Book Extract #6

Here is the final extract from the forthcoming book ‘Tears of Pyrene’. In this we examine some of the Medieval and Early Modern events that shaped the cultures and peoples of the Pyrenees:


Pilgrims and Bandits

During the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Navarre straddled the Pyrenees, and passed between several dynasties, all of which left their influence on the territory.[1] Originating as one of the ‘buffer states’ formed by Charlemagne, mentioned above, to protect the Pyrenees from Moorish attacks, the Navarre as a kingdom and a region has centred around Pamplona since its inception. Its borders ebbed and flowed from the 10th to the 20th centuries, being controlled by Basques, the Crown of Aragon, the Counts of Champagne, the dynasties of Foix and Albret variously, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, which at least placed it beyond the reach of French claims.[2] [3] Despite changing rulers and territorial shifts, one aspect remained constant for much of the Medieval period in the Navarrese Pyrenees, and that was the flow of pilgrims following the ‘French Route’ towards Santiago de Compostela, and the relics of St James.

By the 12th century, the cult of St James at Santiago de Compostela was drawing between half a million and two million people each year.[4] Roughly five primary routes had come into favour during the Middle Ages, at least three of which converged at Roncesvalles before plunging down into the Pyrenean foothills towards Pamplona, generating a steady stream of human traffic over the Pyrenean pass between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) and Roncesvalles (Navarre). So popular was the route, that one of the first examples of a tourist guidebook originates from the 12th century and addresses the best routes to take when travelling to Santiago de Compostela. The Liber Sancti Jacobi [5] was likely written between 1140 and 1150, and is filled with advice on the routes, landscapes, hostelries and peoples encountered along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. One lengthy extract in particular is worth quoting, due to its description of the landscapes and dangers awaiting pilgrims in the Pyrenees from unscrupulous toll-collectors in the various passes that brought people to Roncesvalles:

Then, round the pass of Cize, is the Basque country, with the town of Bayonne on the coast to the north. Here a barbarous tongue is spoken; the country is wooded and hilly, short of bread, wine and all other foodstuffs, except only apples, cider and milk. In this country there are wicked toll-collectors – near the pass of Cize and at Ostabat and Saint-Jean and Saint-Michael-Pied-de-Port – may they be accursed! They come out to meet pilgrims with two or three cudgels to exact tribute by improper use of force; and if any traveller refuses to give the money they demand they strike him with their cudgels and take his money, abusing him and rummaging in his very breeches. They are ruthless people, and their country is no less hostile, with its forests and wildness; the ferocity of their aspect and the barbarousness of their language strike terror into the hearts of those who encounter them. Although they should levy tribute only on merchants they exact it unjustly from pilgrims and all travellers […] Still in the Basque country, the road to St James goes over a most lofty mountain known as Portus Cisere [Pass of Cize], so called either because it is the gateway of Spain or because necessary goods are transported over the pass from one country to another […] From the summit can be seen the Sea of Brittany and the Western Sea, and the bounds of the three countries of Castile, Aragon and France […] On this mountain, before Christianity was fully established in Spain, the impious Navarrese and the Basques were accustomed not only to rob pilgrims going to St James but to ride them like asses and kill them. [6]

Summer was an especially popular time for people to travel, due to the weather which would have been a major concern for those crossing the Pyrenees, and also due to the July vigil held in honour of St James in Santiago de Compostela. At this time, many pilgrims would have been walking among the high pastures containing livestock, watched over by shepherds and cowherds, in the tradition of transhumance.[7] [8] An indication of the level of traffic that flowed largely over the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela was the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1207, as the fabric of the building had been destroyed by the crush of people around the altar, which had also led to bloodshed.[9] With both France and Spain remaining Catholic throughout the ensuing centuries, particularly from the 13th to late-18th centuries,[10] this steady stream of pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees, staying in local inns or purpose built pilgrim hospices, the area of Roncesvalles Pass has become synonymous with the tradition of pilgrimage, not least due to the impressive hospice, ossuary,[11] and collegiate church established there.[12] [13]

