They were cast out, pushed aside, vilified, hated. They had to survive in closed communities, completely discriminatory rules applied to them. At the same time, a single entry in the register or in the parish records condemned them to a humiliating, miserable existence.
He branded them forever, their curse became the label cagot, often replaced the surname and marked the following generations as well. Because no one but another cagot could be born to parents who are cagots. It was a curse without end. Suffering, which is not followed by absolution, but not even an explanation of what sin all those sins were in retribution for.
Who were the Cagots anyway?
To this day, it is not known on what basis society chose them as the target of its hatred. Who the cagots actually were still remains a mystery of history, to which dozens of hypotheses are linked, but no decisive explanation. In the true sense of the word, they were not a defined ethnicity or community, they did not differ in language, customs, or faith. The first written mentions of them date back to 1288, but they do not rule out that the cagots lived, in eternal contempt, centuries before that.
In Gascony they were called Cagots or Gafets, in Bordeaux they were known as Ladres. In Anjou and Armagnac they were called Capots, in Brittany Kakouz or Caquous. The Spanish Basques called them Agots, Gafos. Most etymological interpretations of their names are related to leprosy, curse, dogs or life in the swamp.
However, other interpretations are offered. For example, the garbled “caco-deus”, i.e. “invoking a bad god” or “god-denying”. The combination “caas-goth”, i.e. “hunter of the Goths”, also sounds interesting, which would correspond to one of the theories according to which the Cagoths were descendants of Saracens and Moors who fought with the Visigoths on the Iberian Peninsula. However, if the name refers to the combination “cani Gothi”, i.e. “dogs of the Goths”, one could conclude that the cagoti were meant to be Gothic slaves. However, if it is rooted in the words “caca” or “cack”, it is simply a swear word. But why do they have so many names – and why is their geographical distribution so varied?
In the fourteenth century, they were believed to be descendants of the carpenters who made the cross for Jesus Christ and therefore had to suffer. Other biblical legends attribute a curse to them for doing bad work on Solomon’s temple. More recent is the legend that the Cagots were descendants of the Cathars, sinful heretics Albigensian movement. However, Pope Leo X himself denied this in 1514, saying that the Cagots preceded the heresy.
They may have been a castaway race of Muslim slaves. Or the descendants of the Spanish Roma, expelled from the Basque Country, by an ancient cursed family of Celtic thieves and desecrators, the descendants of Germanic warriors with ties to Constantinople or, under mysterious circumstances, the abolished guild, guild, builders. They could be descendants of North African Berbers or Muslim soldiers who strayed north. And they could also be direct descendants of the Visigoths who once ruled the Pyrenees.
They were referred to as lepers, perverts, weak-minded. Like wizards, cursed, even cannibals. Because the repression forbade them to walk barefoot like ordinary peasants, there were rumors that they had fused toes. According to other descriptions, they were supposed to have crooked and disfigured faces, a wobbly gait. According to rumors, they were all supposed to be short, with curly raven hair and swarthy skin. But beware, Francisque Michel’s 1847 book History of the Accursed Races gives them curly brown hair. And according to other sources, they were blonde people with blue eyes. Other sources describe them as a population with stout, robust figures brimming with health. Rumors of the past attributed to them green blood and the ability to judge a person or summon a deadly disease with just a look.
In 2007, the British writer Graham Robb came up with the hypothesis in his book The Discovery of France that the cagots were originally skilled, skilled, successful medieval carpenters. Hatred against them was a product of professional competition, which was perpetuated and became systematic over time.
However, we cannot count with certainty on any of the legends and hypotheses, and none of them explain the depth of their real or supposed wrongdoing, the reason for the persecution they were subjected to for at least 800 years. Their only distinguishing feature was that their ancestors were once labeled cagots, so they must have been cagots as well.
Life on the edge
They had to spend their entire existence in mud huts in designated ghettos, cagoteries. These grew tucked behind villages. At landfills, execution sites and cemeteries, often in places where water was scarce or polluted and where the land could not be cultivated. They had minimal means of livelihood.
For a time they were forbidden to keep or raise livestock. They could survive only on stray dogs, cats and rats, and on caught birds. The list of what was forbidden to them was too long. They were only allowed to perform a limited number of manual professions, therefore most of them made a living by carpentry, rope weaving or basket making.
