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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aymeric Picaud on Basques (12th century)

This is a classical: one of the oldest extensive references to Basques. It includes most of the last book of the
Codex Calixtinus (a pilgrim guide to St. James Way). Aymeric Picaud is merciless and full of hateful bigotry towards Basques and in fact with all other peoples south of his native Poitou: Santes, Girondines, Gascons, Castilians and even Galicians are all represented as barbaric, greedy, drunkard, irate and prone to banditry. But most of the fifth book (Liber Peregrinationis) is ironically dedicated to Basques (Northern Basques) and Navarrese (Southern Basques).

Later, already close to Pass of Cize [Ibaineta, Roncesvaux pass], we find the Basque Country that has at its coast to the north the city of Bayonne. This land is barbaric for its language, full of forests, mountainous, lacking in bread, wine and all food for the body except the consolation of apples, cider and milk. In this land, near the Pass of Cize, in the town of Ostabat and those of Saint-Jean [Donibane Garazi, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port] and Saint-Michel-Pied-de-Port, there are some villanous pass guards, who are totally condemned because they jump to the way of pilgrims with two or three spears and make them pay forcibly unjust taxes. And if any traveller rejects to pay the deniers he's asked for they pay him with the spears and take them anyhow, insulting him and registering even the pants.

They are ferocious and the land where they dwell is also ferocious, wild and barbarous: the ferocity of their faces, and the grunts of their barbarous language sow terror in the hearts of those who see them. Even if legally they should take taxes only from the traders, they get it unjustly from pilgrims and all travellers. When they must tax anything four or six deniers, they demand eight or twelve, that is: double. (...)

In the Basque Country there is a very high mountain named Pass of Cize, either because that is the gate of Spain [Iberian peninsula] or because through that mountain goods are carried from one land to the other; and its way up has eight miles and its way down eight as well. Its height is such that seems to reach heaven. Those who climb it think they can almost touch heaven with their hands. From its summit the British [English Channel] and Western [Atlantic Ocean or Bay of Biscay] seas can be seen, and the lands of three countries: Castile, Aragon and France. (...)


1. I believe it is just impossible to see the English Channel from anywhere on the Pyrenees, so either Picaud was misled by some legend or he meant as "British Sea", the waters bordering Brittany by the south, i.e. the Bay of Biscay or part of it.

2. The description of the "three countries" implies that this journey was made in the period of the First Partition, when the Kingdom of Pamplona had been briefly divided between Castile and Aragon, that is: in 1076-1134. Probably in the late phase of this partition, as the word Navarre only came to use in that period of Aragonese rule.

In this very mountain, before Christianity grew fully by Spanish lands, the heathen Navarrese and Basques used not just to rob the pilgrims that journeyed to Saint James but also ride them as donkeys and kill them. (...)

After this valley Navarre begins, land considered happy for the bread and wine, the milk and cattle. The Navarrese and the Basques [Northern Basques] are very similar in what refers to food, clothes and language, but Basques are have fairer faces than Navarrese. These wear with short black clothes to the knees, like Scots, and use a type of shoes called albarcas [abarkak], made with uncured hairy leather, tied to the foot with strings, covering only the base of the foot and leaving the rest bare. They wear some black and short clothes long to the elbows and wavy like paenulae, that they call sayas. They eat, drink and wear like pigs; because all the family of a Navarrese home, the lord as the servant, the lady as the maid, usually eat their food mixed from a pot, not with a spoon but with their hands, and drink from a cup. If you saw them eating, you'd think them as dogs or pigs eating, and, if you heard them talking they would remind you the barking of dogs, becasue theyr language is completely barbaric. To God they call Urcia [Urtzi or Ost: an ancient impersonation of the sky with no myths attached]; to God's Mother, Andrea Maria [= Lady Mary]; to bread, orgui [ogi]; to wine, ardum [ardo]; to meat, aragui [haragi]; to the house, echea [etxe]; to the lord of the house, iaona [jauna]; to the lady, andrea; to the church, elicera [eliza, elizara = "to the church"]; to the presbyter, belaterra that means beautiful land [?]; to wheat, gari; to water, uric [ur, urik= partitive declination, used in negative]; to the king, ereguia [erregea]; to Saint James, iaona domne Iacue [jauna done Jakue: the lord St. James].

