The Agricultural Revolution that Led to the Urbanization of Barcelona and Gave Rise to the First Middle Class

Historical Overview

Tucked into the farthest northeastern region of the Iberian Peninsula, between the Mediterranean coastline and the Pyrenees mountains, lies Spain’s second largest city: Barcelona. As capital of the Catalonia region, Barcelona is home to 1.65 million residents, is ranked fourth smartest city in Europe, and hosts nine Unesco World Heritage sites. As a world recognized leader in new urbanism, smart growth, and sustainable revitalization strategies, Barcelona remains as relevant today as when the first pre-civilization agrarian communities first settled the area.

Over the course of reviewing Barcelona’s early history of urbanization, a reoccurring theme emerges highlighting a reciprocal relationship between Barcelona’s agricultural base and its growth and expansion from a Medieval city into a major European metropolis. This theme suggests that the dissolution of feudal lords or religious fortunes in the 10th century led to the transfer of rural lands and wealth to peasant farmers, thus allowing Barcelona to expand and grow. However, that seems a little too simplistic and thus begs the question: What profound event(s) occurred that allowed Barcelona to scale (relatively quickly) from a loosely knit agricultural community into a regional powerhouse that eventually becomes a world authority in the field of sustainable urbanization? The answer is found in Barcelona’s 12th-century agricultural revolution.

Agricultural Trends in Medieval Barcelona

Land Consolidation

Prior to the tenth century, a series of factors led to the dissolution of private fortunes, facilitating the existence of very small, subsistence-producing, land holdings, thus setting the stage for an agricultural revolution that would completely transform Barcelona from a Medieval agricultural city into a modern urban city poised for greatness. for agricultural growth by tenth century Barcelona Towards the end of the tenth century, consolidation of lands bordering these small holdings began. This trend occurred again twice in the eleventh century, leading to medium-sized holdings, capable of producing a modest profit.

The two most documented examples of land consolidation are the cases of Bonefilio & Bonucio Vivas, along with Ricardo Guillermo, who consistently bought lands adjoining their properties. In doing so, they were able to steadily increase their holdings at a central area. This is an important detail, as it differentiates these cases as land consolidation vs. land acquisition.

Consolidation of land holdings established a base of economic power for their owners in the eleventh century. The subsequent rise in land values insured these landholders were the only ones in possession of these estates of enormous rental value. The land holdings themselves did not accumulate large capital, but they established the basis for economic growth and a forthcoming agricultural shift that would require large tracts of land.

Shifts in the Agricultural Landscape

Historical documents show the principal crops of the era and region as rudimentary cereals, especially wheat and barley. However, in the late 10th century, insufficiencies developed from the scarcity and inadequacy of natural, animal based fertilizer. These documents also reveal little about seed yield, mentioning only that it became insufficient to meet demands, and a shift in cultivation took place based on economic development.  The agricultural economy was slowing down as these crops were underproducing and losing profitability, in fact, they were reaching subsistent levels not even adequate for the agrarian farmer and his family.

Around the same time grain crops were reducing, the introduction of water canals and water mills, on the large consolidated land tracks, gave way to a new agricultural market for Barcelona. With the successful growth of fruit orchards, vineyards, and specialized crops used for the manufacture of textiles and associated dyes, owners gained the ability to diversify their crops, refine the products, and reach into more lucrative markets previously unavailable in Barcelona. This agricultural shift allowed the landowner, the agrarian farmer, and the skilled laborer to be well positioned to take full advantage of new opportunities.

Landholders and Laborers

Shifting from small-lot fertilizer-based grain crops that produced from seed to product in one agricultural cycle, to the skillful and tenacious cultivation of large land tracks of canal irrigated orchards, vineyards, and other various horticulture, presented certain challenges for both landholder and laborer. For the landholder, the production of fruits and plants required new operations and timelines for production and profit. These new crops, operations, and timelines left many worried about how they would provide for their families without a yearly harvest. The solution would forever change the relationship between landholders and landowners and ultimately give rise to Western Europe’s first middle class.

Grapevines are a delicate crop whose profits do not appear for a considerable amount of time. While viticulture did not require an investment in equipment or working animals, such as horses and wagons or plows and oxen, the starting of a vineyard required the extensive manual labor of the plants themselves. Success depended directly on a strong commitment of the landholders, their skilled laborers, and the availability of unskilled labor to hoe vineyards in cultivation. The development of vineyards thus significantly increased the value of skilled labor in early Barcelona and provided a demand for unskilled laborers that had been displaced by technology (plows, carts, etc.) in other agricultural regions.

