‘Within travel literature, the smuggler is typically presented as both rakish and rustic, unafraid to stand out in town but also possessed of deadly force and an intimate knowledge of his area; in a word, swashbuckling. It might be assumed that much of the affectations described were romantic inventions of the author, as it would be in their interest to retain a low visibility. However, enjoying the support and even protection of the local population, it is entirely conceivable that the Pyrenean smuggler had few qualms about standing out, and even living up to the image of an ‘outsider’. The following passage describes this characteristic in a tone that, as was so often the case, expresses no little affection for the smuggler and his air of a ‘loveable rogue’:

When he is seen in Pau,[1] he appears in a velveteen jacket, inexpressibles [sic] girt round his waist with a gay crimson sash, a conical felt hat with rakish rosettes, and a loose collar thrown back from his swelling sunburnt neck. He strides along with a bent knee, and the springy, free, elastic step of the hill-climber; and there are not wanting scandalous rumours that he makes use of the knowledge with which he tracks the izzard or the bear to their haunts, to convey a venture of tobacco bales across the frontiers, by paths and precipices, where even the carbineers[2] of the customs hardly care to follow him. He is seen in great perfection when escorting a troop of kicking, biting, devilish mules; or indulging in a siesta on some half-shaded bank, with a cigarrito between his lips, and a faint odour of “eau de vie” about him. People see in him a figure which recalls sundry dramatic reminiscences of carriages upset, long carbines and Fra Diavolo;[3] but we have only found him a merry, courteous fellow, always ready with a song or a joke, and with quite as little, or less, of the rogue about him, as his compatriots in the towns.[4]

Another feature we can note here is the characteristic of being unthreatening and even kind to those who either had nothing to steal or were uninvolved in smuggling, and smugglers were often credited with helping lost travellers (in some cases acting as guides):

The assassin has been my guide in the defiles of the boundaries of Italy; the smuggler of the Pyrenees has received me with a welcome in his secret paths. Armed, I should have been the enemy of both; unarmed, they have alike respected me.[5]

In the next century, this knowledge of secret paths and evading the authorities would help refugees across the escape routes that ran through the Pyrenees, but prior to this, two other qualities (possibly exaggerated) would emerge in the literature which further cemented the smuggler in folk legend as a benevolent influence. One was the purported extension of hospitality to travellers and the poor; the offering of bread, wine and whatever else the smuggler had to share with the lost and the hungry. The other quality which was often reported was the brotherhood which existed between the smugglers, one which bound Basque, Béarnese, Aragonese, Catalan, Gascon etc. together in cooperation; the movement of merchandise was of greater importance than one’s village of birth, particularly when pulling together against the authorities:

Picturesque fellows they are; clad in rough garments of leather, besashed, gay kerchiefs about their heads, decked with geegaws and armed to the teeth. A bit dirty and unkempt, perhaps, unshaven, their weather-beaten faces the colour of tan, their features as rough and gnarled and seamed as their beloved mountains. Desperate dare-devils, they are too, fearless, sure footed as goats, expert marksmen and proud and independent as grandees. Hard drinking, loud boasting chaps, yet most courteous and hospitable to those they trust; as ready to aid a distressed stranger as to slit his throat if they suspect him of being an enemy; willing to share their last crust of black bread or their last drop of wine with the poor wayfarer or to hold a well-to-do traveler for ransom; united into a blood brotherhood never violated or betrayed; living a wild, rough life; the idols of the peasants, the heroes of countless tales; carrying on their trade as much for the love of adventure and the devilment of the authorities as for profit, and ready at any moment to give battle to the carbineros or the guardias, whether French or Spanish. Few of them are true Spanish blood. The majority are Basques – members of that strange, ancient, proud race which has never really been conquered and whose tongue is perhaps the oldest of Europe, – Navarese, Catalans, with a few of Gipsy blood, but all forgetting their differences of race or station in the common bond of being Contrabandistas.

Among the interminable, intricate passes and defiles of the Pyrenees, among the towering peaks and vast bulwarks of the mountains, they dwell and hold their own, frequenting the wine shops, the wayside inns of mountains towns; threading their way along narrow zig-zag trails, mere shelves of rock with dizzying heights above and dim blue abysses below; winding through clefts between stupendous precipices; bending to the sweeping blasts of the cloud-hidden summits; wrapped in their sheep-skin cloaks as they face the driving icy gales above the timber line; bivouacking beside their fires in sheltered nooks; holding high revel in smoke-grimed, massively timbered mountains taverns, they laboriously traverse the way from Spain to France or France to Spain, driving their heavily laden mules and donkeys, cracking their whips, shouting picturesque Basque oaths, and earning a few pesos, a precarious living at risk of death and prison, at cost of hardships, endurance, terrific labor and the roughest of lives.[6]

No doubt another aspect which helped the feeling of community amidst contrabandistas were the harsh conditions in which they worked. Contrary to the shepherds and hunters who also frequented mountain passes and pastures, poor weather was a help rather than a hindrance to their activity, as was the difficulty of the route chosen. Such a combination of hazardous paths and precipitation would make the likelihood of encountering patrols of gendarmes a minimal one. This did however mean that the smuggler had to be dressed and equipped accordingly; their use of rough, thick sheepskin coats as well as gripping and climbing aids, which bore something of the mountaineer about them, was common:

Scarcely had we entered it [a valley], when I beheld upon the heights above us, a very stout fellow armed with a gun, and descending with an air of agility and boldness, which I could not enough admire. This was an Arragonese [sic] smuggler. As soon as he perceived us, he stopt [sic], and put himself on his guard; but seeing me approach him with confidence, and that I was not armed, he continued to descend, preserving however the advantage of the heights, until he had well observed us. He informed us that the snows of the pass were good, and that he had descended from the Breche de Roland with ease: but after all, a smuggler does not travel as a philosopher, and when I remarked his cramp-irons hanging from his sack, and the small hatchet which he carried at his side for hewing out his way in the ice, I could easily guess, that if he had not occasion for them, I might.

In the countenance of this man I could perceive a mixture of boldness and confidence; his thick and frizzled beard was continued up into his black and curling hair; his broad breast was open, his strong and nervous legs naked; all his clothing consisted of a simple vest; the covering of his feet, after the manner of the Romans and Goths, of a piece of cow’s skin applied to the sole of the foot, and bound round it like a purse, by means of two straps, which were afterwards crossed and fastened above the ancles [sic].[7]

The description of footwear comprising of cow hide bound around the foot corresponds to the abarca or albarca (Basque: abarka), a traditional Pyrenean and Cantabrian shoe, which was fashioned from a single piece of calf leather tied around the ankles and lower calves with braided woollen laces. Some versions of this shoe have wooden soles, much like a clog, however for the purposes of gripping slippery rocks and other unstable surfaces commonly encountered by smugglers, shepherds and hunters alike, the use of cow’s hide was preferable.

Footwear preference was not the only aspect shared by smugglers and shepherds. As mentioned above, many of the routes that straddled the post 1659 border made use of grazing lands and transhumance paths. What made these pathways so useful, aside from their passing far from the eyes of the law, was largely in connecting upper pastures and lower settlements in a manner which harked back to the pre-existing (and ancient) land rights which often did not correspond to the newer Spanish/Franco border. This allowed goods to be moved across from Spain to France, and visa-versa, by routes that not only allowed surreptitious and efficient contraband transport, but also between villages or towns which may not have felt sufficiently French or Spanish enough to be on good terms with the customs officials. Some of these crossings held particular significance for pastoralists, such as the Port d’Azun and its tradition of settling land right debates between rival herdsmen:[8]

At the Pierre St. Martin, which you pass on your left, the Spanish and French used to meet annually to settle disputes about cattle-liftings; and all who pass this way, in honour of St. Martin, contribute one stone to the pile. This port is very much frequented by contrabandists, and I suspect there is no pass in the Pyrenees through which so much smuggling is carried on, chiefly of silk and tobacco.[9]

The mountains offered many of the methods employed for transporting goods, however smugglers also made use of waterways, especially those which ran along the Franco-Spanish border, namely the Bidassoa: ‘Smuggling by water is a pastime practised upon the border river, the Bidassoa. It, also, is done chiefly at night, and the trade is, more times than not, in wines or strong spirits.’[10] Human smuggling also took place along this river during the Carlist wars,[11] with prices varying according to rank:

A Carlist is passed just like a bale of goods. There is a certain tariff, so much for a colonel, so much for an inferior officer. As soon as the bargain is struck, the contrabandist makes his appearance, carries off his man, passes him over the frontier, and smuggles him to his destination, as he would a dozen handkerchiefs or a hundred cigars.[12]

Smuggling along this river was popularly immortalised in the late 19th century novel Ramuntcho, a tale of love and adventure among the contrabandistas of the French Basque region, which went a long way to popularising the romantic and swashbuckling characterisation of the smuggler in various Parisian salons.[13]

Despite this literary propaganda, not everyone was so well disposed towards smugglers and their ways, particularly the men who were tasked with stopping their lucrative practices. One 19th century traveller in the Val de Carol (Ariège) happened upon the local gendarmes, the captain of which offered up some very blunt character judgements upon their prisoners:

‘What do you think of this company?’ said the gendarme; and without giving me time to reply, added, ‘you must certainly have some very particular business to bring you here; as for me, I would not stay a day in it, if I were not obliged by my office. I have guarded all the coasts of France, all the defiles of the Alps; I have even served in Italy during the blockade; but I assure you that I have never yet seen such smugglers as those of the valley of Carol. See, said he (pointing to the company) these are people who know the smallest crevice in the mountains, and who pass where neither you nor I would even dare to venture ourselves. And what kind of contraband do you think they carry on? – In the Jura, near Geneva, the mountaineers carry jewellery and watches, which are such small articles that it is natural they should not be seen. But these merely smuggle – what do you think? – wool! And we can hardly ever catch them. In fact they climb the mountains on the south side, and when they have reached the summit they throw down the bales, which roll down the north side, when others receive and carry them through the defiles into the plain. It is in vain that we watch them, they always escape us. It is a very different thing with sugar and coffee; as for those goods, they introduce them as the ladies in the sea-ports do Vanilla, in their bags. They are an untractable and wicked people, whom we have the greatest difficulty to keep under restraint, who are neither French nor Spanish, and who only look for one thing, which is a rise in the price of commodities. Would you believe it, they are almost all Bonapartists, though they had no more connection with the government of Bonaparte than with that of the king? But I will tell you the reason; sugar and coffee were dearer then, and smuggling was more profitable.’ [14]

The folklore surrounding smugglers mainly revolves around the characters themselves; whilst it is likely that there was (and still is) lore among the contrabandistas in terms of luck-bringing acts, this area remains very much a ‘closed book in terms of the literary record. However, there are some figures whose exploits reveal some of the supernatural aspects ascribed to smugglers by locals and the law alike.

