The Cagots of France

The Cagots of France Essay
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A procession of Cagots, with duck or goose foot attached to their clothing, arrive on the banks of the Lapaca. Histoire épisodique du vieux Lourdes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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In my last two essays, I discussed the social evil of untouchability prevailing in India and Korea. Now, in this essay, I would like to discuss the Cagots, who were a persecuted minority in France and in the north of Spain. One can say that the Cagots fall into the category of untouchables, equivalent to the Dalits of India and the Baekjeong of Korea.

I am quite sure not many outside of France have heard or know anything about the Cagots, and with this essay of mine, I hope to address that.

So let us begin with who exactly were the Cagots.

As mentioned above, the Cagots were a group of people primarily from the west of France and the north of Spain, who were historically persecuted and discriminated against by the members of normal society. The Cagots are said to date back to as far as 1000 C.E. as per the most recent and updated evidence we have managed to acquire.

Mainly found in the regions of Bearn, Brittany, Gascony, the Navarrese Pyrenees, Aragon, Asturias, and the Basque provinces, the Cagots were called by different names depending on the region where they lived. For instance, in the regions of Armagnac, Anjou, and Languedoc they were called Capots or Gens des Marais (meaning Marsh People). In Bordeaux, they were called Cahets or Ladres. In the Spanish Basque country, they were known as Agotes. In the French Basque country, they were known as Agoth or Agotac. And in Brittany, they were called Caquots.

Unfortunately, the origin of the term Cagots, as well as the origin of the people referred to as Cagots remains uncertain and is still debated among scholars to this day. Needless to say, due to the lack of evidence regarding this subject matter, several theories and legends have sprung up to explain the origin of the Cagots. But more on that later.

Historically, the Cagots were victims of several discriminatory practices. They were restricted to a limited number of occupations such as carpentry, woodcutting, butchering, ropemaking, weaving, blacksmithing, woodcarving, masonry, making and operating instruments of execution, etc. These occupations were looked down upon in society by the general populace and were considered impure and polluting, therefore resulting in the ostracization of the Cagots.

The Cagots were prohibited from the following – touching food in the market, entering mills, selling wine and food, working with livestock, marrying a non-Cagot, joining the priesthood, entering public taverns, using public wells and fountains, having the same burial grounds as the non-Cagots, sitting with non-Cagots during a church service, entering a church through a door used by non-Cagots, walking barefoot on a common road, drinking from the same cup as non-cagots, having a surname in registers and records as their names usually carried the term Cagot after their first name.

Discrimination against the Cagots began from birth when the baptism of a Cagot child could only take place at night and no church bells were rung to celebrate their baptism, as was done for non-Cagot children. Even at church, the Cagots were either not given the eucharist or it was given to them with a wooden spoon.

In many regions, the Cagots were expected to wear cloaks with yellow trim or clothes with a goose foot either sewn into it or attached to it in order for others to identify them as Cagots. There were several other such discriminatory practices the Cagots were subjected to.

And due to all these restrictive practices and the limited number of occupations they were allowed to undertake, the Cagots found it impossible to integrate into normal society or find opportunities for advancement. All this led to them being socially excluded from society, compelling them to live in hamlets on the outskirts of villages.

The Cagots were said to be found in over 137 villages and towns and were part of around 40% of the communities outside the mountain regions. They usually lived outside the town or village walls or across rivers, separate from the rest of the population.

As the centuries passed by, things became worse for the Cagots as the discriminatory practices they were subjected to were eventually codified into French law in 1460, thereby legally depriving them of any social, civil, or political rights.

Similar to the tradition of untouchability in other cultures, the Cagots were not a distinct race or religious or ethnic group but looked the same as the non-Cagots, spoke the same language, and practiced the same religion as the rest of the population. In fact, many scholars have come to the conclusion that there is no definite evidence of any feature that made the Cagots different or unique in any way from the non-Cagots.

It is believed that a Cagot was identified as and referred to as a Cagot primarily because of their occupation and ancestry, with no other factor proving to distinguish them from the others. Again, much like the tradition of untouchability in other cultures, the descendants of Cagots were also identified as Cagots by birth, thereby limiting them to their few traditional occupations.

To make matter worse, rumors and myths were spread about them in society. They were accused of being cannibals, heretics, sexual deviants, lepers, sorcerers, cretins, werewolves, or simply evil.

They were also believed to be intellectually inferior to non-Cagots and thought to be afflicted with congenital disabilities. Many even believed that Cagots could make non-Cagot children sick merely by looking at or touching them.

Such perception of the Cagots and the oppression resulting from it lasted up until the 19th century when it began slightly changing and fading.

Let us now take a look at the different theories and speculations put forward to explain the origin of the Cagots.

Historically speaking, the origin theories for the Cagots go back to biblical times. According to one of the legends, the Cagots were descendants of the bricklayers who constructed Solomon’s temple after being expelled by God from ancient Israel on grounds of poor craftsmanship. However, not many details are known about this legend.

A slightly more detailed legend is that the Cagots were originally from Spain and were descendants of a Pyrenean carver who went to ancient Israel to cast Boaz and Jachin, two copper or brass, or bronze pillars that stood on the porch of Solomon’s temple. While casting the Jachin, he was distracted by a woman, which resulted in an imperfection in the pillar. This imperfection led to his descendants being cursed to suffer leprosy.

Many also believed that the Cagots were actually descendants of the carpenters who made the cross on which Jesus was crucified, which led them to be despised by society.

