‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #1: Chapter One ‘Among Plentiful Pastures: The Herdsman’

Here is the first extract from the forthcoming book with Mons Culturae Press ‘Bountiful Borderlands: A History of Pyrenean Livelihoods’, taken from Chapter One which deals with pastoralism in the Pyrenees:

‘Before we move onto more personal, ethnographic and folkloric elements that reveal the world of the Pyrenean herder, it is worth briefly addressing one event that affected the various pasture lands and territories used for transhumance across the spine of the Pyrenees. The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659 and formally ended hostilities between France and Spain, thus resolving the Spanish War, which had been born out of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), and essentially formalised the ‘nation state’ of both countries.[1] However, the ‘boundary’ between these two countries, was not precisely established, at least in terms of a line; what occurred instead was a notion of ‘sovereignty’ of various territories along the Pyrenees, which relied on the various villages and towns knowing the extent of their lands, and whether they fell in culturally ‘French’ or ‘Spanish’ areas. In the central and Western Pyrenees in particular, it was not until the Treaty of Bayonne (1856) that a definitive territorial boundary between France and Spain was concretely decided upon by Paris and Madrid.

What is of relevance here is the fact that, whatever was dictated by the elites, the ‘line’ itself was more or less known amongst the various communities along its course for in preceding centuries, especially by the Pyrenean shepherds, and originated with Medieval Pyrenean communities:

The shepherd’s boundary was established in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century traités de lies et passeries. These treaties resolved quarrels over the use of pastures located along the crests between adjacent valleys, usually by arranging means of sharing the valuable borderlands. There were numerous such treaties in the Pyrenees, not only between valleys which later became separated by the international boundary, but also between adjacent valleys on the same slope. In the Western Pyrenees, every valley along the international boundary made agreements with its neighbours.[2]

These Medieval agreements or facerías typically established areas of compascuity where livestock from either valley could graze together, which kinds of animals could share pastures and where furze, bracken and gorze might be gathered. In most cases flocks or herds could only visit ‘foreign territories’ during daylight hours, and some agreements were non-reciprocal, in that herders could use pastures of another valley but not vice versa; this would usually entail the payment of a small fee. These agreements however were often made independently of centralised powers, i.e. between valley communities, and they also helped to ensure relative peace along the Pyrenees during the Franco-Spanish conflict, as ‘many treaties pledged their valleys to eternal peace, whatever the quarrels of their titular sovereigns […] villagers even promised to warn their neighbours of approaching soldiery’, and there are several examples of inhabitants of these valleys refusing to bear arms for either France or Spain due to their loyalties to the facerías.[3] This was even the case during Napoleon’s Peninsula Campaign in 1812, with both sides refusing to take part, actually helping each other in order to keep their Pyrenean communities as peaceful as possible, and marking over three centuries of mutual cooperation in maintaining harmony throughout these valleys.

Many of these traités de lies et passerines from the 12th and 13th centuries had resulted in boundary crosses or markers being inscribed in rocks, and each grassland, stream or tree was recognised as belonging to a particular community, or being in common. Upon the creation of ‘the line’ in the mid 19th century, this tended to follow a greater respect for local history than landforms, often weaving around woodlands, streams, springs, dolmens, menhirs and the Medieval boundary stones. The Treaty of Bayonne, rather than negating, actually legitimised the centuries-old facerías and, to this day, unrestricted boundary crossings by cowherds and shepherds survive, ‘mayors still meet in the mountains to sign ancient pastoral agreements, pay the traditional rents [for grazing rights], nominate wardens (who may exercise legal authority in foreign territory), settle grievances, and even swear eternal peace’.[4] Thus pastoralism, the movements of the herdsman and the needs of his livestock have played a far greater and deeper role in both the territorial boundaries of the Pyrenees, and the enduring peace in these valleys. One charming example of this still occurs between the communities of Barétous and Roncal, thought to date back to a murder committed by shepherds of Barétous in the 14th century, in which cattle were offered as expiation:

Accordingly, on the thirteenth of July every year, the officials of Barétous and Roncal meet at the stone of Saint Martin on which the boundary to sign a new treaty, and to transfer the three cows which, the treaty stipulates, must be 2 years old and unblemished. At the end of the ceremony the representatives from the two valleys, dressed in their seventeenth-century robes of office, place their hands one over the other atop the boundary monument and with the words ‘Patz abant’ swear eternal peace.[5]

We can now turn to practices and superstitions involved in Pyrenean herding, thanks to a variety of 19th and 20th century sources that document these pastoral activities.

Traditionally in the Ariège, cattle were sometimes marked on their flanks with pitch or dye, but it was more usual to brand them on the horn or hoof. Another method of identification was to cut the ear, splitting it lengthways at one or two points, or even cropping one of the split halves. Sheep still tend to be branded with a distinctive sign which allows the owner to be easily identified. Branding typically takes place in spring, after the meadows have been mowed and prepared for grazing. The branding iron is coated in melted pitch (sometimes dyed) and in some communes, such as the Pays d’Olmes or the Sabarthes, the branding mark used to be carved on door of the sheep-barn, on the staffs carried by shepherds from St Jean de Castillonais and even woven into their canvas bags, in which they carried the salt for their flock.

