On March 10, 1311, Walter (Gautier) de Brienne, fifth Duke of Athens and nearest relative of the last Burgundian duke, Guy II de la Roche, made his will, stating his wish to be buried in the Greek monastery of Daphne. For several months, he had been marshaling warriors from all parts of Frankish Greece: Athens, Thebes, Plataea and Achaea, Locris, Euboea, and the Archipelago. When the muster call was complete, Gautier had some 6,400 knights and 8,000 foot. He would have had more men if it had not been for the fact that 500 Catalans in his employ deserted to join the enemy arrayed against him: a force of Almogavars, 8,000 strong, which was bolstered by Turkish and Thessalian contingents. This force had occupied several of Gautier's Thessalian fortresses at his refusal to pay four months' worth of wages for service against his many enemies. When the duke demanded their unconditional surrender, the Almogavars had refused and had readied themselves for battle, flooding the fields where they knew the Frankish knights would charge. When he made his will, Gautier may have had some premonition of the bloody defeat that lay ahead, for in five days he was dead, his decapitated body lying in the fields near the river Cephissus, his best knights lying with him, casualties of a deadly charge against the muddy ground held by the closed ranks of Almogavars (Setton, 10). Who were these Almogavars, who were able to defeat these heavily-armed and highly-trained knights? Why were they consistently effective against all who came before them? How were they utilized by James I the Conqueror (1213-1276) and his son, Peter III the Great (1276-1285), count-kings of Catalonia-Aragon, to further the interests of their realm? These are the questions that this paper will attempt to answer.
Much of our information on the Almogavar is derived from the Chronicle of Ramon Muntaner (1265-1336), an adventurous courtier who lived and fought with the Almogavars, second only to James I's autobiographical Book of the Deeds (Llibre dels feyts) and the Chronicle of court official Bernat Desclot (d. ca.1390). It is Desclot, who, although providing little information about himself, gives us the best contemporary description of the Almogavars. It deserves to be quoted at length: "Now these soldiers that are called Almogavars are men who live for naught save only warfare, and they dwell not in towns nor in cities but in mountains and in the forests. And they fight continually with the Saracens and make forays within their land for a day or two, pillaging and taking many Saracens captive, and likewise their goods whereby they live. And they suffer many hardships such as other men could scarce endure...And these men are exceeding[ly] strong and are swift to flee or to pursue" (Desclot, 28-9).
They were thus men perfectly adapted to the recurring border warfare that characterizes, above all, the relationship between the Christian and Muslim states of medieval Spain. It is in this context that they first appear in the historical record. Later on, in a continuation of this combat between Christianity and Islam, James I would utilize them against the Muslim states of Valencia and Murcia, which are considered to be his greatest conquests. Under his son, the closing of an Aragonese-Muslim frontier would force the Almogavars to lose their original function as frontiersmen. However, their transfer to various theaters throughout the Mediterranean would ensure that they would obtain their notoriety.
Given their substantial impact on the history of Catalonia-Aragon, the origins of the Almogavars are remarkably elusive, in keeping with their itinerant character. In fact, it is only the source of their name that seems to exist in any certainty: from the Arabic al-mogΰuar ("raider, devastator"), which was used to describe groups of men who periodically engaged in incursions into Muslim territory, plundering, sacking and kidnapping. These intermittent inroads were of course never the exclusive activity of any one group. Until the last days of the Reconquest, Muslims as well as Christians periodically engaged in forays into each other's territory, each doing as much damage as they could. Nor can we accept the rather antiquated theories associating these activities with one particular race of men, sometimes mountainous Visigoths recovering their ancient Germanic vigor, sometimes not named at all. More conclusive studies have replaced these unfounded arguments. Josι M. Moreno Echevarrνa has argued convincingly for a purely Aragonese origin for the Almogavars. Given the rapid expansion of the Aragonese kingdom from a small, rugged Pyrenean community in the eleventh century to an important Peninsular state reaching the borders of Muslim Valencia in the thirteenth, the frontiers of such a state would be constantly fluctuating and unstable. Poor and sparsely depopulated, Aragon was never able to field large bodies of regular troops. Enter the Almogavars, tough shepherds and mountainmen from the Pyrenees, free raiders penetrating the enemy lands in search of booty, forsaking castles and towns in favor of mountains and forests so as not to be under any type of vassalage. The Almogavars always found the open frontier more attractive. There they could wage war on their volition, as opposed to being despised foot soldiers in the feudal levies, where the knights and lords took all of the profits and glory (Echevarrνa, 17). The dress of the mountainman of the Pyrenees corresponds, in any case, to that of the Almogavar: the zamarra of undressed sheep-skins (replaced by a tunic in hotter climates) and the abarca, a piece of coarse leather tied on the soles of the feet, ideal protection against thorns, rocks, and thickets, worn since time immemorial.