Cristian Segura – FEB 21 2020 – 16:53 CET
Image: Jordi Bilbeny is one of the driving forces of pseudohistory. MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI
Historical plot against Catalonia. This was the title with which the newspaper EL PAÍS published in 2014 a report on the 14th Symposium on the Discovery of America of the New History Institute (INH). The speakers of those days claimed to have shown that Christopher Columbus, Miguel de Cervantes, Leonardo da Vinci, Hernán Cortés, Bartolomé de las Casas were Catalan, an identity erased by a repeated manipulation of documents for centuries by the centralist Spanish. A number of readers sent the author of that report – who writes these lines – their skepticism about the convenience of dedicating an article to what was considered the delusions of nationalists who crossed the lines. The same dilemma has been faced by historians who authored the book Pseudohistòria contra Catalunya. From Spanishism to the New History (Eumo Editorial).
The eight scholars who sign the book, which is presented today in Barcelona, conclude that the effort is needed because the INH’s nonsense has been validated by institutions and by persons of reference in Catalan society.
The aim of Pseudohistory Against Catalonia is to refute some of the most prominent contemporary manipulations on Catalan history. A third of the book is dedicated to cases of misrepresentation by characters of Spanish nationalism, but the bulk of the work is destined to carry out an exercise in unusual academic patience. They go down into the mud to confront what Jaume I University Professor Vicent Baydal does not hesitate to compare with those who argue that the Earth is flat: “This is also what INH members do, well… and following the most absolutely unscientific trends”. The Institut Nova Història Foundation was registered in 2009 by a group of Catalan nationalists who are history buffs, led by their “head of research”, the philologist Jordi Bilbeny. “The true social drama of the case – and this is why we make this book -“, explains Baydal, “is that a very large part of the media and political entities with Catalan or Catalanist sensitivity echo the approaches of members of the ‘INH, they legitimize and treat them normally, as if they were serious researchers worth listening to and seconding.’
Although Bilbeny’s career dates back to the 1990’s, Pseudohistòria contra Catalunya is the first book to try to drop him from the pedestal where he has been placed by part of Catalan nationalism. The introduction written by the authors highlights that only Xavier Deulonder has dedicated a few pages to his book Is it true that Columbus was Catalan? The reasons to doubt it. A 2019 report in Sàpiens Magazine also brought together historians Baydal, Agustí Alcoberro, Àngel Casals, and José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec to warn that INH is “a threat to the international prestige of Catalan historiography”. “Although many Spanish-style myths about Catalonia and the Crown of Aragon are occasionally refuted by historiographical work, until recently the works carried out by professional historians have been null and void with the overriding goal of refuting with facts the pseudohistorical formulations of the INH”, states the introduction of Pseudohistory against Catalonia. Baydal describes Bilbeny’s behavior as follows: “He engages in systematic deception, first by manipulating claims made in a completely opposite sense – in the hope that no one will consult the original explanation – and then bypassing and hiding studies that are part of the scientific consensus and contradict his propositions”.
“I’m not saying everything I know so they don’t think I’m obsessed”. Bilbeny left that phrase for posterity in a 2003 interview with Avui. The interview was about the first TV3 documentary to cover Bilbeny’s theories, The Appropriation of America’s Discovery: A State Conspiracy? Public television has issued three documentaries linked to the INH: The Enigma Cervantes, Columbus and the Catalan Royal House and Disassembling Leonardo. In addition, Bilbeny has been a regular speaker on Catalunya Ràdio’s programming: in 2019 he was invited to detail that Da Vinci was Catalan – in La Gioconda appears the mountain of Montserrat, he says. In 2015, the news outlet interviewed Bilbeny and another prominent member of the INH, Pep Mayolas, to announce that Santa Teresa de Jesus is indeed Catalan and that she had been Abbess of Pedralbes.
Pseudohistory against Catalonia includes a list of personalities and institutions that have supported the INH: Esquerra Republicana – which in 2013 awarded it the Lluís Companys prize – and the Diputació de Girona; the ex-vice-president of the Generalitat Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, the ex-councilor Josep Rull, the sociologist Salvador Cardús, the activist Antonio Baños and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Joan Canadell; the late writer Patricia Gabancho, the journalist Enric Vila and the professor of Constitutional Law Héctor López Bofill.
The book does not cover other prominent supports: the Minister of Digital Policies, Jordi Puigneró, has claimed repeatedly his public support for the INH. Puigneró published in 1999 a study, based on Bilbeny’s theses, which announced that the real identity of Juan Sebastián Elcano was that of the Catalan Joan Cacirea del Canós, that Bartholomee de las Casas was a Catalan friar named Bartomeu Casaus and that the Pinzón brothers were the Catalan Pincó. Journalists Pilar Rahola and Eugeni Casanova and writer Manuel Cuyàs have also been in favor of Bilbeny, who has been invited several times to the Catalan Summer University to prove, among other feats, that La Celestina was written in Catalan by a Valencian author. The current head of TV3’s News, David Bassa, published a book in 2003 with Bilbeny in which, according to Cuyàs in l’Avui, he sought to “unmask the lies of official historians”.