To begin with the profane, the figure of ‘Don Q.’ is quintessentially folkloric, marrying the sacred and the profane as a smuggler cleric. He comes across as a fairly ruthless and cunning man, not above exploiting both his flock and his colleagues, the latter in terms of ransom:

There was Don Q., who, legend has it, was a renegade priest, and, like many another robber and lawless character, ever looked upon the clergy as his special prey and enjoyed nothing more than forcing some stout and easy-loving padre to toil weary miles through the mountains, to dwell in a bare and rocky cave and subsist on the coarsest food exposed to jeers and insults of the smuggler-brigands while awaiting a ransom worthy of a king. And, also, according to story, Don Q found his earlier experience in the Church of utmost value in his profession. Garbed as a friar, he could quite safely enter the towns, hear the carbineros’ plan for his capture, acquaint himself with the doings of the citizens, the market for goods, and even make secret arrangements with his agents and customers, with never a suspicion that the shaven-headed, cassocked priest was the outlaw for whose apprehension the guardias would have figuratively given their heads.[15]

It is worth noting that this local legend may be the inspiration behind the ‘Don Q.’ who featured in several story collections by author and explorer Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard.[16] In these stories, Don Q. is recast as a Robin Hood figure, frequently dressed as a padre and stealing from dastardly rich lords so that he might give openly to the poor. Hesketh-Prichard claimed that the ‘Q’ was short for ‘Quebra Huesos’, the Spanish term for the bone-breaker vulture, the lammergeier, because of his protagonists’ severe appearance, which may see the conflation either in Hesketh-Prichard’s mind or, perhaps, that of the locals, between the ‘historical’ Don Q. and the figure of ‘Don Sebastian’, to whom we shall turn to next.

The enigmatic ‘Don Sebastian’ appears to have entrenched himself firmly in Pyrenean smuggling lore, primarily due to his success and perceived supernatural abilities. We also see once again the link between smugglers and Carlists, in this case ascribing Don Sebastian an aristocratic background from that house which along with his command of witchcraft paints him as a great mythical folk-hero. The lengthy quote below provides a wealth of detail:

Even more fascinating and picturesque was that other famed and partly fabulous smuggler chief of the Pyrenees, one, Don Sebastian, who, like Don Q, was as much bandit as smuggler. Of him the peasants still speak with much of awe in their tones and with crossed fingers, for the superstitious folk credit him with having possessed the evil-eye, with delving into sorcery and witchcraft, and with being under the personal protection of the devil himself.

Who he was no one knew, and Don Sebastian never divulged. Indeed, it is said certain over-curious persons who enquired too closely into the ancestry and antecedents of the bandit-smuggler, vanished most effectually and mysteriously, utterly destroyed by witchcraft, whisked away amid blue flames and a smell of brimstone, or dropped over a convenient cliff, according to the individual fancy of the story teller. But whether made away with by occult or corporeal methods, their fate served as a deterrent for others, and the natives satisfied their imagination and their love of the romantic by weaving a tale wherein Don Sebastian was the scion of a great and noble family, one of the Carlistas who had been robbed of home, family and estates by the Spanish government. […] Seldom, however, was he known as Don Sebastian. Instead, he was nicknamed “Quebra Huesos” [sic][17] (bone-breaker), not that he was given to fracturing the bones of his enemies, but because of his striking resemblance to the huge mountain vultures, the “Quebra Huesos” of the Spaniards. […] He was loved, respected, admired by the peasantry as greatly as he was feared, hated and sought by the officials, despite the people’s dread of occult things. Never did he molest the humble or the poor. He might appear like a wraith at a tiny, poverty-stricken cottage and help himself to food and shelter, but when he had gone, had vanished into the night or the morning mists, a bag of silver or a handful of gold pieces would be left in return for what he had taken. Men, women or children, if ordinary mortals, could wander as freely and as safely through the mountains where Quebra Huesos had his lairs as about their own doorways. They could even seek and receive shelter and food from his men, and if mounted and their sorry ponies or donkeys gave out, a new mount would always be forthcoming from the famed smuggler’s stables. Once, an aged mountaineer lost his foothold, and falling, broke his leg. Upon the shoulders of two of Don Sebastian’s men he was borne to his hut, and within a few hours, a bound and terrified surgeon, kidnapped from the nearest town, was brought to the injured man’s bedside. Under the gleaming eyes and levelled pistols of Quebra Huesos himself, he set the fractured limb, after which he was rewarded by a bag of gold – ten times the fee he would have charged a patient – and was carried in safety to his home.[18]

It is in this figure that we find the archetypal Pyrenean smuggler; a far cry from the reality of a lucrative but arduous profession which while dangerous, also held its fair share of monotony, waiting in comfortless perches and lugging goods in driving rain, ever watchful for the gendarmes’ lanterns. The smuggler captain is transformed into a rough diamond, capable of great and noble acts to the unfortunate and holding the powers of nature at his command. The question as to why is a harder one to answer, but much like the figure of the witch, a great deal lies in the act of being marginal, living outside of society, holding an intimate knowledge of the wild Pyrenean landscapes, engaging in hazardous work that brings great reward and in rarely being seen (at least, by those whom the smuggler wished to avoid; the authorities). Coupled with the economic benefits that smuggling brought to various rural communities, it is not surprising that the smuggler attained an aura of magic and adventure. It should also be noted that the descriptions by visitors hold, to varying degrees, an element of wistful envy; many of these travellers were middle-class and likely led reasonably regulated lives, and thus many projected their own romantic desires of an adventurous life onto their encounters and reports of the contrabandistas.[19]

It is worth touching on an aspect which is unexpectedly present in many descriptions and actions of the smugglers; their political sympathies. While undoubtedly payment features in the motivation to become involved in protecting or escorting a political or royal dissident across the border, the risks entailed would be enormous, and this suggests that some level of affinity and sympathy for the cause itself would feature in the decision to accept such an undertaking. The mention of a mythical Carlist background of Don Sebastian, for example, gives a clue towards these sympathies, as does the point raised by the customs officer quoted above, where he mentions that Bonapartism finds a particular root within many smugglers. However, it should be clarified here that many smugglers enjoyed the perpetuity of Napoleon’s campaigns not due to any great love of Imperial France, but rather due to the pressure and shortages placed on various goods markets, which made the demand for smuggled items soar and thus provided them with a lucrative trade across the frontier.’

[1] Pau is a small city and capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and also of the historic Béarn region. It takes its name from the Béarnese term pau meaning ‘stockade’, which surrounded the city’s castle built in the 11th century.

[2] This is an Anglicised version of carbineros or carabiniers, terms used for companies of light infantry regiments and also a specific unit of gendarmes and customs officers whose duties included fighting smugglers.

[3] Fra Diavolo (‘Brother Devil’) was the nickname given to Michel Pezza (1771 – 1806), a popular Napolese guerrilla fighter and leader of the resistance movement against the French occupation of Naples. His inspirational exploits earned him an enduring place in local folklore and even in the works of Alexandre Dumas, so quickly did his posthumous legend grow. Thus, by the 19th century, his name had become a byword for romantic buccaneering anti-establishmentism.

[4] Johnson, Frederick, A Winter’s Sketches in the South of France and the Pyrenees (London: Chapman & Hall, 1857), pp. 141 – 142.

[5] Ramond, Louis-François, Travels in the Pyrenees; Containing a Description of the Principal Summits, F. Gold (trans.) (London: Longman & Co., 1813), pp. 116 – 117.

[6] Verrill, Alpheus, Smugglers and Smuggling (New York, NY: Duffield and Co., 1924), pp. 152 – 153. Available here: https://archive.org/details/smugglerssmuggli00verr

[7] Ramond, 1813, pp. 102 – 103.

[8] The particular ritual associated with the age-old practice is discussed in Chapter One.

[9] Packe, Charles, A Guide to the Pyrenees: Specially Intended for the Use of Mountaineers (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867), p. 24.

[10] Ewing Oakley, Amy, Hill-Towns of the Pyrenees (New York, NY: Century Company Publishing, 1923), p. 403.

[11] For a detailed analysis of the First Carlist War, see: Lawrence, Mark, Spain’s First Carlist War, 1833 – 40 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[12] Gautier, Théophile, Wanderings in Spain (London: Ingram, Cooke and Co., 1853), p. 13.

[13] The book also features some excellent ethnographic observations on local Franc-Basque culture: Loti, Pierre, Ramuntcho (Paris: C. Lévy, 1897).

[14] Thiers, Louis Adolphe, The Pyrenees and the South of France During the Months of November and December 1822 (London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1823), pp. 140 – 142.

[15] Verrill, 1924, pp. 156 – 157.

[16] Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard (17th November, 1876 – 14th June, 1922) was an English soldier, writer, explorer, cricketer and hunter who travelled extensively in both military and private capacities, frequently using his experiences and local lore to weave his stories. These are classic of the period, primarily concerned with adventure, romance and daring-do.

[17] This should be ‘Quiebra Huesos’.

[18] Verrill, 1924, pp. 158 – 163.

[19] Another famous example of smuggler literature can be found in Joseph Conrad’s The Arrow of Gold, a tale set in Marseilles during the 1870s amidst the Third Carlist War, in which a love triangle revolves around the female leader of a band of ammunition smugglers, with the usual array of betrayals, adventures and mishaps typical of the period. The smugglers are supporters of the Carlist cause, which is unsurprising given the fact that Conrad himself helped smuggle guns for the Carlists during the late 1870s. See: Conrad, Joseph, The Arrow of Gold (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919).


‘We now turn to the figure of the blacksmith, in terms of his industrial, social and folkloric role within the Pyrenees.[1] By and large, the Pyrenean blacksmith used a bellows driven forge, anvil and a handheld hammer, in contrast to the water driven sledgehammers found in many local forges, and was responsible for a myriad of ironmongery. These ranged from highly practical services such as the reparation of agricultural tools, shoeing horses (both making and fitting the ‘shoes’ and seeing to any hoof related ailments), making domestic implements such as pots or griddles, shepherd tools such as wolf traps, dog collars protective against bear attacks, shears etc., and of course, weaponry, through to ornamental products, such as the wrought iron gates within churches and the Estripagecs (‘jacket strippers’) found in so many traditional rural houses and huts across the (primarily Catalan and Andorran) Pyrenees. The latter are flat metal bars cut along their length to make curved spikes which protrude from their sides. They are fixed in window frames and designed to tear (or ‘strip’) the clothing of any thief trying to gain access, particularly their jackets (‘gecs’).

