Beyond thought - the Cagots of France

Staffan Scheutz


The Power to Stop Thinking

We are generally very good at forgetting. We are, furthermore, bad at objectively assessing what we do remember. Literature about the cagots of France is tremendously scarce. In my search for material, I found one article by a Master’s student at King’s College London, some articles from the turn of the century, a few pages in a book by Graham Robb, and a piece by Elizabeth Gaskell. In French there is more, obviously, but the topic is still largely forgotten. It is strange that such an interesting piece of history remains more or less unknown. It is good to remember that whatever civilisation we have is not as old as might be thought, nor as pervasive.


The cagots is not a group many would recognise today. Yet, for hundreds of years they were discriminated against, and at times persecuted, in France and Spain. It is difficult to determine precisely what a cagot was, at least if one seeks a substantial definition. Their case is curious precisely by virtue of the absence of any such definition. Jews were different because of their faith, and Romani because of their looks and language. Yet, there is no differentiating factor separating cagots from other Frenchmen. They looked like Frenchmen, talked like Frenchmen, prayed like Frenchmen, and lived like Frenchmen. The only reason one could give, and the only reason given, for why someone was a cagot was that their parents were. From meticulously preserved records, one could determine who was “pure-blooded” and who was not.

The discrimination against cagots took many forms. They were not allowed to live where others did; in Hagetmau in Aquitaine, there existed even in the 20th century parts named Quartier des Cagots. Like the Burakumin of Japan, they could not work in whatever profession they wished. They were limited to carpentry, and general woodwork. And, like the Dalit of India, they could not touch pure-blooded, nor could the pure-blooded touch them. They were expected to shy away when people approached and were exempt from most taxes since no one wanted to touch the coins they handled. They had to wear special signs on their breasts, yellow pieces of duck-feet shaped fabric, to be more clearly set apart. A cagot was not allowed to marry anyone who was not a cagot. If they did, their spouse and children, too, became cagots. Similarly, if one became a godparent to a cagot, one simultaneously accepted membership in their group.

The discrimination extended to the Faith, as well. One can still find small beastly heads in some French churches, designating the pews at the back where the cagots were allowed to sit. These churches have special side-entrances for the cagots to use. Not even the priest went close to the cagots. In Quimperle, in Brittany, there hanged a hand on the side of the church, cut off from a cagot who had taken water from the bénetier. Of course, some priests tried to extend their services every Christian, cagot or not. There is the story of a Pyrenean priest making himself a long stick, on which he stuck the pieces of bread used for communion. Then, during the service, he could edge towards the cagots, stretch out the fork, and give them the bread.

The type of discrimination faced by the cagots differed depending on place and time. It was never a nationwide policy to discriminate against these poor men and women, unlike the discrimination against Huguenots, for example, or heretical Catholics, &c. But, in difference to the hatred against these, that against the cagots was constant, undiminished, over many hundreds of years.

As written above, the cagots were not a clearly different group, apart from as a result of the discrimination against them. When this ended sometime during the 19th century, any traces of them disappeared. The discrimination was never sanctioned by the state; in fact, it seems to have started out at the lowest levels, as informal practices, before becoming city law, and later provincial law. The Pope, at least one Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V, who ruled Spain, where some cagots could be found) and French Kings and governments, were against the discrimination. With time, many provinces, too, tried to stifle it. There was a famous case in Biarritz in 1718, in which a man married to a cagot tried to claim his right to sit wherever he wished in the local church. The lawsuit had to go up to the highest instances before the court found in the man’s favour. The people of Biarritz, however, refused to give ground. Four years later, another cagot tried to claim equal rights in the church in Biarritz. He was punished by the local councillors. Later, the parlement of Bordeaux found in the cagot’s favour, and ruled against any continued discrimination against that race. When the people refused, the parlement sent men to uphold justice. But, they were forced to back down or risk a public uprising. In fact, the people of Biarritz were so strongly against the cagots, that they, in yet another case, went together as a whole to pay the fines for not letting cagots freely into church.

But why did people feel such hatred and disgust for a group of persons who were, for all intents and purposes, identical to everyone else? For a long time, the most popular explanation was that the cagots were lepers (or descendants of lepers, perhaps). Leprosy would explain the initial separation between cagots and others. During the Middle Ages, separating lepers from society became gradually more common. It would also explain the kind of treatment the cagots suffered under. The prohibition against touching other persons, for example, can easily be squared with a fear of toxic diseases. And other forms of discrimination like this, such as the separation between cagots and other Frenchmen in church, could also be explained. Still, it is not clear that leprosy is the reason for the separation of the cagots. Discrimination against the cagots might go back as far as the 10th century. However, the medieval separation of lepers did not gain traction until the 1300s.

And, even if leprosy was the original reason, it was not a reason believed in during much of the Middle Ages. Early legislation against the cagots shows no indication that they were believed to be lepers. In fact, some texts explicitly contradict this belief. In a surviving fragment from 1291, the hospital in Outrepont forbids any cagot or “any other healthy person” from entering. There are also many examples from the Middle ages where cagots interact with other Frenchmen without any mention of leprosy being made. There are examples of how they traded with others, and of how they worked for them. If they were believed to be lepers, it is difficult to see how this would have been possible. Nevertheless, the evidence is hardly unequivocal. Many early documents seem to treat ‘cagot’ as synonymous with ‘leper’. The examples above are later ones, indicating a gradual separation of the two concepts. It should be stated here that leprosy was used in many ways during the Middle Ages; it was often a general insult, unconnected with the illness itself. So, the confusion between cagots and lepers might not, after all, imply any illness amongst the former. In any case, even if leprosy was the original cause, it, as said, cannot be the reason for their continued discrimination. In the late 1500s, the parlement of Bordeaux passed a law against cagots, adding in it that “when they are lepers, if there still are any, they must carry clicquettes”. So, clearly the legislators in Bordeaux believed that the cagots had at one point or another been lepers. But they did equally clearly not think that they were lepers still.

This can be contrasted with the 16th century accusation, levied by the Cortes of Navarre, that cagots were the descendants of Gehazi, whose progeny had been cursed by Isiah to forever be lepers (2 Kings 5.27). The difference aligns with the new kind of discrimination on the rise. If (a big if, as seen) the earlier, medieval, hatred for the cagots was based on the belief that they, incidentally, happened to be lepers, by the 1500s, the hatred was explained structurally. The cagots, it was said, were inherently lesser beings, cursed by God. As a part in this new trend of justifying the discrimination, scientific evidence in favour of various explanations started to be amassed. As evidence in favour of cagots being descendants of Gehazi, certain linguistic facts were used. The word cagot, or gahot, as they were at times called, is obviously, one said, derived from gahet, and this from gehazite, or ‘descendant of Gehazi’. What clearer evidence could one need?

There are other indications that leprosy was a common reason given for the discrimination of the cagot from the end of the Middle Ages onward. Some medical examinations of the cagot, to test them for leprosy, where for example ordered in the early 1600s. These found that, without fail, the cagots were not leprous. The physicians involved in these examinations recommended an end to the discrimination against the cagots, and both the government and (some) local parlement agreed. But the discrimination did not end. In line with the structural explanation above, the response to this was that leprosy comes in two kinds, the perceptible and the imperceptible. The cagots clearly had the imperceptible variant.

Thus, we have clear evidence that the cagots were not commonly believed to be leprous during the Middle Ages, but that the old connection which did exist between cagots and leprosy came to be used later as part in a structural justification for the discrimination against them. It seems to me as if leprosy might have been the original reason for the discrimination, but that it came to be nothing more than a convenient excuse for the continued hatred of the cagots. If it was proven wrong – and it was – one simply came up with something else for which to blame the cagots.

Another argument some give is that the cagots were discriminated against because of their profession. They were mostly restricted by law to carpentry and other woodwork. Mediaeval society was very hierarchical at every level, and different guilds had strong, often negative, feelings about each other. There is some indication that carpenters were generally seen in a bad light. Overall, anything connected to gallows and hangings was disliked. Executioners faced discrimination somewhat similar to the cagots. Since carpenters had to make gallows, they would be at risk of discrimination. This explanation fails to account for why only some carpenters – who would become the cagots – were separated out and discriminated against in such an extreme way, and for such a long time. A hatred for carpenters cannot be the reason for the continued hatred either; whatever stigma was attached to the profession, little of it would seem to be left at the end of the Middle Ages. When different justifications of the discrimination of the cagots start to surface during the 1500s, carpentry is not amongst them.

