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Transcribed from the 1896 Smith, Elder and Co. "From Lizzie Leigh and
Other Tales" edition by David Price, email [email protected] Proofed
by Jennifer Lee, Alev Akman and Andy Wallace.





AN ACCURSED RACE
Elizabeth Gaskell


We have our prejudices in England. Or, if that assertion offends any of
my readers, I will modify it: we have had our prejudices in England. We
have tortured Jews; we have burnt Catholics and Protestants, to say
nothing of a few witches and wizards. We have satirized Puritans, and we
have dressed-up Guys. But, after all, I do not think we have been so bad
as our Continental friends. To be sure, our insular position has kept us
free, to a certain degree, from the inroads of alien races; who, driven
from one land of refuge, steal into another equally unwilling to receive
them; and where, for long centuries, their presence is barely endured,
and no pains is taken to conceal the repugnance which the natives of
"pure blood" experience towards them.

There yet remains a remnant of the miserable people called Cagots in the
valleys of the Pyrenees; in the Landes near Bourdeaux; and, stretching up
on the west side of France, their numbers become larger in Lower
Brittany. Even now, the origin of these families is a word of shame to
them among their neighbours; although they are protected by the law,
which confirmed them in the equal rights of citizens about the end of the
last century. Before then they had lived, for hundreds of years,
isolated from all those who boasted of pure blood, and they had been, all
this time, oppressed by cruel local edicts. They were truly what they
were popularly called, The Accursed Race.

All distinct traces of their origin are lost. Even at the close of that
period which we call the Middle Ages, this was a problem which no one
could solve; and as the traces, which even then were faint and uncertain,
have vanished away one by one, it is a complete mystery at the present
day. Why they were accursed in the first instance, why isolated from
their kind, no one knows. From the earliest accounts of their state that
are yet remaining to us, it seems that the names which they gave each
other were ignored by the population they lived amongst, who spoke of
them as Crestiaa, or Cagots, just as we speak of animals by their generic
names. Their houses or huts were always placed at some distance out of
the villages of the country-folk, who unwillingly called in the services
of the Cagots as carpenters, or tilers, or slaters - trades which seemed
appropriated by this unfortunate race - who were forbidden to occupy land,
or to bear arms, the usual occupations of those times. They had some
small right of pasturage on the common lands, and in the forests: but the
number of their cattle and live-stock was strictly limited by the
earliest laws relating to the Cagots. They were forbidden by one act to
have more than twenty sheep, a pig, a ram, and six geese. The pig was to
be fattened and killed for winter food; the fleece of the sheep was to
clothe them; but if the said sheep had lambs, they were forbidden to eat
them. Their only privilege arising from this increase was, that they
might choose out the strongest and finest in preference to keeping the
old sheep. At Martinmas the authorities of the commune came round, and
counted over the stock of each Cagot. If he had more than his appointed
number, they were forfeited; half went to the commune, half to the
baillie, or chief magistrate of the commune. The poor beasts were
limited as to the amount of common which they might stray over in search
of grass. While the cattle of the inhabitants of the commune might
wander hither and thither in search of the sweetest herbage, the deepest
shade, or the coolest pool in which to stand on the hot days, and lazily
switch their dappled sides, the Cagot sheep and pig had to learn
imaginary bounds, beyond which if they strayed, any one might snap them
up, and kill them, reserving a part of the flesh for his own use, but
graciously restoring the inferior parts to their original owner. Any
damage done by the sheep was, however, fairly appraised, and the Cagot
paid no more for it than any other man would have done.

