Agotes, the mysterious cursed race of the Basque-Navarrese Pyrenees

French Cagots in procession/Image: Vintage Photography

The marginalization and/or persecution of ethnic or social minorities in Spain is not limited to Jews and Moors. Those are the tip of the iceberg and, for very complex reasons to detail here, those that have focused historical attention.

But there have been others that may not have been so numerous or so tragic: the Mallorcan chuetas, the Asturian vaqueiros de alzada, the Leonese maragatos, the Cantabrian pasiegos, the Pontevedrian soliños… One of the most renowned cases, but in reality as dark as most of the previous ones, is that of the agotes.

Study on the subject by Miguel de Lardizábal and Uribe in 1786/Image: Aunamendi

It often happens that the origin of that cursed status is lost in the night of time without anyone being absolutely certain about its explanation. Thus a multitude of theories arise, some alluding to its geographical origin, others to the physical traits of its people and there is no lack of those that enter into the nonsense by relating them to biblical and similar curses.

This is what happens with the agotes, which were said to be the bricklayers of the Temple of Solomon expelled by God because of their deficient work but whose etymology is not even clear; thus, the cacophonic similarity with the word Goth has made them creditors to be descendants of that Germanic people, especially considering that in the Basque-French Country they are referred to as cagots, whose meaning in Occitan would be Gothic dogs. However, there are other names and other linguistic hypotheses, none of which seems capable of shaping itself above the others.

Agotes from Navarre/Image: Bardallur

The Goth origin, obviously, is based on the possibility of deserters who would have been isolated from the bulk of their army after the defeat against the Franks, settling in some Basque and Navarrese towns as Bozate without ever overcoming the distrust of the neighbors and, therefore, not mixing with them. Some authors point to the physical features they possessed, typical of the races of Northern Europe, to reinforce this explanation: blondes, white skin and rosy face, brachycephalous skull, light eyes… In general they are nineteenth-century anthropometric arguments already surpassed, not only because of advances in biology but because these descriptions were often contradictory to each other; recent studies say that 70.5% are brown hair and 68.6% have the same color of eyes.

Agotes from Bozate / photo public domain

This characteristic foreign origin, always linked to a xenophobic prejudice, branched out into more variants: from the Goths to the Bagaudas, to the Celts, to the Cathars and even to Muslims (of those defeated by Charles Martel), the latter proposal enjoyed great acceptance in France for a long time and is linked to the consideration of Moorish that was given to the Asturian vaqueiros. What is certain is that some of these elements commented until now could have verisimilitude, certain authors inclined to think that they could be fugitive delinquents who, fleeing from justice, first hid in lazaretos and then, passing to the other side of the Pyrenees, in the valleys of Baztán and Roncal, among other places of the peninsular northeast (Salvatierra, Jaca); by the way, that would explain why it was common belief that they transmitted leprosy and had to warn of its presence with a bell or castanet.

More images of Bozate agotes / photo public domain

In any case, they were always identified with people of bad living, belonging to another race, heretics of religion or even pagans, hence generation after generation they were marginalized in worship by preventing access to churches when others were or placing them in a limited part of the temple, often a corner under the choir with its own door and a fence of separation from the rest of the faithful. They also used to have a baptismal font for them, they were buried in an enclosed area of the cemetery, it was frequent that they were not given peace at mass, their alms were collected separately and, of course, their access to the priesthood was forbidden.

Baptismal font for 15th century agotes/Photo: Marianne casamance in Wikimedia Commons

This social – and economic postponement, since almost all of them were poor – was accentuated by the obligation to wear concrete clothes, with a red sign in the form of goose (or cat) feet on the back, in addition to residing in the outskirts of the town or in exclusive neighborhoods and contracting marriage only among themselves, which led to the agotes to a forced endogamy. Moreover, there was no lack of those who considered them intellectually inferior or attributed to them deviant sexual customs of all kinds, since the pink tone of their skin was an indication of lust. Sorcery was another typical accusation, backed by some suspicious physical traits such as frequent lack of earlobes (believed to indicate night birth). In short, his own denomination ended up being used as an insult.

Another agote of the Valley of Baztán / public domain photo

The first documentary reference to their presence in the Basque Navarrese area are the papal bulls of 1514 and 1515, in which Pope Leo X suppressed the marginal conditions to which agotes were subjected at mass and asked Pamplona Cathedral to grant them equal treatment with that of the other faithful. And although there was a favourable sentence, the truth is that it had hardly any practical repercussions and not even the decrees in that sense made by the Courts of Navarre in 1534 and 1548, abolishing the medieval legislative tradition, were effective. The traditional closedness of the rural world weighed too much, even though the advance of time meant that slowly -very slowly- the change of mentality spread, especially at the behest of some local lords such as the Ursúa, who in 1673 advocated the recognition of the agotes as natural to the Baztán.

Statue of Juan de Goyeneche in Nuevo Baztán/Photo: Tamorlan in Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, in 1715 an attempt was made to encourage its transfer to a new town founded by the enlightened Juan de Goyeneche on the outskirts of Madrid, in Cuenca del Henares, baptised Nuevo Baztán in honour of his native region. Designed according to fashionable urban models and with the collaboration of the architect José Benito Churriguera, it was intended to be a village organised around a manufacturing complex that manufactured glass, hats, cloths and paper. Castilians and Navarrese -also Portuguese and Flemish- were brought to populate it, with the agotes constituting the main labour force in the works (the local fiestas that are still celebrated, the Javieradas, are a sample of this Navarrese origin). However, many agotes ended up returning to their valleys.

Full legal equality did not arrive until 27 December 1817, during the reign of Fernando VII, when a law approved the equal rights of all the neighbours of Navarre, definitively eliminating any discrimination. Of course on paper, because things were different in practice and it still took a long time to normalize the situation. In fact, in the first quarter of the 20th century, Pío Baroja describes in his work Las horas solitarias the existence of a neighbourhood in the town of Arizcun called Bozate, which was the old ghetto of agotes.

The neighborhood of Bozate/Photo: Euskalduna in Wikimedia Commons

Arizcun, which is less than sixty kilometres from Pamplona, is precisely the home of the local sculptor and poet Xabier Santxotena, a descendant of agotes who ceded the building in 1998 to locate the Ethnographic Museum of Agotes there. And this leads us to the most accepted theory to explain the origin of this mysterious ethnic group. One of the typical accusations was that they used black magic to provoke natural disasters and destroy crops, which is an indication that they did not have their main economic activity in the agricultural sector; most of them were dedicated to craft trades, such as carpentry, music, or stonework (one of the symbols used by the stonemasons to mark the stone was the foot of a goose), so the idea has been proposed that perhaps they were linked to guilds that had fallen into disgrace in the context of the construction of the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago.

Sources: Seroantropología e historia de los agotes (Pilar Hors)/Agotes en los valles de Roncal y Baztán (Florencio Idoate)/Los gigantes de piedra (Víctor Rodríguez-Gachs Garrido)/Secretum, la España enigmática (Chema Ferrer)/Valle de Baztan/Wikipedia