In the mid-14th century, the Black Death devastated Europe. The regions that surround and encompass the Pyrenees however were strongly affected; the Basque Country and Aragon lost up to two thirds of their populations, the Navarre lost roughly half, and Catalonia lost over a third. Huesca (Aragon) was particularly affected, as was the Bigorre region, and Urgell (Catalonia), where the Bishop of Seu d’Urgell died from the pandemic on 1st May, 1348. Several areas of the Pyrenees appear to have been spared however, likely due to their sparse populations and distance between settlements, which prevented the plague from spreading as effectively as in urban environments.[14]

Moving forward to the early-17th century, one figure emerges across the mountains in the Labourd (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) who would have a significant cultural and demographic impact in the Pyrenees, Pierre de Rosteguy de Lancre.[15] King Henry IV of France sent Pierre de Lancre, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, to pursue and eradicate witchcraft in the region, leading to dramatic hysteria and persecutions in Gascony. This had to dual effect of sending many local innocents to the stake, and also driving a wave of refugees from de Lancre’s witch hunts over into the Basque Country, many of which brought their own tales of Sabbaths and Inquisition ‘witch-lore’, that would have a lasting effect on how witchcraft was perceived in the region.[16] A further aspect of this was that the new arrivals, combined with existing fears and the European climate of malefic hysteria, formed the basis of what are now popularly known as the Basque Witch Trials, during which some seven thousand cases were investigated.[17]

Borders & Battles

The other event which shaped the Pyrenees in the 17th century was the Treaty of the Pyrenees, a document which in 1659 ended the war between France and Spain that had run from 1635.[18] The majority of the document was concerned with non-territorial matters, such as ‘princely alliances, commercial agreements, and the cession of jurisdictions along the French frontier of the Spanish Netherlands[19] and the Franche-Compté,[20] where the major battles in the Bourbon-Habsburg phase of the Thirty Years War had been fought.’[21] However it also finally demarcated the French and Spanish territories along the Pyrenean border, as the medieval states that preceded the Treaty rarely saw the Pyrenees as a boundary, often spanning the range and encompassing parts of what would become both France and Spain. Certain areas were contentious, such as the plains between Cerdanya and Roussillon and the area of Conflent, however the agreement was reached that these should be termed as French territories. However, it should be noted that the formally Catalan territories that extended into what are now the Ariège, Aude and the Pyrénées-Orientales (such as northern Cerdanya) are also frequently referred to as ‘Northern Catalonia’,[22] proving that the Pyrenean cultural memory is long indeed, and there are many examples of toponyms that hold Catalan signifiers. The final act to define several aspects of the Pyrenean Franco-Spanish border (particularly villages and townships on the border itself) would be signed in the Bayonne Treaties between 1856 and 1868. Thus, for the first time in its history, the Pyrenees found itself enshrined in law as a geographical territorial border between two nation states.[23]

