Béarn: A Hidden Historic Gem

Béarn: A Hidden Historic Gem

An historic and cultural area in south-west France, the Béarn packs in so much more than stunning Pyrenean views.

Have you ever heard of Béarn? A culturally distinct territory in south-west France and considered a “pays”, it has been around long before France.  

The endurance of the Béarnais identity – and its discretion – make this no ordinary region in la France profonde. In that loaded expression, referring to the mythic rural idyll the French consider the true essence of their country, roots are everything.  

However, Béarn doesn’t just carry mythical importance, its history is vivid, intensely felt.  

The Béarnais have kept their identity alive since Pliny the Elder described a people called the Venarni; sufficiently ethnically distinct in physique and language to be written into history. The Venarni were a tribe of the Roman province of Aquitania, settled in the Western Pyrenees on the Atlantic coast. Yet these rebellious ancestors resisted occupation of their lands by Romans, then Wisigoths, then Franks.  

Even when Béarn became a principality within historic Gascony, its counts portrayed little Germanic fervour, largely running their territory their way, aside a little token homage. Nestled against the Pyrenees, far from the eyes of the Frankish kings, Gascony’s southernmost viscounty developed a taste for autonomy. 

When I ask locals what it means to be Béarnais, many say it was the golden era of sovereignty that fashioned their independent spirit and singular society. They stand on this history of self-determination and use it as a way of perceiving the world today. They conclude with simply “Le Béarn est vivant”. 

What underpins this distinctive and immutable identity? How has Béarn managed to survive, when it has not been recognised as a polity since its official absorption into the French crown in 1620?  

© Shutterstock

Mountains and cows

Constrained and isolated by the astounding geography of Pyrenean valleys plunging into fertile plains with rushing rivers, the Béarnais have always had to pull together to survive. The traditions of pastoralism and transhumance, practiced since prehistory, have established a spirit of communal resilience. Despite external shocks and change, cows must still be milked and sheep herded.  

If the bold golden flag featuring two red cows is anything to go by, the Béarnais deeply value their land. You see this flag flown more prominently than the tricolore (France’s official blue, white and red flag – Ed’s note). That a peaceful ruminant was chosen as the symbol of this proud principality aptly conveys the values of solidarity and guardianship of the land the Béarnais hold dear today. The red (power) and gold (wealth), symbolically borrowed from the colours of Rome (SPQR), are repeated throughout the Pyrenees, pointing towards a collective Pyrenean spirit. 

However, a viscounty pushing for sovereignty from its feudal overlords required more than bovine symbolism to advance its political project. The first Béarnais money, minted in the then capital Morlaàs in the 11th century, was key to gaining and maintaining autonomy. 

© Wikimedia Commons

Peace and Honour

Between the 11th to 15th centuries, Béarn used its own money, engraved with the words pax onor forcas: peace to signify social cohesion; honour to represent the entitlement to self-rule; and forcas from the Latin furcas meaning pitchfork or stake. It was common in the Middle Ages to see a platform of stakes upon entering a territory, representing the local rulers’ right to dispense justice. 

If forcas does not readily bring an image of peace to mind, in a feudal society, peace had to take a pragmatic side. The currency communicated the defensive project of a territory on the crossroads of Spanish, French, Basque, and even English antagonists. In fact, Béarn’s autonomy was achieved through neutrality. Desiring peace, the lords of Béarn might play these powers off against each other, like a child might tell one parent one thing whilst promising the other something else. 

The objective of peace was reached through the right to self-rule. Béarnais society has survived not by luck, nor aggression and expansion, but through the pursuit of peace.

© Mairie-Morlaàs

La lenga nosta, “our language”

Language makes the people which makes the nation. Language has always been central to national desires for independence and personal identity. 

Still heard in the streets of Navarrenx where I live, (admittedly mostly by an older generation having long chats in the boucherie) the local dialect, Béarnais, has survived since its emergence in the sixth century as a symbiosis of Aquitanian (ancient Basque) and Latin.  

It makes Béarn special because it is unifying, intrinsically linked to the topography, and an ancestral memory. The language evokes the environment, seen in the constitution of the name itself: Be = below, ar = people, n = in, “the people of the land below.” 

The most uplifting place to hear it is at the rugby, where a moving declaration of Béarnais pride is the anthem of Section Paloise, La honhada. Move aside La Marseillaise as it is clear where the allegiance of these rugby fans lies. Fortunately, the words are projected on the big screen so the crowd can sing their heart out. Whether you did Latin at school or not, if you effect a dodgy Spanish accent and add the gesticulations of a Roman Emperor, no one will bat an eyelid. 

© Béarn Pyrenees

Independence and collectivity

In a local author’s words, from whom I have drawn for a history of Béarn, its singularity, shaped at the time of and in opposition to Roman occupation, can be summed up as: “Le Béarn n’a jamais été gaulois, a été pleinement independent et précurseur des états modernes.”1 (“Béarn has never been Gallic, has been completely independent and a pioneer of these modern states”). 

Quite a claim! That the medieval administration of this petite and peripheral principality might have laid the path for democratic government that we have today.  

Evidence for this are the fors of Béarn. For is a Gascon word derived from the Latin forum and indicates a legal text acknowledging the rights of a territory. The fors, written in Béarnais, served as the constitution for the pays’ laws and freedoms, upheld by the États de Béarn (elected heads of the communes). An important tenet is that the group is stronger than the individual, even a king. This societal organisation served as the revolutionary precursor for the modern democratic state. At the height of Béarn’s sovereignty, even King Louis XI (reigned 1461-1483) laid down his sword on entering Béarn, indicating he had left his own kingdom and entered another. 

Béarn is no longer a politically recognised territory. Viscounties have long gone, and counties are now départements. However, legislation in 2018 strengthened the cultural identity of Béarn with the creation of Communautés (communities) of le Pays du Béarn, giving some devolved power to local communes within Béarn, including where I live, known as Béarn-des-Gaves.  

Although not (yet) an administrative or legal polity as Béarn, the population here has always lived as if it was, as if it never ended in 1620. It would not exist on maps, flags, signs or literature if it wasn’t constantly being referred to and lived, to bring it back from the past.  

Béarn is still, and undoubtably, vivant. 

Lead photo credit : Transhumance in the Vallée d'Aspe © Tourisme 64

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