100 Soldiers –Learning to Possess the Past

Like Americans and every other people group devoted to maintaining an identity, Catalans participate in rituals that teach them about who they are. This post is a curious activity witnessed in Catalan kindergartens that should remind you, whoever you are and wherever you are from, of your own socialization.

One of the first lessons Catalan children learn about their people and place is devoted to the Count-King James I. You might recall that he gets a mention on this blog’s front page. Here is a short paragraph about who is he and why he should matter to Catalans’ self-discovery:

James was born in 1208. He came into his princely inheritance at the age of five, following the battlefield death of his father, Pere III. He inherited the prosperous Mediterranean County of Barcelona and several other counties. In these counties he was called prince and count, like his predecessors. James also inherited the small, less prosperous, landlocked Kingdom of Aragon, in which territory he was called king. During his first years as a child ruler, the boy count-king encountered the treachery of his uncle and other regents who sought to steal his inheritance, but as he grew into a fearsome young man he surmounted their thievery and learned to wield his royal powers with formidable skill. History textbooks call him “the Conqueror” because he gained and consolidated through conquest lands along the Mediterranean coast, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. These conquests set Catalonia on a course that made it an international power. James also patronized the arts and attended to the administration of law. Of special relevance to the value of the past in the present is the claim Catalans proudly make that James’s Llibre dels Fets (The Book of Deeds) is the first autobiography by a Christian king. James died in 1276.

[Go back to the main page if you want to follow the curious side story about James’s embalmed body, the damage done to his forehead by a weapon of war, and his many lovers and children.]

Returning now to the youngsters and the little song they sing about the count-king’s significance as a legendary progenitor of the Catalan people…. Imagine a classroom of 20 or so six-year-old children. After spending some days gathering up plastic swords and painting bright cardboard shields, which they now have in hand, they are stomping to a tune as they march around their classroom. Their song, Jaume primer tenia cent soldats (“James the first has one hundred soldiers… all marching in step”), tells the story of the faithfulness of those who stand by their count-king. Various “home movie” versions of the kids in action are available online.[1]

For the children, performing their little in-unison march is surely a great occasion for play. But there is a lot of meaning embedded in what looks like simple good fun. The teachers clearly employ it as a tool for teaching a bit of history, although it needs saying – even if some readers find it obvious – that their teaching objective is broader.

The performance is a purposeful rehearsal of Catalan collective awareness, a way to engage young Catalans as participants in the identity of their teachers and parents. Parents, of course, are charmed by such exhibitions, although their investment also goes beyond love for their own kids. As witnesses to the performance, the parents give tacit approval to their children’s socialization. The teachers’ ambitions, the parents’ assent, and the children’s playful reenactment all substantiate the political potency of the event. In total, it is a constructed consensus about the value of the past, renewed in the present and put toward effecting a future purpose.

One example of the political meanings is as follows. Jaume Primer tenia cent soldats is sung in Catalan, the language spoken by the Catalan people since its separation from other distinctive Romance languages more than a thousand years ago. Spanish governments from the eighteenth century until 1979 made it illegal to speak Catalan in public places like schools, and the central government at present continues to attempt to restrict its use. Consider this: Catalan is not one of the twenty-four languages officially recognized by the European Union although it is spoken by more people than speak fifteen of those other languages. The reason for the EU’s displacement of Catalan is simple: Spain’s obstinate refusal to allow the language to be accorded a status commensurate with the number of its speakers. Thus, in their act of reiterating the song, the children, the parents, and the teachers are participants in a history of acts of defiance against a Spanish state that has endeavored to suppress their language.

Beyond the significance of the historical personality of James I and the importance of singing a song about him in the Catalan mother tongue, there is also relevance in the fact that the tune to which the children sing is borrowed from another nation that once upon a time acted rebelliously to gather its members under a banner of freedom. Americans will recognize the tune as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the patriotic song that recalls the persistence of post-Revolution unity beyond the hardships of the Civil War fought within the United States of America. Catalans draw heavily from American and English precedents as they recall and shape their own cultural identity. As one would expect, most lessons of Catalan collectivity are heard in Catalan (and almost never in Castilian Spanish), but Catalans use the English language often, because that language reaches the greatest number of external observers who might empathize and offer aid to the Catalan cause.

Socialization requires that societies make choices about remembering and forgetting. All societies ask their members to recall some elements of the past and ignore some others. The example of children singing Jaume Primer tenia cent soldats illustrates how Catalans recall certain parts of their past in just the ways that can be most beneficial to them. The performance of the marching child-conquerors also demonstrates why Catalan schools count among the most fiercely contested battlegrounds in the fight between Catalans and the foes of Catalan historical memory. Members of Spain’s governments, over several centuries, have shown that they would prefer Catalan children to learn different stories, alternative sets of facts and legends. Castilians would prefer that Catalans show themselves to be good Spaniards by, for instance, learning the story of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, El Cid, who, according to Spanish lore, captured Valencia in 1096 as part a great Catholic Reconquest of Spain from the Moors. And Castilians want that story learned in Spanish (that is, in Castilian), not in Catalan.

[While El Cid was a real person, his reputed Spanish-Catholic national zeal is overblown. He fought for and against Muslims, just as he fought for and against Christians. His reputation grew not because of his religiosity but because of his military and political sagacity. His pugnacity – his readiness to put up a fight – made him rich and famous. He gave no thought at all to Spain, since that political entity did not yet exist. In truth, he was a mercenary, looking for his own gain through territorial conquest, plunder, and extraction of tribute payments. “The Reconquest,” into which the myth of El Cid fits, is itself a turgid myth.]

We see in the activities of the child replicators of James’s story, and in the alternative tale about El Cid, evidence of what social theorists call social or cultural reproduction. Social groups create rituals and stories, which they habitualize through participatory endeavors. Such collective performances create social solidarity, in part by giving present value to a reimagined past.

What should we make of such efforts at indoctrination? My college students initially recoil at the thought of them, as perhaps some of my readers are now doing. However, I remind my students, and I’ll remind my readers as well, that we all have participated in similar training exercises. There is no getting around that fact that we all undergo this kind of social brainwashing (some theorists prefer to call it habituation). It isn’t all bad, of course. It makes sense that the parents and teachers of young children want to inform their kids about the history of the place where they live and the people who have shaped that place. Those of us living in the US want our own children to learn about Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, the singular event that in our collective memory foretells the bounty in store for inheritors of the American experiment. We embellish Thanksgiving with stuffed turkeys and pumpkin pies, ignoring the fact that nearly half of the first arrivals of Plymouth died over the first winter and that their survival depended upon the natives whom their descendants annihilated in a slow cultural genocide. We want to instruct future generations about George Washington’s leadership of our nation during its infancy. If Washington’s story gets elaborated with details about cherry trees and wooden teeth, we might agree that there is no harm done, since the goal is to make an important piece of history stick in hard heads. And, most certainly, we want this done in English, not Italian or Polish or Cherokee or Catalan.


[1] CEIP San José de Calasanz, ‘Jaume Primer Tenia Cents Soldats,’ 2008, accessed July 16, 2019. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2TkJG_L-FQ.

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