Socio-Economic Advancements

Rise of the Middle Class

The relationship between the landholders and their laborers may be characterized as follows: a farmer located the owner of uncultivated land and asked the owner of the land to cede the land to him in return for his planting grapevine stock on it. The owner, if interested, recognized the laborer as owner of the land for five to seven years: the amount of time deemed necessary to complete various operations such as tilling, planting, grafting, etc., all of which were both labor and time intensive requirements for the establishment of a healthy vineyard. For the duration of the contract, the laborer would be afforded appropriate shelter along with a small area of land the laborer could use for his personal farming needs.

Upon completion of the contract, the most common arrangement was for the land to be divided into two equal parts. This allowed the original landowner to receive a healthy, working vineyard for the investment of only land and time. Conversely, the farmer received ownership of a working vineyard for the investment of skilled labor and time. A less common contract concluded with the landholder retaining full ownership of the land and receiving payment from the farmer each growing season. Both of these contracts were deemed perpetual and had the ability to be handed down through generations. This, in essence, created a second class of landholders who were able to build their capital through the investment of skilled labor and time.

These types of contracts between skilled labor and landholders had an enormous effect on the fiscal and physical development of twelfth century Barcelona. Vineyard cultivation spread primarily by skilled labor and patience. The creation of vineyards was possible and convenient because it provided a focus for the efforts and ingenuity of manual laborers, providing the ability to become skilled labor vs. unskilled. The subsequent wine trade became a means of exercising socioeconomic or political power in the region, thus providing rapid upward mobility for all involved.

A new middle class was created from the skilled peasant farmer who invested their knowledge, labor, and time. The skilled farmer lived and worked on the land holding in the suburban regions of Barcelona. This allowed landholders to live in the central district of Barcelona, remote from their holdings, as they were not physically needed on the land. Landholders were thus elevated in wealth and class by the investment of land and time.

An economic and regional byproduct of the economic growth of Barcelona was the “allod.” These were small, privately held, single family farms established on in-fill lands between large holdings. As skilled workers began to amass their capital through the development of land holder’s vineyards, some chose to leave, and develop their standalone farms. These families of owner-cultivators enjoyed considerable economic independence at the expense of market buying and selling power. This is further evidence of the establishment of a true middle class.


During this period of agricultural expansion, the city of Barcelona enjoyed a notable increase in production, reflected in associated market expansion and real estate development. As the landholder’s wealth increased, their migration to the central district of Barcelona was reflected in the real estate market, an effect of economic expansion in the region. Building nearest the central district experienced the most notable rise in price, a clear indication of progressive urbanization. Real estate prices rose as the luxury of homes in the central district increased. It became common for wealthy landholders to rebuild old central district homes with modern, elaborate, stone homes. As wealth of the skilled worker increased, improvements to their homes also increased. Rock walls surrounding homes and associated lands were added as displays of wealth vs. actual increase in function.

As landholders’ migration to the central district continued, associated markets were created to service these wealthy citizens. The formal establishment of bakers, butchers, and established markets for goods were increased in relation to the demands of the new urban district. The whole of Barcelona’s society was transformed through this agricultural revolution. Urbanization, population increase, commercial growth, organization of agrarian labor, creation of estates and single family farms, rapid upward movement of social groups, emergence of political power of elites; all resulting characteristics of Barcelona’s urban growth in response to this agricultural revolution in the eleventh century.

Relevance for the Modern World

Barcelona is widely recognized as one of the most successful cities in the world, regularly receiving recognition for its work in urban planning, development, and gentrification of the inner city. In fact, the informal term, “Barcelona Model” is used throughout the academic and professional world to refer to Barcelona’s highly successful urban management and revitalization strategies that have allowed it to navigate modern urban planning with a focus on sustainability, walkability, and “new urbanism.” For students in geography, urban planning, or urban politics, Barcelona provides a perfect city for fieldwork-based research.


In conclusion, the following general points can summarize the urbanization of Barcelona:

  • The agricultural revolution established the basis for initial consolidation of land and capital, which facilitated the development of market-oriented production around 1100.
  • The agricultural revolution favored the upward social growth of lower-class laborers. Patience and ingenuity allowed unskilled peasants to become skilled laborers, and then peasant landowners, establishing a middle-class.
  • The expansion of social classes and monetary wealth allowed for the acceleration of the growth of the city.
  • The agricultural revolution and the associated increase in trade prompted a rise in the price of urban real estate, a clear indication of urbanization.
  • The urban renaissance of the 11th century Barcelona resulted from agricultural revolution of skilled labor rather that technological advancements.
  • Barcelona provides a rich historical backdrop for modern day studies on urbanization and economic models for upward mobility of lower class citizens.