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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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BÉARN AND THE BÉARNAIS
THE Béarnais and the Basques have no historical monuments in their country anterior to the Roman invasion, and for that matter Roman monuments themselves are nearly nonexistent. Medals and coins have been occasionally found which tell a story neglected by the chroniclers, or fill a gap which would be otherwise unbridged, but in the main there is little remaining of a period so far remote, save infrequent fragmentary examples of Arab or Saracen art. Of later times as well, the splendid building eras of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, there is but little that is monumental, or indeed remarkable for richness. Architectural styles were strong and hardy, but most often they were a mélange of foreign forms, combined and presented anew by local builders. This makes for picturesqueness at any rate, so, taken as a whole, what the extreme southwest of France lacks in architectural magnificence it makes up for in quaintness and variety, and above all environment.
The historic memories hovering around Béarn and Navarre are so many and varied that each will have to establish them for himself if any pretence at completeness is to be made, and then the sum total will fall far short of reality. All are dear to the Béarnais themselves, from the legendary first sip of wine of the infant Henri to the more real, but of still doubtful authenticity, tortoise-shell cradle. One absorbs them all readily enough, on the spot, or in any perusal of French history of the Middle Ages, and the names of the Centulles, the Gastons, the Marguerites and the Henris are ever occurring and recurring whichever by-path one takes.
The province of Béarn came to the Centulle house in the ninth century, and passed by marriage (in 1170) to that of Monado, from which family it was transferred as a dowry, in 1290, to Bernard III, Comte de Foix, on condition that Béarn and Foix should be united in perpetuity. Gaston IX, a later descendant, by marrying Elénore de Navarre, in 1434, united the two sovereignties, and Catherine de Foix, his sister, in turn made over her hereditary rights to her husband, Comte de Pentièvre et de Périgord.
In spite of this, Béarn and the Béarnais have always kept a distinct and separate identity from that of their allies and associates, and Henri, Prince de Béarn, is as often thought of by the Béarnais as Henri, Roi de Navarre, even though the two titles belonged to one and the same person.
The most brilliant epoch of Béarn was that which began with Henri II and Marguerite de Valois. The old Gothic castle at Pau had become metamorphosed into a Renaissance palace, and the most illustrious princess of her century drew thither the most reputed savants, litterateurs, and artists in the world, until the little Pyrenean capital became known as the "Parnasse Béarnais." Jean d'Albret and Catherine were succeeded by their eldest son, who became Henri II of Navarre, and Henri I of Béarn. This prince was born in the month of August, 1503, and was given the name of Henri because it was the name of one of two faithful German pilgrims who passed by, en route to pay their devotions at the shrine of St. Jacques de Compestelle. The pilgrims were given hospitality by the king of Navarre, and, because it was thought meet that the newborn prince should bear a worthy, even though humble name, he was baptized thus, though the proud countrymen of Béarn did resent it. The circumstance is curiously worthy of record.
Béarn and Navarre are above all other provinces of France proud indeed of the great names of history, and Henri Quatre and Gaston Phœbus were hung well on the line in the royal portrait galleries of their time. The first was more of a good ruler than a gallant chevalier, and the second possessed a regal personality which gave him a place almost as exalted as that of his brother prince. Together they gave an indescribable lustre to the country of their birth.
In erecting the statue of Henri IV in the Place Royale at Pau the Béarnais rendered homage to the most illustrious son of Béarn. Without Henri Quatre one would not know that Béarn had ever existed, for it was he who carried its name and fame afar. Luchon, Biarritz and Pau are known of men and women of all nations as tourist places of a supreme rank, but the mind ever wanders back to the days of the gallant, rough, unpolished Henri who went up to Paris and, in spite of opposition, became the first Bourbon king of the French after the Valois line was exhausted.
The Béarnais — the mountaineers, as they were often contemptuously referred to at the capital — had a time of it making their way at Paris, for there was a rivalry and jealousy against the southerners at Paris which was only explainable by traditionary prejudice.
When Catherine de Medici was making the first efforts to marry off her daughter Marguerite to Henri, Prince of Béarn, the feeling was at its height. It is curious to remark in this connection that the two queens of Navarre by the name of Marguerite were separated by only a half century of time, and both were to become famous in the world of letters, the first for her "Heptameron" and the second for her "Mémoires."
