigothic military oligarchy established in Gaul during the last third of the century. This oligarchy was strongly Romanized and it exercised the new power that they represented with the pre-existing power of the native nobility. Consequently, the city of Girona entered the Visigothic ruling. However, this substitution of political and military power did not negatively affect the existence of the city, as was the case with other ancient Roman cities that were abandoned or in considerable decline.

Despite the plagues and calamities that struck Girona during the 6th and 7th centuries, the city became an important place in the peninsular northeast. It seems that Girona had to undergo the ruralisation process that was triggered throughout the old empire due to the general ruin and loss of strength of the cities. However, Girona became an important mint facility of the Visigoth kings in the old Tarraconense province, now framed within the Kingdom of Toledo. The dissemination of the Girona currency was great and samples were found all over the peninsula. Regarding the political affairs of the new kingdom, Girona participated in the revolt of Pau (673), the struggle for power between visigoth oligarchic factions, the beginning of the decay of the Visigoth Power. King Vamba besieged the city before moving to the center of Pau in Narbonne, which shows that Girona, even after the West Roman Empire and the safety of its borders gone, had once again the defensive and strategic character that it had upon its foundation.

Another area in which Girona was seen to be strongly strengthened was that of ecclesiastical organization. In 517 the city was the seat of the provincial council, chaired by the metropolitan bishop of Tarragona and with the assistance of the bishops of Girona, Empúries, Barcelona, Egara, Lleida and Huesca. In this period of splendor of Girona, the cult of the city martyrdom, Sant Feliu, expanded considerably in the territory, to the point of being established as far as Bierzo (Diocese of Zaragoza).

In 711 the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula began. Before the absolute decomposition of the Visigoth Power, the Muslim expansion was very fast and soon it reached Girona, possibly around 715. It seems that the city was occupied without any resistance and did not suffer any destruction. The local elites capitulated and the new Muslim Power imposed a personal and territorial tribute. Muslims began the construction of a mosque very soon and expropriated all the goods of the Church and the Visigothic nobility. However, the Muslim footprint in the city was very slight, almost non-existent, until in 785, the same local elites that had capitulated in 715 to Muslims handed over the city to Charlemagne. The Muslim weakness in the region, the proximity of the Carolingian, and the defection of the cities of the Septimania to the Franks, precipitated the change of side of Girona. The Catalan historian Ramon d’Abadal has seen it as the beginning of the process that lead to the birth of later Catalonia, which shows even more the importance that Girona had obtained over time.

The Carolingian Girona

For a long time it was thought that the frank conquest was personal work of Emperor Charlemagne. The popular legend has recalled this imaginary deed with a whole range of stories related to the visit of Charlemagne to Girona. Although the frank emperor never visited Girona, his administration with the Carolingian renovation greatly affected the city. The whole territory to the south of the Pyrenees and to the peninsular north-east was reorganized as a border land, which later led to the creation of the Marca Hispanica. Over 16 years, Girona became the stronghold of the Carolingian fight against Islam, until the conquest of Barcelona made it lose this status. Before, however, Girona suffered sieges from the hands of the Muslims who wanted to recover the city, one of the most famous was the one of Abd-al-Malik of 793.

The Carolingian organization of the territory made the city the headquarters of the County of Girona. The county was the model chosen by the administration of Charlemagne to organize the new border territories. The count was the person who was at the head of this entity. It was a position nominated by the monarch, non independent and not hereditary. However, over time, the Catalan counts acquired more independence; a count became a hereditary position and even detached from the monarchs. Girona, as a county center, fulfilled its role and passed the most difficult stages of the Muslim danger. The old Roman enclosure was restructured and expanded and managed to resist the successive sieges. The new walls of the Carolingian style reinforced the fortress and expanded the space of the city.

High Middle Ages

Medieval gothic capital, in stone with nummulite fossils

Considered the stage of splendor of the city, it coincided with the royal privilege of 1284 that allowed the organization of a local government, the Jurats of Girona, although the bishop Ramon d’Usall had already granted it rights in the days of King Alfons el Cast. It was the greatest expression of urban power for a long time.
At the end of the 13th century, Philip III of France besieged the city.

The 13th century is also the time of maximum splendor of the Jewish community of Girona. The importance of the Kabbalah school of Girona is worth noting, especially its Rabbi Nahmanides or Bonastruc ça Porta, (RaMBaN), who became the Great Rabbi of Catalonia. The Jewish community went into decline in the 14th century, especially after the pogrom of 1391, until the Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs. Nowadays, Call de Girona is one of the best preserved in Europe and one of main tourist attractions of the city.

