An Accursed Race

Elizabeth Gaskell

We have our prejudices in England. Or, if that assertion offends any of
my readers, I will modify it: we have had our prejudices in England.
We have tortured Jews; we have burnt Catholics and Protestants, to say
nothing of a few witches and wizards. We have satirized Puritans, and
we have dressed-up Guys. But, after all, I do not think we have been so
bad as our Continental friends. To be sure, our insular position has kept
us free, to a certain degree, from the inroads of alien races; who, driven
from one land of refuge, steal into another equally unwilling to receive
them; and where, for long centuries, their presence is barely endured,
and no pains is taken to conceal the repugnance which the natives of
"pure blood" experience towards them.
There yet remains a remnant of the miserable people called Cagots in
the valleys of the Pyrenees; in the Landes near Bourdeaux; and,
stretching up on the west side of France, their numbers become larger
in Lower Brittany. Even now, the origin of these families is a word of
shame to them among their neighbours; although they are protected by
the law, which confirmed them in the equal rights of citizens about the
end of the last century. Before then they had lived, for hundreds of
years, isolated from all those who boasted of pure blood, and they had
been, all this time, oppressed by cruel local edicts. They were truly
what they were popularly called, The Accursed Race.
All distinct traces of their origin are lost. Even at the close of that
period which we call the Middle Ages, this was a problem which no
one could solve; and as the traces, which even then were faint and
uncertain, have vanished away one by one, it is a complete mystery at
the present day. Why they were accursed in the first instance, why
isolated from their kind, no one knows. From the earliest accounts of
their state that are yet remaining to us, it seems that the names which
they gave each other were ignored by the population they lived

amongst, who spoke of them as Crestiaa, or Cagots, just as we speak of
animals by their generic names. Their houses or huts were always
placed at some distance out of the villages of the country-folk, who
unwillingly called in the services of the Cagots as carpenters, or tilers,
or slaters--trades which seemed appropriated by this unfortunate
race--who were forbidden to occupy land, or to bear arms, the usual
occupations of those times. They had some small right of pasturage on
the common lands, and in the forests: but the number of their cattle and
live-stock was strictly limited by the earliest laws relating to the Cagots.
They were forbidden by one act to have more than twenty sheep, a pig,
a ram, and six geese. The pig was to be fattened and killed for winter
food; the fleece of the sheep was to clothe them; but if the said sheep
had lambs, they were forbidden to eat them. Their only privilege
arising from this increase was, that they might choose out the strongest
and finest in preference to keeping the old sheep. At Martinmas the
authorities of the commune came round, and counted over the stock of
each Cagot. If he had more than his appointed number, they were
forfeited; half went to the commune, half to the baillie, or chief
magistrate of the commune. The poor beasts were limited as to the
amount of common which they might stray over in search of grass.
While the cattle of the inhabitants of the commune might wander hither
and thither in search of the sweetest herbage, the deepest shade, or the
coolest pool in which to stand on the hot days, and lazily switch their
dappled sides, the Cagot sheep and pig had to learn imaginary bounds,
beyond which if they strayed, any one might snap them up, and kill
them, reserving a part of the flesh for his own use, but graciously
restoring the inferior parts to their original owner. Any damage done by
the sheep was, however, fairly appraised, and the Cagot paid no more
for it than any other man would have done.
Did a Cagot leave his poor cabin, and venture into the towns, even to
render services required of him in the way of his he was bidden, by all
the municipal laws, to stand by and remember his rude old state. In all
the towns and villages the large districts extending on both sides of the
Pyrenees--in all that part of Spain--they were forbidden to buy or sell
anything eatable, to walk in the middle (esteemed the better) part of the
streets, to come within the gates
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