Saturday, December 9

The Codex Calixtinus and the first account of the origin of the Basques

In 1137, Aimeric Picaud included in the fifth part of the Calixtinus Codex, the well-known Pilgrim’s Guide, a text dedicated to explaining the origin of the Basques in historical terms. With this brief narration he concluded a complete dossier dedicated to this town, within a chapter where the ethnic groups and the territories through which the Camino de Santiago runs from Tours to Compostela are described.

Something tells us that Aimeric had a special interest in the subject when we see that the space dedicated to the Basques in this chapter occupies three quarters of the total, leaving the meager rest for all the other peoples. However, more than this disproportion, the content of a report itself is surprising where extremely valuable linguistic and anthropological notes appear together with inconsiderate value judgments and insults of the worst note.

a shocking story

This is the immediate context of a story presented as an oral tradition and whose express function is to explain the similarities between the Basques and the Irish as the fruit of a phylogenetic relationship.

His plot, summed up, tells how Julius Caesar, in order to pay tribute to the peoples of Hispania, sends Irish mercenaries there with orders to exterminate the men and seize their women and lands. Once disembarked, they occupy a territory marked by four terms, Bayonne, Oca, Zaragoza and Barcelona. The mercenaries are defeated and forced by the Castilians to retreat behind the Montes de Oca, to a territory that largely coincides with the Vasconia of the 12th century, where they do manage to carry out the plan for which they were sent, engendering with the indigenous women a new town of mixed character, the Basque.

At first glance, everything in this story is unique and shocking, so it is not surprising that it has not been taken into account, not as a source of real events, but not even as an echo of some existing tradition.

However, among the constituents of his argument are the main elements of the first narratives about the origins of the Biscayan lordship –these are accepted at least as local traditions– written in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Count of Barcelos and Lope García de Salazar. These coincident plot elements are encrypted in the will to submit, by a foreign power, to an indigenous people; the resistance and final victory of this; and the birth of a mixed manorial lineage in which an indigenous component is mixed with a British one.

What changes in Aimeric’s story with respect to the narratives of Barcelos and Salazar and gives it a totally different aspect is, on the one hand, the historical setting, Roman in the former, medieval in the latter. On the other hand, the fact that the Basques, or their ancestors, do not play the role of the attacked native in this story, but rather that of the foreign invader. Finally, that Aimeric refers to the birth of an entire town, while Barcelos and Salazar limit themselves to the foundation of a stately lineage.

negative propaganda

Compared to the stories of Barcelos and Salazar, which even with their small variations seem to respond to a single tradition, that of Aimeric, much more complex, is not exactly a piece of local folklore collected verbatim but a personal composition, oriented also towards a negative propaganda. The analysis of the themes that are amalgamated in it reveals several surprises in terms of its origin:

The theme of a war, developed on the border of the Montes de Oca and which has the Castilians as anachronistic (in a Roman setting!) winners, is the adaptation of a tradition that emerged in Castile itself in the context of wars that confronted Navarre in the 11th and 12th centuries, and that also has its late echoes in the Poema de Fernán González.

In it, the Montes de Oca are presented as one of the ancestral borders of the County of Castilla. This is false, because the border between Castile and Navarre was not established there until the 11th century.

In addition, in the Poema de Fernán González itself, two battles between Castilians and Navarrese are narrated (Valpierre and Era Degollada), won by the former, which never took place. Among other things, because at the time of Count Fernán González, relations between Castile and Navarra were always friendly.

As in the case of the Montes de Oca, they are minstrel inventions created in the s. XI or XII, when an almost permanent conflict between Castile and Navarre is verified, and that they transferred to previous times situations of their historical present.

The theme of a quadrangular region as the first site where the Basque ancestors settle seems to be of Basque origin. We also find it, under the name of Carpentania, mixed in the myth of Túbal, grandson of Noah and first settler of Spain after the flood, according to Jiménez de Rada and Alfonso X. This could have been concocted in Navarra in the XI-XII centuries , and having as precedents the square region of the Spanoguascones, according to the Ravenate Cosmography (7th century), and even the description of Aquitaine as a parallelogram in Strabo’s Geography (1st century).

Faced with these traditional themes, the questions of Basque-Irish kinship and the contrast between pure and mestizo peoples are Aimeric’s own speculations, or current in the intellectual and courtly circles (Anglo-Franco-Norman) in which he moved, and which he shared with Godfrey of Monmouth. This author, the famous creator of the Arthurian matter, handled both theories in his Historia Regum Brittanniae, and these are not the only coincidences between him and Aimeric. A strict contemporary of his, there are plenty of signs of a literary and even personal closeness between the two.

… but could it hide some historical truth?

All these themes present in Aimeric’s story, the result of scholarly or popular lucubrations, have nothing historical about them. In spite of this, they place our author in a pre-eminent position among those who were in charge of narrating the genesis of the Basques, since two centuries in advance he already collected the essential elements of the traditions accepted as his own – that is, the legends of the Biscayan lordship of Barcelos (14th century) and Salazar (15th century), accepted by Basque historiography until the 15th century. XIX–.

There remains, however, one last theme, the one that presents the Basque ancestors as foreign soldiers in the service of Rome. This extreme, unacceptable in light of the presumption that the Basque is a people already established in the region since the Neolithic, even since the Paleolithic, is nevertheless in perfect agreement with the alternative theory of late Vasconization.

This theory defends that the Basques (that is, the Basque speakers) came to Hispanic Vasconia (Basque Country + Navarre) from Aquitaine, in Roman times and precisely by the Romans. With the collapse of the empire, they would have taken control of the region.

This hypothesis, recently revitalized based on mainly linguistic and archaeological data and analyses, agrees with Aimeric in maintaining that the first arrival of Basques in the region took place at the hands of Rome as an integral part of its armies.

This article has been published in
The Conversation

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