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By TOM KNOX
UPDATED: 19:58 +10:00, 10 June 2010
The last untouchable in Europe: Marie Pierre Manet-Beauzac is a Cagot
She is one of the last of her kind — a living memory of troubled times, when the most horrific acts of violence were committed against generations of her vulnerable people.
But, sitting in her suburban living room in Tarbes, in southern France, Marie Pierre Manet-Beauzac could be Madam Everywoman.
She smiles wistfully, pats her neat dark hair, and shoos her polite, friendly children from the room.
And yet her background and her genes conceals a truly extraordinary tale: the tale of a cursed and unique race, roundly abused and attacked — and all this in supposedly civilised France, within living memory.
Few people have heard this tale. It is one of the concealed and startling horrors of European history, a story I am documenting in my new book.
And here, on this quiet summer afternoon, Marie wants to tell me the story of her benighted people.
So who is Marie? She is a Cagot. That means she is quite possibly the last of a breed of mysterious darkskinned European ‘untouchables’ who were cruelly abused as second-class citizens for at least a thousand years, mainly in the Pyrenees, but also in neighbouring regions along the western French coast, up to Brittany.
These outcasts, the Cagots, were thought to be ‘different’ in the most horrible ways — stupid, diseased, and given to criminality. Some claimed they were bisexual and that they had black magic powers.
Wild rumours talked of them emitting enough pungent body heat to shrivel an apple merely by clutching it, others said their veins ran with green blood — blood which oozed from their belly buttons on Good Friday.
Cagots were supposed to have strange heads, webbed feet and misshapen ears (‘Cagot ear’ is a medical term still used today: indicating ears without lobes).
The fiercer rumours went beyond sickliness and deformation: allegations of psychosis, murder, and even cannibalism were not unknown.
Unsurprisingly, such a wretched and ‘infectious’ people were shunned. Many prohibitions were enacted so that the Cagots could be avoided by the ‘pure people’ — the ordinary French peasantry.
But why were they so mistreated? Even today the answers to these questions are shrouded in eerie silence. And one of the reasons is guilt: the Cagots themselves, the survivors of the persecutions, have opted to remain hidden. They have assimilated, outmarried and changed their names, hoping to perhaps — finally — escape their pariah status.
Moreover, modern French society prefers not to discuss the abuse heaped upon Marie Pierre’s ancestors. The Cagots are like a terrible memory, buried in the French psyche.
Of course, France is not alone in mistreating ‘outcasts’.
Japan still has a class of people called the Burakumin: these untouchables are condemned to the lowest jobs and the dirtiest slums.
Persecuted: A Cagot man. Until recently they were forced to live restricted lives
The peculiar olive-skinned Melungeons of America’s Appalachian mountains are a similar example, who are descended from Ottoman Turks; likewise the incestuous and deformed Matignons Blancs of Guadeloupe, or the beautiful Basters, or ‘Bastards’, of Namibia.
It is an unhappy truth: scapegoated tribes, peoples and communities can be found across the world. Yet the savagery inflicted on the Cagots is unusually cruel — and especially mysterious.
This is why Marie is so important. As maybe the last Cagot in France — certainly the last Cagot willing to admit her bizarre ‘racial identity’ — Marie Pierre has been tracing her family tree. And she has some compelling insights.
Staring nervously at the carpet of her living room, she tells me how her own investigations began.
‘When I first had children, I wanted, like many mothers and fathers, to know where we came from. So I started researching, I traced my family tree back through the generations — through many villages in the Pyrenees.
‘I noticed certain names and trades in my background, lots of carpenters, basket-makers, ropemakers, all of them humble people who lived in the “wrong” parts of town. Soon I realised I had this identity which was barely discussed in France — I was a Cagot.’
Marie outlines the few known facts about the Cagots. As a people they first emerge from the mists of antiquity, in legal documents dating from about AD1,000. The Cagots’ provenance is so opaque partly because the Cagots themselves have deliberately disappeared from view.
Following the French Revolution, the laws against Cagots were formally abandoned — around the same time, plenty of Cagots pillaged local archives and destroyed official records of their ancestry.
After 1789, many emigrated, to escape the ongoing hatred and abuse, which persisted in the countryside. This hatred had become virtually endemic — records dating from as far back as the 13th century show they were already regarded as a deeply inferior caste: the ‘untouchables’ of western France.
From medieval times through to the 19th century, the Cagots were divided from the general peasantry in several ways.
They had their own reserved urban districts: usually on the malarial side of the river, far away from the village centres, a safe distance from markets, taverns and shops. These dismal ghettoes were known as Cagoteries.
Traces of them can still be found in remote Pyrenean communities.
But the Cagots were not completely isolated from French life.