Depending upon the region, the village blacksmith was either completely independent, taking on business as and when, or under defined obligations from the community (and/or feudal lord) to fulfil certain tasks for free. Testimonies from the 14th and 15th centuries indicate that, for example, in Comminges (Gascony) and Vicdessos (Ariège) the blacksmith was obliged to repair agricultural equipment, in Foix (Ariège) he had to sharpen tools,[2] and between the 15th and 19th centuries in Andorra the blacksmith was forced to have certain fixed prices in order to gain exclusive labour rights within the village community.[3] The blacksmith was thus a vital figure within the community who fulfilled a multifaceted role of smith, hoof doctor, mechanic and public servant, deeply tied into the social contract of give and take that held rural life together.[4]

Curiously the Pyrenees, in general, has a lack of recorded folklore attributed to the smithy, however the very word ‘recorded’ may explain this, as oral transmission would have been the primary method of keeping knowledge and traditions alive, and perhaps guarding certain elements from public discourse. This is particularly seen in evidence from the Basque Country, in which a very deep-time signature of ‘smith-magic’ can be detected, and given the movement across the Pyrenees by Basque peoples (detected by various toponym examples, even as far down as Andorra),[5] it is possible that such concepts were spread across the valleys orally. However, aside from such speculation, let us briefly examine Basque smithing in its context.[6]

The figure of Basajaun is a popular one in Basque folklore and mythology, being most commonly portrayed as a wild, huge and hairy figure who acts as a protector both of the forests and flocks which graze there. He is also attributed as being the first miller and the first blacksmith, from whom the secret of the forge was stolen by Martin Txiki (or San Martinico), particularly the technique of making a saw, and also soldering iron:

Thanks equally to the use of a trick, San Martinico managed to steal from the baxajaun (from the devil according to other versions) the secret of the making of the saw, the soldering of iron, and the axle of the mill wheel. The baxajaun was making the saw, according to a certain legend from the region of Oyarzun (Oiartzun); San Martinico could not do it because he lacked a model for it. Wanting to know the secret, he sent a servant to announce in the town that San Martinico had constructed a saw. On hearing this, the baxajaun asked him, “Has your master seen the leaf of the chestnut tree?” “He hasn’t seen it but he will,” answered the servant, who later told San Martinico what had happened. This is how the technique for making the saw was spread throughout the world. With the same trick, San Martinico succeeded in learning how the baxajaun soldered two pieces of iron together, according to a legend from Cortézubi (Kortezubi). He ordered the herald to announce that he had discovered the process for soldering iron. The baxajaun asked the herald, “Did San Martinico sprinkle the pieces of iron with water from potter’s clay?” “He didn’t, but he will,” was the reply. And as a consequence of this new secret stolen from Baxajaun or the devil, the technique of soldering iron was spread throughout the world.[7]

Martin is also responsible for stealing the secrets of wheat cultivation, water-mill construction and welding from Basajaun; in the case of the latter the Basajaun gave away the trick of sprinkling clay water upon the pieces of iron. This relates to the technique of using a clay suspension in the water during soldering.

Whilst the Basajaun is famous beyond the Basque borders, Martin Txiki is less well known, yet just as crucial to the world of the Basque smithy. The origins of Martin are tangled, yet offer tantalising clues of a ‘character’ in whom many aspects are married. Archetypal Promethean aspects can be detected, in stealing vital secrets from the divine so that man might thrive, and also a Puckish or Loki-esque trickster element in his manner of fooling the Basajaun into revealing these secrets. One theory revolves around the possibility of Martin (and other Basque ‘cunning-men’ figures) being an echo in the folk-consciousness of travelling Celtiberian healers from the Moncavo area, in particular the region now known as San Martín de la Virgen de Moncavo, whom may have treated people with tools made from bronze, iron and copper. This is, however, a very difficult theory to square with the presence of Basque metallurgy sites in the archaeological record, which seem to co-exist chronologically with those of other cultures sharing the same mountain range; unless the perceived healing properties of these metals were unknown to the Vascons.[8] Folk-etymology and origin stories are both difficult to unpick and determine their definitive sources, allowing much speculative theorising; however, this one is so particular that it seems worthy of inclusion here.

Another aspect of Martin is in his saintly guise, Saint Martin (San Martín), one of whose symbols is the horseshoe, which also happens to be a traditional stock-in-trade of the blacksmith. This symbol was used for Saint Martin because of his horse, from which he gave a beggar half of his cloak. We also see an echoed link between the blacksmith and the horse, whose hooves he was qualified to care for should a horse be lame. A curious feature of this saint can also be found in Polish folklore; during his feast-day (11th November) horseshoe shaped biscuits are baked for his white horse, who would come riding through the snow when least expected.[9] Clearly Saint Martin’s horse is a large feature in his folkloric presence, and if extrapolated both to blacksmiths and general Basque lore we may find two things. Firstly, the role of the horse in Basque folklore is potent, particularly in a white or ghostly context. The Ireluak are spirits or genius loci, which in some cases are said to take the form of a white horse, such as at the cave of Laxarrigibel near Soule (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), and the Zamari Zuria is a white headless horse that portents death when seen.[10] Could it be that these figures have merged with Saint Martin’s horse in the folkloric/mythic record over the centuries, thereby instilling the horse both in the Basque spirit landscape and also in the link between the blacksmith and the horse? Another aspect is the (albeit tangential) similarity in the Basque smith’s relationship with horse via the Saint Martin/Martin Txiki motif, and two groups of rural specialists in rural Britain; the Society of the Horseman’s Word in Scotland, and the ‘Toadmen’ of East Anglia.

Both were comprised of rural workers and ‘cunning-men’, and both of whom claimed to exercise unusual and ‘magical’ powers over horses, albeit via different methods, but both held blacksmiths in their ranks. The Society of the Horseman’s Word was a 19th-century fraternal secret society spread throughout Scotland and eastern England which focussed on the labour protection of its members (those who worked draft-horses), guarding the secrets of horse-control (many were known as ‘horse-whisperers’) and the ‘horseman’s word’, which would grant this control. Initiation ceremonies typically took place at night in barns or stables, and were presided over by the ‘High Horseman’ who held a goat’s hoof in one hand, during which various oaths were spoken.[11] [12] The ‘Toadmen’ were individuals in East Anglia who allegedly made a deal with the Devil in order to gain control over horses via a very specific rite, recorded in an interview with a Norfolk horseman, born in 1886:

Well, the toads that we used for this are actually in the Yarmouth area in an around Fritton. We get these toads alive and bring them home. They have a ring around their neck and are what they call walking toads. We bring them home, kill them, and put them on a whitethorn bush; They are there for twenty four hours ‘till they dry. Then we bury the toad in an ant-hill; and it’s there for a full month, ‘till the moon is at the full. Then you get it out; and it’s only a skeleton. You take it down to a running stream when the moon is at the full. You watch it carefully, particular not to take your eyes off it. There’s a certain bone, a little crotch bone it is, it leaves the rest of the skeleton and floats uphill against the stream, take it home, bake it, powder it and put it in a box.[13]

Whilst there seems to be no documentary evidence for a similar rite among blacksmiths in the Basque Country, there are elements which stand out; namely, the affinity (both practical and folkloric/magical) with horses, and also the importance of the toad, which held a special place in the eyes of the Devil in Basque witchcraft, and also features in the following legend:

On a number of occasions, someone asked advice of Mari and her predictions turned out to be accurate and beneficial. Thus, the ironmonger of Iraeta saw that his foundry was not working and presented himself to Mari in the cave of Amboto. She explained the cause and the remedy for the malfunction, and the ironmonger was able to get his factory working again. A similar case occurred in the foundry of Zubillaga, and thanks to the oracle of Amboto, production was able to start up again.[14]

In at least one of these cases the problem was the presence of a toad under the anvil; this may have been preventing the proper functioning of the forge due to some mal-intent on behalf of the toad, or it may have been due to the toad’s protection from any harm from the hammering etc., due to his status in Basque witchcraft.[15]

The Devil, too, forms a link with the blacksmith in Basque folklore; at least in the folkloric sense than the Judeo-Christian ‘Devil’. We can read a very famous legend, ‘The Devil and the Blacksmith’, which is widespread throughout Europe and finds its own Basque rendition. Broadly speaking, a smith enters into a pact with the Devil in order to gain wealth and superior smithing skills, in exchange for his soul. When the Devil returns years later to keep the bargain, the smith tricks him into captivity, only freeing him when the Devil reneges on his bargain.[16] However there is another ‘devilish’ figure associated with the Basque blacksmith whose origin lies far beyond the Devil; that of Aatxe or Etsai, the latter term dating to the early 16th century and meaning ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’.[17] Aatxe can appear in various forms, particularly a red bull, a man, a goat or a horse (zaldi), and is said to be a representative of the Basque arch-goddess Mari, inhabiting caves and hollows; this also ties in with the theme of the blacksmith visiting Mari for advice on the malfunction of his forge.[18]

When talking of Mari it impossible to ignore her consort, Sugaar, a serpentine figure which in many instances of Basque folklore embodies lightening and, crucially, fire. Sugaar was a ‘divinity’[19] that was, and is, bound to blacksmith fraternities and guilds in the Basque Country; one which challenged both one’s wit and skill, just like the iron worked in the forge. Much in Basque folklore links the two, however there is one tale in particular that illustrates the bond between the smith and the ‘serpent’ Sugaar. If Sugaar wished to put his skills to the test, he would ask a fox[20] to present him with a challenge. The fox would invariably direct Sugaar towards a forge, to test his strength against the resident blacksmith. In one case, the smith asked Sugaar to wait a while, during which the smith placed his tongs in the fire and then suddenly grasped the serpent by his head; Sugaar cried out in pain, and begged for his life, after which the smith, perhaps recognising him for his supernatural form, let him go, despite Sugaar vowing revenge. It is important to realise that Sugaar relates, via his lightening connection, to the element of fire, and this is obviously of fundamental importance to the smith. It is perhaps possible, too, that the smith’s work which involves all four elements renders him, in folklore, well acquainted with the supernatural, and thus recognised Sugaar for himself and the test he proffered, to which some terrible end might result for the loser. [21]

We also see the 19th century Basque intellectual Agosti Xaho attributing the ancestry of the Basques to Tubal Cain, the ‘first blacksmith’ in Biblical chronology, claiming that his descendant Aitor was the first common Basque patriarch.[22] Whilst on the surface this might be considered part of a European fanciful 19th century tradition of ascribing biblical origins to an ancestor group, usually to deepen its legitimacy, we see in this example something far more interesting and potent. Within traditional Basque culture, the blacksmith held a deep current of connection with both the land and the supernatural, and even today many of his secrets are communicated only within family groups and guilds, much like with other fraternal societies, including those mentioned above. Thus, the Basque forge was likely a place of mystery, along with communal service, and even the forging of such a seemingly ‘mundane’ item (to outsiders) as pot hooks by Basque smiths would have been a highly-charged process, given its symbolism within Basque households:

The pot hook, like the hearth, is in some cases a symbol representing the house: the coals deposited beneath the boundary stones of a plot of land represent the limit of the property belonging to the house; when a cat is brought to the house as a purchase or gift, they walk it around the pothook in the kitchen three times so it won’t run away to look for a different place to live. Servants do this as well when they first come to work in the house, according to a custom in Liguinaga. [23]

Given the nature of the work carried out by miners and blacksmiths across the Pyrenees, not to mention the trade secrets which kept their livelihood impervious to ‘outsiders’, such as the behaviour of the miners of Raincie, it seems probable that, even though they were often obliged to serve the community maintaining tools etc., their role in the village did not detract from their ‘otherness’ and secrecy, not to mention an aura of magic.