Did a Cagot leave his poor cabin, and venture into the towns, even to
render services required of him in the way of his he was bidden, by all
the municipal laws, to stand by and remember his rude old state. In all
the towns and villages the large districts extending on both sides of the
Pyrenees - in all that part of Spain - they were forbidden to buy or sell
anything eatable, to walk in the middle (esteemed the better) part of the
streets, to come within the gates before sunrise, or to be found after
sunset within the walls of the town. But still, as the Cagots were good-
looking men, and (although they bore certain natural marks of their
caste, of which I shall speak by-and-by) were not easily distinguished by
casual passers-by from other men, they were compelled to wear some
distinctive peculiarity which should arrest the eye; and, in the greater
number of towns, it was decreed that the outward sign of a Cagot should
be a piece of red cloth sewed conspicuously on the front of his dress. In
other towns, the mark of Cagoterie was the foot of a duck or a goose hung
over their left shoulder, so as to be seen by any one meeting them. After
a time, the more convenient badge of a piece of yellow cloth cut out in
the shape of a duck's foot, was adopted. If any Cagot was found in any
town or village without his badge, he had to pay a fine of five sous, and
to lose his dress. He was expected to shrink away from any passer-by,
for fear that their clothes should touch each other; or else to stand
still in some corner or by-place. If the Cagots were thirsty during the
days which they passed in those towns where their presence was barely
suffered, they had no means of quenching their thirst, for they were
forbidden to enter into the little cabarets or taverns. Even the water
gushing out of the common fountain was prohibited to them. Far away, in
their own squalid village, there was the Cagot fountain, and they were
not allowed to drink of any other water. A Cagot woman having to make
purchases in the town, was liable to be flogged out of it if she went to
buy anything except on a Monday - a day on which all other people who
could, kept their houses for fear of coming in contact with the accursed
race.

In the Pays Basque, the prejudices - and for some time the laws - ran
stronger against them than any which I have hitherto mentioned. The
Basque Cagot was not allowed to possess sheep. He might keep a pig for
provision, but his pig had no right of pasturage. He might cut and carry
grass for the ass, which was the only other animal he was permitted to
own; and this ass was permitted, because its existence was rather an
advantage to the oppressor, who constantly availed himself of the Cagot's
mechanical skill, and was glad to have him and his tools easily conveyed
from one place to another.

The race was repulsed by the State. Under the small local governments
they could hold no post whatsoever. And they were barely tolerated by
the Church, although they were good Catholics, and zealous frequenters of
the mass. They might only enter the churches by a small door set apart
for them, through which no one of the pure race ever passed. This door
was low, so as to compel them to make an obeisance. It was occasionally
surrounded by sculpture, which invariably represented an oak-branch with
a dove above it. When they were once in, they might not go to the holy
water used by others. They had a benitier of their own; nor were they
allowed to share in the consecrated bread when that was handed round to
the believers of the pure race. The Cagots stood afar off, near the
door. There were certain boundaries - imaginary lines on the nave and in
the isles which they might not pass. In one or two of the more tolerant
of the Pyrenean villages, the blessed bread was offered to the Cagots,
the priest standing on one side of the boundary, and giving the pieces of
bread on a long wooden fork to each person successively.

When the Cagot died, he was interred apart, in a plot burying-ground on
the north side of the cemetery. Under such laws and prescriptions as I
have described, it is no wonder that he was generally too poor to have
much property for his children to inherit; but certain descriptions of it
were forfeited to the commune. The only possession which all who were
not of his own race refused to touch, was his furniture. That was
tainted, infectious, unclean - fit for none but Cagots.

When such were, for at least three centuries, the prevalent usages and
opinions with regard to this oppressed race, it is not surprising that we
read of occasional outbursts of ferocious violence on their part. In the
Basses-Pyrenees, for instance it is only about a hundred years since,
that the Cagots of Rehouilhes rose up against the inhabitants of the
neighbouring town of Lourdes, and got the better of them, by their
magical powers as it is said. The people of Lourdes were conquered and
slain, and their ghastly, bloody heads served the triumphant Cagots for
balls to play at ninepins with! The local parliaments had begun, by this
time, to perceive how oppressive was the ban of public opinion under
which the Cagots lay, and were not inclined to enforce too severe a
punishment. Accordingly, the decree of the parliament of Toulouse
condemned only the leading Cagots concerned in this affray to be put to
death, and that henceforward and for ever no Cagot was to be permitted to
enter the town of Lourdes by any gate but that called Capdet-pourtet:
they were only to be allowed to walk under the rain-gutters, and neither
to sit, eat, nor drink in the town. If they failed in observing any of
these rules, the parliament decreed, in the spirit of Shylock, that the
disobedient Cagots should have two strips of flesh, weighing never more
than two ounces a-piece, cut out from each side of their spines.