A third explanation might be that the cagots were descendants of heretics, more specifically of members of the Albigensian heresy. Heretics were often described in terms of diseases, especially leprosy, so the strong connection between the two would be explained on this account. The cagots themselves insisted that this was their origin. However, the thought was dismissed already in the 15th and 16th centuries. The discrimination, one was aware, predated the heresy. That the cagots ascribed their discrimination to it might rather have had practical reasons. According to the law at the time, the stain of heresy disappeared after four generations. So, this explanation might very well have been an attempt at minimising the discrimination.

Other explanations relied more heavily on the etymology of the word ‘cagot’, or its synonyms. (A certain kind of folk etymology certainly seems to have been popular in the early modern age.) Some claimed that the cagots were descendants of the original Visigoth invaders of France and Spain, who were discriminated against for their Christianity. When the Franks became Christianised, this discrimination would then have carried over. The evidence for this is that ‘cagot’, apparently, is derived from caas got, or ‘dogs of Goths’. Those who thought this explanation rather less than obvious – or perhaps, those who thought that this explanation made one’s discrimination rather unmotivated, being pagan in origin – could instead take comfort in a diametrically opposite theory. Instead of being a discrimination by pagans against Christians, the discrimination against the cagots was a discrimination by Christians against infidels. The Saracens, famously, chased the Goths from Spain – and hence deserved the epithet Chasseurs des Gots, which, naturally, over time developed into ‘cagot’. This theory had the further support of accounting for why cagots had to wear signs shaped like duck feet on their chests. For Muslims must clean themselves in water before every prayer – and ducks are waterbirds.

But these accounts were not accepted everywhere; its weaknesses were as apparent to some contemporary observers as they are to us today. In Brittany, the population must have been especially discerning. Not only did they mostly reject the earlier explanations, but they even had their own replacement. The cagots were Jews, it was thought there, or, more specifically, converted Jews. This has linguistic evidence – Jews were called capo, which is similar to cagot, but also abundant practical evidence. Cagots did, for example, bleed like fountains every Good Friday (or so it was said; I would imagine that first-hand, credible, witnesses would be somewhat hard to come by). Moreover, the Bretons observed that cagots were mostly carpenters. Since it was the Jews who made the Cross, the connection was all too easy to make. With the discovery of America, and the first emigration there, they were handed even further evidence. The cagots emigrated in large numbers – proving their connection with the people of Moses, not to mention the Wandering Jew of legend.

To the modern historian, these explanations are hardly satisfactory. Yet, it is difficult to provide one which is. Perhaps the discrimination originated in a discrimination against lepers, or against carpenters – or in some other discrimination, against people in poverty, for example. However, I think it is nigh on impossible to determine which of these, if any, is correct. As I think was apparent above, people suffer no dearth of reasons for hating others. And, no matter what the original discrimination was based on, any reason soon disappears, and mindless hatred ensues. From then on, without clear records, it is impossible to trace the origin of the feelings. By the time people started justifying their hatred in the 1500s, any knowledge of its origin was long since lost.

So, there we have it. The story of a people no different than any other, discriminated against for no discernible reason, despite the enormous effort it must have taken to continue this discrimination. One could not identify a cagot on sight, or even by prolonged acquaintance, so masses records had to be kept, some going back many hundreds of years. Of all the reasons given for the discrimination, one cannot see any one which truly explains it. It was, it seems, a truly irrational hatred. As I hope was apparent above, there were many who argued against the discrimination of the cagot. But these rational voices were easily ignored in the sea of the made-up minds of the masses. In this situation, the state found itself rather powerless, it proving much easier to stoke the fire than calm it. What the people craved, one has to conclude, was the comfort of a certain mysticism; of simply knowing truths beyond reason. To reach these truths, they used their power to stop thinking.

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