When a Catalan TV reporter interviewed history professor Dave Stewart in front of the Fossar de les Moreres memorial in Barcelona, she didn’t expect the American to give a full account of the events leading up to the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 — in Catalan.
The first time was an accident, Stewart said, but the reporter included Stewart’s dive into historical context in her story on memorials. The second time, she came back to him to be a neutral, and English-speaking, voice in a series of interviews with Catalan nationalists.
When he’s not in Barcelona (and he’s been there more than 40 times), Stewart keeps pieces of Catalonia in his office — like the flag, vertical red stripes on a yellow drapery, hanging on the back wall.
Stewart and Professor of Spanish Todd Mack both have connections to the region that extend back to their graduate studies. These connections became relevant this month, when the autonomous region of Spain made American headlines for its decision to hold an official vote for independence.
“People outside Spain had never paid much attention to Spain,” Stewart said. “History in the 1800s largely centers on the winners, even here. I offer History of Spain and History of England, and History of Spain is not going to attract anything like History of England. It’s more obviously relevant. People don’t see Spain as relevant. Great, they discovered the New World and have done nothing since, who cares. People are going to be attracted to things they see as important or relevant.”
Stewart completed his dissertation in Catalan history right as the Spanish archives were opening up after 50 years of forced academic silence under the Franco regime. Later, he wrote a book called “Assimilation and Acculturation” about the events leading up to the War of Spanish Succession. In the book, Stewart examines Catalan nationalism and balances it against French and Spanish national identities. He has also published a few scholarly articles.
“I live in the 18th century,” Stewart said. “I’m accidentally relevant this week.”
Mack’s fluency in Catalan, visits to the region, and knowledge of its politics also became relevant points of discussion in his Spanish classes.
“From the Spanish point of view, what the Catalans are doing is absolutely illegal, there’s no legal way for them to break away because the government has made it very clear that Spain can’t be divided,” Mack said.
Mack said. “So, on the one hand, they’re a bunch of lawbreakers who are breaking their own constitution; on the other hand, these are people who feel that for the last 300 years, their government has shown itself incapable time after time after time of taking into account their safety and their ability to pursue their own happiness, and now they’re taking matters into their own hands and declaring independence, like we did,” he said, referencing the American Revolution and motioning to the Thomas Jefferson statue across from Delp Hall.
Mack took his first trip to Spain as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary, living in Madrid. That’s when he first encountered the European mentality that he considers fundamental to understanding the continent: Time is longer and distance is shorter. A century-old building in his home state of Utah was built yesterday in the Spanish timeline, and cousins, who live eight hours across the state, would have crossed Spanish borders and arrived in Paris in that amount of time. And nobody just drives to Paris.
After his mission trip, he studied Spanish at Brigham Young University, stayed there for his master’s, and went to Stanford for his doctorate.
His doctorate wasn’t just in Spanish but also in Iberian and Latin American Cultures. During his studies, he learned Catalan from a visiting professor and continued to do so while living in Barcelona. When he returned to Stanford, he taught Catalan.
“You really can’t understand Spain if you don’t understand the nations and regions that make it up,” Mack said.
His dissertation brought him back to the peninsula in 2010 and 2011 to discover what it was like to be a farmer during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) through contemporary Galician, Basque, Catalan, Portuguese, and Spanish novels.
“It’s about literature, memory, and space,” he said. “It’s about how where you’re from affects how you read and how what you read affects how you remember the past, and how these things are all tied together.”
When he traveled to the rural areas of Galicia, the Basque region, and Catalonia, he went to the town center, and rather than asking for someone who lived through the Spanish Civil War, he looked for people who had read a particular novel. He interviewed them about living in the area and reading the book to record how it affected their memory of the civil war. He conducted between 80 and 100 interviews.
“I was able to see a view of the peninsula that you don’t get when you’re in Madrid,” Mack said.
If being in a program so focused on the different regions in the Iberian Peninsula broadened his view of Spain, it also complicated it.
“I know people all over Spain, that have wildly different views on lots of different things,” Mack said. “They’re people that I love and I care about deeply, and it’s part of the reason why the situation in Catalonia has been so hard for me is because it’s hard for me to see how everybody wins.”
Just as Mack considered the American Revolution and the Civil War in his explanation of the conflict, Stewart looked back to explain the Catalan spirit to seniors Maddy Domalakes and Sarah Strubbing, who both sought historical context to the modern conflict and listened in rapt attention as they sunk into his goldenrod office couch.
Domalakes said she appreciated Stewart’s perspective on the Catalan independence movement.
“Even if he has one perspective, he does a good job of presenting the information in a very unbiased way in that he presents all of the information before he gives you his judgement,” she said, noting that she’s wary of media bias toward the independence movement.
“It’s more nuanced than a lot of people think … I don’t think I realized how fragmented Catalonia is within its own borders,” she said. “It’s invaluable that I have that opportunity [to talk to Stewart]. He already has all the background knowledge … When me and Sarah go to him, we can have a really fruitful discussion.”
Legend has it the count of Barcelona Guifré el Pélos (Wilfred the Hairy), was mortally wounded in a Moor-Christian battle in 897. In his dying breaths, he told his son to “fight and die as you lived, a Christian man” — a pointed jab at his ally the Frankish king Charles the Bald, who was ready to throw in the towel. Inspired, but mostly humiliated, Charles dipped Guifré’s hand into his own blood and dragged his fingers across his golden shield. Charles presented the shield to Guifré’s son and pledged allegiance to him.
One by one, everybody in the camp made the oath to fight and die a Christian man. The next day, the Spanish crushed the Moors in one of the most definitive battles for the region and liberated the land that is modern Catalonia.