In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries it was considered
no more a crime to kill a Cagot than to destroy obnoxious vermin. A
"nest of Cagots," as the old accounts phrase it, had assembled in a
deserted castle of Mauvezin, about the year sixteen hundred; and,
certainly, they made themselves not very agreeable neighbours, as they
seemed to enjoy their reputation of magicians; and, by some acoustic
secrets which were known to them, all sorts of moanings and groanings
were heard in the neighbouring forests, very much to the alarm of the
good people of the pure race; who could not cut off a withered branch for
firewood, but some unearthly sound seemed to fill the air, nor drink
water which was not poisoned, because the Cagots would persist in filling
their pitchers at the same running stream. Added to these grievances,
the various pilferings perpetually going on in the neighbourhood made the
inhabitants of the adjacent towns and hamlets believe that they had a
very sufficient cause for wishing to murder all the Cagots in the Chateau
de Mauvezin. But it was surrounded by a moat, and only accessible by a
drawbridge; besides which, the Cagots were fierce and vigilant. Some
one, however, proposed to get into their confidence; and for this purpose
he pretended to fall ill close to their path, so that on returning to
their stronghold they perceived him, and took him in, restored him to
health, and made a friend of him. One day, when they were all playing at
ninepins in the woods, their treacherous friend left the party on
pretence of being thirsty, and went back into the castle, drawing up the
bridge after he had passed over it, and so cutting off their means of
escape into safety. Them, going up to the highest part of the castle, he
blew a horn, and the pure race, who were lying in wait on the watch for
some such signal, fell upon the Cagots at their games, and slew them all.
For this murder I find no punishment decreed in the parliament of
Toulouse, or elsewhere.

As any intermarriage with the pure race was strictly forbidden, and as
there were books kept in every commune in which the names and habitations
of the reputed Cagots were written, these unfortunate people had no hope
of ever becoming blended with the rest of the population. Did a Cagot
marriage take place, the couple were serenaded with satirical songs. They
also had minstrels, and many of their romances are still current in
Brittany; but they did not attempt to make any reprisals of satire or
abuse. Their disposition was amiable, and their intelligence great.
Indeed, it required both these qualities, and their great love of
mechanical labour, to make their lives tolerable.

At last, they began to petition that they might receive some protection
from the laws; and, towards the end of the seventeenth century, the
judicial power took their side. But they gained little by this. Law
could not prevail against custom: and, in the ten or twenty years just
preceding the first French revolution, the prejudice in France against
the Cagots amounted to fierce and positive abhorrence.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Cagots of Navarre
complained to the Pope, that they were excluded from the fellowship of
men, and accursed by the Church, because their ancestors had given help
to a certain Count Raymond of Toulouse in his revolt against the Holy
See. They entreated his holiness not to visit upon them the sins of
their fathers. The Pope issued a bull on the thirteenth of May, fifteen
hundred and fifteen - ordering them to be well-treated and to be admitted
to the same privileges as other men. He charged Don Juan de Santa Maria
of Pampeluna to see to the execution of this bull. But Don Juan was slow
to help, and the poor Spanish Cagots grew impatient, and resolved to try
the secular power. They accordingly applied to the Cortes of Navarre,
and were opposed on a variety of grounds. First, it was stated that
their ancestors had had "nothing to do with Raymond Count of Toulouse, or
with any such knightly personage; that they were in fact descendants of
Gehazi, servant of Elisha (second book of Kings, fifth chapter, twenty-
seventh verse), who had been accursed by his master for his fraud upon
Naaman, and doomed, he and his descendants, to be lepers for evermore.
Name, Cagots or Gahets; Gahets, Gehazites. What can be more clear? And
if that is not enough, and you tell us that the Cagots are not lepers
now; we reply that there are two kinds of leprosy, one perceptible and
the other imperceptible, even to the person suffering from it. Besides,
it is the country talk, that where the Cagot treads, the grass withers,
proving the unnatural heat of his body. Many credible and trustworthy
witnesses will also tell you that, if a Cagot holds a freshly-gathered
apple in his hand, it will shrivel and wither up in an hour's time as
much as if it had been kept for a whole winter in a dry room. They are
born with tails; although the parents are cunning enough to pinch them
off immediately. Do you doubt this? If it is not true, why do the
children of the pure race delight in sewing on sheep's tails to the dress
of any Cagot who is so absorbed in his work as not to perceive them? And
their bodily smell is so horrible and detestable that it shows that they
must be heretics of some vile and pernicious description, for do we not
read of the incense of good workers, and the fragrance of holiness?"