More and more scholars are standing up against the legitimization of the INH. Government Communication Director Jaume Clotet last year shared on Twitter a 2009 article from the Jerusalem Post about a study by a researcher at Georgetown University in which Columbus was Catalan and Jewish. “Dedicated to those who made fun of Jordi Bilbeny’s theories. And you know I’m skeptical”, said Clotet. Albert Velasco, one of the co-authors of Pseudohistory Against Catalonia, replied: “We cannot give oxygen to Bilbeny and the INH enlightened. It seems to me that with this we do a disservice to history and to those who try to work with rigor”.
Lies about Columbus
The possible catalanness of Columbus is a hypothesis that has been swirling its tail for more than a century. The INH draws from every possible scientific source to draw a world-wide conspiracy that would have hid to this day that it was Catalans who discovered and conquered America. Pseudohistory against Catalonia focuses on the fiction that members of the INH build around a Barcelona gentleman, Joan Colom i Bertran, who would be the true discoverer of America. The INH claims that Colom i Bertran was banished to Portugal because he took sides with Renat of Anjou in the civil war for the throne against King John II of Aragon, and had to change his identity. The book shows that Colom i Bertran was not an admiral, as the INH claims, neither was banished, and most importantly, there are three written evidences that conclude that the character died before the discovery of America, between 1477 and 1487.
The INH replies that these documents mean that Columbus was a “civilian death”, not a deceased, by re-interpreting Latin texts of the time. Pseudohistory against Catalonia does also ask for two papers written by Bilbeny that would show that Joan Colom was alive in the sixteenth century but have never been published.
The truth seems to matter little to the members of the INH. Bilbeny, for example, claims that a letter from Columbus stating that he is in Tunisia – a location that is not good for Bilbeny’s postulates – was manipulated by a censor, whom he does not identify, to hide that in truth the Admiral was in Barcelona. The pseudohistory written in the 20th century by the bookseller Josep Porter is one of the INH’s argumentative columns. Porter wrote in 1997 what his research method was: “Everything I say, or almost everything, can be proven with documents. Maybe at some point I worked with my imagination, but I didn’t do it for free”.
Don Quixote and other delusions
The alleged Catalan nature of Cervantes is one of the pillars of the INH’s action. According to this foundation, the author of Don Quixote was from Alicante and his name was Joan Miquel Sirvent. Not only that: Sirvent is also the author behind William Shakespeare, according to INH contributor Miquel Izquierdo. Guillem Fornés deals in Pseudohistory against Catalonia, what he describes as “a daunting and exasperating task that we have had to endure for some months”. In particular, Fornés refutes much of the five hundred Catalan expressions that, according to Bilbeny, are in Don Quixote and would show that the original was written in Catalan. Fornés looks in other books of the time to illustrate to the reader how Bilbeny does fiction or misrepresentation. These are words like vegada, that as a rule were recurrent in the non-standardized 17th-century Spanish literature, instead of vez, and that Bilbeny assumes are definitive clues.
Don Quixote is the motive for other delusional theories, such as those posed by one of the INH stars, Josep Maria Mandado, who claims to have discovered a message from Sirvent hidden in the name of one of the characters in the great novel of Spanish literature, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Mandado modifies the name in Cid Hamet Benenqueli, in which he claims to discover an anagram of “Miguel de Cibent”, that is, Miguel Sirvent. Mandado also claims that Sancho Panza’s real name was Panxo Panxa.
Pseudohistory against Catalonia also makes an effort to confront the supposed catalanness of Marco Polo and Cid Campeador. Bilbeny claims that the Italian explorer was really the merchant Jaume Alaric. To illustrate this, the INH chief researcher concludes with the “huge number of catalan expressions” used by Marco Polo, when in fact they were Italianisms in manuscripts written in French. Bilbeny also claims that Alaric was Marco Polo because he was the only western ambassador to the Grand Khan’s court; according to Baydal, it is loosely documented that there were more.
Baydal dismantles the “low kind reasoning” used by INH musician Juanjo Albinyana, to hypothesize that Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar was not from Burgos, but from the Valencian municipality of Biar, and that he had a heraldic shield from the taifa of Dénia. Baydal replies that no Cid shield is known, among other reasons because at the time of the eleventh century these chivalric badges were not yet used.
Another delusional contribution of Bilbeny trying to refute the book is that Catalan is derived largely from the Iberian language, and that this would be the same language as Basque. Thus, Bilbeny says that the word ‘ear’ does not come from the Latin ‘auricula’ but from the Basque ‘belarri’. The verb ‘drowning’ would not come from the Latin ‘offocare’ but from a compound word of the “protobasc” which is ‘afo-gar’, and that translated is “mouth without”. The logic for Bilbeny is devastating: “When you drown you run out of mouth”.
