Gascony, a breeding ground for soldiers

Gascony: a breeding ground for soldiers

Gascony and Gascons are intimately linked.
The land and its geographical particularities have merged with the accidents of history to forge the Gascon.  If each land and every region carries in its bosom the traits and customs of its inhabitants, then we can say that Gascony is blessed with a particularly rich soil for growing soldiers.  Over time, the conditions of this region of rolling hills conspired to create this courageous, indefatigable and (slightly) frenzied warrior who was so irresistibly drawn to conflict and desperate causes.

In the beginning: the loyal and courageous Iberian Celts 

When the Romans conquered the Narbon country [of southwestern France], they found themselves in contact with what was a new people for them, who resembled neither the Ligurians nor the Celts.  They called them Aquitanians (…)
By their race, their language and their customs, the Aquitanians were completely different.

Les Aquitanians (…) considered themselves to be from another land and descended from a different people from those who the Galls and the Celts recognized as the progenitors of their race.  Indeed, Strabon (Book IV) observes that they did not in any way resemble their neighbors the Galls; rather, from their traits, their size, their customs and their language, one would consider them more like the Iberians (…)
Furthermore, nothing could be more opposed than the customs of the Galls and the Iberians: the ones grave, serious, reserved, almost taciturn; the others gay, care-free, insatiably avid and curious, loquacious, terrible and indefatigable, and taking their word and their beliefs with a certain levity: to them went courage in attack, while to the first went [the courage] of resistance.

The two peoples were too close in proximity not to run into each other, and with characters so different conflict was inevitable, and conflict often gave rise to war.  One of these wars in particular was long and terrible.  At the end, the two races, weakened and worn, came together and united.
Out of this mix, say the historians, came the Celtiberian nation, mixed in name as in origin, but in which Iberian blood was predominant. (…)

Here is how the ancient authors depicted the Celtiberians:

Amateurs of combats like all uncivilized peoples, they smiled at the clash of arms; but full of confidence in their valor, they would have reddened in shame at the thought of owing their triumph to ruse; they needed honest an combat, where courage alone brought victory.
To die on the field of battle was the ambition of every warrior.  A natural death was viewed with shame and pity.

(…)Generous and hospitable with the foreigner, the beggar or the unfortunate, after the example of the Galls, they showed themselves to be ferocious and without pity toward their enemy; but in contrast to the Galls who marched into the combat with the first piece of metal they could lay their hands on, the Celtiberian tested the caliber and soundness of their weapons.

One institution that is particular to them but is foreign to the Galls is that of the Solduriens (cavalrymen); thus were named those soldiers that devoted themselves to a chief, sharing his destiny forever, or rather identified to such a point with him that there is not one example of [a Soldurien]surviving [his chief].
The moment that the chief fell, they were seen to seek out a glorious death in the chaos of battle, and if they were unable to find it, they would turn around and stab themselves over the body of the one who had won their loyalty.  The number of brave men serving a single chief was limited.
The Abbot J.J. Monlezun, Histoire de la Gascogne depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, Auch, 1846.

The appearance of the "Vascons" and of Gascony

It was a bishop of Tours who brought the Gascons and Gascony onto the stage of history at the end of the sixth century, with a 10 volume history of France written in Latin. Gascony, originally “Wasconia”, designated in the year 581 the terrible country where an experienced Frankish duke lost his army.  The Gascons themselves entered onto the page in 587, as colorfully penned as their land: “Wascones”: ferocious and well-organized warriors.

The name of the Gascons, appearing suddenly in texts, attached to words like “gushing, leaping”, is immediately perceived as designating a people [that is] destructive, formidable, an enemy of order, enemy of the Franks.  These are warriors that even the best generals should fear…
Renée Mussot-Goulard, Les Gascons (VIe-VIIe-VIIIe siècle).  Atlantico, 2001.

Gascony’s principal originality is, perhaps, the difficulty to define it.  Its name, Vasconia, attested to for the first time in 602, comes from the Vascons who originated  from the Cantabrian Mountains, and who invaded [the country] at the end of the sixth century.  And yet, even before this event, the land between the Garonne River and the Pyrenees had a distinct ethnic identity, recognized by the Roman authorities who had detached the province of Novempopulanie from Aquitania.  And so, the eleven Gallo-roman cities of Eauze, Bazas, Dax, Lectoure, St Bertrand de Cominges, St Lizier, Lascar, Aire, Oloron, Auch and Tarbes, later episcopal seats, formed this country’s first framework: the Gascon contribution overlapping with a solid indigenous population created the initial conditions for a history that had long in the shadows, along with a strong linguistic originality.
Encyclopaedia Universalis.

