portolan chart
David Abulafia
Caius College, Cambridge


In the century after the Black Death, which held the island in its grip from Spring 1348 onwards, Majorca underwent significant social, political and economic transformations.  In fact, the process began a few years earlier, with the fall of the autonomous kingdom of Majorca to Peter IV ‘the Ceremonious’, king of Aragon, after two-thirds of a century of uneasy relations between the rulers of Aragon-Catalonia and those of Majorca, whose realm also included Roussillon and Montpellier.  Thereafter Majorcan culture existed very much in a Catalan shadow, although the merchants of the City of Majorca (modern Palma) continued to trade actively with both Mediterranean Spain and North Africa, and the city was also a base of operations for foreign merchants such as the trading house of Francesco di Marco Datini, the famous ‘Merchant of Prato’ active around 1400.   This intense contact with North Africa did have important cultural repercussions.  The Jewish community remained culturally vibrant until the pogroms of 1391 that swept through Spain and resulted in the conversion of most Majorcan Jews, though many fled, including members of rabbinic families such as the Duran, who based themselves for the next few centuries in Algiers.  The Durans were the authors of important rabbinic responses that addressed the problem of the status of converted Jews within the wider Jewish communities of the Mediterranean.  Jews, and in particular converted Jews, played a very important role in the diffusion of geographical knowledge, exemplified by the magnificent portolan charts produced in Majorca and by the Catalan Atlas presented to King Charles VI of France.  The interest of the mapmakers moved from a concern with the art of navigation to a curiosity about the wider world, also demonstrated in the expeditions sent from Majorca to the Canary islands from the 1340s onwards.  Jocelyn Hillgarth has shown how large were the libraries gathered together by the Majorcan Jews.  

Another North African dimension to Majorcan culture is provided by the remarkable career of Anselm Turmeda, whose early works included an exposition of Majorcan society at the end of the fourteenth century, but who later had a fateful encounter in Bologna that led to his conversion to Islam and his rise to great prominence in Tunis, where his tomb still stands in the middle of the medina.  Meanwhile the ecclesiastical libraries of the island grew, containing rich collections of breviaries, patristic texts, etc., and the citizens of Majorca also developed a taste for romances and the poetry of Ausias March and his Catalan contemporaries.  There was also an interest in translations of Arabic medical works by Averroes and others.  And of course the legacy of Ramon Llull (d. 1316), the most famous and probably the most prolific medieval Majorcan author, can be traced in copies of his books, which drew attention to the perceived need to convert Jews, Muslims, and eastern Christians to Catholic Christianity.