Mercè myth and its democratic ressignification

Mercè myth and its democratic ressignification

Barcelona Festspace team presents a content analysis of the Mercè opening speeches

Written by Xavier Villanueva, Barcelona FestSpace team researcher.

Last September 22nd Festspace team was invited by the Institute of Culture of Barcelona (ICUB) to present a content analysis of the opening speeches from the Mercé (1975-2020) in the Casa dels Entremesos, a public facility devoted to traditional and popular Catalan culture, which is currently exposing an exhibition of posters of the Mercè festivity. 

Work on the opening speeches of the Mercè was emphasised when Festspace members discovered that not all of them were available to the people of Barcelona. Through cooperative work between internal archivers from the ICUB and the Barcelona Festspace team, it was able to gather all of the opening speeches from the period 1975-2020. They are being digitalised and they are going to be made public via a new website that the ICUB is creating for this purpose. 

Opening speeches are a core element of the Mercè; they are not a simple proclamation announcing the beginning of the festive time, but a literary narration in the form of a lecture performed by prominent people who are carefully chosen by the city council each edition. They were institutionalised as the starting activity of the festivity during francoism, and they have been a central part of the constitutive elements of the festivity with the arrival of democracy too. 

The study of such texts has been done via the conceptualisation of the body of speeches from 1975 until 2020 as a unity, with the goal of offering a global vision of its content to contemporary Barcelona citizens. The different categories of analysis have been derived from the Festspace framework, but also from a collective negotiation with ICUB members. In addition, some of them have arisen directly from the texts. Some of the categories used for the analysis are space, festivity, citizenship, diversity, tradition, democracy, crisis, etc. 

The conference in the Casa dels Entremesos consisted in an explanation of the model of analysis of the study and in a presentation of the results of the analysis of one example: the category of the Mercè myth. As the principal referent of the festivity since its inception in 1871, the Mercè myth in its traditional form explains the visit of the Mother of God of Mercè to the aristocratic and ecclesiastical powerful people of the Barcelona of XIII century. With this visit, the Mother of God asked to create the religious order Ordre de la Mercè, with the aim of rescuing fellow Christian prisoners in Muslim territories. In the XVII century, the myth acquired a new characteristic when municipal power asked the Mother of God to protect the city from a plague of locusts. A couple of centuries later, in 1868, the Pope officially proclaimed the Mother of God of Mercè as the patron saint of Barcelona. Three years later, the festivity of the Mercè was created through the involvement of the city council, and was declared the festivity of Barcelona.

The ways that different speakers have dealt with the myth is very significant for the meaning that the festivity has acquired through time. Born from a central religious framing, very present in the 1975 speech, the myth has been reconfigured slowly in order to introduce civic and democratic values in it with the arrival of democracy. From the beginning of democracy until the late 1980s all speakers readapted the traditional narration to introduce lay values reconceptualizing the Mother of God of Mercè as a “secular patron”. 

This democratic ressignification of the principal referent of the festivity is meaningful, and it is linked to wider changes in Barcelona society. At the end of the 1980s, references to the myth almost disappeared from the content of the speeches. Hence, from 1988 to 2020 only eight speakers introduced a version of the myth narration in the content of their lecture. This fact is related to the consolidation of the lay reading of the myth during the first democratic decade.

During the last two decades, references to the myth have been scarce, and they have tended to emphasize values such as freedom, justice, aid and cooperation. This is because a democratic festivity needs democratic referents. The best illustration of the ressignification of the myth, from religious beliefs into civic values, was made in the closing of the 2020 speech by the founder of Clowns without Frontiers, Tortell Poltrona. He performed a cover of the traditional religious Catalan song Goigs de la Mercè, but he changed the lyrics. Whether normative versions of Goigs stress the idea of Barcelona’s citizens praying to the Mother of God of Mercè to free themselves from evil, the cover articulated the ressignification of the myth by asking not to a divine figure, but to the higher representative of Barcelona democracy, its mayor, to protect the city from danger.

You can find below the video of the conference (Catalan language)

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