However, they were not allowed to offer their products in the markets. They were also not allowed to enter the mills, inns, kitchens, they were not allowed to touch the grapes in the vineyards or the trees in the orchards. Even public fountains and wells were not for them. They had to drink from rivers and muddy puddles.
Brotherhood of duck feet
Cagots did not have the rights of proper humans and most of society did not even bother to consider them as humans. If they ever ventured out of their precinct, they had to expect abuse, spitting, blows from sticks or thrown manure. They could not, should not, resist the passage of foreign malice. And retribution for breaking any rules or just the mere assumption of breaking them usually took the form of a pogrom.
Those rules included having to wear a duck’s leg visibly hung around their neck as a mocking sign. Or a dress with such a chicken leg clearly painted in red. They had to carry a stick with a bell or a rattle, which they had to announce that they were coming. This is so that other honest travelers have time to look away and the women can clean up the freshly washed clothes so that they don’t stink.
They were allowed to go to church, where they regularly attended mass side entrance, often with doors so small that they had to crawl into the tabernacle on their knees. Their children’s baptisms took place only at dusk, and the church bell never rang to announce the arrival of new life.
During the service, they were separated by a half-wall or a railing, so that their existence would not frighten God-fearing people. They were also given their own sprinkling of holy water. And the sacrament of the host, if they got it at all, was served to them by the priests on a wooden spoon, which they then burned. They didn’t have peace even after death, the cagots had their own precinct in the cemetery. Their living, however, were not allowed to enter the rows if anyone else was in the cemetery. A cemetery exclusively for cagots can be found, for example, in the village of Bentayou-Sérée in Aquitaine.
Hateful rules were sometimes enforced by brute force. Even in the early eighteenth century, in New Aquitaine in the south-west of France, one of the mobile cagots, who, with self-confidence based on economic status, dared to use a baptismal font in a church for the general population, received a terrible punishment. They cut off his hand and nailed it to the church door as a warning to the other cagots.
Another cagot who dared to cultivate the land was seized by the respectable citizens and pierced through his feet with hot nails. If a crime happened in the village, it was usually the cagots who were accused of it, the punishment being burned at the stake was not an exception.
Indomitable outcasts and persistent hatred
However, despite total ostracism, they managed to survive. And often these European untouchables fared better economically than mainstream societies. The reason was not only that they were exempt from taxes. In addition, they were excellent carvers, masterfully made musical instruments and understood the secrets of fine mechanics. That is why they were also among the best suppliers of torture instruments in all of Europe. Of course, this did not increase their social credit much. City halls hired them for public benefit buildings, and their construction skills were then used by the church.
Other cagots, however, were left with inferior professions, collecting carcasses, burying dead cattle, boiling hides, and digging pits and cesspools. They were gravediggers, executors of executioners.
And the repression was brutal. It didn’t help that in 1514, Pope Leo X issued a bull that urged pious people to treat the Cagots the same as other believers. The document fit perfectly. The year 1673 brought the first significant change, when the Cagots in the Navarre town of Baztán were granted the status of full citizens. Another fragment was the “research” from 1683, which, by examining the bodies, found no physical differences between the cagots and other people, the cagots were not marked by leprotic tubers or the absence of ears, as was still the tradition.
In 1723, the French Parliament passed a measure of a fine of 500 livres, which was to be paid by anyone who would commit rudeness against the cagots. The shackles of discrimination in its medieval form did not formally dissolve around them until after the Great French Revolution. But Michel’s file records that thousands of cagots suffered from reprisals, at least in Gascony, four decades later. However, thousands more sought a better lot by emigrating to the New World. After all, across the ocean they could choose their own name and destiny.
Fewer than a thousand of them live in France today, they do not claim their origin. They fear that the roots of unexplained hatred grow through the centuries. That’s why marked The Independent newspaper Madame Marie-Pierre Manet-Beauzac, who “acknowledges” her Cagot family line, as “probably the only person in the world willing to claim Cagot blood”.
However, Manet-Beauzac explains the silence of other Cagot descendants. “In some places the hatred still persists,” he says: “Talking about cagots is still a bad thing in the mountains. The French are ashamed of what they did to us, the Cagots are ashamed of who they were. That’s why today no one admits to being of Cagot origin.”