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ETHNONYMS: Méridionaux, Midis


Identification. Occitans are people who live in the predominantly agricultural French meridional and speak langue d'oc. This language is distinct from langue d'oïl, from which "standard" or official French derived. Both geographic and linguistic factors thus define Occitanie. Today the region is fully integrated into the socioeconomic life of France as a whole but, for historicocultural reasons, the Occitans retain a strong sense of "otherness" from the Paris- or north-dominated larger polity. It is defined, essentially, in terms of its opposition to, or difference from, the France of north of the Paris Basin. This being the case, the present essay will concentrate upon the elements of early Occitanian development that established that difference.

Location. "Occitanie" today consists of thirty departments (French administrative divisions) south of the Loire, bordered on the west by the Atlantic, on the east by the Alps, and on the south by the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. The northern limits of the region are less clearly definedwith no true natural frontier between the northern and Southern territories, this northern border is defined more appropriately in linguistic and cultural terms. Occitan Territory largely coincides with six historical provinces: Gascogne, Languedoc, Limousin, Auvergne, Provence, and Dauphiné. One cannot speak of geological or climatic unity for Occitanie. The region's varying sectionsthe north-central area, dominated by the Central Massif; the western and eastern limits, dominated by mountainous terrain; the very different Atlantic and Mediterranean littorals; and the many fertile river valleys throughout the territoryestablish important and distinct ecological zones. Occitanie is located on the border between the temperate and subtropical zones, enjoying on average a higher mean annual temperature than that of the north of France. Summers are, through much of the region, hot and dry. By virtue of its geographic location and environmental conditions, Occitanie comprises the most important agricultural region of France, particularly for cereals, olives, and, of course, some of the world's most famous vineyards.

Demography. Defined by geographical criteria, there are approximately 15 million inhabitants of Occitanie, but not all of these are Occitan according to linguistic and cultural tradition. Of this 15 million, approximately 10 million possess some degree of fluency in one or another of the Occitan dialects, and perhaps 2 million use it in their daily lives. Speakers of Occitan are also found in parts of Catalonia and in villages of the Italian Piedmont, as well as in the Principality of Monaco. In the area today understood as Occitanie, the predominantly rural population is currently suffering a Decline in numbers, largely because the region's economy cannot provide employment for much of its youth. Over the past three decades, out-migration by Occitanians for economic reasons and in-migration by well-to-do northerners seeking a romanticized, bucolic life-style have had a profound effect on the local communities and have undermined the geographical-linguistic association of Occitans and Occitanie. Linguistic Affiliation. Occitan is an Ibero-Romance Language, more strongly influenced by Latin than the "standard" French of the Paris Basin and closely related to Catalan. The langue d'oc/langue d'oïl distinction refers to the retention, in Occitan, of the Latinate "oc" as an equivalent for "oui" (the Parisian form is "oïl"). This distinction directly invokes the differences in linguistic development between the two linguistic traditions in France and also implies different degrees of Germanic and Roman sociocultural influences. Within the linguistic tradition called "Occitan" there is, however, a great deal of dialectic diversity. Perhaps because much of the effort, since the late 1800s, to develop a standard Occitan lexicon and orthography has focused upon the Provençal dialect to the neglect of others in the langue d'oc family, Provençal has often been treated as synonymous with Occitan. Within Occitanie, however, there is no consensus accepting such a presumption. Because of the pervasiveness of the French educational system, which employs the langue d'oïl, there are no longer any purely monolingual speakers of Occitan, and it has come to be considered by many to be a patois used by rustics.

History and Cultural Relations

While there is, in the broadest sense, a geographical and linguistic basis for the designation "Occitan," the developmental trajectory followed by Occitanie that differentiates it from France as a whole is rooted in a series of significant historical and protohistorical events that linked the French meridian more closely with the cultures of the Mediterranean than with that of the Germanic tribes that were much more influential in the north. First to come to the region were the Greeks, who founded Massalia (now Marseille) in 600 b.c. and brought the indigenes of the meridian into the already lively world of Greek-dominated commerce in the Mediterranean. This commercial trade carried with it cultural influences, introducing a Hellenist tradition in architecture and in the layout of urban centers and public monuments that this region shares with the Mediterranean, but not with northern France. The second significant event, or events, was the successive waves of Celts immigrating into the Gallic isthmus, driven there from the north and east by the expansionist movements of Germanic tribes at their backs. Celtic "conquest" of the Territory was by settlement rather than by force of arms. By the time the Romans arrived in the mid-second century b.c.the third profound foreign influencethere already existed a thriving, "modern" Mediterranean culture. The climate favored the adoption of "Mediterranean" crops such as grapes, figs, and grains, while proximity and commercial contact facilitated the adoption of Hellenic modes of social organization and cultural expression.