This is a barbaric people, distinct to all others in uses and way of life, full of evils, dark in color, of scary aspect, depraved, pervert, perfidious, disloyal and false, lusty, drunkard, in all kind of violences skilled, ferocious, wild, evil and reprobate, heathen and rough, brawler, lacking in any virtue and dexterous in all vices and iniquities; similar in evilness to the Getes and Saracens, and enemy of our people Gaulish in all. For just a denier a Basque or a Navarrese kills, if he can, a Frenchman. In some of its regions, specially in Alava and Biscay, the Navarrese man and woman show each other their shameful parts while they get warm. The Navarrese also use of the beasts in impure copulations, because it is said that a Navarrese hangs a lock from the legs of his mule or mare so nobody but himself can approach it. He also kisses lustly the sex of the woman and the mule. For all said the Navarrese have to be censored in all aspects. Nevertheless they are considered good in open battle, bad in assaulting castles, just in the payment of the tithe [religious tax] and asiduous in their offerings to the altars. Because every day, when they go to church, they make an offer to God of either bread, wine or wheat, or some other product. Every time that a Basque or Navarrese goes on journey, he hangs from the neck a horn like do hunters, and carries in his hands, as is customary, two or three spears that they call azconas. When entering or leaving home he whistles like a kite. And, when hidden in some occult place to rob, he wishes to call silently to his mates, he either hoots like an owl or howls like a wolf.

It is said that they descend of the lineage of the Scots because they are similar to them in uses and aspect. It is fame that Julius Caesar sent to Spain, to subdue the Spaniards, who did not want to pay tribute to three peoples: Nubians, Scots and Cornish, commanding them to kill all males and only respect the women. And having them invaded by sea that land, after destroying all their ships, they devastated it with blood and fire from Barcelona to Zaragoza and from the city of Bayonne to Moutains of Oca. They could not trespass those limits because the Castilians [sic] gathered and threw them away from their lands in fight. Fleeing, therefore, they reached the coastal mountains that are between Najera, Pamplona and Bayonne, that is: to the coast in the lands of Biscay and Alava, where they settled and built many fortresses, and they killed all the males and kidnapped the women, with whom they engendered children, who in turn were called Navarrese by their successors. Hence Navarre means not truthful, that is: engendered from not truthful lineage or non-legitimate ascendancy. The Navarrese also take their name primitively from a city called Naddaver, that is in the lands from where the apostle and evangelist Saint Matthew originally came from, in the early times.

Note: Obviously all in this last paragraph is a mere libellous and ahistorical farce but is anyhow interesting to transcribe here because it shows how defamation also worked in the Middle Ages and how many legends may have been created by griots and bards only to please this or that magnate and his particular version of history. This myth seems to have been circulating with enough strength in the time as to cause Picaud to believe it.

The word Navarre is surely Nabarra originally and means "the brownish" (land) and it was in times of this codex a very novel term applied to the short-lived County of Navarre that included part of the lands of modern Navarre. The term surely means the Mediterranean climate area that is not green all year long like the rest of the Basque Country. It is interesting anyhow that it had already become a common word to mean all Southern Basques, even if it was such a new idiom.

It is also interesting the mythical link made with Scots and other Atlantic-Celtic peoples, also in clothing and customs. It seems to me that even before blood groups and then modern genetics noticed some striking biological similitudes, customs and appearance already caused some to imagine some sort of link. There is another myth dating probably to this same Medieval period that tells that the lineage of the Lords of Biscay, instituted by Castile after conquest, originated as God Sugaar (aka Maju) had an affair with a Scottish princess in the fishing village of Mundaka, near the once important harbour of Bermeo. But that's about it in what regards to mythical links between Basques and Scots or any other people.

Whatever the case, it is a funny and sometimes interesting depiction of Basques. While I have skipped the paragraph on Gascons, they are described in very similar terms. The rest of the peoples visited are just barely mentioned but none causes a too favorable impression in Picaud either, except his native folk of Poitou. A bigot.

Source: posted by jeromor at (in Spanish).



Kepler said...

Very interesting account, although I have the impression he is a wee bit biased :-)
No longer account from Roman times? That is strange.
Tacitus wrote quite some about the Germanic tribes, one would imagine there would be something like that about the Iberian Peninsula, a region that was completely under control of the Romans...well, sort of.

Quite honestly: the first time I heard Euskera, it sounded a bit like Spanish, phonetically speaking. I know this sounds like a heresy for many and experts will identify all kinds of dramatic differences in pause, intonation, etc...but several things seem strikingly similar: no initial s + occlusive, the double 'r', similar phonemes and, as far as I could hear, intonation (or perhaps that was corrupted intonation of Donostia?).
I wonder if it has to do with the Latin of castillian areas developing on a ground where people once spoke a language similar to that of the Basques. Basque as far as villages next to Burgos in the Middle Ages. Even in regions where celtic languages were spoken proto-Euskera may have preceded those languages.

