The vast and vulgar repertoire of village nicknames is the best surviving evidence of this sub-national pride. A few flattering names have been officially adopted, like Colombey-les-Belles - now said to refer to the local women but perhaps originally applied to cows. But if all the nicknames had been adopted, the map of France would now be covered with obscenities and incomprehensible jokes. In one small part of Lorraine, there were the 'wolves' of Lupcourt, whose local saint was Saint Loup, the 'greencoats' of Réméréville, whose tailor had once produced a batch of jackets in green cloth that never wore out, and the 'big pockets' of Saint-Remimont, whose tailor cut his coats much longer than anyone else. There were the 'shit-arses' (culs crottés) of Moncel-sur-Seille, whose mud was unusually clingy, the 'hoity-toitys' (haut-la-queue) of Art-sur-Meurthe, who lived near the big city of Nancy, and the 'sleepers' of Buissoncourt-en-France, who dug a mighty moat around their village and lived in happy seclusion behind a drawbridge.
Some names referred to famous events in village history: the 'rôtisseurs' ('roast-meat sellers') of Ludres, who had once turned out en masse to watch their adulterous priest being burned at the stake, or the 'poussais' ('chasers') of Vigneulles, who took up pitchforks and routed their neighbours from Barbonville when they came to steal their miracle-working statue of the Virgin. Most names were deliberately offensive. The 'oua-oua' (pronounced 'wa-wa') of Rosiéres-aux-Salines had a speech defect, caused by a local thyroid condition, which was considered hilarious
Most historical information supplied by modern tourist offices would be unrecognizable to natives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After a four-year expedition to Brittany, a folklorist returned to Paris in 1881 to report - no doubt to the disappointment of Romantic lovers of the misty Armorican peninsula - that not a single Breton peasant had ever heard of bards and Druids.
A long stretch of the French Atlantic coast, in the former provinces of Aunis, Saintonge and Poitou, is still a midge-infested wilderness of partially drained marshes. Two hundred years ago, the Marais Poitevin was known to the outside world as a bleak backwater with a population of criminals, misfits and deserters from Napoleon's armies who had headed west, marooned themselves in the reeds in decaying boats, and never returned to civilization. A few visitors who braved the fevers that came off the marshes were surprised, therefore, to see signs of a lively and well-organized society: livestock floating serenely across the flat horizon and families setting off for church in plank boats light enough to be carried under the arm. They found children whose long-legged beds were lapped by the water at high tide and who learned to sail almost before they could talk. Most surprising of all, these people, who called themselves Colliberts, seemed to be happy with their watery homes and refused to be moved when the canal-builders offered them homes 'in the plain'.
The Colliberts were also known, disparagingly, as 'Huttiers' (hut dwellers) because they lived in shacks that looked like half-submerged islands in the swamp. The musky smoke of sun-dried dung filtered through a roof of reeds. Tables and chairs were made from bundles of reeds and bulrushes. A network of channels connected the marshes to dry land and the open sea. Many of the Colliberts made a living by selling fish at Les Sables-d'Olonne. There were more of them than anyone supposed. In the early twentieth century, the fleet on the Poitou swamp still numbered almost ten thousand....An educated Collibert called Pierre told the tribal story to a visitor in the 1820s. Pierre or his interviewer may have added some Romantic, Ossianic touches, but the elements of the tale are convincingly typical.
I was born a Collibert. This is the name that is given to a class of men who are born, live and die in their boats. They approach dry land only to sell their catch and to buy the bare necessities...We were given the name Collibert, which means 'free head'. Having robbed us of our forests, our conquerors left us our freedom . . . Yet as they wandered on the shores and in the swamps, our fathers ever had before their eyes the land they had lost. This painful sight gave the sad Colliberts an implacable hatred for the human race. . . . Such is the race into which I was born. Our ways have not changed since the first days of our exile. As they were in the fourth century, so are they now, and our close marriages have perpetuated in almost all their purity the unhappy remains of the ancient Agesinates Cambolectri.
In many cases, all that remains of their identity is a name, which is often grimly literal or ironic. A place called Loin-du-bruit ('Far-from-the-noise') is a tiny zone of immobilized caravans and metal shelters that cringes beside the screaming torrent of trucks heading for La Rochelle on the N137. There are still dozens of Tout-y-faut ('Everything is lacking'), Pain perdu ('Lost bread'), Malcontent, Gâtebourse ('Purse's ruin') and Gâtefer ('Wreck-iron' - referring to the effect of stony ground on a ploughshare). About thirty places are called Perte-de-temps ('Waste-of-time'), many of them not surprisingly now deserted. These precarious communities are a reminder that modern France is not just the result of continuous traditions; it was also formed from disappearances and extinctions.
It was in places such as these that one of the largest tribes of France used to live, scattered over a vast area that stretches from north-western Spain to the English Channel. This tribe will return us by an unexpected route to a more familiar world.
The earliest record of the people known as cagots dates from the year 1000. For over nine hundred years, they were found in small communities throughout the west of France under various names: 'agotac' in the Basque Country, 'gahets' or 'gafets' in Gascony, 'capots' in parts of Languedoc and Anjou, 'caqueux' or 'cacous' in Brittany. There were cagots in murky suburbs of Bordeaux and Toulouse, Rennes and Quimper, and on the edge of almost every town and village in south-western France. There were also a few isolated communities across the border in north-western Navarre.
Traces of the cagots survive today in place names, in worn stone faces carved into door lintels, and in tiny doors and fonts in about sixty churches from Biarritz to the western side of the Col de Peyresourde. Most cagot doors are found to the left of the porch: the cagots were supposed to slip into church and sit on benches along the cold north wall.7 They were not allowed to sit with the rest of the congregation. At communion, they received the host on the end of a stick. They were forbidden to walk barefoot in public and to touch the parapet of a bridge with their bare hands. Until the seventeenth century, they paid no taxes because their money was considered unclean and they were excused military service because they were not allowed to carry arms.
The only trades that male cagots were allowed to practise were carpentry and rope-making. A trace of this enforced specialization can still be found in the town of Hagetmau, which was once the focal point of several cagot communities, where almost half the population works in the chair industry. Many of the women worked as midwives and were thought to know secret remedies and spells. Since the cagots were skilled carpenters, they were treated as a valuable workforce by some nobles and educated people who found the prejudice absurd. In 1681, the parliament of Rennes made it illegal to persecute anyone on the grounds that they were a cagot. This made little difference to their daily lives. In the early eighteenth century, a wealthy cagot in the Landes was seen taking water from the font for 'clean' people. His hand was sliced off by a soldier and nailed to the church door. In 1741, a cagot from Moumour who had dared to cultivate the soil had his feet pierced with red-hot iron spikes...On the eve of the Revolution, some priests were still refusing to admit cagots into the body of the church or to bury them with other Christians. The curé of Lurbe forced them to use a trough as their font and tried to prosecute his elder brother for marrying a cagot girl. This was in 1788, by which time they were becoming harder to find in urban areas, though Brest still had a separate cagot community in 1810. Local persecution continued for generations. In the 1840s, a historian searching for the 'cursed races' of France and Spain found about a hundred and fifty towns and villages where people identified as cagots were living. At Borce, a cagot mayor was forced out of office in 1830; at Aramits, cagot fathers had difficulty finding good husbands for their daughters; at Dognen and Castetbon, cagots were still being buried in separate graveyards in 1847, and many other cagot cemeteries were reserved for outsiders who died in the commune. A baker at Hennebont in southern Brittany lost all his working-class customers when he married a cacouse. In 1964, a teacher in Salies-de-Béarn, where the Pyrenean foothills begin to flatten out towards the Landes, found that some families were still being mocked as descendants of cagots...It finally became apparent that the real 'mystery of the cagots' was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whichever dialect was spoken in the region and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots. They did not, as many Bretons believed, bleed from the navel on Good Friday. The only real difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America....The only certainty is that cagots were identified as a separate group and forced to live in cheerless hamlets and suburbs. Nearly everything that is known about them relates to persecution. There is very little information on their lives and practices, though they do appear to have had a strong collective identity. A group of cagots in Toulousein 1600 called for their blood to be examined to prove that they were just like other people. When the Revolution came, cagots stormed municipal buildings to destroy their birth records. Unfortunately, local memory was enough to keep the tradition alive. Some very long rhyming songs preserved the names of cagots for future generations as effectively as a bureaucrat's card index.
[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagot ; compare India's Untouchables & Japan's burakumin.]