The daughter of the Medici would have none of the rough prince of Béarn and told her mother so plainly, resenting the fact that he was a Protestant as much as anything.
"My daughter, listen," said the queen mother. "This marriage is indispensable for reasons of state. The king, your brother, and I myself, like the king of Navarre as little as you do. That little kingdom in the high valleys of the Pyrenees is a veritable thorn in our sides, but by some means or other we must pluck it out."
"I shall go to Nerac, in Gascony," the queen mother continued, "to conclude a treaty with my sister, Reine Jeanne, the mother of Henri de Béarn. When an alliance is concluded between the queen of Navarre and myself your marriage shall take place." This was final!
Tradition — or perhaps it is a fact, though the average traveller won't remark it — says that the Béarnais are an irascible and jealous people. Proud they are, but there are no external evidences to show that they are more irascible or jealous than any other folk one meets in the French countryside. In the valleys the type is more delicate than that of the inhabitants of the mountain slopes, and throughout they are fervidly religious without being in the least fanatical.
The same tradition that says the Béarnais are rough, irascible spirits, says also that they seek for a summary personal vengeance rather than let the process of law take its course. There's something of philosophy in this, if it's true, but again it is reiterated there are no visible signs that the peasant of Béarn is of the knife-drawing class of humanity to which belong Sicilians and gypsies. The writer on more than one occasion has been stalled in the Pyrenees while blazing an automobile trail up some valley road that he ought not to have attempted, and has found the Béarnais a faithful, willing worker in helping him out of a hole (this is literal), and glad indeed to accept such an honorarium as was bestowed upon him. Nothing of brigandage in this
The passing times change men and manners, and when it is recorded by the préfet of the Basses-Pyrénées that no department ever had so much law-business going on before in its courts, it shows at least that if the Béarnais do have their little troubles among themselves, they are now a law-loving, law-abiding people.
They are good livers and drinkers too, of much the same stamp as the gallant Gascons, of whom Dumas wrote. It was in a Béarnais inn that the Prince de Conti saw the following couplet chalked upon the wall:
"Je m'apuelle Robineau,
Et je bois mon vin sans eaux."
Whereupon he added:
"Et moi, Prince de Conti,
Sans eaux je le bois aussi"
The sentiment is not very high; windowpane poetry and the like never does soar; but it is significant of the good living of past and present times in France, and in these parts in particular.
The peasant dress of the Béarnais is the same throughout all the communes. They wear a woollen head-dress, something like that of the Basques. It is round, generally brown, and usually drawn down over the left ear in a most dégagé fashion. The student of Paris' Latin Quarter is a poor copy of a Béarnais so far as his cap goes. In some parts of the plain below the foot-hills of the Pyrenees, — around Tarbes for example, — the cap is replaced by a little round hat, a sort of a cross between that sometimes worn by the Breton, and a "bowler" of the vintage of '83.
A long blouse-like coat, or jacket, is worn, and woollen breeches and gaiters, of such variegated colouring as appeals to each individual himself. In style the costume of the Béarnais is national; in colour it is anything you like and individual, but mostly brown or gray of those shades which were the progenitors of what we have come to know as khaki.
The shepherds and cattle guardians, indeed all of the inhabitants of the higher valleys and slopes, dress similarly, but in stuffs of much coarser texture and heavier weight, and wear quite as much clothing in summer as in the coldest days of winter.
The Béarnais speak a patois, or idiom, composed of the structural elements of Celtic, Latin and Spanish. It is not a language, like the Breton or the Basque, but simply a hybrid means of expression, difficult enough for outsiders to become proficient in, but not at all unfamiliar in sound to one used to the expressions of the Latin races. It is more like the Provençal of the Bouches-du-Rhône than anything else, but very little like the Romance tongue of Languedoc.
In cadence the Béarnais patois is sweet and musical, and the literature of the tongue, mostly pastoral poetry, is of a beauty approaching the epilogues of Virgil.
The patois is the speech of the country people, and French that of the town dwellers. The educated classes may speak French, but, almost without exceptions, they know also the patois, as is the case in Provence, where the patois is reckoned no patois at all, but a real tongue, and has the most profuse literature of any of the anciently spoken tongues of France.
The following lines in the Béarnais patois show its possibilities. They were sung when Jeanne de Navarre was giving birth to the infant prince who was to become Henri IV.