Such were literally the arguments by which the Cagots were thrown back
into a worse position than ever, as far as regarded their rights as
citizens. The Pope insisted that they should receive all their
ecclesiastical privileges. The Spanish priests said nothing; but tacitly
refused to allow the Cagots to mingle with the rest of the faithful,
either dead or alive. The accursed race obtained laws in their favour
from the Emperor Charles the Fifth; which, however, there was no one to
carry into effect. As a sort of revenge for their want of submission,
and for their impertinence in daring to complain, their tools were all
taken away from them by the local authorities: an old man and all his
family died of starvation, being no longer allowed to fish.

They could not emigrate. Even to remove their poor mud habitations, from
one spot to another, excited anger and suspicion. To be sure, in sixteen
hundred and ninety-five, the Spanish government ordered the alcaldes to
search out all the Cagots, and to expel them before two months had
expired, under pain of having fifty ducats to pay for every Cagot
remaining in Spain at the expiration of that time. The inhabitants of
the villages rose up and flogged out any of the miserable race who might
be in their neighbourhood; but the French were on their guard against
this enforced irruption, and refused to permit them to enter France.
Numbers were hunted up into the inhospitable Pyrenees, and there died of
starvation, or became a prey to wild beasts. They were obliged to wear
both gloves and shoes when they were thus put to flight, otherwise the
stones and herbage they trod upon and the balustrades of the bridges that
they handled in crossing, would, according to popular belief, have become
poisonous.

And all this time, there was nothing remarkable or disgusting in the
outward appearance of this unfortunate people. There was nothing about
them to countenance the idea of their being lepers - the most natural mode
of accounting for the abhorrence in which they were held. They were
repeatedly examined by learned doctors, whose experiments, although
singular and rude, appear to have been made in a spirit of humanity. For
instance, the surgeons of the king of Navarre, in sixteen hundred, bled
twenty-two Cagots, in order to examine and analyze their blood. They
were young and healthy people of both sexes; and the doctors seem to have
expected that they should have been able to extract some new kind of salt
from their blood which might account for the wonderful heat of their
bodies. But their blood was just like that of other people. Some of
these medical men have left us a description of the general appearance of
this unfortunate race, at a time when they were more numerous and less
intermixed than they are now. The families existing in the south and
west of France, who are reputed to be of Cagot descent at this day, are,
like their ancestors, tall, largely made, and powerful in frame; fair and
ruddy in complexion, with gray-blue eyes, in which some observers see a
pensive heaviness of look. Their lips are thick, but well-formed. Some
of the reports name their sad expression of countenance with surprise and
suspicion - "They are not gay, like other folk." The wonder would be if
they were. Dr. Guyon, the medical man of the last century who has left
the clearest report on the health of the Cagots, speaks of the vigorous
old age they attain to. In one family alone, he found a man of seventy-
four years of age; a woman as old, gathering cherries; and another woman,
aged eighty-three, was lying on the grass, having her hair combed by her
great-grandchildren. Dr. Guyon and other surgeons examined into the
subject of the horribly infectious smell which the Cagots were said to
leave behind them, and upon everything they touched; but they could
perceive nothing unusual on this head. They also examined their ears,
which according to common belief (a belief existing to this day), were
differently shaped from those of other people; being round and gristly,
without the lobe of flesh into which the ear-ring is inserted. They
decided that most of the Cagots whom they examined had the ears of this
round shape; but they gravely added, that they saw no reason why this
should exclude them from the good-will of men, and from the power of
holding office in Church and State. They recorded the fact, that the
children of the towns ran baaing after any Cagot who had been compelled
to come into the streets to make purchases, in allusion to this
peculiarity of the shape of the ear, which bore some resemblance to the
ears of the sheep as they are cut by the shepherds in this district. Dr.
Guyon names the case of a beautiful Cagot girl, who sang most sweetly,
and prayed to be allowed to sing canticles in the organ-loft. The
organist, more musician than bigot, allowed her to come, but the
indignant congregation, finding out whence proceeded that clear, fresh
voice, rushed up to the organ-loft, and chased the girl out, bidding her
"remember her ears," and not commit the sacrilege of singing praises to
God along with the pure race.

