Sitting in her little house near Tarbes, in the French Pyrenees, Marie-Pierre Manet-Beauzac talks about her ancestry. For most people this would be agreeable, but for the 40-something mother-of-three, the story of her bloodline is marked with a unique sadness: because she belongs to an extraordinary tribe of hidden pariahs, repressed in France for a thousand years.
Marie-Pierre is a Cagot. If the word "Cagot" means nothing to you, that is not surprising. The history of the Cagot people is obscure. Marie certainly believes that: "To talk about the Cagots is still a bad thing in the mountains. The French are ashamed of what they did to us, the Cagots are ashamed of what they were. That is why no one, these days, will confess they are of Cagot descent."
She is probably the only person in the world willing to admit she is of Cagot blood. But it took her many years to realise what that meant. "When I first had children, I wanted to know where they came from so I started researching, I noticed certain names and trades in my background, lots of humble carpenters, basket-makers, poor people, people who lived in the 'wrong' parts of town. Soon I realised I was a Cagot. Though many argue what that really means."
The truth about the Cagots is obscure. 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."
Cagots were forbidden to enter most trades or professions. 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, theycould 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.
"The Cagots weren't even allowed to eat alongside non-Cagots, nor share their dishes.” Marriage between Cagots and non-Cagots was almost impossible. On occasions, the bigotry was brutally enforced: in the early 18th century a prosperous Cagot in the Landes was caught using the font reserved for non-Cagots – his hand was chopped off and nailed to the church door.
So where did the Cagots originate? And why did they suffer such bigotry? Their provenance is opaque: 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. Nonetheless, there are historical accounts that afford an intriguing glimpse. Contemporary sources describe them as being short, dark and stocky. 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 then historians have tried to solve the Cagot mystery. One theory is that they were lepers, or contagious cretins. However, this theory falls down on the many descriptions of the Cagots being perfectly healthy.
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.
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."
"Some like to say Cagots have disappeared. But this is not true. If you travel near Campan, for instance, you can still see the short, swarthy people descended from the Cagots. The 'pestiferous people'."