There was a precise moment when the name of Gascony emerged to designate a state in the modern sense of the word, or at least a territorial principality of some size within the French kingdom, with its princes, its lands, its people.  Gascony was therefore an historical reality –seat of an autonomous state governed by counts, marquis and then hereditary dukes—with its customs, beliefs, its own organization and a society very much alive.  Born in the seventh century, [Gascony] thrived up to the twelfth century when it became part of the possessions of the family of Aquitaine, which constituted the beginning of its decline and its internal parceling.  Five centuries of history have forged its identity and established a name that, despite everything, was saved from oblivion.  These are the founding centuries of its history and they are a reference for the Gascon people.
Renée Mussot-Goulard, Histoire de la Gascogne.  PUF, 1996.

The origins of the Gascons were, and remain still, highly contested.  Certain say that they are the sons of the ancient Cantabrians, famous among the Romans for their courage and their untamed resistance.  Others only see in them a foreign tribe, once subjugated by the Romans, whose language and customs they had adopted.  A third theory, more widely accepted, views the Gascons as real Iberians, resembling those who had once populated the plain all the way to the Garonne.  Entrenched in the Pyrenees or on their Spanish slopes, isolated from other nations, they would have jealously guarded their independence and the purity of their race.  Each great Germanic migration that swept over the peninsula would have seen them disappear for a moment only to reappear once the tempest had passed.  Nimbly combining diplomacy and resistance, they would have thus laid down the ancient and characteristic foundations of the Gascon spirit.

Jean Castarède, Histoire de la Guyenne et de la Gascogne. France-Empire Editions

From Gascony... to the Gascon character!

To say that Gascony created the Gascons would be too simple to be true.
And yet, it is indeed within the thick and enshrouded weave of everything that binds this bit of earth and the people that inhabit it that we can the find the source of customs and mentalities that have become proverbial (…)
Just as Gascony has no or few [defined] limits, so too are there no limits to the dreams and ambitions of the Gascons… Historians and geographers dispute when it comes to defining the limits of a province that the loquaciousness of its natives as well as their propensity for movement would without difficulty extend throughout a good part of the kingdom, or even the world (…)
We would mean, rather, when speaking of Gascony, its eastern part, that of the lands of Armagnac, the principal place names of which are: Bas-Armagnac, Haut Armagnac (which we also call Fezensac for short), Astarac, Fezensaguet, Magnoac and Pardiac.  In summary, it is a polygon-shaped ensemble whose summits would coorespond to Aire-sur-Ardour to the west, Nérac to the north, the forest of Bouconne to the east and from Montréjeauet to Tarbes in the south (…)
Wouldn’t the most beautiful expression of Gascon-ness be to see in the morphology of Gascony the very hand of the creator—and his right hand at that? (…)

By pressing just a little bit harder on the east, the superhuman finger poured out water and shaped the little valleys where rivers flow, each with a beautiful abruptness towards the east and a gentle slope towards the west.
Perhaps, too, this molding of primordial mud traced, over the centuries, less a direction than a bundle of almost parallel axes, oriented north-south, that the Gascons have traversed since the dawn of time –and still traverse—from the Pyrenee  Mountains to the River Garonne, and in the opposite direction from the plain to the furthest summits.  This has given them solid calves and legs of steel.  At a time when an army’s strength relied on the speed and endurance of its foot soldiers, [the Gascons]did not fall behind.
Véronique Larcade, Les Cadets de Gascogne. Empreinte, 2000.

The land of Gascony (…) was not without influence on the development of Gascon character. “History and the natural milieu have made the Gascons bellicose and practical, seekers of adventure and hungry for Glory.”

When one’s native soil is of mediocre fertility, one has nothing to do but to live elsewhere, to make one’s place in the world through ruse, diplomacy or the sword; it is vital to know how to adapt to every environment and to push forward by all means.  Wherever there are difficulties to overcome or people to win over, the GASCON is in his element.  Accustomed to relying on himself, forced to find the resources that his land does not provide him, he exercises ingenuity, and in the end [he] succeeds.

Louis Puech, Histoire de la Gascogne.  Auch : Société arhéologique du Gers, 1914.

The Gascon... the soldier's seed

Sirs, as we know that certain countries produce certain fruits in abundance that one rarely finds elsewhere, it seems also that your Gascony ordinarily produces an infinite number of grand and valiant captains, as if it were its own, natural fruit: and the other provinces, in comparison to her, appear sterile…  It is your Gascony, Sirs, that is a storehouse of soldiers, the nursery of armies, the choice and flower of the most bellicose nobility of the earth…
From the preface of Flomirond de Raymond to the first edition of the Commentaires by Blaise de Monluc.

These French Gascons appear to be real tools sent by God to make war.
Pope Paul III (Alexandre Farnèse) during the Italian Wars.