The Hellenic influence, however strong it may have been on the Mediterranean littoral, was essentially based on Commerce and thus was strongly localized to the area of Marseilles. With the coming of Rome's legions, there emerged for the first time a larger meridional unity. Although Roman Conquest extended far beyond the southern isthmus that is now, properly speaking, Occitanie, it was primarily in the south that the direct effects of Romanization were feltfor here the Romans established true colonies, rather than simple military outposts. The Romans introduced what are now felt to be distinctive characteristics of the region: cities designed and built according to the Roman model; agricultural enterprise ordered on the principles of the latifundia; military monuments and temples celebrating Roman gods; but, above all, the strong Romanization of the language and the introduction of Roman law to the region.

This ostensible unity did not last. Germanic tribes from the east and north, themselves under constant pressure from the westward expansion of the Huns, were moving westward. By the start of the fifth century, the imperial government of Rome could no longer bar their incursion into the Gaulish territories. Quickly losing its more northern holdings to the invading Vandals and Suevis and, later, the Franks, Rome regrouped and Consolidated its presence in the south. Gaul, Brittany, and Spain assumed great importance as a sort of protective buffer zone for Italy. The invaders of the northern part of Gaul took these new territories by force of arms and settled in relatively large numbers. In the south, the newcomers were Visigoths, who constitute the fourth great external influence on the region. The Visigoths approached the annexation of these new lands in a less obtrusive manner than that adopted by the invading tribes in the north. Their settlements were comparatively less numerousthey were not so much interested in land occupation as in administrative and economic control, and so they permitted preexisting cultural practices to coexist with their own.

The first significant historic references to an "Occitan" entity occur in the Middle Ages. This was the time of the Region's flowering in the fields of art, science, letters, and philosophy. The various smaller kingdoms of the region at the time were stabilized in the hands of established familiesfor the most part derived from powerful families of the Gallo-Roman and Gothic periods but also including "made" noble families of Frankish descent, who came to the region during the Carolingian period.

During the 1100s and 1200s, three major houses rose to the status of kingdom (although smaller independent realms had existed in Occitanie prior to this time). These were: Aquitaine, to the west, which later passed through the Plantagenets to English rule for a time; the dynasty of the counts of Saint-Gilles and of Toulouse, in the center and to the east of the region, whose most noted figure was the Count Raimond IV; and finally, in the west, a region in fealty to the Catalans of Spain. The history of the region at this rime is essentially the history of the struggles among these three powers.

Losing, in the late 1200s, in the Albigensian Crusades, Occitanie began also to lose its independence, a process completed in 1471, when English Aquitaine was made part of France. Never again an independent political entity (or entities), Occitanie retained its distinctiveness through the retention of its language. The language was banned from official use in 1539, thus beginning its decline in prestige as well as use, although it never disappeared entirely. The poet Mistral, through his work with the Provençal dialect of Occitan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was one of the first to bring back a certain amount of respect for and appreciation of the Language. He and some colleagues established a movement, the Félibrige, dedicated to standardizing Occitan on the basis of the Provençal dialect and developing an orthography with which to write in it. Throughout its history, the Félibrige has suffered from dissension among its memberspartly because of its having given pride of place to only one of the many Occitanie dialects, and also because the movement soon took on a political role as well, rather than confining itself to purely linguistic and literary concerns. Its current role has lost much of its former political thrust, giving way in that regard to more militant regionalist movements.

During World War II, the concerns of the Occitan Regionalist movements aligned most of their members in support of Petainexceptions included Simone Weil and René Nelli. During the early postwar years, the Institut d'Estudis Occitans attempted to formulate new approaches to the Concept of regionalism, becoming an ideological competitor of the Félibrige. The region's economic problems, arising from the fact that it remains largely agricultural in a national Economy that favors industry, has fed the regionalist movement, giving rise to claims of "interior colonization" by the Paris-based government and financial structure. The region today is splintered among rival political factions, which make any concerted efforts for the overall betterment of the region difficult to organize. Perhaps the most influential of these rival movements is the Comitat Occitan d'Estudis e d'Accion, founded in 1961, whose founders first popularized the term "interior colonization" and focused on increasing the autonomy of the local communities within the region. This group, taken over in 1971 by a more militant and revolutionary Organization called Lutte Occitane, presses on today in pursuit of the creation of an autonomous Occitanie, and it strongly identifies itself with working-class protest movements throughout France.


Occitanie is largely rural in orientation and in organization, although it encompasses important urban centers, the earliest being the Greek-established port city of Marseilles. The historically predominant settlement was the agricultural Village, oriented toward meeting the needs of the large estate-farms (latifundia) common to the region. The oldest quarters of today's villages are commonly found on a hillside, at the peak of which may be found the ruins of the "chateau" that once provided the local economic focus for the village. Distinctive of the houses of this old quarter are their red-tiled roofs and their elevated, or "perched," location on the hillside. In much of Occitanie, these old quarters are in ruins, as are the chateaus around which they are clustered. Cities and villages were frequently walled, although the walls are now usually in ruins as well. The larger villages are also oriented around public squares, the site of weekly markets that are still held today and that have been held for perhaps 800 years.


