GENCO 2016
French Orphans and Wards of the Nation - a Book Review - Part 1

Was Your French Ancestor a Cagot?

Cagot copy

We read the following article by Nick Inman in "The Connexion" October 2016 issue; it is reproduced here courtesy of "The Connexion, France's English-Language Newspaper", It may answer some puzzles and explain some brick walls for some. Read on!

2021 UPDATE: For those of you interested in this topic, check the comments section below for a link to an article with a new theory about the origins of the Cagots.

EVERY family tree has its surprises, but when Marie Diorite investigated her genealogy she discovered something astonishing. Up until the Revolution in 1789 every member of her family had been born, married and died in the same small Pyrenean village. For generations they were members of Europe’s own forgotten caste of untouchables, the cagots, an underclass subjected to social, legal and religious discrimination for no explicable reason.

Almost everything about these people remains a mystery. It is difficult to tell their story. The historical records – kept by prejudiced persecutors rather than the cagots themselves – are often confusing and historians trying to make sense of them frequently contradict each other. Centuries of legends that have grown up around the cagots obscure the few facts that exist. The cagots first emerged in history around the 13th century but they almost certainly existed before then. They seem to have been scattered up and down western France but they were concentrated in the southwest, in the Pyrenees, spilling over the border into Spain (where they were known as the agotes).

No one has ever been able to say clearly what defined one. They were not an ethnic, religious or linguistic group. They are often said to have had defining physical characteristics but this is disputed. It is generally agreed that they were extremely short, but some researchers have concluded the exact opposite: that they were tall and well-built. Other supposedly typical features, such as the absence of earlobes, are almost certainly later inventions.

“It finally became apparent,” said Graham Robb in The Discovery of France, a study of how France came to understand itself, “that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all….” They were simply people born into inferiority: a child born to cagot parents was a cagot. The only thing all cagots had in common was that they had prejudice heaped on them from birth and throughout their lives. They were considered to be unclean and forced to live apart from ‘normal’ people in their own villages or in quarters set aside for them called cagoteries. They could only drink from a fountain marked for their use. In some places they were required to have a goose or duck’s foot cut out of red material and stitched on their clothing as an identifying mark. They could only marry within their own and were prohibited from working in many professions, particularly those linked to food preparation.

For the most part, they were involved in the building trades – iron, stone and wood – and they are said to have been skilled craftsmen and many churches and bridges are attributed to them. Even in the churches they built, however, they were treated as second-class worshippers. They had to enter by their own door and sit in an segregated area. Many churches today have a bricked up secondary entrance said to be the ‘cagot door’ and a holy water stoup (bénitier) solely for their use. According to the annals, one cagot in the Landes who used the wrong stoup had his hand cut off and nailed to the church door as a warning to others.

Many pages in books and magazines have been dedicated to hypotheses about who they were and why they were so despised. It was once thought they must be lepers but the groups are mentioned separately in records. Several theories argue that they were being made to suffer for the sins of distant ancestors, who were (depending who you listen to) the prehistoric inhabitants of the region displaced by Christianity; the Visigoths defeated by Clovis in 507, the Moorish invaders of France in the 8th century or even the Cathars – but this is unlikely as there seem to have been cagots in southwest France before the 14th century Cathar wars.

Another proposal is that their forebears were itinerant medieval craftsmen and perhaps builders brought back from the Holy Land by the Knights Templar. The semi-nomadic teams of constructors responsible for medieval architecture would have lived near settled communities for the duration of each construction project they engaged in. They may well have been regarded with suspicion both for their ‘secret knowledge’ of geometry and the disruption that they caused to local life. It is even possible that these travellers opted for voluntary segregation but that this was turned against them. This may explain the geographical location of them which coincides with the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, which was known to be a “builders’ highway” immediately before the appearance of the cagots.

Whoever they were, they gradually vanished from history as the Middle Ages gave way to the Enlightenment. Improved education, economic prosperity and new political ideologies opened up isolated communities and made the old ways obsolete. The Revolution declared all the people of France to be at least theoretically equal and many cagots took advantage of the turbulence of 1789 to destroy damning records of their lineage. When the chance came to emigrate to the New World and leave antiquated hierarchies behind, many seized it. By the 19th century, the cagots were mostly assimilated into the general population leaving behind only a puzzle for historians to tackle.

One of the lesser-known works by the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell is an essay written in 1855 and available today online called "An Accursed Race" in which she recounts facts and legends about the cagots in an attempt to prove superstitions that surrounded them were unfounded. “They were truly what they were popularly called,” she concluded, “The Accursed Race”. Recently, there has been renewed interest in the subject. Several books have tried to explain why they were treated as they were. Despite intense research, there is no consensus as to who they were, or where they came from.

Nick Inman is the author of A Guide to Mystical France, published by Findhorn Press.


We have put in bold what may be especially pertinent to researchers.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy