Hegemons as Outlaws: Government Involvement in Piracy in Later Medieval Catalonia

Friday, January 6, 2012: 10:10 AM
Michigan Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Marie A. Kelleher, California State University, Long Beach
Involvement of government entities in piracy is not a new phenomenon, historiographically speaking.  But the bulk of the current literature on this subject as it played out in the Mediterranean is focused on the “golden age of piracy” of the seventeenth century, and centers around the corsairs and privateers, both of whom based claims of legitimacy for their actions on the existence of a state of war – either the official wars between states that the privateers were involved in, or the ongoing and undeclared “war” between Christianity and Islam that was the province of the corsairs.  But how do we explain royal and municipal government involvement in piratical activity when no state of war existed?
This paper will focus on the question of the piratical activities sponsored by the city of Barcelona during the Catalan famine of 1333/34.  In this period of crisis, municipal and royal authorities took numerous measures to secure a steady grain supply for their territories, an effort that exposed those shipments to the hazards of sea travel, including the dangers posed by pirates.  But at the same time that officially constituted authorities worked to prevent theft of their own grain shipments, those same authorities used the famine as justification for what might euphemistically be termed “confiscations” of grain shipments on the high seas.  An examination of the operations of these twin phenomena in the context of Mediterranean geographies of food (as opposed to the more usual context of geographies of violent conflict) will open up a new line of inquiry in the historiographic problem of piracy in the medieval Mediterranean.  It will also illuminate how moments of crisis in the established geographies of food could alter political arrangements on both the regional level and the level of the western Mediterranean as a whole.
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