One day in 1721 a carpenter called Miguel Legaret sat down with his son in the church of Biarritz. Jean de Lartigue, Guilhaume Veillet, and Pierre Dalbarade, all municipal councillors, took exception to their choice of seats. They called the Legarets ‘capots’, and as they forcibly tried to move them a fight broke out. Both parties complained to the bailliage, and all except Dalbarade, who was syndic of the parish, were arrested. On the 6th March 1722, the councillors were sentenced to kneel at the door of the church after mass and make public apology. They appealed on the grounds that the younger Legaret had used excessive violence, and that they had been righteously enforcing a 1596 arrêt forbidding ‘gots’ , ‘capots’ and ‘gahets’ from mixing with others or moving from their designated seats in church.Who were these cagots? Its an amazing story. They were a persecuted group found in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, forced to live at the edge of towns and villages, forbidden from touching food in markets, excluded from most professions, denied all political rights. They could not marry non-cagots. People said they stank, that they lacked earlobes, that they were all lepers (they were not). They are first attested in records from around 1000 and well documented from the 13th century; from 1288 to the 1600s laws against them were enacted in hundreds of towns and villages. But they were not an ethnic group; they looked exactly like everyone else. They did not have their own dialect, but spoke that of whatever region they lived in. They were all perfectly orthodox Catholics. Nobody knew where they came from, who their ancestors were, or how they ended up despised. We still don't know. So far as we can tell, they were despised because they were cagots, and cagots were basically just people who were despised. As Daniel Hawkins puts it in this paper,
After an investigation, on the 9th July 1723 the Parlement of Bordeaux acquitted the younger Legaret and fined the councillors. The court also specified heavy fines or corporal punishment for anyone under its jurisdiction who used the insults ‘descendants of the race of Giezy’, or ‘Agots, Cagots, gahets or ladres’. Alleged cagots were to be allowed in all public assemblies, municipal offices, educational institutions and the same galleries as others in church. They were to be treated as other inhabitants without any distinction. To ensure the ruling was obeyed, the deputy of the procureur général in Ustaritz was ordered to travel to Biarritz one Sunday every month. A copy of the arrêt was sent to all the parishes under the court’s jurisdiction with orders that it should be affixed to the church doors and read aloud.
The ruling in favour of the cagots was met with general protest, as told by the procureur général in a statement to Montesquieu, the presiding judge of the Parlement, on January 19th, 1724. Saint-Martin, the royal sergeant, had gone to Biarritz accompanied by two ‘archers’ to fix the arrêt to the church door. They were met by a ‘mutinous’ and ‘tumultuous’ crowd. Men waited in the square and the cemetery, urging a large number of women to block their way. The women prevented them from reading or posting the arrêt and threatened to overwhelm them with ‘quicklime, salt, ashes and whale oil’. Saint-Martin thought that some might have been men dressed as women. Nobody would help him despite his pleas to the crowd. Feeling afraid and in danger, he and his ‘archers’ retreated without completing their task.
They did not differ from their neighbours in language, ethnicity or religion, but throughout their history they were associated with carpentry and leprosy. In the sixteenth century they accounted for perhaps two per cent of the local population.It's a remarkably pure example of our baneful habit of singling out groups to hate. When there are no ethnic or religious divisions, we invent some other distinction. And there were such groups throughout western Europe: the Caqueaux of Brittany, the Colliberts of Poitou, the Maquefas of Valencia, Vaqueiros of Asturias and the Cascarots of the Basque country.
We seem determined to hate and despise somebody.
The other point I would make about the cagots is that their oppression was ended by that bogeyman of so many leftists, the Enlightenment state. It was the same people who built the insane asylums and prisons and closed down the rowdy popular festivals who put an end to the persecution of cagots and all those other groups, so that we now read about them with bewildered fascination.
Lots more material on the cagots in the Hawkins article and at wikipedia.