Holy water font reserved for cagots, church in Saint-Savin, France (source). Why were the cagots segregated?
The cagots were a caste of people who used to live on both sides of the Pyrenees in southwestern France and northern Spain. Notwithstanding speculation to the contrary, it is unlikely that they have a single ethnic origin, since their physical appearance is quite variable. Some are tall and fair-skinned; others, short and olive-skinned.
The cagots are usually said to be descended from lepers, this also being the reason given for shunning them. In the oldest historical references, however, they are called crestians, chrestiaàs, or christianus, an indication that they initially were New Christians, i.e., former Muslims or heretics (Arians, Cathars) who had been christened as adults. The term cagot itself is attested in French as meaning “bigot” or “hypocrite”, i.e., someone who talks excessively about God but is ultimately wrong in his religious beliefs. Furthermore, in a petition to the pope in 1514, a community of cagots mentioned that people said they were of Cathar origin (Wikipédia, 2013).
Both explanations may be partly right. Southwestern France went through profound social and economic change in the 12th to 13th centuries (Guerreau and Guy, 1988; see also Cursente, 1998). Previously, rural life was loosely structured and semi-sedentary, being characterized by subsistence farming and pastoralism, relatively equal access to communal land, and equitable land inheritance. This mode of living changed with the shift to a more feudal society, i.e., intensification of food production, creation of villages, restriction of access to land ownership, and introduction of primogeniture. Since the number of private plots was limited, many people became excluded altogether from farming. Such people tended to be those who were already marginal, like New Christians and lepers, or those who could not settle down on a single plot of land, either because they were younger sons with no inheritance or because they were psychologically unsuited for the monotony of sedentary farm life. Over time, these excluded people became a segregated underclass.
The cagots were segregated socially and spatially in various ways. They had to sit in a separate part of the local church and enter by a separate door. They typically lived in their own quarter on the outskirts of town. They were buried in a separate section of the local cemetery, if not in a separate cemetery. Intermarriage with them was rare and highly stigmatized. There may also have been occupational segregation at one time (Wikipédia, 2013).
Although the academic literature describes these forms of segregation at great length, surprisingly little has been written about behavioral differences between cagots and non-cagots. This is partly because many academics choose to leave out information that would put the cagots in a bad light. The main reason, however, is the reluctance of local people, particularly non-cagots, to discuss this issue:
In Lescun, our first questions on the phenomenon produced hesitations and sudden silences from the former mayor, who had been so talkative on other topics. Long hesitations interrupted the flow of the conversation, which then picked up again on generalities and off-topic points. Embarrassment and evasiveness were systematically encountered during interviews on the subject, and it was often only by roundabout ways that we would get information. (Jolly, 2000, p. 206)
Among the many academics who have written about the cagots, Geneviève Jolly seems to be the only one who has broached the issue of behavioral differences:
It is often stated that the cagots were confined to certain occupations. Clearly, they did originate among the landless, and there are records of individuals being forbidden to take up farming and livestock raising. On the other hand, some cagots were tenant farmers and even landowning farmers as far back as the 14th century (Jolly, 2000, pp. 199-200). The first census records (19th century) show overrepresentation in some occupations and underrepresentation in others. According to the 1840 census of the village of Lescun, most residents of the cagot quarter were day laborers (60%), followed by craftsmen (18%), farmers and farmworkers (8%), and shepherds (5%). In the rest of the village, most residents were farmers and farmworkers (55%), followed by shepherds (16%), day laborers (10%), and craftsmen (7%) (Jolly, 2000, p. 211).
The following comment is reported from a Lescun resident about the laborers he had once known in the cagot quarter:
They would drink lots of wine. If there was no longer any, they would no longer work. But they didn’t do much work that way. All of those laborers died before reaching the age of retirement. (Jolly, 2000, p. 208)
Non-cagot houses, no matter how modest, were symmetrical with evenly spaced windows. Cagot houses were very irregular in appearance, even though a disproportionate number of cagots were craftsmen (Jolly, 2000, pp. 210-211).
Because of the rule of primogeniture among non-cagots, only the eldest son could inherit the family home and plot of land. Younger sons would often remain single and take care of older household members. The sole way for a younger son to get his own land would be to marry into a family that only had daughters. In that case, however, he would lose his ostaus—his family name:
Not only will he theoretically not inherit any land, but he will not even be able to pass on his name to any children he may have. As a son-in-law, he will take the name of the home he marries into, and if he creates a new home, a new name will be given to him. (Jolly, 2000, p. 215)
None of these restrictions applied to cagots, who encouraged all of their children to marry and have families of their own.
Cagots moved around much more than did non-cagots. Most of them were not bound to a plot of land, and they usually had to seek marriage partners outside their local community:
The cagots seemed to be not tied economically and socially to one community, as were the landowners whose entire strategy rested on defending the integrity of a privately owned collective inheritance. Their [the cagots’] area of concern went beyond the framework of the community, as shown by their geographical movements, the larger areas covered by their mate-seeking, and their associations for defense of their interests. (Jolly, 2000, p. 218)
These differences in behavior clearly arose from different conditions of life. Nonetheless, conditions of life can favor certain personality traits within a population to the detriment of others, particularly traits that involve restraint, time orientation, and monotony avoidance. People with the right behavioral mix will survive longer and reproduce more than those who don’t. Thus, with each generation, certain latent abilities and predispositions will spread at the expense of others. This is the logic of gene-culture co-evolution.
If, for instance, a younger son in a non-cagot family could not tolerate staying celibate until a bride with a plot of land became available, he would marry a girl with no land. With few means to support a family, his psychological traits would be flushed out of the gene pool. There was thus strong selection for sexual restraint and future time orientation. Attachment to a single plot of land also selected for individuals with less monotony avoidance. Such selection would have been much weaker in the cagot community.
This point bears repeating. The non-cagots were the ones who became more and more different over time. The cagots remained the same. In short, the cagots preserved a behavioral and psychological profile that was normal for everyone until land inheritance became strictly rationed from the 12th to 13th centuries onward. Such a scenario runs counter to the discrimination paradigm, which holds that the excluded group is the one that becomes more and more deviant.
Cursente, B. (1998). La question des “cagots” du Béarn. Proposition d’une nouvelle piste de recherche, Les Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques, 21http://ccrh.revues.org/2521
Guerreau, A. and Y. Guy. (1988). Les Cagots du Béarn. Recherches sur le développement inégal au sein du système féodal européen, Minerve: Paris.
Jolly, G. (2000). Les cagots des Pyrénées : une ségrégation attestée, une mobilité mal connue, Le Monde alpin et rhodanien, 28, 197-222.
Wikipédia (2013). Cagotshttp://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagots