Our culture, our history

The eighteenth century. Economic growth and political absolutism

Culturcat - Generalitat de Catalunya

Philip V was an absolutist monarch who imposed the Nueva Planta Decree and practised a repressive political policy after the Catalan defeat in 1714. However, the absolutist tendency had already been developed during the previous reigns of the house of Austria. In spite of everything, Catalonia experimented with social and economical improvements.


Absolutism, as a form of government, had its most paradigmatic example in the France of Louis XIV. During the eighteenth century, he moved towards a system which based the wealth of the state on the tax possibilities of its subjects. To make this system possible, however, they had to create and reform the necessary organisms and apply administrative and economical changes. It is in this context that the Nueva Planta Decree and the new Bourbon regime were implemented.

In spite of the strong repression that Philip V exercised on the Catalans and the dismantling of the region’s representative institutions, Catalonia managed to carry out a series of social and economical transformations which enabled an improvement in commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. The basis of this growth derived from the previous century and was rooted in the favourable juncture of the period falling between the end of the fifteenth century and the outbreak of the Reapers’ War in 1640. These were decades in which Catalonia had already experienced a change in demographical tendency motivated by the drip of French immigration and the increase in population which followed the disappearance of the plague at the end of the seventeenth century.

The basic elements of this economic drive were the modernization of crops, an improvement in their commercialization, urban growth of the middle size and prosperous cities like Mataró and, after 1778, the official opening of the American market. The accumulation of benefits obtained from commerce favoured an incipient industrialization, which was principally concentrated in the textile sector.

These economical transformations also affected the social circle because, especially in the case of the underprivileged classes, there was an economic diversity and a certain social mobility whose driving force was the money of the commercial and industrial benefits. Thus, the basis of a mercantile bourgeoisie was established which, with more or less resources, would work hard to maintain and increase its businesses.

These transformations became more evident in the urban settings: the dynamism of this society was also visible in the promotion of new initiatives and in the infrastructures which backed the new economical necessities. One of the most representative examples was the ‘Junta de Comerç de Barcelona’ [Barcelona Commerce Board] which was promoted by traders and industrialists in 1758. An agricultural and manufacturing specialization also occurred in the interior districts, like those of wool spinning and weaving in the Osona, Lluçanès, Berguedà and Moianès regions, and of silk and calico printing in Manresa and Barcelona. We also find other specializations like that of paper in Capellades, or iron in the Pyrenees.

In the coastal districts, principally the Maresme, vineyards and the industries which elaborated wine and brandy were implemented. Also in Reus, and on the Camp de Tarragona where, since the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, the cultivation of vines had substituted that of cereals, until specialised nuclei of industrialization were created, becoming dominant. The reason for the growth of the wine industry was tied to the important increase in the demand for wine and, especially for brandy, in the markets of northern Europe, where the consumption of these liquors was traditionally very high. The exportations to the American colonies also progressively increased.

Catalan society had become used to adapting to new events, in spite of the political as well as cultural repression. The standardising and absolutist Bourbon policy implemented Spanish as the official language and in teaching from 1716 onwards. A single, new university was inaugurated in Cervera which was controlled by the state which, in spite of everything, obtained a good level in classical knowledge, law and humanities. Moreover, the Catalan language subsisted as the villagers’ common tongue, although not so much amongst the leading and more accommodated classes, which were partly replaced after the exile and oppression by individuals related to the new regime.

In spite of the ‘castilianization’ of the administration, the persistent tensions between the Junta de Comerç and the Bourbon institutions, the predominant agrarianism between the reformist ministers and the superficiality of the economical proposals which reached the government, the economy prospered in Catalonia and, with it, society. Other reforming measures were also pivotal, like the new single property register tax and the free commerce decree.

In spite of the universal insecurity, the enlightened ideas and some modernising projects reached the Catalonia of the end of the eighteenth century. These ideas and projects came mainly from abroad due to the dynamism and the needs of the emerging social groups, such as traders and industrialists, who inspired the activities of the Junta de Comerç and who had to respond to market competition. For this reason they created their own institutions, founding the ‘Escola de Nàutica’ [Nautical School] in 1770, that of ‘Nobles Arts’ [Noble Arts] in 1775 and of ‘Comerç’ [Commerce] in 1786. The Enlightenment in Catalonia, thus, had an eminently functional character. Behind these institutions there was the business bourgeoisie, who were well represented by the Junta de Comerç.

The Spanish Enlightened Despotism of the end of the eighteenth century had a quite disperse promotion in Catalonia and its proposals were less valid because there was already a consolidated agriculture in the region which was more commercial, and some manufacturing in transformation, which were combined with a growing urban framework that was very favourable to commerce.

This ‘applied’ Enlightenment to Catalonia had intellectual influences such as Jaume Caresmar and Antoni de Capmany, who defended an economical project built upon commercial development. With this objective, Capmany wrote ‘Memorias históricas sobre la marina, comercio y artes de la antigua sociedad de Barcelona’ [Historical memoirs about marine, commerce and arts of the old society of Barcelona]. This intellectual researched the economical development of medieval Catalonia, in which manufacturing and commerce played vital roles, in order to be able to extract the optimum applications for the present day.

A perfect example of the results of the combination of absolutism and Bourbon reformism was the episode of the ‘Memorial de greuges’ [Memorial of grievances] which the deputies of Barcelona, Valencia, Saragossa and Palma de Majorca presented to Charles III during the only Courts that the monarch held in 1760. The memorial related the complaints about the discrimination the Catalan subjects suffered in contrast with the Spanish ones’ and that bias was observed when going forward to posts, as well as exposing the problem of the linguistic and cultural oppression, to finally re-vindicate the old political structures which had been abolished in 1714.

The reference to the institutions lost in 1714, and the attempt to recuperate portions of collective freedom were a constant theme of all these projects. The idea that one’s own institutions, which were more representative, were socially convenient for the economical development of the country, could be found in the ideas of the Austrian leaders who, at the beginning of the century, were opposed to the reign of Philip V.

Thus, the measures of the Bourbon reform of the eighteenth century, which were based upon some apparently more modern applications, combined with the political absolutism, managed to halt a trajectory of economic development which Catalonia had initiated at the end of the fifteenth century and which remained stalled by two wars, that of the Reapers’ and that of Succession.

Another relevant text which reflected the social and economical restlessness of the Principality was the ‘Discurso sobre la agricultura, comercio e industria del Principado de Cataluña de la Real Junta de Comercio de Barcelona’ [Dissertation about the agriculture, commerce and industry of the Principality of Catalonia by the Royal Board of Commerce of Barcelona] from 1780, which was put together by Jaume Caresmar, amongst other authors, who contributed decentralising proposals for the application of a free commerce which was more allied to the territorial and local institutions than to the stately ones.

These examples showed how, since the middle of the eighteenth century, the Catalan society mobilised itself in all directions with projects of an academic nature, industrial application and economic proposals, contrary to a government that did not offer adequate solutions to their needs, in spite of the propaganda that, later on, implied they had followed the economically reforming measures of the Bourbon ministers.

The economic improvement of eighteenth century Catalonia, more than being sustained on the supposed impulse of Bourbon reformism, was built upon the economic impulse of the previous century which was characterised by the innovation of crops and commercial and industrial vitality to which, in some sectors, there was added the re-vindication of some lost liberties and institutions which, although belonging to the classes, interacted more dynamically with the region’s civil society.