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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/February 1888/An Outcast Race in the Pyrenees

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 32‎ | February 1888


UNDER the name of Cagots there live in the Pyrenees and the old Aquitanian regions on both sides of them—in the Spanish Upper and the French Lower Navarre, in Béarn, Gascony, Guienne, and Lower Poitou—a peculiar race who have been much talked about and have attracted the attention of the peoples about them from very ancient times. Formerly the Cagots (whose name linguists derive from canis Gothicus, Gothic dog) were confounded with Cretins. The association was a mistaken one for the Cagots, with their large, muscular forms, shapely skull, prominent nose, strongly-marked features, blue eyes, and smooth, blonde hair, are decidedly different from that weak-minded, deformed, and goitrous class; and their physical appearance, in fact, goes to sustain the etymology of their name that we have mentioned, and to indicate a possible derivation from the Aryan Goths. The type of which we speak also corresponds fully with the race-relatives of the Cagots living outside of the Pyrenees, who are variously called, according to the place, Cahets, Caqueux, Caquins, Cacoas, Collibrets, etc., and are spread to Lower Poitou, in Brittany and Marne, and far down into Spain.

The race of the Cagots was for hundreds of years superstitiously avoided by the other inhabitants of the country, despised, persecuted, repelled, treated as if abandoned and outcast, and restricted in all legal and social rights. Dark superstition and the prejudice of earlier times attributed to them a constant leprosy; they were supposed to have a peculiar repulsive exhalation, to be destitute of earlaps, to be color-blind, to see in the night like cats and owls, and were accused of pretended, likewise disgraceful offenses. They were treated as feeble beings, afflicted with contagious disease and moral impurities, who should not be touched, and with whom as little business intercourse should be had as possible. Down to the seventeenth century they were thus treated. If they lived in the towns, they were confined to a particular quarter in which the other citizens rarely came; if they came out of their quarter, they were obliged to wear a piece of red cloth on some conspicuous part of their dress, so that others might recognize them and keep away from them. On the plains they dwelt for the most part in miserable huts, which were separated from the town by a wood or by running Avater. In the church they were separated from the rest of the congregation by a wooden partition, and had to go in and out by a separate door. Holy water, the communion, and the other blessings of religion were forbidden them, and they could take part in the processions only under particular conditions; and the corpses of their dead were buried, without bells and music, in a separate burial-ground, or in a separate corner of the common cemetery.

The same kind of contempt and ill-treatment was measured out to the relatives of this race in other Pyrenean provinces, where they were formerly numerous, but have now nearly died out in consequence of persecutions. The Agotes, as they were there called, were formerly very numerous in the Basque provinces, and they can still occasionally be found sprinkled among the people. They were there equally despised and regarded as an unclean race, excluded from association with the rest of the people, compelled to seek abodes in caves, secluded hamlets, and miserable huts; they could fill no office; could not sit at table with other persons, or drink out of the same cup for fear that they would communicate some poison or impurity to the dish; and were not allowed to go into the church to receive their portion of the mass, but had to wait at the door till the priest brought it out to them. Marriage with them was as disgraceful as if it were with Moors, gypsies, or other non-Christians; and they were supposed to communicate disease and horrible ills to whoever touched them. The Cahets in Guienne were the objects of similar reproach and adverse regulations.

The reason of the superstitious prejudice and hatred against this people and their origin has not been discovered, although the subject has been an object of investigation and much discussion during the last four hundred years. The conjecture already referred to, which has long prevailed in France, that the Cagots and other despised castes in the Basque lands' were descendants of the Visigoths, who were conquered by Clovis, and fled to the mountains, has been shown to be baseless and untenable. Many of the most esteemed and distinguished families of Gascony, Aquitaine, and Béarn were descended from the Visigoths; and those brave heroes were not afflicted with any of the personal defects, or anything like them, which were attributed to the Cagots.

Another conjecture, which was partly held to by the Cagots themselves, made them descendants of the Albigenses, whom Pope Innocent III outlawed and banished in the beginning of the thirteenth century. It is an historical fact that these poor persecuted heretics or opponents of the papacy were then regarded as the scum of mankind; but then they received in these districts of the present France more sympathy and adhesion than the popes themselves. Moreover, the Cagots were in existence as a despised race more than two hundred years before the crusade against the Albigenses. Pierre de Marca thought that the Cagots were descendants of those Moors from Spain who remained in Gascony and Aquitaine after their leader had been vanquished by Charles Martel on the slopes of the Pyrenees. But this view is contradicted by the decided northern type which is still recognizable in the bodily appearance of the Cagots, and by the historical fact that those Moors were eventually converted to Christianity, and became blended with the other French nationalities.

Caxar Amant ascribed a Jewish origin to the Cagots, and endeavored to sustain his opinion by a garbled quotation of a Biblical verse. Another writer made them descendants of the Jews who came to Southern Europe after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Abbé Venuti supposed that they were descendants of Crusaders who returned from the Holy Land after the first Crusade, afflicted with disease. Count Gebalin saw in them the descendants of the aborigines of the Pyrenean lands, who were reduced to a condition of outlawry like that of the lowest castes and tribes in modern India. Another view, by which they were regarded as the descendants of those Spaniards who were in the conspiracy against Charlemagne and participated in the battle of Roncesvalles, has been disproved by a comparison of dates and places.

The later explanations of the origin of the Cagots are more plausible, though not quite historically convincing. A French investigator, M. Francisque Michel, has written a valuable book on the "History of the Accursed Races of France and Spain," in which he has sought with great consistency, as M. Louis Lande has also done in the "Revue des Deux Mondes," to prove that leprosy was the cause of the terrible and ignoble treatment which the Cagots have had to endure.

There is not in France or Spain any particular sect or district which has made itself conspicuous by the indefinite fear of these outcasts. But if we consider the popular belief, which persisted to a very recent period, that they had been or still were afflicted with leprosy, all will be made clear. Etymological research has shown that the name Cagot is associated with this disease in several of the French dialects. Evidently, if the fact or the opinion that the Cagots had been afflicted with leprosy was the provocative to the treatment which they had to endure in the dark ages, most of the prejudices against them would correspond with those which were formerly entertained against lepers. A later French writer, M, de Rochas, who has made a thorough study of the history and condition of the Cagots, in order to explore the subject to the bottom, made several journeys in the northern and southern outlying provinces of the Pyrenees during the last Carlist war, and visited some of the Cagots still scattered here and there among the population. He found everywhere that the descendants of the Cagots were quite like the rest of the population in bodily and mental characteristics, that they in no way suggested a strange origin, nor were they distinguished by any unusual or abnormal mark, lie found, also, that while marriages of the Cagots with the rest of the population were rare, the two classes associated together on the same footing, their grown people and children attended the same churches, and that they both exhibited about the same degree of mental capacity. Every trace of leprosy, goiter, and cretinism has disappeared from among the Cagots of to-day. Some of them, it is true, are afflicted with scrofula, which, however, is not of hereditary or pestilential origin, but is traceable to poverty, insufficient food, poor, filthy houses, and physical neglect. In a Spanish commune, among whose inhabitants were many descendants of the once outcast race, M. de Rochas found those persons vigorous, healthy, sagacious, and apt; they were tilling small plots of ground, raising swine and hens, and pursuing about the same occupations as their neighbors. They were still patiently subject to a few of the old hostile usages of exclusion—for instance, to the prohibition of marriage outside of their own circle—but only because it was an old custom, for which they or their neighbors could not give a sufficient account. The members of the Cagot village were not physically or morally distinguishable from the rest of their countrymen; and it was plainly to be seen that the old prejudices against the Cagots had died out.

The French government and laws before the Revolution did very little for the protection of the Cagots, Better conditions have grown up since then. As soon as science began to busy itself with the investigation of the phenomena of Cagotism and to expose the baselessness of the prejudices against those people, the prejudices began to weaken; and they seem now to have quite disappeared.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.