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ETHNONYM: Rouergats


Identification. The Aveyron is one of ninety-five departments comprising the French republic. Predominantly rural and agricultural, it is one of the biggest of the French departments, with about half the area of New Jersey. It corresponds almost exactly to the province of the Rouergue, one of the smallest and most isolated in pre-Revolution France and one of the few left intact when the departments were created as administrative units under Napoleon. Like some larger French regions or former provinces (e.g., Brittany, Alsace, Provence) and a few other individual departments, the Rouergue/Aveyron has maintained a specific and widely recognized sociocultural identity within modern France.

Location. Landlocked and far from national boundaries, the Aveyron is located in the west/center of southern France, on the edges of several distinctive regions: the mountainous Massif Central to its east and north, the southwestern plains to its west, the Mediterranean Midi to its south. Its long History of isolation is due in part to its formidable geographic zones. The north Aveyron lies in the Aubrac Mountain range, the south is cut through by the steep gorges of the Tarn River, and the eastern flank is lined with dry and sterile limestone plateaus (the Causses), all inhibiting easy communications within and beyond the Rouergue/Aveyron through much of its history. In the interior is the Ségala region, a well-watered and heavily forested area of high plateaus, rolling hills, and extremely acidic soils. Most of the department's territory is at an elevation of 500 to 800 meters, though descending much lower in the river valleys cutting across the department, and ascending considerably higher on some of the Causses and especially in the Aubrac (up to a 1,400-meter peak). In most of the department, the climate is humid and temperate.

Demography. In 1886, the Aveyron's population reached its historic maximum of 416,000 (1886 French population: 39 million). During the following decades, large numbers of Aveyronnais (especially from the mountainous north) migrated, mainly to Paris but also to southern cities (Toulouse, Montpellier), the Argentine pampas, and San Francisco. Like other rural areas in France, the Aveyron suffered severe Population loss as a result of World War I. During the period of rapid economic growth in France following World War II, great waves of migrants again left the Aveyron, moving predominantly to Paris. By 1975, the department's population had fallen to 278,000 (1975 French population: 52.6 million) where it has since stabilized. The Aveyronnais Community in Paris is a coherent and highly visible one, organized into some seventy-five mutual-aid societies (amicales ) by community or canton of origin. Parisian Aveyronnais are concentrated in the café or café-supply business (controlling about 70 percent of Parisian cafés) and in the lower echelons of the civil service (postal workers, police, etc.). They maintain close ties with the "homeland," to which many return for vacations and retirement.

linguistic Affiliation. As elsewhere in France south of the Loire River, dialects of langue d'oc were historically spoken in the Rouergue/Aveyron. These dialects are linguistically closer to modern Spanish or Italian than to French (descended from the langue d'oïl dialects, spoken north of the Loire). In general, the langue d'oc dialects are strictly oral and vary from village to village, but by convention they are grouped into dialect families, roughly corresponding to large pre-Revolution provinces. The dialects (patois) spoken in the north Aveyron are part of the Auvergnat (northern Massif Central) Family, while those spoken in the rest of the department belong to the Languedocian (western Midi) Family. Throughout the 19th century, the French state vigorously attempted to eradicate local patois and replace them with French as a language of national unity, but in most of rural Aveyron, French has become the primary language spoken at home only since World War II. In general, Aveyronnais born in this century speak fluent French, and those born since 1950 speak it as a first language, but most also understand a patois and many (especially older people) often prefer to use the latter. French will undoubtedly fully replace patois within the next generation or two, but the Aveyron will be one of the last areas of France to abandon its local languages for everyday use, more than a century after the state mandate to do so.

History and Cultural Relations

The Rouergue/Aveyron has a long history as an extremely poor hinterland. Its origins are usually traced to the Rutènes, a Celtic people who had established control over much of modern-day Aveyron by the time of their first contact with the Romans in 121 b.c. (Natives of the capital city of Rodez are still referred to as "Rutenois.") Conquered by Caesar's armies in 52 b.c., the area was part of the Gallo-Roman province of Aquitain for the next five centuries, becoming Christianized near the end of this period. Two constants emerge from the subsequent millennium and a half of Rouergat history. First, from the Gallo-Roman era to the modern French Republics, the Rouergue/Aveyron has been a distant and Generally neglected possession of a succession of regimes: Visigoth, Merovingian, Carolingian, Count of Toulouse, and the kings of France. It has been profoundly marked in myriad ways by the Roman, Toulousan, and French civilizations of which it has been a part, but it has been equally marked by its peripheral status to all of these. Second, the Catholic church has been a constantly powerful force shaping Rouergat history and identity. The counts of Rouergue (first established under Charlemagne) were in chronic conflict with the bishops of Rodez, before and after both became direct vassals of the king of France in 1270. During the twelfth century, much of the Rouergat wilderness was cleared and many agricultural innovations were introduced by the great Cistercian abbeys established in the area. The Rouergue remained a calm Roman Catholic island in the storms raging around the Albigeois heresies just to its southwest and, later, those just to its east around the Reformation. Much later, the French Revolution went relatively unfelt in the Aveyron, until the requirement that priests swear their allegiance to the new constitution prompted popular counterrevolutionary uprisings (1791). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Aveyron has remained a poor and relatively isolated backwater, marked by devout Catholicism and political conservatism, as well as by selective or belated participation in many modern French institutions. By such measures as infant mortality and illiteracy rates, nineteenth-century Aveyron chronically lagged behind French averages. The great French railroad lines built during the nineteenth century, like the royal water-ways and highways of the Ancien Régime and the auto routes of the twentieth century, bypassed the Aveyron. For much of the modern period, the Aveyronnais have been infamous among French administrators for their skills at draft dodging, tax evasion, and manipulation of state agents, as well as their astute use of state institutions (e.g., the judicial apparatus) to settle local scores. During the twentieth century, the Aveyron has served as a labor pool for urban France (especially Paris). Although remaining a rural, agricultural area in postIndustrial France, the Aveyron has largely caught up with French averages in most measures of standards of living, particularly since the 1950s. Habits of using, abusing, and ignoring the institutions emanating from distant centers of state power remain strong.

There exists a well-recognized Aveyronnais/Rouergat stereotype in France, largely internalized by Aveyronnais themselves but perfectly consistent with their unambiguously French identity. Aveyronnais are taken to be hard-working, tight-fisted, devoutly Catholic and politically conservative, fiercely loyal to their homeland, neither as ebullient as Southerners (from the Midi) nor as reserved as northerners. Their strongest image in the national imagination is as the archetypical provincial in Paris, tending café or working behind the window at the post office.


The Aveyron is comprised of nearly 300 townships classified as rural (populations under 2,000), only six centers with more than 5,000 inhabitants, and no cities of national importance. The capital and largest city is Rodez, an administrative center with a 1982 population of 24,000. Two manufacturing centers, Decazeville in the west (coal and steel) and Millau in the east (leather tanning and glove making), achieved some importance in the nineteenth century, but they have long since declined. Rural townships typically are comprised of a small clustered settlement, or bourg, and a number of outlying isolated farms and small hamlets. In some rural areas (Especially the Aubrac Mountains and Tarn Valley), many of the homes are owned by migrants or their descendants and are used only for vacations or retirement.