The French Revolution in the late-18th century is well known for the violent social, political and economic upheavals that it wrought on the French population and the country’s institutions.[24] It is beyond the scope of this chapter (and indeed this book) to address this era in the detail it deserves, however there are elements that relate specifically to the Pyrenean populations that are of interest, crucially those relating to territory and autonomy. Broadly speaking, the system of provinces that existed under the ancien regime in which districts such as Languedoc, Béarn, Foix and Rousillon[25] enjoyed their own traditions, courts, taxation rights and a level of autonomy, thus making central French governance nearly impossible, was extinguished during the early years of the French Revolution.[26] Instead, the system of départements was introduced, forming along the Pyrenees the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Ariège, the Aude, the Haute-Garonne, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The latter had a particular impact on the French Basque population, who had practised a system of foruak/fueros or ‘home rule’ in Labourd region for centuries,[27] and the new Jacobin state refused to recognise these liberties, suppressing the native government and declaring a new département, the Basse-Pyrénées (now the Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in 1790. The Lower Navarre also became amalgamated into this new territory, and the National Assembly decreed that French law superseded any prior autonomy in the area, despite Basque being the most commonly spoken language there.[28] This forced restructuring of Pyrenean territories, politics and national identities was followed in 1793 by the War of the Pyrenees, which saw the French First Republic fighting against the kingdom of Spain, itself allied with Portugal, in both the western and eastern Pyrenees until 1795. Already at war with Austria, Prussia and Sardinia-Piedmont, France occupied the Netherlands and declared its annexation, forcing a diplomatic break with Great Britain and, subsequently declaring war on Britain and the Dutch Republic, and then Spain; the battleground was to be the length and breadth of the Pyrenees. The French army was comprised of veterans, national guardsmen, and those conscripts that had been gained from the levée en masse which demanded all able-bodied men between eighteen and twenty-five to report for duty.[29] In Spain, the Army of Catalonia was deployed to the eastern Pyrenees, and on 17th April, 1793 it crossed the border[30] and captured St. Laurent-de-Cerdens (Pyrénées-Orientales). The Spanish forces advanced further over the next few months, winning the majority of their engagements, until they were defeated in the Battle of Peyrestortes (Pyrénées-Orientales) on the 17th September, which marked the Spanish army’s furthest incursion into French territory along the eastern Pyrenees. Various skirmishes, battles and repulsions followed in the Tech Valley, Villelongue-dels-Monts and Collioure, largely in Spain’s favour until the death of the commander of the Army of Catalonia, General Ricardos, on 13th March, 1974. After this, under the command of General Duggomier, the Spanish forces’ luck began to turn, culminating in the four-day Battle of the Black Mountain (Camany, Catalonia), 17th – 20th November, in which both the French and Spanish commanders were killed, followed by the French winning the Siege of Roses (Girona, Catalonia) in February 1975. After peace was signed, but before the frontline had heard the news, the Spanish recaptured Puigcerdà and Bellver. This would be the last act of the campaign in the eastern Pyrenees.[31]

Simultaneously to this campaign, battles between French and Spanish forces were also taking place in the western Pyrenees between 1793 and 1796. Following a small series of skirmishes by both forces in 1793, French forces seized both the Izpegi Pass and the Izpegi Bridge (Basque Country) on 3rd June 1794, with minimal losses. July saw the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales[32]under Generals Moncey, Delaborde and Frégaville, attack and capture several positions in the northern Basque Country, culminating in San Sebastien on 30th July. Moncey then launched a series of offences from the Baztan Valley and Roncesvalles Pass towards Pamplona over the next year. By June 1795, Moncey had captured Vitoria and Bilbao, and when the Peace of Basel was finally signed on 22nd July and news reached the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales, Moncey was preparing to cross the Ebro and take Pamplona.[33] Under the peace treaty, all areas in the Basque Country occupied by the French would be returned to Spain, which the Spanish Basques feared would bring to an end their self-government, much like their French counterparts under Jacobin rule.[34] In a twist of diplomatic fate, France and Spain would go on to create an alliance in 1796 with the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, against the British Empire.[35]


[1] It should be mentioned that for the purposes of convenience, in Chapter Four the Navarre is grouped under the title of the Basque Country in terms of a cultural territory, despite being a separate modern region. The reasons for this are laid out in Chapter Four.

[2] The Treaty of the Pyrenees is outlined below due to its 17th-century chronology.

[3] Space in this chapter sadly limits the discussion and explanation of this fascinating kingdom, however for a detailed history of the Navarre, see: Bard, Rachel, Navarra: The Durable Kingdom (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1982).

[4] Rahtz, Phillip, and Watts, Lorna, ‘The Archaeologist on the Road to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela’, in The Anglo-Saxon Church: Papers on History, Architecture and Archaeology in Honour of Dr H. M. Taylor, Lawrence Butler (ed.) (London: Council for British Archaeology, 1986), pp. 51 – 73.

[5] ‘The Book of Saint James’.

[6] Hogarth, James, (trans.), The Pilgrim’s Guide: A 12th Century Guide for the Pilgrim to St James of Compostella (London: Confraternity of St James, 1992), pp. 19 – 25.

[7] See Chapter Six for a detailed discussion of transhumance in the Pyrenees.

