Wilfred Returns: From Flag to Fingers

Our prior post followed the narrative line from the real Wilfred the Hairy to the myth of a king’s compensation for a warlord’s wound. My goal was to show how the past, real and imagined, got put to use in the making of a principal symbol and everyday object of national identity, the flag of the Catalan nation.

By the way, I am not Catalan. I chose the story because it offers a clear mirror in which to see ourselves, Americans and others, as we engage in similar pursuits.

In this post I want to show you some of the many ways that Wilfred has been Catalanized, that is, how Catalans re-imagine his place in their identity politics, or how they keep him alive in and for the present. We might describe this as the Wilfredization of everything Catalan – truly, everything, from flags to babys’ binkies. You will see that Catalans do this to an extant that is difficult for Americans to recognize. The absent-minded American approach to national identity will be the subject of later posts.

First, recognize that the story of Wilfred’s encounter with his king, like the story of the discovery made by his mother, is wonderfully cinematic. The authors who developed the myth over many re-tellings elaborated a tale with such sophistication that it has become easy to let it play in our heads as if it were real. Many collective memories share this quality, impressing images upon individual minds in a way that makes the past, or the invented past, seem vivid in the present. Depending upon the imaginative and creative abilities of the individual receiving the memory, the scene may seem to come to mind in full color and complete with central and peripheral details. And still, importantly, despite the substance with which it meets it audience, it remains open to the layering of additional subtleties. Each person who meets the story might envision what it was that Wilfred wore as he lay dying or might imagine hearing whatever grand and prophetic advice Wilfred gave to his son, Wilfred Borrell, about the future of the Catalan nation. Such personalized, imaginative contributions to the detail of such stories are important.  Anyone can be a participant-contributor at the intersection of history and myth in a way that links one story to another or associates some bit of fiction to a moment of truth, drawing from one context to create value in a very different context. Putting it this way makes truth and fiction, history and myth, all of it, parts of an inventory, bits of memory and for memory that can be assembled and reassembled as best fits individual and societal needs, with the assembly process continuing until the construction works just right, and then, obviously, changing again when times change.

Also consider how the cinematic nature of this story, the bits-of-an-inventory malleability of it, means that it can easily meet the needs of a great variety of audiences. Here are several examples:

Many of the paintings that depict the story, just like many of the poems and narrative accounts told about Wilfred, the King, and the four lines of blood on a shield, are produced by and for elites. Here is Pau Bejar’s Llegenda de les quatre barres de sang (1892):

And, certainly, the story has been useful to politicians in calling people to a variety of causes. Here is the cover of a pamphlet from the Catalanist Union (1901), and a “cinderella” stamp from about the same time period.

But the everyday, play-it-in-your-head, nature of the story of a king’s hand drawing four lines on a shield with Wilfred’s blood is also just right for presentation to children. Here is an example:


The cinematic quality is so apparent – so normative, as academics would say – that the account can even open up to parody without harming its essential fastening of fact to fiction. Here is a sketch by the Catalan TV3 comedy show Polònia. It is in Catalan, but even without knowing the language you can get the idea of the spoof — here, in the run-up to the 2017 Referendum, Wilfred isn’t sure what king of independence he wants even:


The story of Wilfred’s death makes the national flag, the Senyera, the most immediate and visible of Wilfred’s gifts to the Catalans. The Senyera is the everyday-everywhere sign of Catalan solidarity. It is ubiquitous. It is flown on public occasions in public venues. Of course, flags fly at events of national significance. But beyond anything that Americans would understand as typical opportunities for showing the colors, even perhaps at the peak of flag waving in the days after 9-11 or in the wake of Trump’s exploitation of white nationalist populism, the Senyera hangs over balconies and flutters from car windows, it gets displayed prominently inside shops of all kinds and sizes, and it appears, as if spontaneously, hoisted at concerts, fairs, street manifestations, and all manner of events big and small.

Here is a record of a Senyera-centric event among the many worth noting: Catalonia’s world record for flying the largest flag in a soccer stadium:


And in case you want a reminder that this stuff has serious consequences, consider that flying the Catalan flag inside a soccer stadium takes on special meaning when FC Barcelona plays ‘that Madrid team’ at Camp Nou. At such times, the flag is accompanied by signs such as these:

Notice that these signs are in English — Catalans speak Catalan, as well as Spanish, and they know that support for their democratic desires might come from friendly English-speaking nations, so many of them speak English and broadcast their Catalanism in that language too.

That the real Wilfred had nothing whatsoever to do with the invention of the Senyera is well understood by most everyone in Catalonia, although that point is hardly worth uttering. What matters is that a grain of truth about a potently symbolic life has been confabulated into a story that conveniently connects a real man to fictions and then to a national symbol. Two important realities, a ninth-century count and the later appearance of the Catalan insignia, find their nexus in the Catalan conscience through fiction, which is the transmitter that builds memory across the synaptic space between the truths.

So it is that the manner and variety of appearances of Wilfred and/or the Senyera grow to include playing cards, coffee mugs, baby pacifiers, etc. Every good Catalan can take home a piece of the Catalan origin story. And this goes, of course, not just for people born and raised in Catalonia whose heritage is Catalan, but also for people from South American, North Africa, Andalucia, England, Germany and the US, people who emigrated or became expats or traveled once or twice as tourists to Catalan lands. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a legend connected to a little bit of true history, specially when the combo can be so unifying and invigorating?

Merchandise… (no, I don’t sell this stuff!)

As the official flag of Catalonia, the dimensions and colors of the Senyera are established by custom and law – four red stripes on a yellow background. Nonetheless, Catalans have created several unofficial means of displaying the national colors. A version of the flag that sets a white star within a blue triangle over the red and yellow bands, called the Senyera estelada (the starred Senyera) or Estelada blava (the blue Estelada), has become an ever-present sign of the indepentistes, those who seek to regain independence from Spain. The Senyera estelada dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, having its origins with Catalan activists and exiles in Cuba during that countries fight for independence, first from Spain (1898) and then the US (1902). Some Catalans began to use it as a protest symbol in the late 1970s as the weaknesses of Spain’s transition to democracy were becoming increasingly apparent.

Of more recent vintage is the Estelada vermella, the red-star flag. Its appearance dates to the years around 1970, when the Partit Socialista d’Alliberament Nacional dels Països Catalans (in English: the Socialist Party for the National Liberation of the Catalan Countries) decided to change the colors of the independence flag to red, in keeping with the party’s Marxist-Leninist influences. It is displayed by independentistes whose politics favors workers and the left.

There are other versions. The Barça soccer club, the RCD Espanyol soccer club, and the supporters of other sporting groups display spin-off flags, shields, banners, logos, etc., sufficiently disguised to meet the needs of purportedly apolitical sport-entertainment while being easily read by Catalanists as coded support for the cause.

The diversity of Catalan flags attests to the heterogeneity of internal Catalan politics, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, the abundant displays of red and gold bars in all their variety (or even blue on red or maroon in the case of Barça) confirm shared sensibilities. This is important enough to put another way: Not all Catalans, not all people living in Catalonia, agree to follow an independence-seeking political script; nonetheless, most Catalans, including immigrants into Catalonia, participate in one or more forms of flag waving in support of Catalan unity. Catalans can pick whichever flag they choose; each is different, but each is Catalan. Despite their variety, all of them remind Catalans of the following reality: Catalonia is not Spain.

To end this post, let’s return our series of transfigurations of les quatre barres (the four bars) beyond flag waving and coffee cups back to where it began: to pure imagination, pure symbol. In recent years, especially in 2017 as Spanish police and the neo-Fascist thugs aligned with the Partido Popular took to assaulting flag-waving Catalans, a new way of showing solidarity arose without the need, so to speak, to show one’s colors: You don’t have a flag…, are afraid to wave it in the streets…, need a little bit of plausible deniability…? No problem. Just raise four fingers in the air. The image on my recent book illustrates:

If only Americans could be so bold in their expressiveness, so creative in their search for solidarity, so appreciative of their sources of history and legend…. Wow!

2 thoughts

  1. Do you see any separatist movements like this in other regions, such as Navarre? Until the late 16th century, Navarre had its own separate monarchy from Castile, I’d be surprised if there was not a similar call for separation based on that in Pamplona. Is Navarre involved in the independence movements of the Basques?


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