The Aveyronnais economy is almost exclusively agricultural. Until the twentieth century, most Aveyronnais were subsistence farmers, scraping a meager living from their poor soil and hostile environment. Rye, chestnuts, and (from the mid-nineteenth century) potatoes were the staples in most of the department. The local economy was largely autarkic, with poorly developed markets and little money in circulation. Today, the economy remains predominantly agricultural, but it is thoroughly integrated into national markets. About one-third of the Aveyronnais labor force is employed in production agriculture (compared to less than one-tenth in France as a whole). Most farms are small, family-owned operations engaged in the intensive livestock production that represents over 90 percent of Aveyronnais agricultural goods sold. The Aveyron is France's largest producer of sheep, most of them raised for the milk needed to make Roquefort cheese in the southeastern Aveyronnais village of Roquefort. The single most important category of farm production is dairy products and beef, accounting for about 40 percent of marketed agricultural goods. Most farms produce enough fodder for their herds (although few sell cereals or forage), and many also raise labor-intensive specialty crops under contract to agribusiness firms (e.g., gherkins, strawberries, tobacco, hybrid seed corn). Although cattle and sheep have long been raised by those (increasingly numerous) Aveyronnais farmers sufficiently prosperous to participate in a market economy, neither beef nor mutton figure in the local diet. Virtually all farm and many nonfarm households produce for home consumption the array of pork and poultry foods (e.g., dried and fresh sausage, cured ham, pâtés, foie gras, confit [meat preserved in fat]) for which the region is renowned. The local diet, based on pork and poultry fats, is distinguishable both from the butter-and-cream diets in northern France and olive-oil regimes to the south. In general, those areas of the Aveyron that are ill-adapted to farm mechanization (e.g., Tarn Valley, Aubrac Mountains) or are only marginally productive even with modern chemical and mechanical technologies (e.g., the Causses) have been largely depopulated and abandoned as farmland. Elsewhere (especially the Segala), intensive agriculture requiring dedicated skilled labor and relatively little land thrives. With the shift to lucrative specialty production, the Aveyronnais economy requires and can sustain a variety of agriculture-related activities. Although about 70 percent of the Aveyronnais labor force now works outside of production agriculture, the overwhelming majority is employed in jobs relating to farm inputs, outputs, or the various human services (e.g., education, health, housing) required by a prosperous farm population. Other economic activities are virtually absent from the department. Attempts have been made to develop a tourist industry, but the area is too remote and inaccessible to attract other than its migrant native sons and daughters. Some remnants remain of the leatherworking industry in Millau and the coal and steel center around Decazeville, but these industries are virtually moribund. With the exception of the cartel of Roquefort cheese firms (the Aveyron's single largest employer), the food-processing industry is weakly developed.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The key unit among rural Aveyronnais farmers is the ostai or "house," a farm unit associated with an ongoing patriline (designated by a family name) and a fixed location in space (designated by a place name). Kinship is figured bilaterally, but the core of the ostai is an unbroken, singlestranded father-to-son line. In general, the eldest son carries on the line, inheriting the farm and fathering its next heir. Other children are distanced from the line. They may move away from the farm, keeping the family name but losing identity with its named place. Alternatively, they may stay but must remain unmarried, becoming collaterals rather than ascendants to the line. In this system, more emphasis is placed on descent than on affinal ties. The key relationship is Between father and eldest son. The mother-eldest son tie is also important: an in-marrying woman, permanently alien to the line, establishes herself within it as mother to its heir, her eldest son, a relationship she is expected to carefully develop and defend in turn against the demands of his own wife, her daughter-in-law.

Marriage. An ostai heir is expected to marry the daughter of an ostai of equal status to his. The bride, bringing a dowry of cash or movable goods, joins the ostai household of her husband and his parents. In the absence of a male heir an heiress is designated; she is normally expected to marry a younger son from a socially superior ostai, who also brings a dowry and moves into the household of his wife and parents. Otherwise, daughters and younger sons are expected to marry someone of roughly equivalent social status, do not receive dowries, and set up households separate from the parents of either. Divorce is not tolerated and premature widowhood of an in-marrying spouse is problematic. If childless, she or he may be sent away with her or his dowry. A widowed inmarrying spouse with small children is expected to marry the brother- or sister-in-law who will replace the deceased as heir to the ostai. If the children are nearly grown, the widow or widower may temporarily take over the ostai until the legitimate heir is able to do so.