[8] Travel in the Medieval period was far more extensive than is commonly thought, for a thorough analysis of this subject, see: Ohler, Norbert, The Medieval Traveller, Caroline Hillier (trans.) (London: Boydell & Brewer, 2010).

[9] Gitlitz, David, and Davidson, Linda, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000), p. 344.

[10] The author would suggest that the French Revolution (1789) very likely had an impact on the visibility of pilgrims along the ‘French Route’ to and over the Pyrenees, due to its systematic and institutional anti-clericalism, in much the same way that the Reformation in England (1529 – 1537) resulted in pilgrimage being seen as a ‘Papist’ activity, combined with the destruction of many shrines and pilgrimage centres throughout England.

[11] This ossuary allegedly contains bones from the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass in 778, between Basque forces and Charlemagne’s army, including, as myth would have it, those of the infamous Roland.

[12] As well as with Roland, Charlemagne, and the later Battle of Roncesvalles between Wellington and Bonaparte’s forces in 1813, discussed later in this chapter.

[13] For a detailed examination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela from an archaeological perspective, see: Candy, Julie, The Archaeology of Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: A Landscape Perspective (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2009). For an examination of pilgrimage, especially in Britain, that focusses on the issues of travel and experience, see: Locker, Martin, Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2015).

[14] Benedictow, Ole, The Black Death, 1346 – 1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006).

[15] This character is discussed at length in Chapter Four with regards to witchcraft in the Pyrenees, and so will be discussed only briefly here, however his importance prohibits his exclusion from this historical discussion.

[16] See Chapter Four for a fulsome discussion on this topic, and a gazetteer of Pyrenean sites associated with witchcraft in folklore and legend.

[17] Henningsen, Gustav, The Witches’ Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614) (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1980).

[18] This information was taken from the following publication, which should be consulted for a detailed examination of the Treaty of the Pyrenees: Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

[19] This territory was held by the Spanish Crown from 1556 to 1714, containing large swathes of modern Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as areas in the southern Netherlands, northern France and western Germany, with Brussels as the capital. For more information see: Parker, Geoffrey, Spain and the Netherlands, 1559 – 1659: Ten Studies (Berkley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1979).

[20] This is an historical region in eastern France that borders Switzerland, comprised of the modern Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and Belfort départements. A succinct history of the region is provided in: Rougebief, Eugène, Histoire de la Franche-Comté, Ancienne et Moderne (Paris: Ch. Stèvenard, 1851).

[21] Sahlins, 1989, p. 29.

[22] See: Collier, Basil, Catalan France (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1939).

[23] The degree to which this immediately affected the identities held by the various villages and towns in this liminal zone is debatable, forged as they were in hyper-local events and the rhythm of the rural Pyrenean year (see Chapter Six).

[24] For an overview of this period and the various ramifications of the Revolution, see: Andress, David, (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Shusterman, Noah, The French Revolution. Faith, Desire, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2015).

[25] These examples are chosen for their Pyrenean geography.

[26] This was in an attempt both to centralize administration, and break the influence of the nobility, who had shaped the boundaries of the provinces over the preceding centuries.

[27] Although in truth these rights had been steadily eroded for the past two centuries.

[28] See: Barrero García, Ana María, and Alonso Martín, María Luz, Textos de Derecho local español en la Edad Media. Catálogo de Fueros y Costums municipals (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. Instituto de Ciencias Jurídicas, 1989).

[29] The following information is taken from: Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, The French Revolutionary Wars (London: Routledge, 2013).

[30] As defined by the aforementioned Treaty of the Pyrenees signed in 1659.

[31] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[32] The Armée des Pyrénées was one of the French Revolutionary armies, created on 1st October, 1972, and following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1973, it was divided into the Armée des Pyrénées Orientales (Army of the Eastern Pyrenees) and the Armée des Pyrénées Occidentales (Army of the Western Pyrenees).

[33] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

[34] The terms Spanish Basques and French Basques are used here purely for convenience to delineate the two ‘new’ territories following the hard border between the two nations and the formation of the new départements.

[35] Fremont-Barnes, 2013.

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