Now, you might be wondering if any of these legends are true and accurate or not. In all likelihood, they are probably not true. These explanations seem to be more like myths and made-up legends rather than factual theories. There is no evidence whatsoever to support these explanations and no grounds to accept them as the truth. Needless to say, one must not take these explanations seriously.

Another theory put forward was that the Cagots, who were commonly referred to as Cretins, Chistianos, or Chretiens, happened to suffer from a particular form of leprosy or a condition quite similar to it such as psoriasis during the medieval period. And as lepers were known as pauperes Christi during this period, it is speculated that this gave birth to the confusion between the terms Cretins and Christians.

If this confusion indeed did occur, then it could explain the similar restrictions and discriminations faced by both Cagots and lepers. And eventually, over the course of centuries, this confusion was what probably led to the belief that all Cagots suffered from leprosy and hence must be avoided. Even the Cagots who showed no signs of leprosy at all were considered lepers and were called white lepers who suffered from white leprosy.

This also led to the belief in Navarre that the Cagots were descendants of French immigrant lepers.

However, some edicts around the late 16th century make a distinction between Cagots and lepers, referring to them as different categories of undesirables or untouchables.

Many tried to attribute a fixed physical appearance to the Cagots, such as by believing them to be either dark and of Arab descent or white with blue eyes and blonde hair of Germanic descent. However, this was proved to be false when it was discovered that the Cagots were a diverse group of people with diverse physical appearances, just like the non-Cagots.

And since they could not be distinguished from the non-Cagots in physical appearance, rumors began circulating that the Cagots possessed webbed hands and feet or either had only one ear or no ears at all or that one ear was bigger or longer than the other. They were also believed to have goiters.

Obviously, these rumors were just rumors and nothing more. The fact that the Cagots, who were persecuted for centuries, had no distinguishing physical or cultural, or religious features at all when compared to the non-Cagots, is exactly what makes their persecution even more surprising and unfounded, and unjust.

The Cagots practiced the same religion as the non-Cagots in a particular region, which was mostly Christianity. In fact, the fact that the Cagots were referred to as Christianus, Crestiens, or Chrestia during Medieval times gave rise to the theory that they were actually pagans who were early converts to Christianity, but continued to be discriminated against by the people who were converted later on due to their pagan descent.

However, this theory too cannot be verified due to a lack of evidence. But if this particular theory were true, it is a shame to see how these early converts were treated by the Church and by society in general. The Church and the non-Cagot church-goers imposed strict, harsh, and humiliating restrictions on the Cagot church-goers.

Apart from being required to use a low side entrance reserved for them and sitting on terrible seats, the Cagots were also prohibited from using the general holy water fonts used by the non-Cagots and were required to have their own fonts just for the Cagots. This rule was so seriously followed that it is said that on one particular occasion when a rich Cagot dared to touch the font reserved for the non-Cagots, his hand was cut off and nailed to the church door as punishment as well as a warning for the other Cagots.

However, just as in the case of every historical subject, this particular theory is also often challenged by contradicting theories. Some scholars believe that the Cagots were possibly a culturally distinct community of woodsmen who were Christianized relatively late.

Again, who knows the truth? We cannot say for sure.

In 1515, after an appeal by a delegation of Cagots, Pope Leo X published a papal decree, asking that the Cagots be treated with kindness and equality as the other believers were treated. However, the decree resulted in no change of circumstances for the Cagots as the common people and the authorities ignored the decree and continued to discriminate against the Cagots.

But as the years passed by, certain mild improvements in the conditions and treatment of the Cagots took place as examinations by doctors during various periods revealed that Cagots were no different from non-Cagots in any way and did not suffer from leprosy or any other disease more than the non-Cagots.

This realization helped improve their status in governments and among the educated. The parliaments of Bordeaux, Pau, and Toulouse even allocated money for the betterment of the Cagots and called for tolerance toward the Cagots.

All these minor improvements, although good and positive, were merely superficial measures taken to alleviate the plight of the Cagots. The common people and even the local authorities continued to ignore these changes. In fact, in most regions, it was the educated, wealthy, and powerful citizens who advocated putting an end to the discrimination against the Cagots and called for them to be integrated into normal society.

In the 17th century, French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert even went as far as to officially free the Cagots residing in France from restrictions and from servitude to parish churches. Sadly, this measure too proved useless.

In 1723, the parliament of Bordeaux took the bold step of declaring a fine of 500 French Livres for any citizen who discriminated against or insulted Cagots or their descendants and gave strict instructions that the Cagots be treated with equality and be recognized as honorable citizens of society just like the non-Cagots in churches, government offices, galleries, assemblies, schools, colleges, etc.

This strict instruction greatly helped to stimulate some improvement in the lives of the Cagots. By the end of the French Revolution, during which substantial steps were taken to end the discrimination against the Cagots, the legalized restrictions the Cagots were subjected to were brought to an end and the practice of excluding and persecuting them fell into decline.

Although the stubborn common people of society tried to continue with this practice, its end was very near. By the late 20th century, this social evil had as good as come to an end, with very few occurrences taking place or reported.

Fortunately, in today’s contemporary world, the Cagots no longer exist as a separate social class at the bottom end of the hierarchy. And since the majority of them have more or less successfully integrated into normal society and have become a part of the general population, they no longer have to live in separate settlements across rivers or on the outskirts of villages and towns.

Even though things are not entirely perfect yet, the end of discrimination and this practice of untouchability against the Cagots serve as a great example to other cultures where such practices are still in existence to this very day. The end of the persecution of the Cagots means that such evil and inhumane social practices can be brought to an end in other cultures across the world as well. We can only hope that this happens soon.