In the 6th century they had many names, Cagots, Gahets, Gafets in France; Agotes, Gafos in Spain; and Cacons, Cahets, Caqueux and Caquins in Brittany.
During the middle ages they were popularly looked upon as cretins, lepers, heretics and even as cannibals.
They were shunned and hated; were allotted separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, and lived in wretched huts in the country distinct from the villages. 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 worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the holy wafer was handed to them on the end of a stick, while a receptacle for holy water 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). And so pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted. The only trades allowed them were those of butcher and carpenter, and their ordinary occupation was wood-cutting.
Their language is merely a corrupt form of that spoken around them; but a Teutonic origin seems to be indicated by their fair complexions and blue eyes. Their crania have a normal development; their cheek-bones are high; their noses prominent, with large nostrils; their lips straight; and they are marked by the absence of the auricular lobules.
The origin of the Cagots is undecided. Littre defines them as “a people of the Pyrenees affected with a kind of cretinism.”
It has been suggested that they were descendants of the Visigoths, and Michael derives the name from caws (dog) and Goth. But opposed to this etymology is the fact that the word cagot is first found in the for of Beam not earlier than 1551.
Marca, in his Histoire de Bearn, holds [a most unlikely theory] that the word signifies “hunters of the Goths,” and that the Cagots are descendants of the Saracens. Others made them descendants of the Albigenses.
The old MSS call them Chretiens or Chrestiaas, and from this it has been argued that they were Visigoths who originally lived as Christians among the Gascon pagans.
A far more probable explanation of their name “Chretiens” is to be found in the fact that in medieval times all lepers were known as pauperes Christi, and that, Goths or not, these Cagots were affected in the middle ages with a particular form of leprosy or a condition resembling it. Thus would arise the confusion between Christians and Cretins.
To-day their descendants are not more subject to goitre and cretinism than those dwelling around them, and are recognized by tradition and not by features or physical degeneracy.
It was not until the French Revolution that any steps were taken to ameliorate their lot, but to-day they no longer form a class, but have been practically lost sight of in the general peasantry.
See Francisque Michel, Histoire des races maudites de France et d’Espagne (Paris, 1846); Abbe Venuti, Recherches sur les Cahets de Bordeaux (1754); Bulletins de la societe anthropologique (1861, 1867, 1868, 1871); Annales medico-psychologiques (Jan. 1867); Lagneau, Questionnaire sur l’ethnologie de la France; Paul Raymond, Mceurs bearnaises (Pau, 1872); V. de Rochas, Les Parias de France et d’Espagne (Cagots et Bohemiens) (Paris, 1877); J. Hack Tuke, Jour. Anthropological Institute (vol. ix., 1880).