There are other folkloric instances of iron being used in protective or magical contexts in the Pyrenees. In the 17th century, it was recorded that in the Navarre, it was customary to stick iron pins or needles in a specific tree ‘belonging to the church of Saint Christopher, situated on a high mountain above the city of Pampeluna [sic].’[24] In Luchon (Haute-Garonne), an iron axe was carried into the yard to protect against lightening and hail, lain edge upwards against the house’s threshold, and should lightning strike ‘the spot was visited and an attempt was made to dig out the thunderstone; if it was not to be found, the place was marked, as the thunderstone comes up to the surface after seven years and can then easily be found. The thunderstone protects the house against lightning and brings good luck.[25] [26] We also see these themes in Basque folklore:

Certain names for lightning, such as oneztarri, tximistarri, and ozpinarri (probably ozkar, ozkarri, and inhar, as well) which mean “lightning stone,” correspond to an ancient myth known widely in European countries in which lightning is a special stone (Neolithic axe, knife, or point of flint) that sinks down to the depth of seven states or levels upon falling to the earth. After seven years it slowly begins to rise one state per year until after seven years it reaches the surface. From then on it protects the house where it is found against evil spirits or Aide-Gaizto, which is lightning itself. This myth includes the Indo-European idea of Thor’s hammer and Jupiter’s arrows. In some places in the Basque Country, however, it is thought that lightning is made of bronze; in others they say it is made of iron. The current custom of placing steel axes with the sharp edge facing upward on thresholds during storms in order to protect houses from lightning derives from the veneration of the stone axe and belief in its supernatural powers. Before the discovery of steel axes, those made of bronze must have served the same function: in the entrance to the cave of Zabalaitz (in the mountains of Aizkorri), an axe from the bronze age was found stuck in the floor of the cave with the blade facing up. [27]

It is also possible to see the use of iron horse shoes as wards against evil and protectors against storms on the doors of various Pyrenean huts and houses, however specific reference to this in the context of the Pyrenees is lacking in the available literature.[28]

[1] An excellent French resource on blacksmiths, which is sadly difficult to obtain is: Jean-Dupont, Claude, L’Artisan Forgeron Quebec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1979).

[2] Verna, Catherine, ‘Forgerons de Village: Quelques Témoignages Béarnais des XIve et XIe Siècles’ in L’Artisan au Village: Dans l’Europe Médiévale et Moderne, Mireille Mousnier (Ed.) (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Midi, 2000). Available here: https://books.openedition.org/pumi/24131

[3] Bosch, 2004, p. 11.

[4] For a microcosmic example of Pyrenean village socio-economics, featuring the blacksmith, see: Bonnain, Roland, ‘Household Mind and the Ecology of the Central Pyrenees in the 19th Century: Fathers, Sons, and Collective Landed Property’, History of the Family, Vol. 10, 2005, pp. 249 – 270.

[5] An example is the village Aixovall, which roughly translates to ‘valley valley’ using two difference Basque words for ‘valley’.

[6] My thanks here to María Martínez Pisón, an expert in Basque ethnography and a practitioner of Basque traditional ways, for her insights and information: Martínez Pisón, María, 2020, pers. comms.

[7] de Barandiarán, José, Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán (Reno, NV: University of Nevada, 2007), p. 131. Available here: https://scholarworks.unr.edu/bitstream/handle/11714/750/Barandiaran_SelectedWritings.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[8] This theory is not supported by any reference.

[9] Taylor, Demetria, The Cook’s Blessings (New York, NY: Random House, 1965).

[10] de Marliave, Olivier, Trésor de la Mythologie Pyrénéen (Bordeaux: Éditions Sud-Ouest, 2005).

[11] Neat, Timothy, The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2002), p. 53.

[12] An excellent account of this society can be found in: Fernee, Ben, The Society of the Horseman’s Word (Hinckley: The Society of Esoteric Endeavour, 2009).

[13] Evans, George, The Pattern Under the Plough (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), quoted in Pearson, Nigel The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft and Folk-Magic (London: Troy Books, 2015), pp. 123 – 124.

[14] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 103.

[15] de Marliave, Olivier, Magie et Sorciellerie dans les Pyrénées (Bordeaux: Éditions, Sud Ouest, 2006), p. 111.

[16] In the 2007 Basque film Errementari, based upon the local version of this tale, the blacksmith tortures the Devil in revenge for all his troubles. I have been unable to verify if this is in the original Basque tale.

[17] Martínez Pisón, 2020, pers. comms.

[18] It should be noted that Basajaun is recorded as being known in French as homme du boc/bouc, which may provide a further conflation with the Devil and the origin of man’s use of iron, due to the infamous lande du bouc, a region in Lannemezan (Hautes-Pyrénées) in which the Witches’ Sabbath was meant to take place. For a more detailed exploration of this subject see: Locker, Martin, The Tears of Pyrene (Andorra: Mons Culturae Press, 2019), pp. 114 – 116.

[19] This is a categorical crude simplification of Sugaar but sufficient in a brief overview. For more information on this figure see: Locker, 2019, pp. 112, 200.

[20] Another creature renowned throughout Europe for its cunning abilities.

[21] Martínez Pisón, María, ‘Serpents & Dragons’, Hidden in the Brambles (podcast), 2020. Available on the Patreon account Above all the Brambles: https://www.patreon.com/posts/hidden-in-7-40716481

[22] This theory is presented out in: Xaho, Agosti, ‘Aïtor – Kantabriar Kondaira’, Ariel, 1845.

[23] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 206.

[24] Hartland, E., ‘Pin-Wheels and Rag Bushes’, Folklore, Vol. IV, 1893, p. 457.

[25] Blinkenberg, Christopher, The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), p. 104.

[26] One can also see the use of iron by Basque shepherds as a lightening deterrent in the sarobes; see Chapter One.

[27] de Barandiarán, 2007, p. 115.

[28] Some blacksmiths counted themselves as specialists in horse shoes, and during the early 19th century those who made both the shoes and the nails in the commune of Arget (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) dubbed themselves chevaliers (‘knights’) due to their productivity. Baring-Gould, Sabine, A Book of the Pyrenees (London: Methuen & Co., 1907), p. 253.

‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #3: Chapter Three ‘Glimpsed Through the Pines: Woodcutters and Charcoal Burners’

In comparison to the Ariège, the ‘Old Regime’[1] forest laws of the Pyrénées-Orientales were stricter, although the records tend to indicate that the Pyrenean disregard for laws detrimental to the peasantry held sway. This is may be due to a more forgiving landscape which allowed agriculture to play a far greater role in the lives of the locals, and thus local nobles felt less inclined to be lenient than for example in the lower Comté de Foix.[2] The municipal archives for St Laurent de Cerdans in 1604 state that:

Nobody may cut, or remove any tree or green wood or dead wood from the said territory of the forests of Folgons, nor may they make charcoal there, under the penalty of a fine of two hundred ducats, and if the guilty party is a miserable nobody who cannot pay, they will incur the penalty of one hundred crowns and two years of galley-work.[3]

Whilst infractions of these rules did not always lead to being forced aboard a ship, the legislation and heavy fines attest to the importance attributed by the royal owner of the forest to its preservation and exclusion. However, going by the records of various viguerie,[4] the wary peasantry decided to takes chances in this regard nonetheless, with one example from Conflent-Caspir in 1780 claiming that they had committed ‘very considerable crimes, [clearing or felling] an immense quantity of trees, pine wood, by the inhabitants of Caudiès’.[5] It also appears that the imposition of the threatened fines by the authorities upon the ‘criminals’ in these cases tended to be rather sporadic. One forest owner is recorded in a series of letters throughout 1790 as complaining bitterly that the commune of St Laurent de Cerdans was incapable of either restoring order or applying punishments regarding woodland infractions, in reference to the ‘devastation of my woods’ and ‘the impossibility in which this municipality finds itself to repress the cuts and devastation in the woods of Sieurs father and son Campdoras’.[6] In the same commune, prohibitions on grazing animals in woodlands reached back to at least the 17th century, being mentioned in the municipal records of 1604.[7]

These attempts to restrict access (as can be seen below through the 1827 ‘Forest Code’ in the Ariège) continued well into the 19th century, and an interesting source confirms that it was not only the theft or destruction of wood that was of concern to the owners of these forests. Beyond the Pyrenees, to the east, the département of Gard in 1872 listed grass removal, broom removal, mule grazing, pasturing twenty sheep, grazing twenty-five woollen animals, hunting outside of permitted times (seasons) and the removal of acorns as being ‘forest crimes’ punishable through fines, and it is probable that similar categories existed in and around the Pyrenees, given the centralised application of laws following the fall of more diverse feudal governance. The degree to which the locals lived by these laws however is debatable, or even doubtful, given their intimate knowledge of the local woodlands and paths which allowed unseen access.[8]

As we see above, there were certain laws and regulations under the Old Regime that prohibited certain species being felled, or certain forests being used at all, however in the higher areas of the Pyrenees the laws tended to be more lax as the peasantry relied on the forest for the majority of their survival. In terms of access restrictions to these higher areas of the forest which were traditionally ‘up for grabs’, one example (and its consequences) from the upper Ariège is of particular note. Prior to the 1827 ‘Forest Code’, the woodlands of Saint-Lary were free for the Ariégeois peasantry to gather as much wood as they felt they needed (while typically ignoring certain limitations implemented by the Old Regime).  However, the Code decreed this privilege should belong to forest owners and charcoal-burners, the latter being instrumental in the iron industry that enriched several local industrialists. This former freedom was vital for many to continue their pastoral and agricultural way of life, and unsurprisingly the local peasantry took umbrage at these restrictions, resulting in one of the most peculiar examples of French peasant revolts in the 19th century, and proof that the figure of the charcoal burner was not one that was universally popular throughout the period. This is a brief summary of the (oddly transvestite) ‘The War of the Demoiselles’, during which

[…] peasants in the French Pyrenees disguised themselves as women and attacked forest guards sent to enforce the 1827 Forest Code, which favored commercial charcoal burners and the iron industry by creating property rights in the forests where local people had previously exercised customary rights to gathering fuelwood and pasturing their animals.[9]

The imposition of the Forest Code, which was codified in 1827 and then strictly enforced in 1829, prohibited the local peasantry of the Ariège from gathering wood, cutting wood and pasturing, which given the fact that (as described earlier) this was a ‘wood civilisation’ severely impacted their traditional way of life. The purpose of the code was to favour charcoal burners, ironmasters and the owners of these forests, and in order to enforce this law forest guards and gendarmes were employed to guard both the trees and also the charcoal kilns. The rebellion lasted until 1872, however it was between 1829 and 1833 that a unified and concerted effort took place, after which smaller and sporadic skirmishes typified the movement. In the first year, up to four hundred individuals were involved in entering the forests, typically at night, and destroying the kilns and lodges of various charbonnières, whom the peasants accused of exploiting the forests. Forest guards and charbonnières were chased out of their homes, confronted in the forests and threatened with violence, and when shepherds were arrested by guards when allowing their flocks to graze in the forests, the ‘Maidens’ would rush out with scythes, batons and rifles demanding their freedom. One guard rather dryly related seeing ‘three women of a size much larger than is expected of this sex’ before they attacked.[10] According to reports they would often gather to the sound of a seashell.[11] The most curious facet of these ‘forest rebels’, and the reason behind the term ‘War of the Demoiselles’, was their garb. Whilst some would wear rag-tag uniforms, often styling themselves as ‘captains’ or similar military ranks, the vast majority disguised themselves as women, wearing scarves or wigs, long shirts, sheepskins. As one prefect reported:

