The Cagots (pronounced [ka.ɡo]) were a persecuted minority found in the west of France and northern Spain: the Navarrese Pyrenees, Basque provinces, Béarn, Aragón, Gascony and Brittany. Their name differed by province and the local language: Cagots, Gézitains, Gahets, and Gafets in Gascony; Agotes, Argotes, Agotak and Gafos in Basque country; Capots in Anjou and Languedoc; and Cacons, Cahets, Caqueux, and Caquins in Brittany. Evidence of the group exists back as far as AD 1000.[1]

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages. Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.[2] They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use. They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called "Canards"). So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.[3][4]

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots. Few consistent reasons were given as to why they were hated; accusations varied from Cagots being cretins, lepers, heretics, cannibals, to simply being intrinsically evil. The Cagots did have a culture of their own, but very little of it was written down or preserved; as a result, almost everything that is known about them relates to their persecution.[5] The repression lasted through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Industrial Revolution, with the prejudice fading only in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Origin and etymologyEdit

The origins of both the term "Cagots" (and "Agotes", "Capots", "Caqueux", etc.) and the Cagots themselves are uncertain. It has been suggested that they were descendants of the Visigoths, and that the name Cagot derives from caas ("dog") and "Goth". Yet in opposition to this etymology is the fact that the word "cagot" is first found in this form no earlier than the year 1542. Seventeenth century French historian Pierre de Marca, in his Histoire de Béarn, propounds the reverse – that the word signifies "hunters of the Goths", and that the Cagots were descendants of the Saracens,[3] although this proposal was comprehensively refuted by the Abbé Venuti as early as 1754.[6]

Medieval popular explanations

Another theory is that the Cagots were descendants of the Cathars, who had been persecuted for heresy in the Albigensian Crusade.[3] A delegation by Cagots to Pope Leo X in 1514 made this claim, though the Cagots predate the Cathar heresy.[7] Perhaps this was a strategic move. In limpieza de sangre statutes such stains of heresy expired after four generations and if this was the cause of their marginalisation, it also gave grounds for their emancipation.[8]

One early mention of the Cagots is from 1288, when they appear to have been called Chretiens or Christianos.[3] Thus, another theory is that the Cagots were early converts to Christianity, and that the hatred of their pagan neighbors continued after they also converted, merely for different reasons.[7]

Another possible explanation of their name Chretiens or Christianos is to be found in the fact that in medieval times all lepers were known as pauperes Christi, and that, whether Visigoths or not, these Cagots were affected in the Middle Ages with a particular form of leprosy or a condition resembling it, such as psoriasis. Thus would arise the confusion between Christians and Cretins.[3] However, early edicts apparently refer to lepers and Cagots as different categories of undesirables.[7] By 1593 the distinction was explicit. The Parlement of Bordeaux repeated customary prohibitions against them but added when they are lepers, if there still are any, they must carry clicquettes[9] (rattles).

In Bordeaux, where they were numerous, they were called ladres, close to the Catalan lladres and the Spanish ladrón meaning robber or looter, similar to older, probably Celtic term bagaudae (or bagad), a possible origin of agote. The Welsh "lladron" (robbers) similarly bears a resemblance to the aforementioned terms

The alleged physical appearance and ethnicity of the Cagots varied wildly from legends and stories; some local legends (especially those that held to the leper theory) indicated that Cagots had blonde hair and blue eyes, while those favoring the Arab descent story said that Cagots were considerably darker.[10] One common trend was to claim that Cagots had no earlobes, or that one ear was longer than the other.[10] (The same thing appears in popular culture in the novel of Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, as a characteristic of the Duniazát.)

Graham Robb finds most of the above theories unlikely:

Nearly all the old and modern theories are unsatisfactory ... the real "mystery of the cagots" was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whatever dialect was spoken in the region and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots ... The only real difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skillful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.[7]

The Way of St. James; the anti-Cagot prejudice existed in northern Spain, Western France, and Southern France, roughly coinciding with the main routes.
Collapsed carpentry guild

A modern hypothesis of interest is that the Cagots are the descendants of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters. This theory would explain the most salient thing Cagots throughout France and Spain have in common: That is, being restricted in their choice of trade. The red webbed-foot symbol Cagots were sometimes forced to wear might have been the guild's original emblem.

There was a brief construction boom on the Way of St. James pilgrimage route in the 9th and 10th centuries; this could have brought the guild both power and suspicion. The collapse of their business would have left a scattered, yet cohesive group in the areas where Cagots are known.[5]

Defeated Vikings

A last hypothesis[11] proposes these men were descendants of the Vikings who had invaded Gascony in 840 and were defeated at Taller, near Dax, in 982. This would explain why the Cagots appear around 1000 in Gascony and Navarra – the lands of the duke of Gascony and his wife Urraca, the queen of Pamplona, the victors of the battle. This would also explain why they were not allowed to own weapons and trade, why they excelled in woodworking, and why they hunted whales in Capbreton and Biarritz with Scandinavian techniques.

To account for the physical differences, Supéry[11] explains that these seamen were protected by famous shipowners, the Templars who came in Aquitaine to develop transports to Saint James of Compostella. When the Templars had to leave France in 1307, their "commanderies" were given to the Hospitaliers, whose mission was to create "maladreries". The Hospitaliers' mission attracted all kinds of people, who mixed with the original blond and blue eyed Agots.[11]

The Scandinavian origin seems to be confirmed by Martin de Viscaya in 1621: "Around 412, a part of this people (Visigoths) invaded Aquitaine and Gascony and committed so many cruelties that the inhabitants of the country rebelled, united their forces and guided by the nobility succeeded in destroying or driving out the Goths, of whom only a few wretched people remained without being dangerous. These wretches, according to the author, were the first Agots and he affirms that it is a constant tradition in Béarn and Lower Navarre".[12]

However, the Visigoths who were Christianized and romanized did not commit any exactions in Gascony: The region was entrusted to them by the Romans and their domination was peaceful. Moreover, the Visigoths were defeated by Clovis at the battle of Vouillé in 507. Clovis was a pagan, foreign king. Martin of Vizcaya's description does not match the Visigothic occupation, but does fit the Viking one.


Holy water font for Cagots in Oloron cathedral, Béarn

Cagots were forced to use a side entrance to churches, often an intentionally low one to force Cagots to bow and remind them of their subservient status.[10] This practice, done for cultural rather than religious reasons, did not change even between Catholic and Huguenot areas. They had their own holy water fonts set aside for Cagots, and touching the normal font was strictly forbidden.[13] These restrictions were taken seriously; in the 18th century, a wealthy Cagot had his hand cut off and nailed to the church door for daring to touch the font reserved for "clean" citizens.[14]

Cagots were expected to slip into churches quietly and congregate in the worst seats. They received the host in communion only at the end of a stick. Many Bretons believed that Cagots bled from their navel on Good Friday.[7]

An appeal by the Cagots to Pope Leo X in 1514 was successful, and he published a bull instructing that the Cagots be treated "with kindness, in the same way as the other believers." Still, little changed, as most local authorities ignored the bull.[10]


The nominal though usually ineffective allies of the Cagots were the government, the educated, and the wealthy. It has been suggested that the odd patchwork of areas which recognized Cagots has more to do with which local governments tolerated the prejudice, and which allowed Cagots to be a normal part of society. In a study in 1683, doctors examined the Cagots and found them no different from normal citizens. Notably, they did not actually suffer from leprosy or any other disease that could clarify their exclusion from society. The Parliaments of Pau, Toulouse and Bordeaux were apprised of the situation, and money was allocated to improve the lot of the Cagots, but the populace and local authorities resisted.

In 1709, the influential politician Juan de Goyeneche planned and constructed the manufacturing town of Nuevo Baztán (after his native Baztan Valley in Navarre) near Madrid. He brought many Cagot settlers to Nuevo Baztán, but after some years, many returned to Navarre, unhappy with their work conditions. During the French Revolution substantive steps were taken to end discrimination toward Cagots. Revolutionary authorities claimed that Cagots were no different from other citizens, and de jure discrimination generally came to an end. Still, local prejudice from the populace persisted, though the practice began to decline.

During the Revolution, Cagots had stormed record offices and burned birth certificates in an attempt to conceal their heritage. These measures did not prove effective, as the local populace still remembered. Rhyming songs kept the names of Cagot families known.

Modern statusEdit

Today the Cagots no longer form a separate social class and have largely assimilated into the general population.[3][4] Very little of Cagot culture still exists, as most descendants of Cagots have preferred not to be known as such.

There was a distinct Cagot community in Navarre until the early 20th century, with the small northern village called Arizkun in Basque (or Arizcun in Spanish) being the last haven of this segregation, where the community was contained within the neighbourhood of Bozate.

Because the main identifying mark of the Cagots was the restriction of their trades to a few small options, their segregation has been compared to the caste system in India.[10]

See alsoEdit

  • Cleanliness of blood, ethnic discrimination in the Spanish Old Regime.
  • Dalit (also known as Untouchables) in India.
  • Vaqueiros de alzada, a discriminated group of cowherders in Northern Spain.
  • Burakumin, a discriminated group in Japan.
  • Gitanos, an ethnic minority in Spain and Portugal.
  • Cascarots, an ethnic group in the French Basque coast sometimes linked to the Cagots.


  1. ^ Robb, p. 43.
  2. ^ Hawkins, Daniel (2014). "'Chimeras that degrade humanity': the cagots and discrimination". p. 12. Retrieved 20 August 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cagots". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ a b Sean Thomas, "The Last Untouchable in Europe," The Independent, London, 28 July 2008, p. 20
  5. ^ a b Robb, p. 46.
  6. ^ Hawkins, p.37
  7. ^ a b c d e Robb, p. 45
  8. ^ Hawkins, p.36.
  9. ^ Hawkins, p.12.
  10. ^ a b c d e International Humanist and Ethical Union – "The Cagots of Béarn: The Pariahs of France" Retrieved 9 July 2008. Archived 18 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ a b c Supery, Joel (2018). La Saga des Vikings, une autre histoire des invasions. Paris, FR: Autrement.
  12. ^ de Marca, Pierre (1640). Histoire de Bearn. p. 17.
  13. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: "Holy Water Fonts"
  14. ^ Robb, p. 44.


Further readingEdit