The Pariahs of France: The first “whites” in Europe

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‘Cagots’ of Béarn: The Pariahs of France

Parts of Europe had their own pariahs for several centuries, a practice that persisted until the end of the 17th Century. These European ‘untouchables’ were called ‘agots’ in Spain (especially in Navarre), ‘Cacoux’ in Britanny, and ‘Cagots’ in the South East of France, particularly in the region of Béarn. Gérard da Silva writes on how this heinous social excommunication was tackled in France a few centuries ago.

Various Justifications

In the region of Béarn they were given many names. Apart from the term ‘cagot’, they were also called ‘crestias’ or ‘gésitains’. To explain their lowly station and to legitimise their pariah status, some claimed that ‘cagot’ referred to ‘goth’. This allowed them to justify the social exclusion of these people because they were now descendants of the ‘goths’, the barbaric and pagan groups which conquered much of Europe during the middle ages.

At the same time, it was also claimed that the term ‘crestias’ was a contraction of ‘Christians’: this too, of course, justified their exclusion from society of that time! In addition, ‘Gésitain’ is a rather unique name because it comes from the name of the biblical personality Gehazi, the dishonest servant of Elisha, the ‘man of God’.

The Bible tells us the story of the leprosy-afflicted Naaman, Army Chief of the King of Syria. Naaman went to Israel where Elisha cured him. When Naaman offers generous gifts to Elisha, Elisha refuses to accept them and sends Naaman on his way back to Syria. Gehazi however has other plans, and tells Naaman that Elisha had changed his mind and had asked him to send some gifts through him. These of course, Gehazi keeps for himself. When Elisha finds out the truth, he curses Naaman saying «Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your posterity for ever». Gehazi then leaves Elisha’s
home with a leprosy white as the snow » (Livre des Rois II, 5, verset 27). Thus ‘cagots’ or the ‘gésitains’ were not simply descendents of a greedy servant, they also carried with them the ancient curse of being carriers of the dreaded ‘white leprosy’.

Like Lepers

The physical description of ‘cagots’ is full of contradictions. According to Francisque Michel’s Histoire des races maudites (History of the Cursed Races, 1847, Paris), ‘cagots’ had frizzy brown hair, if not blond hair and blue eyes! In another legend aimed at explaining and justifying their existence and treatment, the ‘cagots’ were described as being physically like the Arabs – therefore their being treated as untouchables was justified. So a ‘cagot’ descended from the barbaric invaders of the East, but had blond hair and blue eyes … The accusations against the ‘cagots’ and the justification for their social exclusion as pariahs is full of contrary facts and irrationality, but they seem to have a historical and religious basis. Whatever the cause, the social exclusion of the ‘cagots’ persisted over a long period.

In reality, the ‘cagots’ were treated like lepers and were for centuries victims of a social excommunication. This was as much because they were considered to be carriers of a disease, as for supposedly having disqualifying physical characteristics: no ear lobes, flat foot etc.

In the standard reference work on the subject Les cagots du Béarn (The Cagots of Béarn ed. Minerve, Paris,
1988), A. Guerreau et Yves Guy, lists the prohibitions prescribed to the ‘cagots’: They had an obligation to practice the trade of carpenter. They were excluded from agriculture and animal husbandry. There were not allowed to walk bare foot, they could not enter a flour mill, they were not allowed to drink from the same containers as the others, they were prohibited from using the same bathing places as the others, nor were they allowed to wash dishes along with the others, they could not dance with the other villagers. As far as their presence in a Church was concerned, they had to enter the Church by a separate door (usually low, obliging them to bend, reminding them of their status), keep away from the other inhabitants of the village, and have their own vessels and material even for benediction. They had to be buried in a separate section of the cemetery – but more often, in a separate cemetery itself.

A Strictly Social Cause

Thus, a section of the population of Béarn (but also other places in Europe) were, for centuries, living away from the cities and the villages, with no social rights, and with a status less than that of the serfs. In addition to their accursed sub-human status, they carried the stigma of being suspected carriers and transmitters of leprosy. Certain tasks and professions were reserved for the ‘cagots’: they had to be carpenters (live close to the woods and the forests), make coffins and be grave digger and undertakers; they had to be rope makers (as was the case with the ‘cacoux’ of Brittany).