The disguise consists only in darkening the face with red or black, wearing a white shirt outside the clothes instead of leaving it tucked in, tightening the waist with a coloured band, which gives the impression of a skirt, and finally placing on the head a handkerchief or a woman’s headpiece.[12]

Masks were also worn, variously painting their faces in symmetrical patterns of red and black, draping sheets of material over their faces, using handkerchiefs pierced with three holes for the eyes and mouth, sheets of paper, sieves tied with string, left-over carnival masks, woollen bonnets and even sheep or fox skins. They would refer to themselves as Demoiselles (‘Maidens’) in a self-ironic nod to their own sense of honour.[13]

During the French Revolution, all bets were off in terms of any existing feudal control of the forests, and subsequently a free-for-all had taken place by the peasantry across France, resulting in significant woodland devastation, and in order to combat this and implement a profitable scheme, post-Revolutionary France saw a series of laws come into play that would favour commercial exploitation and the construction of ironworks in these traditionally lax areas. Privately owned forests would begin to be culled at a frightening rate, and thus the implementation of the Forest Code sought to eliminate any non-profitable use of these woodlands by the local peasantry:

Collective opposition to royal and private forest guards was an ancient tradition in the villages which came to form the Ariège, as it was in the Pyrenees more generally. Under the Old Regime, as long as the royal forest administration remained a distant and relatively tolerant authority, villagers tended to subvert its formal regulations, while frequently disputing among themselves their pasturing and firewood rights to the forest. […] Yet it was only after the Revolution, with the stricter application of new forest legislation limiting pasturing rights and forcing village communities to take their wood in predesignated areas, that forest riots occurred with greater frequency.[14]

These attacks on property and production sites within the forests of the Ariège, beginning in Castillonnais and the Massat valley, intensified between 1830 and 1832, spreading to Cabannes and Ax, and even into the Haute-Garonne (Val d’Arbas), before becoming more sporadic until the last recorded incidence in 1877. What is also noteworthy, apart from their manner of dress, was the highly-organised nature of these attacks, being coordinated by smoke-signals and horns, and also the way in which the ‘Demoiselles’ made rather theatrical use of the local belief in fairies to elevate the dramatic nature of their attacks. As Sahlins puts it: ‘this dexterous relation to fairy beliefs was part of the drama which the Demoiselles enacted; the white-robed figures appearing in the forest at night were the actors, while the guards and charcoal-makers – peasants themselves – were the audience and victims.’[15] Sadly, it appears that whilst impactful on those that experienced them, these attacks and the revolt in general did little to alter the implementation of the Forest Code in general, however it is unlikely that this prevented the pugnacious Ariégeois from exercising their ancient rights when threatened. In this vein, it has been argued that this period of ‘forest rebellion’ should not be viewed as an isolated incident, but rather as part of a larger series of popular revolts across the Pyrenees beginning before the 19th century, against what was perceived as the ‘centralizing enterprise of the state’, in which ancient land rights were jettisoned in favour of profitable enclosure and privatisation.[16] Whilst referring to the Ariégeois, this sentiment could apply across the Pyrenees: ‘Affected in their most vital interests, the Ariège mountain dwellers had then proven their ability to defend rights of immemorial use.’[17]

[1] This is the typical epithet for pre-Revolutionary France.

[2] However, laws here were also becoming stricter.

[3] Criées of 15th July, 1604, Municipal Archives, St Laurent de Cerdans. From: Noël, Michel, L’Homme et la Forêt en Languedoc-Rousillon (Perpignan: Press Universitaires de Perpignan, 1996), pp, 91 – 140. Translated by Martin Locker. ‘Galley-work’, as in working on board a ship under hard conditions is an imperfect translation of galère, however it will have to suffice in this case. Chapter Four, from which this information is taken, is available here: https://books.openedition.org/pupvd/5799?lang=fr#ftn15

[4] A medieval administrative court typical of southern France.

[5] Noël, 1996, pp. 91 – 140.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Menzies, Nicholas, Our Forest, Your Ecosystem, Their Timber: Communities, Conservation, and the State in Community-Based Forest Management (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 90.

[10] Sahlins, Peter, Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. ix.

[11]Ibid., p. 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 19 – 20.

[15]Ibid., p. 47.

[16] Soulet, Jean-François, Les Pyrénées au XIXe Siecle: L’Éveil d’une Société Civile (Luçon: Sud Ouest, 2004), p. 708.

[17] Translated from the entry of the ‘Ariège’ in the Encylopédie Régionale (Chamalières: Éditions Bonneton, 1996), p. 72.

‘Bountiful Borderlands’ Extract #2: Chapter Two ‘Bane of the Izard – The Hunter’

Turning to wolves and bears first, these beasts were perennially seen as threats to livestock and people, and thus ruthlessly hunted with traps, rifles and spear-like contraptions. An excellent account of a village wolf-hunt in Landes (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in the early 19th century provides details as to how such an event was organised. In this area, stilts (known as sangues) were used by some to cover the sandy ground and obtain good visuals of the prey or flock, and an accomplished user could move as fast as a trotting horse. In this case, the party set off at day-break, some on their sangues and all carrying rifles:

Every one being mounted on sangues, the appearance of the parties as they came in sight was extremely singular. Those at a distance seemed moving along high above the surface of the ground, and without any visible support; while others, surmounting a sandy knoll, continued to ascend long after the whole of their person had appeared above it. Some wore the sombre-coloured cloak and narrow-crowned hood, out of which it was almost ludicrous to behold a young face peeping; others wore their sheep-skin jackets with the wool outside, some black, some white, and all of the strangest cut imaginable.[1]

They arrive at the extreme end of a forest, in which the wolves are said to live, and they begin beating and guarding in order to flush out the animals:

Single files, from fifty to a hundred paces distant from each other, according to the inequality of the ground, but always within shot of any animal which might attempt to escape by breaking though the lines, were extended down each side of the forest, the side next the river requiring a less number to guard it that the other, as the wolf will not, unless hard pressed, take to the water. Along the upper end of the forest, that to which the wolves were to be driven, the files were placed closer, and the best shots of the district invariably occupy this, the post of honour. The sides and upper end of the forest being thus as it were secured, a line of beaters was drawn across the lower part of the wood. This party, always on foot, is generally composed of the youngsters of the canton, whose business it is to make more use of their lungs than of the old horse-pistols and carbines, with which a few of them are armed. Dogs, although sometimes useful in following a wounded animal, are seldom permitted to accompany the beaters, as they are never sufficiently well-trained to range close, but wandering ahead destroy the regularity of the battue. As the beaters advance, the files who have been guarding the sides of the wood fall into a line with them, so that, increasing in numbers as they go through the wood, they soon become so near to each other that not a single thicket or dingle, however small, escapes their search.[2]

After several hours, the beaters are visible as they make their way through the forest, and guns are checked and preparations are made for the breaking of the wolves from their sylvan cover. The first wolf to emerge escapes to the next woodland, avoiding the excited shots of the hunters, however the three others that are flushed out by the beaters are shot. Amusingly, during the shooting the Maire (mayor) tumbles to the ground screaming and then falls silent; much is made of this and everyone fears he is dead from a stray shot. It is revealed however that a bullet merely severed one of his stilts, and the fall to earth knocked him unconscious. This has been fortunate for the other wolves that broke cover, as during this confusion they manage to escape unharmed. Other animals are also killed by the beaters and guards during the hunt, and the author recounts of foxes, wild boar and roe deer as being among the prizes. After this everyone settles down to drinking brandy, eating and dancing, as well as a race to determine who is fastest on his sangues. The results are predictably chaotic, as one would imagine when combining brandy and stilt-racing, and are described in this charming passage:

I have already said that the sangues were from four to five feet in length; it may therefore be supposed that mounting upon such articles is no easy matter, without having a wall or bench from which to start. The usual mode of managing the affair by the Landais is to sit on the ledge of a window of the second story of their cottage, and there fastening on the stilts, walk away from the place; or a ladder is generally leaning against the walls of the cottage, up which they mount until sufficiently high to effect their object. Here, however, there were none of the usual facilities afforded for mounting; and every one was put to his wits to discover some method or other to get on his horse. The most active of the party having selected a pine which had a drooping branch, climbed on to it, and managed without much difficulty to effect their object. Several of the elderly ones, and some of the juniors, whose libations had placed their capacity on a level with that of their seniors, were not so successful. One heavy fellow, who had raised himself on the branch of a pine close to where we were sitting, had just succeeded in buckling on one of his stilts, when the branch on which he sat gave way. The leg with the stilt on was mechanically thrust out to break the fall, but the result was much the contrary. With only one support, a single stride was all that could be made, but that stride was an important one; for, unable to deviate from the direction in which the branch broke away, the heavy carcase of the fellow landed in the centre of a group whose advanced state of jollification altogether precluded their joining in the race. […] Another fellow had, in the hurry of the moment, carried off one of his neighbour’s sangues instead of his own, and did not discover the mistake until he had buckled them on, and thinking that all was right, started from his place of mounting. Then he found to his surprise that one stilt was half a foot shorter than the other, and that, accordingly, to balance himself was quite impossible. So away he went staggering and limping, endeavouring to describe a circle, so as to get back to the tree from which he had sprung. But the odds were against his succeeding. The shorter stilt having sunk in the hollow of a decayed tree root, the discrepancy of length became still greater; to recover his equilibrium was impossible, and he measured his length on the ground.[3]

After a few fights break out, one of which is settled with staffs, the race takes place across a river and a plain, and the winner is greeted with thunderous applause. This is also the only mention that I have found in any English account of the practise of sangues racing, hence its inclusion here. Murray also recounts the method used by a professional wolf and fox hunter using hounds, around Pau:

The wolves are frequently driven down from the mountains by the snow, and take refuge in the woods of the low country; and the peasants, when they see then, inform M. Dupont of their presence. The wolf is a more difficult customer to deal with than the fox. He is hardly ever killed by being fairly run down by dogs. Very few instances of wolves being so killed are known; although runs of this kind have been known to last a day and a night – the dogs following the same wolf for that length of time. On this account, the hunters always endeavour to wound or cripple him, so as to put him upon a more equal footing with the dogs; and, accordingly, every one, upon such occasions, is armed.[4]

Whilst Murray is not present for a wolf-hunt but rather a fox-chase, he does describe the pomp and ceremony with which this hunter dresses and enters through villages, announcing his arrival with a horn so that the locals might come and admire him in all his splendour, and it is likely that the same happened when Monsieur Dupont went chasing wolves. This is a very different affair to the Landais wolf hunt recounted above; here we can see overt displays of social status, potentially even paying clients, in a manner more akin to the aristocratic hunts of Fébus:

Afraid that we should not get out of bed early enough, M. Dupont had ordered his piqueur to come to our hotel about four in the morning and ‘blow us up’ with his great horn.[5] About five, the master and his hounds, and a party of French gentlemen arrived, and we, being all ready, joined them. […] Our master of the hounds, a most enormous man, could not, with jack-boots, great coat, blunderbuss, holsters and all, ride under one and twenty stone. He was mounted upon a small chestnut mare, with legs like those of an elephant, and it was amazing to see how she moved under the prodigious weight she carried. […] There are, – as I observed before, – generally, two of these abominable French horns in a hunting party, the one carried by the piqueur, the other by the master, or a friend. M. Dupont’s nephew was the bearer of this – to the ears of a sportsman – most disagreeable instrument; and he rode at the head of the party: while the piqueur, with the dogs and the other horn, brought up the rear. In this manner, we rode into the town of Tarbes, our leader halting at each turn or winding of the streets, and sounding his ‘Tantara’ for a few seconds; after he had been answered by the piqueur, with the other horn, from the rear, he moved on again, thus giving warning of our approach, and affording all the inhabitants plenty of time to come to their windows, and admire us. Glad were we, when the neighbourhood of our hotel permitted us to escape.[6]

Again, whilst this relates specifically to a fox hunt, it is more than likely that for this gentleman, such grandeur would accompany a wolf hunt, also potentially with a team of helpers and participants which he would lead through villages and out to the forests.

