The arbitral ruling made by Ferdinand II of Aragon in Guadalupe in 1486 is one of the most important documents of his reign and one of the best proofs of his political astuteness. The conflict between the feudal lords of Catalonia and their peasants or serfs known as remençes (from the Latin redimentia, people who were tied to the land that they farmed and that they couldn’t leave without paying their master for releasing them from servitude) had been entrenched since the late 14th century and had given rise to a series of outbreaks of violence that affected most of the Catalan countryside, with serious social and economic consequences.
Since John I (1387-1396) the monarchs had upheld a policy that was generally favourable to the serfs, although it did change according to the political circumstances of each period. This policy culminated in Alfonso V of Aragon’s interlocutory ruling of 1455 that suspended the abusive customs, which only served to worsen the conflict with the feudal lords. The civil war against John II (1462-1472), in which the peasants supported the King, further complicated the situation with a serfs’ uprising that was a direct attack on the rights of the lords.
Finally, Ferdinand II “the Catholic”, despite a shaky start and after long, complicated negotiations, managed to force both parties to choose him as an “arbitrator and amiable compositeur” to settle the conflict incontestably and to bring justice and peace to the country prioritizing the equity of the Law over its literal interpretation.
The sentence passed at the monastery of Guadalupe, in the presence of the representatives of lords and peasants, was divided into thirty-two chapters and abolished the remença serfdom and the other five unfair customs, as well as other abusive rights that had become tradition, and this did not affect the feudal system as a whole. By way of compensation, the ruling established that the peasants had to make various payments under specific terms and conditions. The ruling also included the exemplary punishment of the leaders of the revolt, as well as the payment of compensation and fines for the damages caused during the uprisings. Lastly, it set out the fees of the royal bureaucrats who had taken part in the negotiations and in the preparation of the ruling, headed by the Vice-Chancellor of Aragon, Alfonso de la Cavallería, to be paid by both lords and peasants.
Although the pacification of the Catalan countryside was neither easy nor immediate, the decisive action of Ferdinand II and his emissaries succeeded in getting the ruling accepted and implemented by the parties, in a combination of repressive measures and pardons.
Its implementation gained momentum after 1488, when the representatives of the serfs took responsibility for collecting the agreed sums and again in 1493 with the publication of an interpretation of the ruling that cleared up all its ambiguities. Although the overall evaluation of the Sentence of Guadalupe is still debated today, by the early 16th century the remença problem had been definitively and undeniably solved and peasant serfdom had been abolished.
The Sentence of Guadalupe was originally written in Spanish but using numerous words in Catalan. The Archives of the Crown of Aragon holds both the original parchment from the collection of the Generalitat or Diputació del General de Catalunya (ACA, Generalidad, Pergaminos, nº 745), and the Chancery record where the same text was transcribed (ACA, Real Cancillería, Registros, 3549, fol. 156v-175r). The significance of the ruling and the need to disseminate it as widely as possible meant that it was immediately translated into Catalan and published many times in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The ACA also hold a copy of the two known incunabula, i.e., editions produced before 1500. The oldest has been authenticated as a manuscript annotation penned by the archivist Pere Miquel Carbonell, dated August 24th 1487 (ACA, Colecciones, Memoriales, nº 67, p. 108-115).