The Cagots, or Agotes, were an ethnic minority that inhabited parts of the Pyrenees Mountains, which form a natural border between France and Spain. Spurned by the local populations until the early twentieth century, they lived a nomadic life as outcasts, principally in the Spanish and French Basque provinces, including Béarn and Gascony, parts of the Languedoc, and as far north as Brittany. Also known as Ghézitains, Gahets, Gafos, Canards (“ducks”) and Chrestians (or Chrestias), the name Cagot is believed to derive from the Vulgate Canis Gothi, or “Dog of a Goth.”
Although their origins remain shrouded in mystery, many believe that the Cagots were a group of Visigoths who refused to abandon Arianism when Reccared, the king of the Visigoths, renounced Arian Christianity and converted to Catholicism in 587. Although fantastic descriptions of Cagots go back to the Carolingian period (c. 751–987), at the height of the thirteenth century repression of the Albigensian heresy in southern France they were referred to as Chrestians, one of the names the Albigensian Cathars used for themselves. Perhaps for this reason, a group of Cagots identified themselves as the last descendants of the Albigenses in a petition to Pope Leo X in 1517, in which they requested absolution for the heresy of their forefathers. The Pontiff responded in a bull that they should be treated fairly.
Partly because of this history, the Cagots were subjected to hate-filled discrimination for nearly seven hundred years. Shunned as lepers, pagans, and even cannibals, they were forced to live in ghettoes called cagoteries where they were only permitted the occupations of carpenter, butcher, or executioner. Similar to the fate of their fellow pariahs, the Hindu Dalit, or “Untouchables,” the Cagots were not allowed to go barefoot because of the alleged overwhelming stench of their feet. When they were permitted entrance to a Church (in many cases they were refused admittance), they were segregated from the rest of the congregation, and the Eucharist was handed to them at the end of a long stick. They were compelled to wear the sign of a duck or goose foot in red (hence the name “canards”), and because it was believed that they were carriers of leprosy, they were obliged to carry a bell to warn all others of their approach.
The Cagots were treated as an inferior race, and legend attributed various bizarre physical features to them. They are often described in medieval archives as being completely bald, with webbed hands and feet and missing ears or ear lobes. Various nineteenth century authors, however, attributed typical Germanic traits (such as blond hair and blue eyes) to them. The Basque author Pio Baroja (1872–1956) described the Cagots in his memoir Las horas solitarias as “a central European type or a Northerner. There are elderly in Bozate (a Navarran locality) that look like they stepped out of a portrait by Dürer, with a Germanic look. There are also others, with long faces and darker complexions, who remind me of gypsies.”
Despite various attempts to improve their standing over the centuries, substantial progress came only after the French Revolution and the establishment of the First Empire. In 1818, the Navarran Cortes (legislature) in Pamplona voted to abrogate the discriminatory laws that had been in effect since the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, racial prejudice against the Cagots lasted well into the twentieth century. By the end of that century, thanks to intermarriage, they had melded into the local populations, finally ending a seven-hundred-year-old history of repression and discrimination.
Aguirre Delclaux, and Maria del Carmen. 2006. Los Agotes, el final de una maldicion. Madrid: Silex Ediciones.
Baroja, Pio. 1918. Las horas solitarias, notas de un aprendiz psicologo. Madrid: R. Caro Raggio.
Descazeaux, René. 2002. Les Cagots, histoire d’un secret. Monein, France: PyréMonde.