Violant i Simorra describes two methods of wolf hunting in the Pyrenees. One involved a group of men running around a series of mountains shouting a whistling to drive the wolves towards a party of armed hunters. These men would be waiting at the other end of the route ready to shoot the creatures on sight. Another method involved driving the wolves towards either a gorge or an enclosed field. The latter was known as a lobera and would narrow to a trap concealed with branches where, occasionally, a lamb would be tethered as bait. Boar hunts would sometimes follow a similar course in the Pallars (Catalonia); hunters armed with axes and shotguns would be posted throughout the mountains, waiting and watching while their dogs would root the boars out from their shelters. Once the boars had been driven out they would be chased into a ravine or a cave where the axes and shotguns would be employed. In the Valle de Hecho (Huesca), two scouting groups would run along the flanks of the mountains tracking the boars while a reseguero (aided by dogs) would ensure that no boar could turn back and escape, using screams and whistles.[7]

In the Ariège there used to exist a formula for increasing the potency of a hunter’s hounds. In Loubens, the several hunters would turn up a sleeve of their jackets or coats, cross themselves and repeat:

Cassaïre de lardos                      Chasseur de chair                       Hunter of flesh

Autant de lebres tuaras,               Autant de lièvres tu tueras,           As many hares that you kill,

Coumo m’en daras.                     Autant tu m’en donneras.              As many you will give me.

At the end of the hunt, usually in the evening, the hunters would wash the dogs’ muzzles in a stream, to rid them of the magic.[8] Traditionally the most common hunting dog in the French Pyrenees is the Braques Français, the original breed of which dates back to the 15th century. Typically a pointer, it is also employed in flushing, retrieving and even trailing game, and over time has evolved into two distinct regional varieties: the type Gascogne and the type Pyrénées. The former is larger and slower, the latter is smaller and swifter. It is possible that the breed is descended from the Spanish Pachon Navarro. Whilst the French Mastiff was favoured during aristocratic hunts of boar, deer, wolves and bears, the Braques Français is a versatile breed that can cover many roles and also would have been more readily available to the peasant hunter.[9]

A more formidable but no less enthusiastically pursued ‘threat’ was the Brown Bear; so much so, in fact, that by the mid 20th century it was practically extinct in the Pyrenees and is only recently making a return via controversial conservation schemes. As Hemingway noted, ‘Every year hunters kill dozens of bears in the Pyrenees mountain fastness’.[10] Mention has already been made earlier in this chapter of the rewards offered by monastic institutions for the slaughter of bears (and wolves), and of the Medieval views towards bears. Interestingly, this is belied by the focus on the bear in various traditional festivals throughout the Pyrenees, in which it is a major character and indicates a profound presence in the Pyrenean psyche, myth and folklore.[11] This, however, did not stop hunters from pursuing the bear, killing the adult and in many cases taking the cubs to sell to bear trainers in the Ariège; the hamlet of Ercé, for instance, was famous for its bear school during the 19th century, and the Haute-Couserans was home to many of the best bear trainers:

Visitors to the remote region of the Couserans region were often alarmed to see children playing with bear cubs. The cubs were always orphans. The hunter would wrap himself in a triple layer of sheepskins and arm himself with a long knife. When the bear reared up and hugged the woolly human, the hunter pushed its jaw aside with one hand and stabbed it in the kidneys with the other, remaining locked in the embrace until the bear collapsed. The cubs were taken to the village where they grew up with the children and the livestock until they were old enough to be trained.[12]

The Ariège was quite unique in this respect, as it produced the best orsalhèrs, and by 1800 up to two hundred of these bear-trainers/handlers existed in just two valleys, those of Alet and Garbet. One noble from the Comminges (Haute-Garonne) remarked in the late 19th century that each time a bear cub was captured, it would go to the Ariège. The cubs would be raised in the house like a dog, and the mistress of the house would feed them with bottles, and in one case from Ustou, even breast-feed them.[13]

Despite this apparent affection, one could almost call bear hunting an obsession in some areas of the Pyrenees. To give an example of the extent to which bears were hunted, we can turn to Andorra, which traditionally has been one of the richest areas for bears. Records indicate that between 1520 and 1854, five hundred and thirty-seven payments were made to bear hunters upon the presentation of their kill; this figure was actually exceeded by the Béarnaise hunters of the Ossau valley (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) during the same period. The records for the parish of Andorra la Vella over twenty years at the start of the 19th century give an idea of the frequency in which bears in this valley were killed; three in 1800, six in 1802, three in 1803, three in 1805, four in 1806 and 1808, ten in 1812, three in 1816 and 1818, seven in 1819 and three in 1820. Even if these figures represent a particularly populous region for bears, if one extrapolates this over the centuries, and indeed over the various valleys of the Pyrenees, it is unsurprising that the population was decimated by the 1950s.[14]

[1] Murray, Hon. James Erskine, ‘The Pyrenean Hunter: Wolf-hunting in the Landes’ in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 4, J. M. Lewer (ed.) (New York, NY: Jemima M. Mason, 1839), p. 499.

[2] Ibid, p. 500.

[3] Ibid., pp. 504 – 505.

[4] Murray, James Erskine, Summer in the Pyrenees, Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837b), p. 156.

[5] A piqueur is an attendant that directs the hounds in a hunt.

[6] Murray, 1837b, pp. 157 – 160.

[7] Violant i Simorra, Ramon, El Pirineo Español (Barcelona: Editorial Alta Fulla, 1986), pp. 360 – 362.

[8] Vézian, Joseph, Carnets Ariégeois (Présentés par Olivier de Marliave) (Bourdeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2000), p. 104.

[9] Clark, Anne Rogers & Brace, Andrew, The International Encyclopedia of Dogs (Hoboken, NJ: Howell Book House, 1995), pp. 146–147

[10] Hemingway, Ernest, Hemingway on Hunting (New York, NY: Scribner Classics, 2001), p. 160.

[11] For a detailed study of the bear in the Pyrenees, see Chapter Three of Locker, Martin, The Tears of Pyrene (Andorra: Mons Culturae Press, 2019).

[12] Robb, Graham, The Discovery of France (London: Picador, 2007), p. 169.

[13] Casanova, Eugeni, L’Ós del Pirineu: Crònica d’un Extermini (Lleida: Pagès Editors, 2005), p.197. This book contains a wealth of statistics and interviews with hunters, and is recommended for an in-depth analysis of bear-hunting in the Pyrenees.

[14] Casanova, 2005, p.197.

‘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.

‘Hidden Faces of the Pyrenees’ Talk for Hidden History Travel.

Below you can watch the talk I gave for the ‘Armchair Archaeology’ series run by Hidden History Tours, focussing on the histories of Occitania and Andorra. The tour which I run with Hidden History in this region can be found here: http://www.hiddenhistory.co.uk/tour-item/andorra-the-occitan/

This is quite a broad-brush talk, however I hope some of you find something of interest in it none the less!

Audio of ‘Tears of Pyrene’ Talk 21/01/2020

I just finished giving a talk on the recent ‘Tears of Pyrene’ book at the Andorran International Club. It’s quite broad brush, but goes into three key themes. The talk was filmed however the video is being awkward so audio is all that can be salvaged right now (the end is cut off but that’s basically the end anyway), and can be downloaded here <<< Tears of Pyrene Talk 21:01:2020.mp3>>>




Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees Part II

Carrying on from the previous article, below we will delve deeper into the existing fairy-lore of the Pyrenees, which is under-explored in the ethnographic record in the 20th century. We will read sweeping examinations by no less than Charles Dickens (!), local enthusiasts and French local anthologies from 1909…


Firstly, it is interesting to note that in the French Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes (as examined in the previous article) were also locally known in the Béarn as Hados, and the name of the village of Belhades (Petite Leyre) may derive etymologically from belle hados (beautiful fairy).


Also, coincidentally, from an anthology dating back to 1870 we can find the illustrious Charles Dickens summarising Pyrenean fairy-lore thus, which must be admitted is not in a uniformly complimentary fashion:

‘As to the fairies, they are still visible to the unsophisticated Pyreneans, and they sit at the entrance of their grottos, combing their golden hair, much as they used to in our old nursery days. He who tries to reach them, perishes; should he find favour in their eyes, he disappears for ever from this world. If, however, a mortal releases a fairy from a spell, she sometimes lends him her magic wand, with which he can obtain whatever he desires. In the Barège valley the fairies inhabit the interior of the Pic de Bergons, and flax placed at the foot of their abode is instantly spun into the finest thread. In the valley of Barousse they go from house to house on New Year’s night, carrying happiness in their right hands, and sorrow in their left, under the form of two children, the one crowned with flowers, the other weeping. To propitiate them a repast is spread in a room with open doors and windows, and on the morrow the master of the house distributes the food among his family and servants, with good wishes for the New Year. Occasionally, however, tricks may be played upon female fairies with impunity, as when one was caught in a pair of trousers left in a garden for this purpose’.[1]

Also discovered from much rootling around is a list of several different types of fairy attested as living around French Pyrenees. It should be mentioned that no sources can be found for this list, attributed as it is to a local within the Hautes-Pyrénées, however oral history is a vital part of ethnographic research and as such it deserves to be included:

Balandrou (Hautes-Pyrénées) – This creature allegedly cultivated an apple tree whose golden fruit would bestow immortality.

Dames Blanches (Aude & Hautes-Pyrénées) – These live within the castles of Puivert and Mauvezin.

Encantadas (Vaucluse) – These fairies dwell around Rousillon near caves, rivers and waterfalls, and also deep within the woods, and they dream of being human.

Fada (Ariège) – Similarly these fairies wish to be human, and protect hordes of gold.

Goga (Catalonia) – This fairy lives in Gariotxes beside a river, where she washes her clothes. Anyone who manages to steal these clothes by moonlight is said to become prosperous in the future.

Hada (Gascony) – These creatures have webbed feet and live near water or in caves. They have been known to help farmers, and also in the Ariège they are said to advise on crops.

Nore (Aude) – This fairy was said to live atop the peak of Bugarach.

Outasuna-Maithagarria (Basque) – Linked to hunting, she appears riding a deer and resembles the goddess Diana.

Sarrasine (Ariège) – Dwelling in the rivers of the Salat valley, they have webbed feet.