"Nouste Dame deü cap deü poün,
Adyudat-me à d'acquest'hore;
Pregats au Dioü deü ceü
Qu'emboulle bié delioura cert,
D'u maynat qu'em hassie lou doun
Tou d'inqu' aü haut dous mounts l'implore
Adyudat-me à d'acquest'hore."
The significance of these lines was that the queen prayed God that she might be delivered of her child without agony, but above all that it might be born a boy.
Béarn was fairly populous in the old days with a well distributed population, and the towns were all relatively largely inhabited. Now, in some sections, as in the Pays de Bare-tous, for example, the region is losing its population daily, and in half a century the figures have decreased something like thirty per cent. Like many other Pyrenean valleys the population has largely emigrated to what they call "les Amériques," meaning, in this case, South or Central America, never North America. Buenos Ayres they know, also "la ville de Mexique," but New York is a vague, meaningless term to the peasant of the French Pyrenees.
The bastides, — the country houses, often fortified châteaux with dependencies, — originally a Béarnais institution, often remained stagnant hamlets or villages instead of developing into prosperous towns as they did elsewhere in the Midi of France, particularly in Gascogne and Languedoc. Many a time their sites had been chosen fortunately, but instead of a bourg growing up around them they remained isolated and backward for no apparent reason whatever.
This has been the fate of Labastide-Villefranche in Béarn. One traces readily enough the outlines of the original bastide, but more than all else marvels at the great, four-storied donjon tower, planned by the father of the illustrious Gaston Phœbus of Foix. This sentinel tower stood at the juncture of the principalities of Béarn, Bidache and Navarre. Gaston Phœbus finished this great donjon with the same generous hand with which he endowed everything he touched, and it ranks among the best of its era wherever found. The bastide and its dependencies grew up around the foot of this tower, but there is nothing else to give the little town — or more properly village — any distinction whatever; it still remains merely a delightful old-world spot, endowed with a charming situation. It calls itself a rendezvous commercial, but beyond being a cattle-market of some importance, thanks to its being the centre of a spider's web of roads, not many outside the immediate neighbourhood have ever heard its name mentioned, or seen it in print.
In this same connection it is to be noted that all of Béarn and the Basque provinces are celebrated for their cattle. What Arabia is to the horse, the Pyrenean province of Béarn, more especially the gracious valley of Barétous, called the "Jardin de Béarn," is to the bovine race.
Another delightful, romantic corner of Béarn is the valley of the Aspe. Urdos is its principal town, and here one sees ancient customs as quaint as one is likely to find hereabouts. Urdos is but a long-drawn-out, one-street village along the banks of the Gave d'Aspe, but it is lively and animated with all the gaiety of the Latin life. On a fête day omnibuses, country carts, donkeys, mules and even oxen bring a very respectable crowd to town, and there is much merry-making of a kind which knows not modern amusements in the least degree. Continuous dancing, — all day and all night — interspersed with eating and drinking suffices.
Something of the sort was going on, the author and artist thought, when they arrived at five on a delightful June day; but no, it was nothing but the marriage feast of a local official, and though all the rooms of the one establishment which was dignified by the name of a hotel were taken shelter was found at an humble inn kept by a worthy widow. She certainly was worthy, for she charged for dinner, lodging, and coffee in the morning, for two persons, but the small sum of six francs and didn't think the automobile, which was lodged in the shed with the sheep and goats and cows, was an excuse for sticking on a single sou. She was more than worthy; she was gentle and kind, for when a fellow traveller, a French Alpinist, would find a guide to show him the way across the mountain on the morrow, and so on down into the Val d'Ossau, she expostulated and told him that the witless peasant he had engaged to show him the road had never been, to her knowledge, out of his own commune. Her interrogation of the unhappy, self-named "guide" was as sharp a bit of cross-questioning as one sees out of court. "No, he knew not the route, but all one had to do was to go up the mountain first and then down the other side." All very well, but which other side?
There were many ramifications. He was sure of being able to find his way, he said, but the Frenchman became suspicious, and the bustling landlady found another who did know, and would work by some other system than the rule of thumb, which is a very bad one for mountain climbing. This time the intrepid tourist found a real guide and not a mere "cultivateur," as the mistress of the inn contemptuously called the first.