‘BOUNTIFUL BORDERLANDS’ EXTRACT #4: CHAPTER FOUR ‘HAMMER & TONGS: THE MINER, SMELTER & SMITH’

‘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.