These brand marks tended to be symbolic rather than alphabetic, however sadly the disappearance of many of these branding signs does not allow us to explore all their origins. The few that we can trace appear to be very old indeed, and it has been suggested that they originated with clan or tribal marks, similar to those found among the Berbers in North Africa. Logically, each family would wish to have their own mark by which their livestock could be identified, and it is possible that superstition played into the choice of that particular mark, especially those that would divert harmful influences, illness, spells and other malign forces away from their herd or flock. Many of the surviving brand signs recorded resemble solar symbols, swastikas, hearts and Christian crosses. Vézian[6] also observes that some can be compared to old Mediterranean alphabets (possibly even Phoenician), with one popular Pyrenean branding symbol, a circle with a cross on top, being traced back to ancient Greece, two thousand years ago. Other sheep marks can be compared with rock carvings in France and further afield, and the circle/cross motif also occurs on rocks at La Vaux (Vendée). This particular motif is still used in Baulou (Ariège), as well as that of a double circle and cross, which can also be found in Galicia.[7]

These marks are imprinted upon the livestock in the form of brands, and also through the use of molten pitch when the animal is sheared, typically on the day of or following shearing, as practised in Pallars and Ripollès (Catalonia). Whilst brands are now universally made from iron, in the past wooden ones were used and it has been suggested that these were preferred as they were less likely to damage the animal’s hide. In the case of sheep, the ‘guide ram’ who would be at the head of the flock during its transhumance journey would be decorated with motifs such as circles, spirals, crosses and chains painted in pitch; this was especially common in the Vall de Boí, Pallars and Ripollès. In the Valle d’Ansó (Huesca) these marks covered the entirety of the guide ram’s back, however, in Roncal (Navarre) it was distinguished by a particularly severe shearing. Other male sheep would be given two motifs; however, when they became older, these would be reduced to one and a half; female sheep and lambs carried just one motif. These pitch-marks thus allowed the easy identification not only of which flock the animal belonged to, but also its ‘status’ within the flock. In the case of cattle and goats, they carried an ‘ear mark’, usually applied with scissors in Catalonia or a special pair of pliers in the case of the Navarre, which identified the herd to a specific house.[8]

In the Ariège, one particular ruse was used by unscrupulous merchants to drive down the price of livestock. When a buyer identified an animal that he wanted to buy, he would offer a low price, and signal to one of his friends, who would come over and act as a separate interested party, offering an even lower price. Another friend would come over, acting as yet another interested buy, and offer a yet lower price, and so on, until the seller was so tired and demoralised that they would sell the beast to the first real buyer at his initial paltry offer. After the market was over, the merchant would pay his friends with a free meal, which led to these accomplices being known as casso-dina, those who would eat breakfast for free.[9]

Several traditional Ariégoise terms exist for certain defects on livestock, which may lower the price of the animal at market. Coustelou refers to one false rib being shorter than the others; glupios for a cow that has lumps under its throat; a blanquirou is a white patch beneath the eye caused by a foreign body such as an oat or wheat husk; oxen are garrounes when their hocks are turned inwards; an animal that walks with its feet turned outwards is a la countoueso; hindquarters that are too narrow are flanco de darré; and an animal whose belly is too full of air is ousten.[10]

In 1921, one Ariégoise herder named Paul Soula from Loubens described a traditional remedy for cattle who are suffering prior to giving birth. A piece of bread from midnight mass, soaked in water, would ease any pain and allow a smooth and safe delivery. Blessed bread seems to be a ubiquitous ‘cure-all’ in this area, as many villagers would keep bread from mass at Christmas and feed it, soaked in soup, to sick livestock in order to cure them. When a sheep died from dizziness,[11] the head of the sheep would be hung in the barn or sheepfold in order to protect the rest of the flock. Naturally pierced stones,[12] too, were hung to prevent this disease. In Andorra shepherds would avoid giving salt to their flock on Fridays and during changes in the lunar phase as a prevention from this condition. The protection of swine was less complex; simply mix a handful of ash from the hearth with its feed and the pig would be cured. In the Val de Lèze, to cure cattle from catarrh the animal would have a cloth-covered basin placed under its chest, in which coals sprinkled with herbs were placed, and it would also be passed over the animal’s body. Should an ox be injured pulling a cart or a plough, it was said to be enrelhat. In which case one had to take three hairs from its tail and attach them to a screw on the plough or cart. After the wound had healed, the hairs must be left to fall off by their own accord, or the wound would resurface. To counter lice in livestock, an unfortunate toad would be caught and placed in an aviary or small cage, suspended from the beams of the barn, and it would apparently swallow all the lice. Upon its death, the toad would be left in the cage as long as lice existed in the building; whether it was thought to consume them in death or its presence acted to deter the lice is unknown.[13]


[1] For a detailed account of this process, see: Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).

[2] Gómez-Ibáñez, 1975, p. 45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 50.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Joseph Vézian (1886 – 1958) was a specialist in the prehistory and folklore of his native Ariège, and his works provide crucial memories and records of traditional practices from this region.

[7] Vézian, Joseph, Carnets Ariégeois (Présentés par Olivier de Marliave) (Bourdeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2000), pp. 51 – 56.

[8] Violant i Simorra, Ramon, El Pirineo Español (Barcelona: Editorial Alta Fulla, 1986), pp. 410 – 412.This publication is especially recommended for Spanish reader for its remarkable details about traditional Pyrenean life.

[9] Vézian, 2000, p. 58.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This may be a reference to Listeriosis, a winter/spring disease in sheep caused by bacteria in fodder and silage. Affecting part of the brain, its symptoms include nerve paralysis, disorientation and running into objects, which could fall under the term ‘dizziness’.

[12] Much like hag stones.

[13] Vézian, 2000, pp. 97 – 98.

About the Author

Posted by

Add a Response

Your name, email address, and comment are required. We will not publish your email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The following HTML tags can be used in the comment field: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: