‘The Heroine of Peralada‘, a painting by Antoni Caba (1864), represents the legend of Na Mercadera of Peralada during the Aragonese Crusade (1285). Is it really a legend or is the story true?
It is 1285 and the region of the Empordà with its cornfields and the Pyrenees as a background, is everything but idyllic. The life of a farmer’s family is hard, and because of its strategic position near France the area often is the scenery of tension and battles.
The mercenary and chronicler Ramon Muntaner, born at Peralada in the Alt Empordà, recorded his life and adventures as a commander of the Catalan Company. In one of the best known episodes he tells the story of a townswoman whom he personally knows: people call her Na Mercadera (the Merchant). He describes her as a strong, tall and resolute woman who does not let herself be bullied, not even by noblemen. She is determined to lead a normal life, what is more: she aims to make the most of the situation. This results in what Muntaner in his Chronicle calles a ‘marvellous fact’.
War and siege
In those days Catalonia was involved in a crusade against the Crown of Aragon instigated by the new Pope Martí IV after the House of Anjou had been thrown out of Sicily by its inhabitants with the help of Pere III of Aragon, the ‘Great’, against the Pope’s wishes. One of the many incidents during this conflict took place in Peralada, where king Pere had taken up his general quarters while the French enemy forces had besieged the town.
Of course this blockade makes daily life of the inhabitants nearly impossible. For example, they cannot safely work their plots that are situated in the outskirts of the town. But Na Mercadera is determined to give it a try. She dresses up like a man, and armed with a spear, a sword and a shield, she leaves the village to harvest the cabbages she needs.
All goes according to plan till she hears the sound of some bells: they belong to the attire of a French horse that had fallen in a nearby ditch together with its rider. (The above painting obviously reflects another version of the event.) Na Mercadera approaches the duo, drives the spear into the thigh of the soldier and presents an ultimatum to the knight: “Surrender or die”.
King Pere is astonished when the disguised woman delivers the French prisoner to him. According to Muntaner, she had to repeat to him more than once what had happened. Na Mercadera receives the ‘prize’ she is entitled to in terms of war: the horse and the arms of the prisoner as well as the ransom the French army paid to get back their soldier.
The account of Muntaner tells us that soon afterwards the king leaves the village and Peralada is destroyed by fire to prevent the enemy from taking possession of it. Other versions affirm that it were the French soldiers who burnt down the town. Anyway, it is subsequently rebuilt; fifteen year after her feat our heroine dies at the age of 55.
Medieval fair and literary trail
Every year at the beginning of June Peralada hosts the Na Mercadera Medieval Fair with stalls selling artesan products accompanied by shows, dramatizations and the traditional meeting of Medieval Giants & “Big Heads” (masked characters). You can also follow the literary trail of Ramon Muntaner.
Source, among others: the historical magazine Sapiens.