All our narratives are filled with their prowess and their feats, and I cannot find a single encounter, skirmish or battle, siege, assault, defense or capture of a city where one doesn’t remark the presence of the Gascons.
François de Pavie, Baron of Fourquevaux in La vie des plus grands Capitaines Français, 1643.

At the end of the sixteenth century, in all Europe, all the way to the plains of Poland, whenever one wished to speak of the bravest among the French troops, the flower of the army, one word was uttered by all and without exception: “the Gascons.”

How many times do we find Gascon surnames among the bravest and most loyal defenders of the French crown, from the epoch when the Count of Armagnac and the Lord Albret united to tear up the treaty of Brétigny delivering then to England, remaining, after all, vassals to the king of France!  It will be to the eternal glory of Armagnac to remember just one fact: that it gave its name to the national cause that, at first crushed at Azincourt and in Paris, but still full of courage and devotion, would triumph in the end under the banner of Joan of Arc, with the [houses of] Barbazan, Pardiac, La Hire, Saintrailles and so many other heros less known or unjustly forgotten…
Paul Durrieu, Les Gascons en Italie.  Auch : 1885.

Before drinking a toast to our honored dead, I would like to evoke before you rapidly the memory of a distant time, that saw northern France conquered by the south: not by your South this time, Sirs of Nimes and Toulouse, but by ours, by the [South]of the Gascons and the Béarnese.  A conquest that was less lyric perhaps, but as pugnacious as the devil.  The war cry of the sixteenth century is it not: Béarn and Gascony? (…)
During those times, there was not a sword thrust in France that was not accentuated by a resounding “Diou biban!” and when during a duel on the Pré Saint-Gervais, one of the participants reddened the green grass, the victor, while wiping his Spanish blade on his doublet of buffalo hide, growled under his curved mustache: “San Sébé cap de Gascougno!”
Xavier de Cardaillac, Propos Gascons. Paris : Hachette, 1899.

In fact, from at least the second half of the thirteenth century, there is not a single army in France that is not composed by entire companies of foot soldiers hailing from Gascony.  Indeed, fake Gascons even count themselves in with the numbers of real Gascons, because their reputation in the army is such that, in order to show off back at camp, one would imitate them and affect their accent, punctuating one’s phrases with “Cap de Diou”.
(…) The Gascons remain a force among the troops.  Alongside the lesser nobility, the royal army assures the promotion of valiant commoners.  Gassion, a field marshal and Tréville, both sons of merchants from Oloron, are examples.  The novice warriors from Gascony find, especially in the regiment of the French Guards, an authentic military school of which they enjoy an almost exclusive usage.  In the beginning at least, of 10 companies, eight were commanded by Gascon captains.  By the same token, as the regiments are composed as a real fighting force in the army, they carry the name of their commander, which is often that of a Gascon family. During the reign of Louis XIII, the formation of the Company of Musketeers of the king constitutes a new attraction for young gentlemen desiring to learn, in this elite corps, at the same time the soldier’s trade and the duties of a man of the Court. Thus, we can legitimately claim that a sort of Gascon mafia existed, which largely monopolized the provincial governorships and lieutenancies, military commands as well as commissions at the court and royal offices.
Véronique Larcade, Les Capitaines Gascons à l’époque des guerres de religion. Christian, 1999.

Master swordmen

The cardinal smiled.
“Cadets,” he said, “who have joined the musketeers under a false name in order to avoid compromising their family name.  Long rapiers, but light purses; that is familiar.”
“If God wills that those rapiers serve Your Eminence,” said d’Artagnan, “I dare express my desire that it be the Monsignor’s purse that becomes light while theirs becomes heavy; because between these three men and myself, Your Eminence will stir all France and even all of Europe, if he wishes.”
“These Gascons,” laughed Mazarin, “are almost the equals of the Italians in their bravado.”
“In any case,” d’Artagnan said with a smile to match the cardinal’s, “they are their betters when it comes to handling a sword.”
Alexander Dumas, Vingt ans après (Chapter V).

And so, well before d’Artagnan became a musketeer himself, other Gascons had forged, through their exploits, a path towards the field of battle.  There was not one who did not know of this warlike heritage.  The Gascon, as Alexander Dumas wrote, was more skilled than anyone at swordsmanship.
But who remembers all these heroes of an uncommon destiny?

Other Gascons, famous in their time, fought alongside Henri IV and the Duke of Epernon.  Other Gascons played an important role in the pages of history, but have remained in the shadow of those they served.
Would we know d’Artagnan today if Dumas had not written about him?  Probably not.
Just as we have no idea who Mathurin Romegas or Jean d’Antras were.

But these Gascons were wily.  They did not allow themselves to be completely erased from our memories.  They have left clues or testimony for us to rediscover; like the chevalier La Hire, loyal servant of Joan of Arc, who carved out a place for himself in the card game of history by become the jack of hearts.
These men’s stories allow us to travel back in time.