If you come across it: Francisco de Miranda kept a fascinating diary about his travels around the world. I don't think he was in Euskal Herria but he was a long time in Spain. He described societies from Norway to Turkey, from Portugal to Russia. He was highly critical of the Spanish system and catholicism and obsessed with freedom and development. Pity he was betrayed by Bolivar.


When I went there I saw a child speaking to his mother in Euskera while the mother spoke in Spanish.

There are efforts to promote the language but much more needs to be done. I was looking for a phrasebook as I thought it would be nice to say a word or two in the language of the was very hard to find. I went to the best bookshop in Donostia and all I could find was either books all in Euskera for schools or a little phrasebook (which I bought) without any explanation about pronunciation.
The situation in Donostia was not better than in Madrid.

Kepler said...

Well, just one thing: Euskera does not sound stacatto as Spanish from Castille. It would be interesting to plot distances based on the speech signals...but then comparing native Basque speakers from Donostia to one in Bolibar or one in some tiny village and that to different Spanish/catalan/Galician speakers around the Peninsula.

Maju said...

For Greco-Roman accounts read Pliny the Elder and other authors like Strabo and Ptolomeus. Also Caesar mentions Aquitanians and their Cantabrian allies in his Gallian War. But none pays too much attention to Basques and if you're not aware you may have a hard time finding anything specific: except Caesar they are geographers and what they do is to describe the land and the tribes according to their best knowledge but without much emphasis in anything.

If you want the best ethnographic account on Basques, you want to read Humboldt. It's pre-Carlist wars and tells a handful of interesting things, cultural items now really lost.

Quite honestly: the first time I heard Euskera, it sounded a bit like Spanish, phonetically speaking. I know this sounds like a heresy for many and experts...

Absolutely no heressy: Spanish has borrowed the Basque vowel system and has other consonantic influences like the lack of "v" sound and possibly even the difference between "ser" and "estar", as well as words like "chico/a". But a zillion other things are different.

Castile was originally the western marche of Leon: the area bordering with Basques from Santander to Burgos and even Soria... and with the Moors by the Duero. It was obviously not just created as a defense area against Cordoba but also against Pamplona. In turn (since the 11th century) it annexed many Basque lands (everything west of the Santander-Burgos line, including rich La Rioja and was surely often reliant on Basque colonists/troopers. It's no wonder it has Basque influence in its Romance, that arose precisely then, at the same time as the realm. This is widely acknowledged AFAIK.

Even in regions where celtic languages were spoken proto-Euskera may have preceded those languages.

It's very possible but we don't know. What we do know is that half of Burgos and Cantabria provinces were once Basque-speaking areas, and all La Rioja, at least the higher part. Before Castile, in Visigothic times, there was also there a marche known as Duchy of Cantabria.

When I went there I saw a child speaking to his mother in Euskera while the mother spoke in Spanish.

That's probably because the mother doesn't speak fluidly. This is the kind of results you get after two generations under fascism (plus all that was before, plus immigration, TV, lack of official status, etc.): a lot of the loss of the language happened in the last century. It's a real tragedy and very hard to reverse.

... without any explanation about pronunciation.

Pronunciation is roughly like in Spanish: modern Basque has an almost phonetic alphabet, with five vowels. It doesn't have C, Q, V, W or Y (though they are used in foreign words). Instead has several sibillants: S, Z (roughly like English Z), X (English SH), TS, TZ, TX (Spanish CH). If I goes before N or L, it palatizes them: IL = ILL, IN = IÑ - sometimes Spanish consonants are used in these cases, specially with proper nouns. TT and DD are special palatized sounds almost only found in diminutives. J should be read as Spanish Y or I but in many places is pronounced as Spanish J (KH). H is mute except in some parts of the North (and that's the only reason it's used). G before E or I is read like Spanish GU (i.e. Gernika > Guernica, same sound but different spelling).

The main issue may be with accenting, because Basque words are almost invariably both plain and acute: they should be pronounced with accent in both the penultimate and last syllabe (i.e. eusKARA, emphasizing both capitalized syllabes). Not too important but helps you sounding more "jatorra" (genuine).

Well, just one thing: Euskera does not sound stacatto as Spanish from Castille.