In 1385 the foundation of the Consulate of the Sea was authorized in Girona. On August 10, 1391, the Jews of the city were closed at the Torre Gironella in an order to force them to convert to Christianity. On February 19, 1416 Ferdinand I of Aragon converted the title of Duke of Girona to the prince of Girona while granting him the heir of the Aragonese throne, the future Alfonso IV the Magnanimous. In 1417 the cathedral chapter of Girona decided to build the cathedral with only one nave.

Modern era

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the city was continually growing, its walls were improved and expanded substantially. At the end of the 14th century, King Pere the Ceremonious built a large enclosure around the Roman city and in the 16th century a wide range of walls was built on the other side of the Onyar river which meant the birth of the Mercadal neighborhood. These new defensive constructions helped the city resist the French troops sieges of 1653, 1684, 1694 and 1711, in the context of the numerous European wars. On October 18, 1705, Girona gave promise of obedience to Charles III, the archduke. During the years of the Spanish Succession war, the city was the most important place to carry out the French invasions that devastated the northern front of Catalonia, which is why Girona always had a military garrison rather than the coronela (catalan city militia).

The Bourbon general Adrien Maurice de Noailles, Duke of Noailles, made several attempts to besiege Girona, without success until the final one in 1710. In the middle of December he appeared in front of the city with twenty five thousand soldiers, apart from a numerous artillery that he set up in Roses. In the interior of the city, the count of Tattenbach organized the defense of about five thousand combatants, among which half a thousand were part of the coronela. After six weeks of incessant attacks, and in between heavy rainfalls that caused the rise of the waters in the Onyar river, the bourbonic troops opened the defense barrier in the Santa Llúcia sector, in the northeast part of the city. On January 24, 1711 Girona capitulated.

As of May 1712, the allied forces tried to recover the city, but its military weakness began to be evident as the British and Portuguese troops abandoned the Catalan front. The Austrian blockade of Girona was not able to form a formal siege, and on January 3, 1713 the Duke of Berwick entered the city with a support army and numerous food provisions. Beyond the end of the dynastic dispute, Girona remained under French control.

Contemporary era

The most famous sieges of Girona are those that the Napoleonic army held between 1808 and 1809 during the Peninsular War. They were the last sieges that the city has suffered, but they were also the deadliest and most vicious in its history. Although the Napoleonic armies had besieged and bombed the city twice, the longest, most virulent and important was the siege of May-December 1809, commanded by marshals Saint-Cyr, Suchet and Augereau. General Álvarez de Castro was the defender of the stronghold of Girona and prohibited any capitulation or weakness, under threat of summary execution. With the incapacity of Álvarez to continue leading the defense, due to illness, after seven months of siege, an exhausted and devastated population and garrison commanded by the military junta of Julián de Bolívar capitulated to the besieging army.

In 1886, it became the first Catalan city to have electric light system.

Towards 1898, the General of the Spanish army withdrew the category of fortress from Girona and allowed the partial demolition of the southern walls of the city. Girona began to take its current form. On February 4, 1939 Franco’s troops occupied the city.

In 1960, Girona (or Gerona, as it was known during the Franco’s regime) became the first Ciutat pubilla de la sardana with the message of Josep Mainar i Pons. In 1980 the name of the municipality of Gerona was changed to Girona (see the decree published in the DOGC of June 27, 1980).

On April 21, 1990, Felipe de Borbón took possession of the title of Prince of Girona, as the heir of the Crown of Aragon, without any official ceremony of investiture. In the streets, some citizens received him with esteladas, which led to police intervention with arrests.

Carles Puigdemont and Casamajó (CiU) replaced the Socialist Anna Pagans as the third mayor of the democratic period of Girona, of which the first was Joaquim Nadal (PSC-PSOE). In January of 2016 Carles Puigdemont became president of the Generalitat, and was replaced first by Albert Ballesta and later by Marta Madrenas. See the list of mayors of Girona.

On January 25, 1992 the construction of the telecommunications tower was completed. The construction lasted a total of a year and a half. The cost in pesetas was 700 million.

On November 10, 2009, the Municipal Assembly approved a motion of the platform of Girona decideix (cat. Girona decides) for a consultation on the independence of Catalonia, being the first demarcation capital to do so. The results of the consultation, held on April 25, 2010, were 95.56% in favor, 3.35% against, 0.83% in blank votes and 0.26% invalid votes, with a participation of 26.97%

Read more: History of Europe with Alex Mostaslavski: Spain, France, Pyrenees ...