The great Catalan gunpowder swindle

As the evenings draw in, the Arenys de Mar sensimilla syndicate has taken time off from the plantation to post another shambling Gran Armada-wreck of nationalist historical revisionism. (It’s dated 2006, but this is the first time it’s turned up in my reader, so…) As is customary, our scenario is back-to-the-future: a massive 15th century conspiracy anticipates 19th century Catalan nationalism and sets out to forge and burn in order to abort it.

In his latest instalment, Manel Capdevila appears to believe that he has shown that gunpowder came direct from China to Cataloonia (back in the days before Madrid halted the daily martianmobile shuttle), whence it spread throughout Christendom. He starts by missing a formidable trick: Washington Irving’s Chronicle of the conquest of Granada says that the king ordered that powder be brought, not just from Valencia as Manel believes, but also from Barcelona, Sicily and Portugal. But that is all by the bye.

Manel’s big idea is that the Spanish word salitre can’t have come from the Provençal–the DRAE actually hedges its bets and says it comes from Provençal and Catalan–because there is no saltpetre in Provence. And he claims that Dante’s favourite magician, Michael Scot, said (tried to say) that the only supplies of saltpetre in all Christian Europe came from the caves of Collbató below Montserrat.

The linguistic claim is pure nonsense and I believe is based on a simple misunderstanding on Manel’s part. Provenzal is used in Spanish, as in English, to refer to the langue d’oc, the conglomeration of dialects spoken across southern France, and not just in the province of Provence. To claim that something cannot be Provençal because it is not produced in Provence is like saying that “hard disk” can’t be English because at the time of the phrase’s first use England was not selling that kind of technology.

The mineral claim is also nonsense, and here I wonder if Manel isn’t guilty of the falsification about which he claims to be so concerned. I’ve found two references to Michael Scotus and saltpetre production in Western Europe. James Riddick Partington and Bert S Hall’s A history of Greek fire and gunpowder says that Scott says that sal nitrum foliatum is found in Spain around Narbonne. This location of “leaved” nitre by Scot is confirmed in Instruments and experimentation in the history of chemistry by Frederic Lawrence Holmes and Trevor Harvey Levere.

Now, this may seem a fairly flexible definition of Hispania–Narbonne is roughly 30 miles north of northernmost border of the Kingdom of Aragon–but Narbonne was indeed a major source of saltpetre, as well as one of the major cities of the Provençal-speaking world.

Manel says that Scot implies that saltpetre is to be found near Montserrat in the phrase “Et in Hispania invenitur versus Aragoniam [sic] in quodam monte juxta mari [sic].” The context provided by Partington and Hall says not:

Et in Hispania invenitur versus Argoniam in quodam monte iuxta mare, et appellant ipsum hispani alumen acetum activum.

So Scotus isn’t talking here about saltpetre at all, but some kind of alum salt. Writers back then used “alum” even more vaguely than we use “Provençal”, and later alchemists like Ruland use words like alum and lime interchangeably. Which leads me to wonder vaguely whether Scotus isn’t talking here about calcium oxide or similar, of the type used in 1217 to save Kent and England from a French fleet:

In the reign of Henry III the hostilities between England and France occasioned a grand naval engagement, in which British prowess and skill were displayed to great advantage. The fleet, composed of forty ships, was fitted out by the Cinque Ports to protect the kingdom against an invasion threatened by France, and placed under the command of Hubert de Burgh, captain of Dover castle, Philip D’Albany and John Marshall.

They met the enemy’s armament, consisting of eighty large, besides smaller vessels, on the 24th of August 1217, but not daring, with a force so inferior, to assail them in front, tacked about, and getting to windward, bore down upon them, and sunk several of their ships, by running forcibly against them with the iron bows or beaks of their vessels.

The archers likewise made great slaughter; but the victory was completed by means of a great quantity of quicklime in powder, they had on board, which being cast into the air, and blown by the wind into the eyes of the enemy, blinded them.

The English either took or sunk a great part of the fleet, and the event terminated the hope of invading England.

This action is only mentioned to shew the manner of fighting at sea in those rude times; and until the use of powder became thoroughly established, little further improvement was made, the shock of ships, the throwing of darts, the exertion of personal strength, and particularly in boarding, were the chief ordinary means; auxiliary to these were the use of dangerous and offensive missiles, the dispersion of quick lime, and the employment of burning arrows and combustibles for the purpose of setting ships on fire.

“In sea engagements,” says an author describing those in the days of Richard I,

they still preferred the ancient semicircular line of battle, stationing the strongest vessels in the wings or points with a view to inclose the enemy as in a net. The soldiers, stationed on the upper deck, (or on the raised platform or forecastle,) made a close bulwark of their shields; and, to give them free room to fight, the rowers sat together below.

When the hostile fleets approached, the found of the trumpets and the shouts of the men gave the signal for the engagement, which commenced by a discharge of missile weapons on both sides: the sharp beaks, or spurs, were forcibly dashed against the enemies sides: the oars were entangled: and the hostile vessels being grappled together, a close fight insued, while the engineers endeavoured to burn their enemy’s ships with the Greek fire which was now in common use with the Turks and Saracens, as well as the Christians.

Whole lot of limestone in the Garraf massif, which looms directly over the sea just south of Barcelona, and which had far better communications with major ports like Barcelona and Tarragona, as well as a host of smaller ones, than did Montserrat.

Saltpetre actually occurs naturally in many parts of Spain, which thus did not have to resort to manure-driven extraction as was the case in Germany. I’m not clear when and where Spanish production started and would be interested in any references you’ve got.

There exists, of course, a theory that Cervantes would have never written Quijote had it not been for a certain gunpowder factory:

Unos aseguran que comisionado para ejecutar á los vecinos morosos de Argamasilla á que pagasen los diezmos que debian á la dignidad del gran priorato de San Juan, lo atrepellaron y pusieron en la cárcel. Otros suponen que esta prisión dimanó del encargo que se le habia confiado relativo á la fábrica de salitres y pólvora en la misma villa, para cuyas elaboraciones empleó las aguas del Guadiana en perjuicio de los vecinos que las aprovechaban para beneficiar sus campos con el riego.

Argamasilla is thus supposed to be the place in La Mancha where Cervantes was imprisoned in a cave, where he started writing, and whose name he does not wish to remember.

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  1. Trevor you are wrong. No quantity of “references” and “historical” texts can prove anything.

    All true history books were destroyed by the crown of Castille in a preemptive attack on the Great Library of Cataloonia which occured in 1717, 1603 or 1545, (depending on which historical text Capdevilla, Bilbeny or TV3 want to throw doubt on). The Great Library was situated to the North West of Barcelona’s city walls, roughly on the site of today’s FNAC.

    The only way we can uncover the truth is by looking for slight inconsitencies between written sources and using them to support an improbable theory we have recently made up.

    And what is this Occitan/Catalan confusion you seem to be suffering from?

    Those two great nations have been separately struggling for independence for 3000 years. The fact they are, scientifically speaking, the same fucking language is irrelevant.

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