But this medical report of Dr. Guyon's - bringing facts and arguments to
confirm his opinion, that there was no physical reason why the Cagots
should not be received on terms of social equality by the rest of the
world - did no more for his clients than the legal decrees promulgated two
centuries before had done. The French proved the truth of the saying in
Hudibras -

He that's convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.

And, indeed, the being convinced by Dr. Guyon that they ought to receive
Cagots as fellow-creatures, only made them more rabid in declaring that
they would not. One or two little occurrences which are recorded, show
that the bitterness of the repugnance to the Cagots was in full force at
the time just preceding the first French revolution. There was a M.
d'Abedos, the curate of Lourbes, and brother to the seigneur of the
neighbouring castle, who was living in seventeen hundred and eighty; he
was well-educated for the time, a travelled man, and sensible and
moderate in all respects but that of his abhorrence of the Cagots: he
would insult them from the very altar, calling out to them, as they stood
afar off, "Oh! ye Cagots, damned for evermore!" One day, a half-blind
Cagot stumbled and touched the censer borne before this Abbe de Lourbes.
He was immediately turned out of the church, and forbidden ever to re-
enter it. One does not know how to account for the fact, that the very
brother of this bigoted abbe, the seigneur of the village, went and
married a Cagot girl; but so it was, and the abbe brought a legal process
against him, and had his estates taken from him, solely on account of his
marriage, which reduced him to the condition of a Cagot, against whom the
old law was still in force. The descendants of this Seigneur de Lourbes
are simple peasants at this very day, working on the lands which belonged
to their grandfather.

This prejudice against mixed marriages remained prevalent until very
lately. The tradition of the Cagot descent lingered among the people,
long after the laws against the accursed race were abolished. A Breton
girl, within the last few years, having two lovers each of reputed Cagot
descent, employed a notary to examine their pedigrees, and see which of
the two had least Cagot in him; and to that one she gave her hand. In
Brittany the prejudice seems to have been more virulent than anywhere
else. M. Emile Souvestre records proofs of the hatred borne to them in
Brittany so recently as in eighteen hundred and thirty-five. Just lately
a baker at Hennebon, having married a girl of Cagot descent, lost all his
custom. The godfather and godmother of a Cagot child became Cagots
themselves by the Breton laws, unless, indeed, the poor little baby died
before attaining a certain number of days. They had to eat the butchers'
meat condemned as unhealthy; but, for some unknown reason, they were
considered to have a right to every cut leaf turned upside down, with its
cut side towards the door, and might enter any house in which they saw a
loaf in this position, and carry it away with them. About thirty years
ago, there was the skeleton of a hand hanging up as an offering in a
Breton church near Quimperle, and the tradition was, that it was the hand
of a rich Cagot who had dared to take holy water out of the usual
benitier, some time at the beginning of the reign of Louis the Sixteenth;
which an old soldier witnessing, he lay in wait, and the next time the
offender approached the benitier he cut off his hand, and hung it up,
dripping with blood, as an offering to the patron saint of the church.
The poor Cagots in Brittany petitioned against their opprobrious name,
and begged to be distinguished by the appelation of Malandrins. To
English ears one is much the same as the other, as neither conveys any
meaning; but, to this day, the descendants of the Cagots do not like to
have this name applied to them, preferring that of Malandrin.


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellAn Accursed Race → online text (page 1 of 2)