Domestic Unit. The ostai household ideally takes a stem family form: an older couple, their eldest son and heir with his wife and children, and their unmarried daughters and younger sons. This pattern, requiring some measure of prosperity, has become more frequent, at least in some areas of the Aveyron, as the local economy has moved away from meager subsistence levels. Nonostal households generally take a nuclear family form.

Inheritance. The Aveyron, in a region of southwestern and central France where impartible inheritance was practiced historically, stands out today as a department in which this practice persists most strongly, despite its illegality since the promulgation of the Napoleonic Code nearly two centuries ago. Generally, farms are passed intact from father to eldest son. Farm value is routinely underassessed, and the share legally due to daughters and younger sons frequently remains an unpaid and unexpected promise. Recourse through the court system is generally considered an unattractive alternative to the social pressures and internalized values underpinning the "rights of the eldest" (droit de l'ainesse ). The incidence of male primogeniture inheritance, like that of stem family households, has increased with growing prosperity.

Sociopolitical Organization

Modern France is a highly centralized nation, with most Political power and socially dominant groups concentrated in Paris. Although there is some social and political fluidity, class consciousness is strong and the weight of the centralized bureaucracy heavy.

Social Organization. The Aveyronnais have an acute sense of social stratification, generally perceiving the world as organized in a hierarchical mode, manageable by astute appeal to higher-ups. Social distinctions were once land-based: landless laborers, smallholders/artisans, full-time landholding peasants, prosperous peasants (pages), landed gentry (urban bourgeoisie or petty nobility). Under current conditions, landless agricultural laborers and the landed gentry have all but disappeared, as have material distinctions among the intermediate groups. Nonetheless, fine grades of social difference based on property ownership, education level, income, and style are noted, reproduced, and capitalized upon.

Political Organization. As everywhere in France, each township is administered by a town council popularly elected every six years and headed by a mayor chosen by the council from among its members. A departmental legislature, composed of popularly elected representatives from each of the forty-three cantons and headed by a president chosen by this body, manages departmental affairs. Formal powers at both these levels are severely constrained under the French constitution. The chief executive of the department is the prefect, appointed by the French minister of the interior. In national elections, the Aveyronnais vote is generally heavily weighted toward the center right, and in local elections toward those with the highest perceived social status, understood as implying best-placed contacts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Rouergue/Aveyron has long stood out as one of the most devoutly Catholic areas of France by such measures as church attendance, participation in religious pilgrimages, percentage of schoolchildren enrolled in Catholic schools, number of priests per capita, and percentage of population joining convents or the priesthood. As virtually everywhere in France, there has been a decline among all of these indicators over the last thirty years, but the Aveyron figures remain much higher than national averages. Arts. There once existed a lively oral tradition of stories, sayings, and songs in the patois, generally centered on wily or foolish peasants or animals. Although this tradition has not altogether disappeared from everyday life, it has been increasingly codified as folklore and relegated to performance by the several urban folklore societies organized especially in Rodez and Paris.

Medicine. Aveyronnais make ample use of bioscientific medicine (reimbursable under the French national health insurance plan), readily combining it with the use of healers who unofficially practice herbal medicine or the laying on of hands throughout the countryside. Some maladies are considered more treatable by one system or the other, but for many ailments it is considered prudent to try both.


Béteille, Roger (1978). Rouergue: Terre d'exode. Paris: Hachette.

Engalbert, Henri, ed. (1979). Histoire du Rouergue. Toulouse: Privat.

Groger, Lisa (1981). "Of Men and Machines: Co-operation among French Family Farmers." Ethnology 20:163-76.

Rogers, Susan Carol (1985). "Gender Stratification in Southwestern France: The Myth of Male Dominance Revisited." Anthropology 2:65-86.

Rogers, Susan Carol (1991). French Trajectories: Shaping Modern Times in Rural Aveyron. Princeton: Princeton University Press.