Marie Pierre-Manet Beauzac claims to be the last living Cagot, a caste of European outcasts from the Pyrennes of Spain and France
Genealogy projects sometimes take strange turns. Whether you’re using centuries old birth records from churches tucked away in remote hills on the European continent to sending away for your DNA results that end up revealing a 5% African gene presence, you’re more often than not presented with unexpected surprises.
Marie Pierre-Manet Beauzac of the French Pyreenes is no exception. The arrival of children in her life led her on to a quest to discover her roots and what she found was quick a shock: she is descended from the Cagots, a people that were outcasts from Medieval Europe. We can’t be certain that she is the world’s last Cagot, but what we do know is that the existence of the outcast Cagots in Europe is not everyday knowledge. Much about the Cagots is blurred thanks to the fog of history and the deliberate destruction of documents by Cagots themselves who wished to be rid of their lower-caste status.
The people first emerge in documents around the 13th century. By then they are already regarded as an inferior caste, the “untouchables” of western France, or northern Spain. In medieval times the Cagots – also knows as Agotes, Gahets, Capets, Caqueux, etc – were divided from the general peasantry in several ways. They had their own urban districts: usually on the malarial side of the river. These dismal ghettoes were known as Cagoteries; traces of them can still be found in Pyrenean communities such as Campan or Hagetmau.
For hundreds of years, Cagots were treated as different and inferior. In the churches, they had to use their own doors (at least 60 Pyrenean churches still boast “Cagot” entrances); they had their own fonts; and they were given communion on the end of long wooden spoons. Marie-Pierre adds: “When a Cagot came into a town, they had to report their presence by shaking a rattle. Just like a leper, ringing his bell.”
Daily Cagot life was likewise marked by apartheid. Cagots were forbidden to enter most trades or professions. They were forced, in effect, to be the drawers of water and hewers of wood. So they made barrels for wine and coffins for the dead. They also became expert carpenters: ironically they built many of the Pyrenean churches from which they were partly excluded.
Some of the other prohibitions on the Cagots were bizarre. They were not allowed to walk barefoot, like normal peasants, which gave rise to the legend that they had webbed toes. Cagots could not use the same baths as other people. They were not allowed to touch the parapets of bridges. When they went about, they had to wear a goose’s foot conspicuously pinned to their clothes.
Quite interesting. Here’s the speculation on their background:
Their provenance is opaque. That is partly because the Cagots themselves have disappeared from view. During the French Revolution, the laws against Cagots were formally abandoned – indeed many Cagots pillaged local archives and erased any record of their ancestry. After 1789, the Cagots slowly assimilated into the general populace; many may have even emigrated.
Nonetheless, there are historical accounts that afford an intriguing glimpse. Contemporary sources describe them as being short, dark and stocky. Confusingly, some others saw them as blonde and blue eyed. Francisque Michel’s Histoire des races maudites (History of the cursed races, 1847), was one of the first studies. He found Cagots had “frizzy brown hair”. He also found at least 10,000 Cagots still scattered across Gascony and Navarre, still suffering repression – nearly 70 years after the Cagot caste was “abolished”.
Since Michel’s pioneering work, various historians have tried to solve the Cagot mystery. One theory is that they were lepers, or contagious cretins. That would explain the rules against Cagots “touching” anything used by non-Cagots. However, this theory falls down on the many descriptions of the Cagots being perfectly healthy, even sturdy.
Another idea, as Marie-Pierre implies, is that the Cagots were slaves of the Goths who inundated France in the Dark Ages. From here, etymologists have deduced that “ca-got” comes from “cani Gothi” – “dogs of the Goths”. But that idea fails to explain the many variants of the Cagot name, nor does it square with the geographical distribution. In fact, the Cagot name probably derives from “cack” or “caca”, a term of abuse in itself.
Last year, a new theory emerged, propounded by the British writer Graham Robb in his book The Discovery of France. Robb suggests that the Cagots were originally a guild of skilled medieval woodworkers; in this light, the bigotry against them was commercial rivalry, which became fossilised and regimented over time.
So who is right? It’s a confusing picture. But Marie-Pierre Manet-Beauzac, “the last Cagot in the world”, has no doubts where she comes from: “I believe the Cagots are descendants of Moorish soldiers left over from the 8th century Muslim invasion of Spain and France. That’s why some people called them ‘Saracens’. I am quite dark, and my daughter Sylvia is the darkest in her class.”
And her theory, of the Cagots being converted but still-distrusted Muslims, is supported by many French experts: because it neatly explains the religious disapproval of the Cagots. As for the geographical spread, that’s probably linked to the St James pilgrim routes.