Their trade and profession led to a socially inferior status, reflecting their abilities. They were sub-human men of the woods, unsocial and asocial. They carried out tasks linked to death – hence they were carpenters making coffins, or undertakers dealing with the dead or executioners, carrying out capital punishments. They made wine barrels and did wicker work – in fact anything connected to rot and putrefaction. The cause here for their professions and their lowly status was neither historic nor religious, but purely social.

In the Middle Ages these people began to be associated with the accursed populations of lepers – so their exclusion could be justified. We can date their association with lepers to the XIIIth century, though it is unclear from when the tasks and professions they were obliged to perform were ostracised.

Protest

The ‘cagots’ revolted against the injustice they were suffering : in 1514, the ‘cagots’ of Béarn made a representation to the Pope Leo X. The Pope, fully acknowledging the reference to white leprosy of Ghéhazi, from whom the ‘agots’ would have descended, published a bull instructing that these populations be treated ‘with kindness, in the same way as the other believers’, and charged an official, Juan de Santa Maria, with executing the Bull. Despite the favourable arbitration of Charles Quint in 1524, this formal equality would still be refused to the ‘agots’ of Navarre for a long time.

The ‘cagots’ of Béarn were not passive and their battle achieved its first victory in the cities of Lectoure and Saint Clar, whose ‘cagots’ protested regarding their status in front of the Parliament of Toulouse in 1629. As a consequence, the Parliament of Toulouse conducted a medical inspection to determine whether the ‘cagots’ were indeed carriers of leprosy. The conclusions were, of course, negative, and Parliament passed a law prohibiting all forms of segregation of sections of populations. (Les cagots du Béarn). However, the political and religious authorities of the time continued to maintain that in general the status of the ‘cagots’ was justified.

1683 or the end of Pariahs in France

It was in 1683 that Du Bois de Baillet, the steward of the King Louis XIV, commissioned a historical study of the ‘cagots’. Once again, doctors examined the ‘cagots’ and stated that they did not suffer from any disease which necessitated their exclusion from other social groups. Du Bois de Baillet wrote in the study « Liberty being a characteristic of this kingdom … slavery and all that could bear the characteristics of slavery having been banned, we have learnt with sorrow that there still remain some signs of it in this Kingdom » As a consequence, the Parliaments of the
city of Pau, Toulouse and Bordeaux were appraised of the situation. The number of Cagots then were estimated to be a minimum of 10,000 people and the state paid two gold coins per person to enable them to secure their liberty. But the French Kingdom was not as «’free’ as claimed, and one had to wait till the Revolution of 1789 to definitively end the deplorable social and living conditions of the ‘cagots’.

Lessons from a French Struggle

How the ‘cagots’ improved their lot is clear : at first the pariahs protested to the supreme authorities. This authority, if it was religious, recognised, like Leo X, that the religious justification for the social exclusion of the ‘cagots’ was unfounded. If the authority was political, it observed on the basis of Reason (in this case, on the conclusion of medical doctors) that the accusation of being hereditary carriers of leprosy and of having physical malformations were equally unfounded. In reaction to this, the social groups and forces which desired the exclusion of the carpenters, of rope makers, of undertakers and other despised professions protested the decision of the supreme authority. But they were soon obliged to recognise and to accept that there could not be anymore any pariahs in France.

This modest lesson of a little known aspect of French history is worth reflecting upon. Firstly, we recognise that the problem of pariahs or untouchables was not limited to the Indian sub-continent or to Japan, but that also parts of the Western world experienced it, and for a long time legitimised it as well. There are still some countries where some people believe that the status of pariah to some sections of population is justified and that it is a unique aspect of their history. The history of the ‘cagots’ shows that this is false. Japan claims that the pariahs of the nation have disappeared with the Meiji era (1871 law). However, the problem of the burakumin continues; and since March 1922 the National Society for Equality (zenkoku suiheisha) has been in existence. It is probable that the ‘imperial’ social structure of Japan makes the march towards equality difficult (J-F Sabouret, L’autre Japon: les Burakumin, Ed. La Découverte, Paris, 1983).

Now for India. The practice of untouchability is neither specific to India nor is it justified. The historical and religious justifications to perpetuate the practice of untouchability, and to maintain a separate group of pariahs are as ill founded in India as they were in France and in Spain some centuries ago. It is appropriate that the Government of India, the supreme authority in India, has decided to put an end to a practice which is no more legitimate in India today than it was in France in 1683. All strength to the efforts to liberate a large section of humanity which is suffering from historical, social and religious prejudice.

Gérard da Silva is administrator at the Libre Pensee Francaise national headquarters in Paris.

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