Not sure what you mean. Main difference is accenting as per above and also Basques tend to speak very fast. It should be much closer in sound to original Castilian than to dialectal forms of Andalusia or America (except for the sound of C/Z).

Maju said...

LINK for Pliny (browse books II to IV: he describes all West Eurasia, bit by bit).

Kepler said...

Thanks for the references.
I will certainly read Humboldt. He has an amazing account of his traveling through Venezuela as well.
The other readings should be interesting as well.

On Spanish-Euskera

Well, I don't know. I have read Latin did not have a 'v' as in Italian/French/Portuguese but something rather a bit like "w" or non-explosive b, it may have been both factors or either.

Thanks for the pronunciation tips.
The Basque country is spending lots of money in promotion. If they went for an easy "teach the tourist how to say thanks" in all those brochures, subsidizing the production of some good phrasebooks as there are for other languages, I think they would be making everyone a little bit more receptive to learning the language. Hell, if you get 10 tourists telling you "hello" or "thanks" in Euskera a day, if the immigrant also can use that phrasebook and not have to go through the books available now, that would help some.
Why do I say that about the tourist, etc? Even if people outside Euskadi won't start learning the language, it sends a message to the population in the country: "hell, let's learn a couple of words, let's learn a couple of phrases"

Maju said...

Not that Humboldt but his brother Wilhelm. Alexander was a naturalist and went to America. His brother Wilhelm was a linguist (and philosopher and politician) and came to the Basque Country instead. I think it's the book titled: "Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain with the help of the Basque language".

Otherwise I don't think that what tourists do really matter: they just don't have enough time to learn the language or get really acquainted with the country. What matter is what the natives and immigrants do. And most importantly what the institutions do too. In Navarre and the North the institutions are quite hostile to Basque language and that is a very real problem that is making the old language to recede there.

Kepler said...

Oh, I should have known. I do know about the two, I just have read some quotations of Wilhem's work in other texts about language in general, culture, German traditions, not much. Thanks for the tip.

As I said: obviously, the Basque country is trying to promote the language, but there are some tiny ways in which they could improve, perhaps.

Immigrants: there are lots with little time and money, but they could get better "starters". Language textbooks in "the Iberian peninsula" in general suck. I compare what the largest casa del libro has to offer with some bookstores in Ghent or Brugge, not to speak of Antwerp or Brussels...but as the poem goes: "quiero fer una prosa en romans non so tan letrado por fer otro latino, bien valdra, como creo, un bon vaso de vino"
Think phrasebooks.
It is funny, but this thing is better as a phrasebook than anything I saw in Madrid or Donostia and I was in the "largest" bookshops in Donostia and Madrid:

more to the point, to real use.
Imagine all those Peruvians and Ecuadoreans getting something like that. It does give a taste and may let people want to learn more.
I haven't seen this book

but from the comments it seems it is better than the things I did see in Madrid or Donostia about Basque grammar.

Here in Flanders people also try to defend their language and I think those practical phrasebooks or better textbooks are one of the ways to go.
Basque is particularly daunting because it is just so different...still, better "Hors d'œuvre" could be helpful.

But well...even most Basques themselves don't speak their language.
How do you see it? Is there a progress? My impression in Donostia is that there was.

Maju said...

IDK, Kepler. The previous Basque government noticed that immigrants who learnt Basque integrated much better than those who only learnt (some) Spanish (which is functional but does not make you look Basque) and decided to emphasize promoting Basque among immigrants. I have no idea about their campaigns for tourists: but politicians do spend typically loads of money in stupid things like publicity, instead of using it on public transport, public parks or something else really useful, like teaching Basque to their bureaucrats, who are long overdue in their learning schedules.

You won't learn a language with phrasebooks anyhow. You need years of study and active speaking/listening. It's easier when younger, of course. So not sure what you're looking for in fact.

There's not too much stuff published in Basque language (excepting books for children probably): printing industries produce what sells and anything in Basque has a very reduced market necessarily. Better print in English or Chinese.

But well...even most Basques themselves don't speak their language.
How do you see it? Is there a progress? My impression in Donostia is that there was

Donostia is largely a Basque-speaking city nowadays but progress is too slow. And worse: it's been denaturalized and politicized by the Spanish intervention against distinctive identities. For me it's clear that if we don't control our own business 100% soon, Basque will have dissolved in few centuries. But there you have yet another totalitarian Spanish government imposed, like in fascism. Or we get nukes like North Korea and Israel or we can't defend ourselves. I'm really pessimistic: Basque can't compete in the hyper-globalized scenario unless it's 150% official, and even then.