Falsehoods of Spanishism
Pseudohistory against Catalonia also strives to dismantle some manipulations by Spanish nationalism. The most prominent is the thesis Palomo rejected by the historian Antonio Ubieto, who rejects that the counts of Barcelona had become kings of the Crown of Aragon. Ubieto reinterprets the writings of Ramir II in which he gives his power over the Crown of Aragon to Ramon Berenguer IV from a matrimonial tradition in the north of Aragon that during the time of the dynastic relief (12th century) proves that it existed.
Palomo mentions historical distortions that have plagued the present, what he calls a “Spanishist canon”, such as that the Spanish nation is rooted in Gothic kings, or that the unity of the country was already a fact from the Catholic kings. Palomo, a researcher at Jaume I University in Castellón, also argues that the influence of the Hispanic Mark and the French dominance of Catalan counties during the thirteenth century have been manipulated to deny the existence of Catalonia. Palomo reasons why there was no kingdom of Catalonia and there was a Principality, a difference that the pseudohistorical propaganda of Spanish nationalism has used to claim that Catalonia did not exist in the Middle Ages.
Palomo emphasizes that Catalonia is not a thousand years old – an idea that took root thanks to Pujolism – but eight centuries. He also confirms that the War of Succession was not a fight for independence, but emphasizes the bad intentions of political discourses – from the beginning of the Bourbon dynasty – that would have denied the fact that the Principality was until defeat of 1714 a sovereign principality struggling to maintain its status of what is now understood as the state.
The historian Cesar Sánchez cites, without going into depth, the names of writers and journalists whom he denounces as paradigms of a standardized pseudohistory in Spain, such as Federico Jiménez Losantos, César Vidal or Pío Moa. Sanchez claims that pseudohistory of a Spanish-style nature is so widely accepted that it allows television series like Cuéntame or Isabel to succeed.
Sánchez cites the bestseller Elvira Roca Barea, praised even by the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell. Roca Barea has triumphed, presumably, to show that the black legend of Spain in America was a conspiracy of its international rivals. In a section of her book Fracasología, the essayist invents an alleged cartoon series titled Conquista-Dora (in fact, this is a parody of Dora the Explorer on YouTube) which she claims is screened in the schools of the United States to despise Spanish legacy in America. History fiction has no boundaries.
The wrong address of the ‘Don Quixote’ printing press
Plenty of history books, press articles and tourist guides about Barcelona have reported for decades that the printing house of Sebastià de Cormellas was on Calle Call 14. The importance of this establishment lies in the widespread belief that it is the printing company that Don Quixote visits during his stay in Barcelona. The Cormellas printing company, explains Xevi Camprubí in Pseudohistory against Catalonia, ran from 1590 to 1700, but not in that address. The source of the error, according to this Catalan printing expert, is an article published in 1902 by the journalist Lluís Carles Viada stating that this was Cormellas’s address. “Since then, all the books, articles, exhibitions, catalogs, leaflets, web pages, photographs, captions or any other document, whether research or outreach, where the Cormellas have been talked about, have placed the printing press on that house”,says Camprubí. Camprubí reveals that a recent study of the Barcelona Protocol Archive and the City Historical Archive has established the true location of the Cormellas family’s business at number 11 on Call Street. It is a coincidence that I this building had its first studio, in 1878, the architect Antoni Gaudí.
On the facade of the number 14 of the street of the Call there is a commemorative plaque from 1966 that reads: “This building housed the Cormellas typographic office from 1591 to 1670”. The ground floor, where it is still believed today that the printing house where Don Quixote learned how to make books, is housed in a grocery store called Dulcinea. The actual location of the Cormellas ‘business, at number 11, is occupied by several establishments without a name that evokes Cervantes’ masterpiece.
Sixena, “paradigm of biased use of history”
The patrimonial conflict between Catalonia and Aragon over the assets of the monastery of Sixena (Huesca), deposited in the Museum of Lleida and the MNAC, is one of the chapters of the book, this confrontation being “a paradigmatic example of the biased use of History to defend certain stories or arguments”. This is what Alberto Velasco, a professor at the University of Lleida and curator of the museum where there were 44 of the 97 pieces that the judge ordered to return to Sixena in 2015 describes in is chapter; he has been one of the most visible faces reporting on the matter on social media and at conferences and publications.
Velasco reviews the literature, old and current, and the myriad of press articles generated to show “how a heritage theme can be manipulated by one of the parties with spurious interests for its own benefit”. According to him, Aragonese authors such as blogger Marisancho Menjón (named director-general of Aragonese Heritage) and historian Guillermo Fatás “have analyzed facts that have happened in the past in Sixena, to try to help the Aragonese population understand things that are happening in the heat of the 21st century”. For Velasco, the book must “put in front of the mirror the bully manipulations that they have carried out in talking about subjects such as the Civil War, bypassing sources that go against them”. Fatás even stated that Lluís Companys and the Generalitat were responsible for the fire of the monastery in 1936, in a plan to seize the paintings in litigation. “It is one of the things that all who do pseudohistory have in common, do it from Andorra, Seville or Sixena. When you have some data that is not of interest to you, it is discarded. This brings Sixena’s protagonists together with Bilbeny’s historiographic technique to articulate his crazy theories”.