The economy of Occitanie is largely agricultural, principally concerned with the cultivation of cereals, olives, and other characteristically Mediterranean crops. It is also a notable Region for viticulture, the wines of the south of France being among the most well-known and valued in the worldalthough after viticulture was introduced by the Greeks, they and their Roman successors pronounced the region's product far inferior to the flavored wines of their homelands. Marseilles began as a commercial center for the Greeks and remains an important port on the Mediterranean. Although there has been some industrialization in the region, it remains largely undeveloped in this regard compared to the north. Agriculture has long been practiced according to the extensivefarming concept of the latifundia. Although strongly agricultural, the region has also long possessed a crafts and mercantilist tradition. Tourism, along the Mediterranean littoral in particular, plays an important role in the economy today.

Land Tenure. The latifundist pattern introduced by the Romans meant that, for most of the region's history, property ownership was concentrated in the hands of a relatively small proportion of the local population. Access to land, for most Occitans, was through leasehold. Most often, this meant farming one or several strips, defined as a single plowed length of field, on one or more estates. This entailed villagewide cooperation, particularly at harvest time, for a great many individual leaseholders might possess harvest rights on a single estate. Ownership of the land itself passed from Father to eldest son. Leaseholds were most often handed down generationally as well. Today it is not uncommon for an Individual to own a number of noncontiguous plots of land, Scattered about the village environs, perhaps as a result of the transfer of leasehold rights to private ownership.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Descent is bilaterally reckoned, but with a patrilateral emphasis. The patronym is passed on to offspring.

Marriage. Occitanie is a Christian, predominantly Catholic, region, and marriage rules reflect this fact. Monogamy is both the moral and legal norm. Local endogamy is the most common pattern of spousal selection, but it is not specifically prescribed. Divorce, although it does occur, is not approved.

Domestic Unit. Both the nuclear family and the extended family are commonly encountered, with the extended family (broadly speaking, a nuclear family with at least one collateral- or ascendant-generation family member coresident in the household) being more common in rural villages than in urban centers. A newly married son and his spouse may live with the son's parents for a short time immediately after Marriage. Postmarital residence with the parents of either spouse, however, is explicitly linked to the particular economic necessities faced by the newly married couple, not to socioCulturally defined conditions of propriety.

Socialization. Preschool-age offspring receive their primary care from both parents, although the assumption is that the mother is responsible for most of the day-to-day childcare duties. Children attend local schools, but secondary and postsecondary education may entail leaving the home Community, depending on the locally available educational resources. Higher education has tended to emphasize "Official" (i.e., northern French) language and culturea situation that the regionalist movements of Occitanie have attempted to resist, particularly in the last three decades.

Sociopolitical Organization

Occitanie has been part of greater France since the late 1400s and is merged with the larger polity for all administrative and political functions. Regionalist movements have sought to increase local autonomy, but concessions in this area have so far been mostly limited to linguistic and literary spheres. The diversity of interests within Occitanie, both cultural and Economic, has hindered the perception and pursuit of regionally defined political, cultural, and economic goals.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. With their arrival in the region, the Greeks introduced the worship of their gods, a Religious practice that was supplanted only with great difficulty by Christianity. As late as the late 600s, the Christian church was still encountering opposition, sometimes violent, to its efforts to convert the population. It is perhaps this tenacious retention of pre-Christian practice, as well as the church's willingness to co-opt or incorporate local devotional practice, that explains the novel approaches that characterize early meridional Christianity: a strong interest in cults of the saints and cults of holy relics; a strong monastic tradition; and the numerous holy men, who lived solitary lives of self-abnegation and poverty. This unorthodox approach to Christianity gave rise to the Occitanian reputation as a "land of heretics," for many practices appeared to the church to be a direct attack upon its doctrine, notably the tendency to decry the accumulation of property by the religious. In the twelfth century, the Albigensian Crusades were fueled by church reaction against the heresy of Catharism, which was strong in the region. This event had more political than religious resultsthe defeat of the region in this religion-based war marked the end of Occitanian independence and the incorporation of the region into the kingdom of France. This did not, and does not, mean that the region fell placidly into universal acceptance of Rome's dictates. The "tradition" of southern heresy was continued through the 1500s, for the Region became a refuge for Calviniste, Huguenots, and other Protestants.

Arts. When one speaks of the art of the Occitans, one speaks first of the troubadours of the Middle Ages, who brought their poetry and celebrations of courtly love to the whole of Europe. But Occitanie is well represented in the spheres of philosophy and literature as well by writers such as Montesquieu, Fenelon, De Sade, Pascal, Zola, Compte, and Valéry. Although these writers wrote in the standard French of their time, rather than in Occitan, they represent what has been called a "meridional humanist" tradition, attesting to the fact that for centuries this region was a center for art, philosophy, and science.


Armengaud, André, and Robert Lafont, eds. (1979). Histoire d'Occitanie. Toulouse: Hachette.

Kohler, d'E. (1965). "Observations historiques et sociologiques sur la poésie des troubadours." Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale.

Ladurie, E. Le Roy (1966). Les Paysans de Languedoc. Paris.

Ladurie, E. Le Roy (1980). Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. New York: George Braziller.

Mussot-Goulard, Renée (1978). Les Occitans. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel.

Nelli, René (1978). Mais enfin qu'est-ce que l'Occitanie. Toulouse: Edouard Privat.