Pyrénées-Atlantiques - Le territoire

A snippet of history


On 12 January 1790, the French National Assembly established the department of Basses-Pyrénées (Lower Pyrénées) combining the Béarn, the three French provinces of the Basque country (Labourd, Lower-Navarre and Soule), as well as the Gascon territories of Bayonne and Bidache. In 1969, the department took its more complimentary name of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.


The caves of Isturitz are home to traces of a homogeneous culture that has since Neolithic times traced an area far beyond the outline of modern-day Aquitaine, from Lascaux in the north to Altamira in Spain in the south.

The Gascons, Basques and Béarnais could only therefore have been one people. But accidents of history, intertwined with geographical constraints, broke this primitive unity.

It is likely that a common language, a pre Indo-European one, was spoken across the whole of what would become a common territory, the department.

The Romans came and upset this balance. Romanisation left an area behind in the mountainous regions either side of the Pyrénées in which Euskara, or "Basque-speak", remained. This clearly distinguished the area from the Spanish/Occidental area under the influences of Latin. Since then, from a common branch, the two cultures, Basque and Béarnais, grew separately.

The various invasions that took place after the Pax Romana accentuated the difference, giving the region a tangled history from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance. When Gascony (also known as Vasconia) united, coinciding with the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a general fragmentation of territories.

The Viscount of Béarn, created in the IX century in the tiny region of Vic-Bilh, grew through the power play of alliances and, just like Aragon, became an independent state. This was until an edict in 1616, enacted by King Louis XIII, which saw the Viscount unite with the French crown.

Nevertheless, the Basque country and the Béarn held on to their characteristics until the Revolution. They held pays d'état status and retained their local assemblies (Parlement de Navarre), language privileges and their traditionally distinct judicial courts known as "fors". The 1789 revolution forced them to give up these rights. Language therefore became an emblematic assertion of identity. Here, the battle is all the more intense since, as we've seen, the stakes are doubled.


Yet these differences shouldn't obscure the common features that unite the two communities. The Basque and Béarn cultures are steeped in a strong agricultural history and are both marked by an independent streak as shown by the number and variety of "fors" (or fueros on the Spanish side of the mountains).

Similarities between the two peoples are also apparent in the profound way they looked at daily life: specific inheritance laws which did not preclude women, the relative gender equality and the tradition of immigration, which was due in part to birthright inheritance, linked two cultures which were strongly attached to traditional values.

The 1789 revolution and the creation of departments coincided with a desire to build and support national unity to the detriment of local particularities. Ancestral languages were "weakened" to the benefit of the national language, but the Basques and Béarnais resisted uniformity and still to this day refuse to allow their languages to disappear. Indeed, children who so wish are taught these languages in schools known as ikastolas and calandretas.

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