Parques de la Lune (Ariège) – These nocturnal fairies dwell at crossroads in the Arize Massif, and are said to hold the destiny of both the living and the dead.

Romula (Ariège) – This fairy is said to live in the Grotte du Camaillot near St-Jean-de-Verges, and she charms both humans and animals with her singing. She crosses the river of the dead and was the deity of that river (more about this creature below).

Roneca (Aude) – A terror of children, she is said to haunt various valleys in the Aude with a candle and a large sack on her back to collect infants who are bad.

Saurimonda (Aude) – Dwelling in the valleys of this area and also around the Montagne Noire, she is said to be beautiful with blonde hair and is popularly linked to both gold and the sun. Nuggets of gold in rivers are attributed to her dropping her comb in the waters.[2]


The legend of Romula is tied to a large stone head near the Roc d’Huile, seen when crossing the river at Saint-Jean-de-Verges (whether it is still there I cannot verify). The head is so large that it would take a dozen wine barrels to fill it where it hollow. In order to find out the name of this alleged ‘giant’, one has to ask Romula, who lives in the Grotte du Camaillot. She is in charge of checking the ‘passports’ of those who cross the river in Death’s boat, and has long golden hair and silver eyes. The head is said to date from the Roman era, and the legend linking Romula to this monument runs this:

At a time when the Romans had pitched their tents at the Massif du Plantaurel, Romula (whose name is eerily similar to Romulus, one of the twin founders of Rome) was awaiting Death’s boat on the landing stage at the Roc d’Huile. Within the boat were two people, Fortunatus and Infortunatus. Fortunatus had all his papers in good order and was allowed to pass, however Inforunatus was not so lucky, as his passport lacked the appropriate signature. Additionally, he was an infamous bandit and had been a cruel man during his lifetime, making the lives of local people wretched. Romula reproached him, showing him all that he had done badly in life, his robberies, bluster and injustices and condemned him to remain standing where he was. The water around him turned to oil, which became alight, the flames melting the rock around the man. By the time that the water had put the flames out, the man had become stone, and his enlarged form that had fused with the rock stood stolidly in the earth, his legs sunken into the soil, and only his head remained above ground… [3]


There are more fairy stories to follow in Part III, which will arrive in good time.





[1] Dickens, Charles, ‘Superstitions of the Pyrenees’ in All the Year Round, Vo. 3, No. 23, January Ist, 1870, p. 113.

[2] Translated from the French from this source: https://aubedesfees.forumactif.fr/t480-les-fees-des-pyrenees

[3] Anon, Almanac Patoues of the Ariejo (Fouix: Imprimario de Gadrat Ainat), 1909.


Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees: Part I.

Fairy-lore, at least as understood within the 18th/19th century romantic context as so popularised by works such as those of the Grimm brothers within ethnographic literature, is curiously rare within the Pyrenees, at least within the character seen within mainland France and as recorded by Thomas Keightley.[1] Some examples do however exist, hidden away within caves, forests and mountain peaks, and there are presented below (Part I) three of these scarce examples, as recorded within travelogues and legendariums from this period. In Part II, further examples will be presented and dissected in relation to broader European fairy-lore.

It may be worth briefly qualifying what constitutes a ‘fairy’ or ‘sprite’ within ‘traditional’ European folklore. Generally (and this term is used advisably), this refers to some manner of natural spirit (usually small in stature) that personifies some manner of genius loci, and can be said to reach back to a reflection of pre-Christian belief in a spirit of place, minor ‘Pagan’ deity, or associated household spirit that could be both puckish, malign or benign, as so-whether it willed. Typically, they are etymologically linked to the concept of ‘small-folk’ in various ethnographic contexts, they inhabited the margins of human/natural interaction, both aiding, abetting and harming, in the manner of the ‘elves’ of folk belief, and within the 19th century they became transformed into the winged creatures so beloved of folklorists today. It is of course, within the space of a short article, impossible to trace back into the dim past the origins (in a Pyrenean context at least, although this may be the subject of a future volume) of the various and curiously scarce ‘fairy’ motifs within the Pyrenees, but it is worth recording some of the most interesting examples below. It is also worth noting that, within the French context at least, these beliefs have all but been eradicated.

Beginning within the French cultural regions of the Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes is a local term in the Haute Pyrenees for fairies, who are attributed with the power to raise storms, bring luck or misfortune to people, and are said to live in the interior of the Pic de Bergons, where they spin flax into fine thread.

The peasantry have been careful to prepare in a clean and empty chamber, the repast which they wish to offer to their guests. A white cloth covers the table upon which is placed a loaf, a knife, a jug of water, or of wine, with a cup and a candle in the midst. They believe that those who offer the best food, may hope to have their herds increased, their harvests abundant, and that marriage will crown their dearest hopes; but those who fail in these attentions to the fairies, and who neglect to make preparations worthy of the spirits who come to visit them, may expect the greatest misfortunes; fire will consume their dwellings, wild animals devour their flocks, hail will destroy their harvests, or their infants die in the cradle. Upon the first day of the year, the father, the eldest person, or the master of each house, takes the bread which has been offered to the fairies, breaks it, and after having dipped it in the water or the wine, contained in the jug, distributes it among the family, and also among the servants; after this they wish each other a good year, and breakfast upon the bread.[2]

Additionally, in the Bearn valleys, Les Blanquettes are also said to dwell in cavern mouths, mountain peaks, dress in white and often appear in a circular formation. Sadly, when asked at the time that this was reported, the local consulted said that he believed that these were only shadows, and thus that fairy-lore in that area was almost dead.[3]

There also exists a very specific legend from this region, pertaining to the Abadies family of Adast in Cauterets (Hautes-Pyrenees) with a domestic fairy, the fairy Abacia:

In the days when the fairy Urganda (one day old, another young) had her favourite among certain knights-errant whom she especially protected; when the fairy Monto, foundress of the city of Mantua [Lombardy, Italy], changed herself into an adder once a week, and Melusina, from the highest tower of the ancient castle of the Lusignans, announced with mournful and piercing shrieks their destruction and the ruin of the royal house; beneatha  hillock to the south of Adast, in the valley of Lavedan, the fairy Abacia remained enchanted in a fountain, which is no longer on, being at this day dry.

Tradition has not told us whether she was of the first, the second, or the third order of fairies; but Desinty, more powerful than the all, had carefully assigned to each the part she had to perform on earth, and it was written in her immutable decrees, that the fairy Abacia could only be disenchanted by a man not married, who was fasting, and yet had eaten. How many years elapsed before any one thus qualified appeared to release the imprisoned fairy, tradition has also forgotten to inform us.

However, it so happened that, towards reaping tie the youngest heir of the house of Abadie of Adast went abroad into his harvest fields, having for his companion the heir of Vignaux and Natala; and going in to the one where the fountain was with the fairy Abacia hidden under its waters, took an ear of corn, and breaking a grain between his teeth, cast it away without swallowing it.

At the same instant a young and beautiful woman stood before him, who, fixing on him the look which especially belongs to fairies, said in the sweetest of voices, “You have disenchanted me, and ought now to take me as your wife. Do you consent?” The young man, enamoured of her beauty, readily agreed. “My fate (she added) still depends on another engagement. Promise that you will never call me ‘lady’, or ‘lady of the water.’” He promised.

Two children, beautiful as angels, were the fruits of this union; every thing prospered in their happy home; but at an epoch, of whose date there exists no trace, it happened that the husband went up to see his hay cut on the summit of the mountain neighbouring to Cauteretz. As he returned in the evening with his servants, he saw with astonishment and anger, that the unripe grain of his fields had been cut down and piled in shocks; and his wrath redoubled  on arriving at his house he learned that it had been done by his wife’s command. He refused to listen to the gentle explanations which she would have given him; and at once to humiliate and punish her, cried out, “Lady – lady of the water!” The fairy instantly disappeared.

Then did he weep, groan, and utter bitter cries; but he was destined never to behold her more. Sometimes, when he was absent, she would come and embrace her children, combing their hair, and always with a golden comb.

One evening when she was alone with then, she said, and her tears fell as she spoke, “It is owing to your father’s perjury that I have not done for you all that my power as a fairy might have enabled me to undertake, and now my destiny calls me into another region; but from thence I shall watch over you. Love virtue, walk in the paths of honour, and learn what I am permitted to disclose to you of the secrets of futurity. Know, that one of your descendants will have much renown, and that a war-like and illustrious nation of the north will call him to reign over their nation”.

Having thus spoken, the fairy Abacia disappeared – and for ever![4]

Within this we can identify a few key themes that emerge in various ‘fairy’ tales across Western Europe, namely the disenchanting of a fairy via a man, the marriage that ensues, the bearing of children from the union, the ‘profane name(s)’ that must not be uttered, the subsequent uttering and the disappearance thereupon by the fairy wife. An additional note of interest is the mention of a golden comb – again, a typical feature of fairy-lore.

Moving across the granite Pyrenean spine, into the Basque Country, we find several examples of ‘Fairy’-lore, as recorded in the excellent Rev. Wentworth Webster’s ‘Basque Legends’.[5] Particularly of note is the legend of ‘The Lady Pigeon and Her Comb’, accompanied as it is with an interpretation:[6]

A mother and her son scratch a meagre existence, so much so that the son decides to venture off to make a living, and comes across a forest that lies a considerable distance away. Within the forest he finds a castle and, knocking upon the door, he is answered by a Tartaro.[7] Upon revealing the nature of his wretched state, the boy is spared by the giant, and given a very specific task, whose nature is strangely charitable. He is to leave the area in a few days and lie in wait for three young ladies who bathe in the giant’s garden. The boy is charged with stealing the middle of the three ‘pigeon cloaks’ that are discarded by the ladies whilst they bathe, upon which the lady whose cloak is stolen will be forced to remain in the water and promise to help the boy always. The boy thus does as he is told to, and the outcome is that the boy ventures, with an assurance of employment, to the father of the lady’s house the next day.

The father informs him that there is much work to do, much of it manual, and indeed much of it overwhelming: to pull up oaks by their roots, cut them into lengths, sort branches from trunks and roots. After he must plough, harrow and sow the land with wheat, finally creating a small cake of the self-same wheat by midday, lest he be killed.

The boy agrees, yet goes back to the forest to muse, pensively, upon which the fairy lady appears to him assuring him of her help. In order to do so she throws her comb into the air, utter various incantations which will mimic the workload of the boy, including the creation of the cake. By noon the cake is ready, which he races to take to the father. The father however is suspicious, and says to the mother ‘Be careful he is not in league with your daughter!’. I now defer to the legend itself:

His wife says to him, “Take care that he is not in league with your daughter.”

The husband says to her, “What do you mean? They have never seen each other.”

This husband was a devil. The young lady told our lad that her father is going to send him to fetch a ring in a river far away. “He will tell you to choose a sword from the midst of ever so many others, but you will take an old sabre and leave the others.”

The next day his wife told him that he ought to send him to fetch a ring which he had lost in the bed of a river. He sends him then, and tells him that he must choose a sword; that he will have quantities of evil fish to conquer. The lad says to him that he will not have those fine swords, that he has enough with this old sabre, which was used to scrape off the dirt.

