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The Cagots (pronounced: [ka.ɡo]) were a persecuted and despised minority found in the west of France and northern Spain: the Navarrese Pyrenees, Basque provinces, Béarn, Aragón, Gascony and Brittany. Their name has differed by province and the local dialect: Cagots, Gézitains, Gahets, and Gafets in Gascony; Agotes, Agotac, and Gafos in Basque country; Capots in Anjou and Languedoc; and Cacons, Cahets, Caqueux, and Caquins in Brittany. Evidence of the group exists back as far as AD 1000.
Cagots were shunned and hated. They were required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages. Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were only allowed to enter a church by a special door, and during the service a rail separated them from the other worshipers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use. They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress, to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called "Canards"). So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.
The Cagots were not an ethnic group, nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families identified as Cagots. Few consistent reasons were given as to why they should be hated; accusations varied from Cagots being cretins, lepers, heretics, cannibals, to simply being intrinsically evil. The Cagots did have a culture of their own, but very little of it was written down or preserved; as a result, almost everything that is known about them relates to their persecution. Their cruel treatment lasted through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Industrial Revolution, with the prejudice fading only in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The origins of both the term "Cagots" (and "Agotes", "Capots", "Caqueux", etc.) and the Cagots themselves are uncertain. It has been suggested that they were descendants of the Visigoths, and the name Cagot derives from caas (dog) and "Goth". Yet in opposition to this etymology is the fact that the word "cagot" is first found in this form no earlier than the year 1542. 16th century French historian Pierre de Marca, in his Histoire de Béarn, propounds the reverse – that the word signifies "hunters of the Goths", and that the Cagots were descendants of the Saracens. The theory that the Cagots were "descendants of Moorish soldiers left over from the 8th century Muslim invasion of Spain and France", a 2008 article in The Independent states, "is supported by many French experts."
Another theory is that the Cagots were descendents of the Cathars, who had been persecuted for heresy in the Albigensian Crusade. A delegation to Pope Leo X in 1514 made this claim, though the Cagots predate the Cathar heresy.
One early mention of the Cagots is from 1288, when they appear to have been called Chretiens or Christianos. Thus, another theory is that the Cagots were early converts to Christianity. The hatred of their pagan neighbors continued after they themselves converted, merely for different reasons. Another possible explanation of their name Chretiens or Christianos is to be found in the fact that in medieval times all lepers were known as pauperes Christi, and that, whether Visigoths or not, these Cagots were affected in the Middle Ages with a particular form of leprosy or a condition resembling it, such as psoriasis. Thus would arise the confusion between Christians and Cretins. However, early edicts apparently refer to lepers and cagots as different categories of undesirables.
In Bordeaux, where they were numerous, they were called ladres, close to the Spanish ladrón meaning robber or looter, similar to older, probably Celtic term bagaudae (or bagad), a possible origin of agote.
The alleged physical appearance and ethnicity of the Cagots varied wildly from legends and stories; some local legends (especially those that held to the leper theory) indicated cagots had blonde hair and blue eyes, while those favoring the Arab descent story said cagots were considerably darker. One common trend was to claim that cagots had no ear lobes, or that one ear was longer than the other.
Graham Robb finds most of the above theories unlikely:
Nearly all the old and modern theories are unsatisfactory... the real "mystery of the cagots" was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whatever dialect was spoken in the region and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots... The only real difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skillful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.
A modern theory of interest is that the Cagots are the descendents of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters. This theory would explain the most salient thing Cagots throughout France and Spain have in common: that is, being restricted in their choice of trade. The red webbed-foot symbol Cagots were sometimes forced to wear could have been the guild's original symbol. There was a brief construction boom on the Way of St. James pilgrimage route in the 9th and 10th centuries; this could have brought the guild both power and suspicion. The collapse of their business would have left a scattered yet cohesive group in the areas where Cagots are known.
Cagots were forced to use a side entrance to churches, often an intentionally low one to force Cagots to bow and remind them of their subservient status. This practice, done for cultural rather than religious reasons, did not change even between Catholic and Huguenot areas. They had their own holy water fonts set aside for Cagots, and touching the normal font was strictly forbidden. These restrictions were taken seriously; in the 18th century, even a wealthy Cagot had his hand cut off and nailed to the church door for daring to touch the font reserved for "clean" citizens.
Cagots were expected to slip into churches quietly and congregate in the worst seats. They received the host in communion only at the end of a stick. Many Bretons believed that Cagots bled from their navel on Good Friday.
An appeal by the Cagots to Pope Leo X in 1514 was successful, and he published a bull instructing that the cagots be "[treated] with kindness, in the same way as the other believers." Still, little changed, as most local authorities ignored the bull.
The nominal though usually ineffective allies of the Cagots were the government, the educated, and the wealthy. It has been suggested that the odd patchwork of areas which recognized Cagots has more to do with which local governments tolerated the prejudice, and which allowed Cagots to be a normal part of society. In a study in 1683, doctors examined the Cagots and found them no different from normal citizens. Notably, they did not actually suffer from leprosy or any other disease that would justify their exclusion from society. The Parliaments of Pau, Toulouse and Bordeaux were apprised of the situation, and money was allocated to improve the lot of the Cagots, but the populace and local authorities resisted.
In 1709, the influential politician Juan de Goyeneche planned and constructed the manufacturing town of Nuevo Baztán (after his native Baztan Valley in Navarre) near Madrid. He brought many Cagot settlers to Nuevo Baztán, but after some years, many returned to Navarre, unhappy with their work conditions.
It was not until the French Revolution that substantive steps were taken to end discrimination toward Cagots. Revolutionary authorities made clear that Cagots were no different from other citizens, and de jure discrimination generally came to an end. Still, local prejudice from the populace persisted, though the problem at least began to decline.
During the Revolution, Cagots had stormed government offices and burned birth certificates in an attempt to conceal their heritage. These measures did not prove effective, as the local populace still remembered. Rhyming songs kept the names of Cagot families known.
Today the Cagots no longer form a separate social class and have largely assimilated into the general population. Very little of Cagot culture still exists, as most Cagots have preferred not to be known as Cagots.
There was a distinct Agote community in Navarre up to the early 20th century, with the small northern village called Arizkun in Basque (or Arizcun in Spanish) being the last haven of this segregation, where the community was contained within the neighborhood of Bozate.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Cagots.|