They were allowed, for instance, to enter markets on certain days — usually Mondays — so the normal people would know when to stay indoors, to avoid the ‘polluted’ outcasts. But if they chose the wrong day to go trading they would be brutally punished — beaten and flogged back to their ghettoes.
Even when they were allowed into the towns, Cagots had to obey strict rules. They were not allowed to walk in the middle of the street. If they encountered a normal person, they had to shrink to the side of the road, and stand quiet and silent in the gutters.
Cagots were forbidden to go barefoot, as the taint of their skin might infect the pure people. Eating or bathing with normal people was totally verboten
In an uncanny parallel to Nazi treatment of the Jews, Cagots had to wear a symbol pinned to their chest, a red or yellow goose’s foot, either real, or made of cloth (the foot symbolised their own ‘webbed toes’).
They were also forbidden from carrying knives or other weapons and were forced to wear hoods, to hide their faces.
As Marie says, the most poignant bigotry occurred in the churches.
‘The Cagots were devoutly Christian, yet the Catholic church treated them with contempt.
In the church buildings, they had to use their own water fonts, and their own entrances. These doors were usually set low, so the Cagots were forced to stoop as they entered, emphasising their lowly status.’
At least 60 Pyrenean churches still have ‘Cagot’ entrances.
Marie continues: ‘When the priest gave communion he went to the special Cagot pews — and he would throw the holy bread to them like they were dogs.’
Kinder priests used a long wooden spoon, so they could carefully hand out the communion wafer, without touching the accursed outcasts.
The Cagot pariahs were forbidden to join most trades so they made coffins for the dead. They also became expert roofers and carpenters: ironically they built many of the Pyrenean churches from which they were partly excluded.
Marie Pierre sighs. ‘Marriage between Cagots and non-Cagots was, of course, almost impossible.’
Nonetheless, love affairs across the divide did occur — there are melancholy songs from the 16th and 17th centuries, lamenting these tragic misalliances.
The Cagots could be subject to horrific cruelty from their persecuters.
In the early 18th century a prosperous Cagot in the Landes region was caught using the font reserved for non-Cagots — his hand was briskly chopped off and nailed to the church door.
Another Cagot who dared to farm the ‘wrong’ fields had his feet pierced with hot iron spikes.
In Lourdes, any Cagot who broke the rules had two strips of flesh — weighing precisely two ounces each — ripped from each side of his spine.
Marie tells me: ‘If there was any crime in a village the Cagot was usually blamed. Some were burned at the stake.’
Even in death, discrimination persisted — the Cagots were buried in their own humble cemeteries on the chilly northern side of the church — there is still one in Bentayou-Sérée, a tiny village near the Spanish border
It is an extraordinary tale. So who were the Cagots, racially? Does their ancestry explain their status?
Despite their mysteriousness, there are historical accounts that afford an intriguing if bewildering glimpse of Cagot origins.
Contemporary sources describe them as being short, dark and stocky. Confusingly, some others saw them as blonde and blue eyed.
Francisque Michel’s 1847 work Histoire Des Races Maudites (History Of The Cursed Races) 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, and still suffering repression — nearly 70 years after the Cagot caste was supposedly ‘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 contemporary descriptions of the Cagots being perfectly healthy and strong, even handsome.
And Cagot skeletons, when unearthed, show none of the bonelesions associated with lepers.
Another idea, as Marie Pierre remarks, 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’.
Or the word ‘Cagot’ may simply derive from ‘cack’, or ‘caca’ — a very basic term of abuse.
Recently, a new theory has emerged, propounded by writer Graham Robb. In his book The Discovery Of France, Robb suggests the Cagots were originally a guild of skilled medieval woodworkers.
He argues the bigotry against them was initially commercial rivalry which developed into something more sinister.
Robb says the geographic spread is explained by Cagot workers congregating in places associated with the routes for Christian pilgrims, where there was plenty of work for coopers and roofers.
Marie Pierre herself has no doubts where she comes from: ‘I believe the Cagots are descendants of dark Moorish soldiers, left over from the 8th century Muslim invasion of Spain and France, who interbred with the locals, maybe the Basques.’
It is certainly true that the Basques are known, like the Cagots, for having unusual earlobes.
Marie-Pierre goes on: ‘You can see that I am quite dark myself, and my daughter Sylvia is the darkest in her class.’
Her theory of the Cagots being partly descended from Muslims is supported by several French experts as it neatly explains the religious disapproval of the Cagots.
And the idea that they are mixed race chimes with the fate of those other outcast groups.
I ask Marie Pierre if she will let me take a picture of her daughter Sylvia. She shakes her head.
‘I’m sorry, but no. It is OK for me to admit where I come from. But if people knew about my children’s background... it might be difficult for them.’
She gazes out of the window, at the distant green Pyrenees.
‘Even now there is a shame in being Cagot. Even now, the hatred lingers...’
Tom Knox’s The Marks Of Cain is published by HarperCollins.