When he arrived at the bank of the river he sat there weeping, not knowing what to do. The young lady comes to him, and says:

“What! You are weeping! Did not I tell you that I would always help you?”

It was eleven o’clock. The young lady says to him

“You must cut me in pieces with this sabre, and throw all the pieces into the water.”

The lad will not do it by any means. He says to her:

“I prefer to die here on the spot than to make you suffer.”

The lady says to him, “It is nothing at all what I shall suffer, and you must do it directly–the favourable moment is passing by like this, like this.”

The lad, trembling all over, begins with his sabre. He throws all the pieces into the river; but, lo I a part of the lady’s little finger sticks to a nail in his shoe. The young lady comes out of the water and says to him:

“You have not thrown everything into the water. My little finger is wanting.” 1

After having looked for it, he sees that he has it under his foot, hooked on to a nail. The young lady gives him the ring. She tells him to go without losing a moment, for he must give it to the king at noon. He arrives happily (in time). The young lady, as she goes into the house, bangs the door with all her might and begins to cry out:

“Ay! ay! ay! I have crushed my little finger.”

And she makes believe that she has done it there. The king was pleased. He tells him that on the morrow he must tame a horse and three young fillies. 2 The lad says to him:

“I will try.”

The master gives him a terrible club. The young lady says to him in the evening:

“The horse which my father has spoken to you about will be himself. You will strike him with all your might with your terrible club on the nose, and he will yield and be conquered. The first filly will be my eldest sister. You will strike her on the chest with all your force, and she also will yield and will be conquered. I shall come the last. You will make a show of beating me too, and you will hit the ground with your stick, and I too will yield, and I shall be conquered.”

The next day the lad does as the young lady has told him. The horse comes. He was very high-spirited, but our lad strikes him on the nose, he yields, and is conquered. He does the same thing with the fillies. He beats them with his terrible club, they yield, and are conquered; and when the third comes he makes a show of hitting her, and strikes the earth. She yields, and all go off..

The next day he sees the master with his lips swollen, and with all his face as black as soot. The young ladies had also pain in the chest. The youngest also gets up very late indeed in order to do as the others.

The master says to him that he sees he is a valuable servant, and very clever, and that he will give him one of his daughters for wife, but that he must choose her with his eyes shut. And the young lady says to him:

“You will choose the one that will give you her hand twice, and in any way you will recognise me, because you will find that my little finger is wanting. I will always put that in front.”

The next day the master said to him:

“We are here now; you shall now choose the one you wish for, always keeping your eyes shut.”

He shuts them then; and the eldest daughter approaches, and gives him her hand. He says to the king:

“It is very heavy, (this hand); too heavy for me. I will not have this one.”

The second one approaches, she gives him her hand, and he immediately recognises that the little finger is wanting. He says to the king:

“This is the one I must have.”

They are married immediately. They pass some days like that. His wife says to him;

“It is better for us to be off from here, and to flee, otherwise my father will kill us.”

They set off, then, that evening at ten o’clock, and the young lady spits before the door of her room, saying:

“Spittle, with thy power, you shall speak in my place.” 2 And they go off a long way. At midnight, the father goes to the door of the lad and his wife, and knocks at the door.; they do not answer. He knocks harder, and then the spittle says to him:

“Just now nobody can come into this room.”

The father says, “It is I. I must come in.”

“It is impossible,” says the spittle again.

The father grows more and more angry; the spittle makes him stop an hour like that at the door. At last, not being able to do anything else, he smashes the door, and goes inside. What is his terrible rage when he sees the room empty. He goes off to his wife, and says to her:

“You were not mistaken; they were well acquainted, and they were really in league with one another, and they have both escaped together; but I will not leave them like that. I will go off after them, and I shall find them sooner or later.”

He starts off. Our gentleman and lady had gone very far, but the young lady was still afraid. She said to her husband:

“He might overtake us even now. I–I cannot turn my head; but (look) if you can see something.”

The husband says to her: “Yes, something terrible is coming after us; I have never seen a monster like this.”

The young lady throws up a comb, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed before my father hedges and thorns, and before me a good road.”

It is done as she wished. They go a good way, and she says again:

“Look, I beg you, if you see anything again.”

The husband looks back, and sees nothing; but in the clouds he sees something terrible, and tells so to his wife. And his wife says, taking her comb:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed where he is a fog, and hail, and a terrific storm.”

It happens as they wish. They go a little way farther, and his wife says to him:

“Look behind you, then, if you see anything.”

The husband says to her: “Now it is all over with us. We have him here after us; he is on us. Use all your power.”

She throws again a comb immediately, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, form between my father and me a terrible river, and let him be drowned there for ever.”

As soon as she has said that, they see a mighty water, and there their father and enemy drowns himself.

The young lady says, “Now we have no more fear of him, we shall live in peace.”

They go a good distance, and arrive at a country into which the young lady could not enter. She says to her husband:

“I can go no farther. It is the land of the Christians there; I cannot enter into it. You must go there the first. You must fetch a priest. He must baptize me, and afterwards I will come with you; but you must take great care that nobody kisses you. If so, you will forget me altogether. Mind and pay great attention to it; and you, too, do not you kiss anyone.”

He promises his wife that he will not. He goes, then, on, and on, and on. He arrives in his own country, and as he is entering it an old aunt recognises him, and comes behind him, and gives him two kisses. 2 It is all over with him. He forgets his wife, as if he had never seen her, and he stays there amusing himself, and taking his pleasure.

The young lady, seeing that her husband never returned, that something had happened to him, and that she could no longer count upon him, she takes a little stick, and striking the earth, she says:

“I will that here, in this very spot, is built a beautiful hotel, with all that is necessary, servants, and all the rest.”

There was a beautiful garden, too, in front, and she had put over the door:

“Here they give to eat without payment.”

One day the young man goes out hunting with two comrades, and while they were in the forest they said one to the other:

“We never knew of this hotel here before. We must go there too. One can eat without payment.”

They go off then. The young lady recognises her husband very well, but he does not recognise her at all. She receives them very well. These gentlemen are so pleased with her, that one of them asks her if she will not let him pass the night with her. 1 The young lady says to him, “Yes.” The other asks also, “I, too, was wishing it.” The young lady says to him:

“To-morrow then, you, if you wish it, certainly.”

And her husband says to her: “And I after to-morrow then.”

The young lady says to him, “Yes.” One of the young men remains then. He passes the evening in great delight, and when the hour comes for going to bed, the young lady says to him:

“When you were small you were a choir-boy, and they used to powder you; this smell displeases me in bed. Before coming there you must comb yourself. Here is a comb, and when you have got all the powder out, you may come to bed.”

Our lad begins then to comb his hair, but never could he get all the powder out, such quantities came out, and were still coming out of his head; and he was still at it when the young lady rose. The lad said to her:

“What! you are getting up before I come.”

“And do you not see that it is day? I cannot stop there any longer. People will come.”

Our young man goes off home without saying a word more. He meets his comrade who was to pass the night with this young lady. He says to him:

“You are satisfied? You amused yourself well?”

“Yes, certainly, very well. If the time flies as fast with you as it did with me you will amuse yourself well.”

He goes off then to this house. The young lady says to him, after he had had a good supper:

“Before going to bed you must wash your feet. The water will be here in this big copper; when you have them quite clean you may come to bed.”

Accordingly he washes one, and when he has finished washing the other, the first washed is still black and dirty. He washes it again, and finds the foot that he has just well washed very dirty again. He kept doing like that for such a long time. When the young lady gets up, the gentleman says to her:

“What! You are getting up already, without me coming?”

“Why did you not then come before day? I cannot stay any longer in bed. It is daylight, and the people will begin (to come).”

Our young man withdraws as the other had done. Now it is the turn of her husband. She serves him still better than the others; nothing was wanting at his supper. When the hour for going to bed arrives, they go to the young lady’s room; when they are ready to get into bed, the young lady says to him:

“Put out the light.”

He puts it out, and it lights again directly. He puts it out again, and it lights again as soon as it is put out. He passes all the night like that in his shirt, never being able to put out that light. When daylight is come, the young lady says to him:

“You do not know me then? You do not remember how you left your wife to go and fetch a priest?”

As soon as she had said that he strikes his head, and says to her:

“Only now I remember all that–up to this moment I was as if I had never had a wife at all–how sorry I am; but indeed it is not my fault, not at all. I never wished it like that, and it is my old aunt who kissed me twice without my knowing it.”

“It is all the same now. You are here now. You have done penance enough; your friends have done it too. One passed the whole night getting powder out of his head, and the other in washing his feet, and they have not slept with me any more than you have. At present you must go into your country, and you must get a priest. He shall baptize me, and then we will go into your country.”

The husband goes off and returns with the priest, and she is baptized, and they set out for his country. When they have arrived there, she touched the earth with her stick, and says to it:

“Let there be a beautiful palace, with everything that is needed inside it, and a beautiful garden before the house.”

As soon as it is said, it is done. They lived there very rich and very happy with the old mother of the lad, and as they lived well they died well too.

It has been suggested that this myth relates to the age-old cycle of weather and fertility. Webster (1879) writes that the opening of the story represents man in misery, without the knowledge or aid of cultivation and agriculture. The old king is Winter personified, and his daughter is Spring, her golden comb being the sun. The young man ‘who, without her aid, can effect nothing, is man in relation to the frozen ground, which needs her aid to quicken it into fertility. It is the old Sun-god, the Cyclops, who tells him where to find, and how to woo, his fairy bride.’[8] However, in order to be married, he must acquire the skills of managing the forest, sowing and reaping corn, and creating the cake, all of which are only learned with the help of the lady: ‘The taming of the horses shows the need and help of domestic animals in agriculture. These things are necessary to be known ere spring can free herself from winter’s dominion and marry her chosen lover.’[9] Ultimately after the escape from her father (Winter) and the conjuring of vegetation, it is the swollen river and rains of Spring that sweep Winter away, however she is unable to enter the Christian land. This has been interpreted by Webster as the need of the natural powers for the civilizing effect of agriculture for their potential to be reached, and the man, scared by the prospect of such work, it lured back to nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways. He forgets his bride in the pleasure of the chase and spends the rest of the Winter hunting. However, the lure of the Spring, with her food in abundance draws man back into the world of agriculture, and he submits to her, the wedding of earth and husbandry ensues, and the warm glow of Summer can be looked forward to.

In Part II we will explore more fairy tales from the Pyrenees and delve deeper into their interpretations…



[1] Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology : Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H.G. Bon, 1870).

[2] Murray, James, A Summer in the Pyrenees Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837), p. 173.

[3] Costello, Louisa Stuart, Béarn and the Pyrenees, Volume 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1844), p. 335.

[4] Chatterton, Lady Georgina, The Pyrenees: With Excursions into Spain, Volume 2 (London: Saunders & Otley, 1843), pp. 208 – 211.

[5] Webster, Wentworth, Basque Legends (London: Walbrook & Co., 1879).

[6] Webster, 1879, pp. 120 – 132.

[7] This is a cyclopean giant frequently found within Basque mythology.

[8] Webster, 1879, p. 131.

[9] Ibid.

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.