The Camargue: Invention of tradition


Many of the traditions which we think of as very ancient in

        their origins were not in fact sanctioned by long usage over

        the centuries but were invented comparatively recently’.    (E.J.Hobsbawm. 1983)


To briefly explore this ‘invention of tradition’, I start at the opposite end of the European continent:  Scotland.

How to rub a Scotsman up the wrong way:  Tell him that ‘supposedly’ ancient scottish literature and music was actually usurped from the Irish; that the kilt was invented by an 18th century Englishman (Thomas Rawlinson); that the tartan fabric was initially imported from Belgium (Flanders), and that designating specific tartan patterns to specific Scottish clans was a 19th century fabrication (E.J.Hobsbawm. op cit). 

Perhaps it’s better to keep quiet!

But the fact is that the 19th century rise of European nation-states involved the creation (fabrication or forgery) of numerous traditions.  National flags, emblems and anthems came into being, along with created national histories stretching back into the mists of time.  Longevity was an important component of rooting peoples, cultures, languages and traditions to nations’ soils.  It established moral claims of ownership and belonging; feeding patriotic hearts, and fixing national origins back into a ‘time immemorial’.  The fact that such tales were ‘myths’, was conveniently ignored; or left unchallenged.  Neverthless, as in the scottish example, the means served ends (e.g the establishment of a scottish heritage) and anyway, only historians split hairs.

So, moving south to the Camargue.  How did this myth creation process establish a Camargue identity?

First, let’s position the Camargue geographically:

The Camargue is an area  (360 sq.miles) of land in the south of France between the ‘Grand Rhône’ and the ‘Petit Rhône’.  To the north is the Camargue capital city of Arles, to the south is town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterrannean.  It’s a watery, swamy area dominated in the centre by the ‘Etang de Vaccarès’  – a lake.  Major industries are fishing, wine and salt production, rice cultivation, cattle – in particular bulls, for their meat, and tourism.  It is also reknowned for its flamingoes and horses:  A semi-wild breed that roams freely around the camargue wetlands.  They’re tamed and ridden by ‘guardians‘ (cowboys) to herd the bulls. (Read more)

Arles maintains the myth that the beauty of its Arlesienne women has been reknowned since antiquity.  This claim is more than a mild boasting for writers and poets have written glowing prose to capture this quality in words.  Then, every three years, a young Arlesienne woman is crowned ‘Queen of Arles’ during the festival of Arles at the beginning of July.  She dresses in traditional costume and become guardian of Provençal history, literature, architecture, arts, traditions and language.

 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer literally means ‘Saint Marys of the Sea.’  Apparently, according to local tradition, the three Marys of the New Testament (Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary, sister of Lazarus, and Mary Magdalen) arrived here by boat, after voyaging the Mediterrannean for several weeks following the death of Jesus.

Already local myths appear in this Camargue story.

Camargue is in the south of France and, like Britain, there is a north-south divide in France too:  A fact which was the underlying theme of a recent French cinema comedy – Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.  Its overwhelming success was achieved by exploring stereotypical images of northern and southern French culture.  More historically, and in linguistic terms, the northern half of France is referred to as Langue d’Oil and the southern half as Langue d’Oc.  Both belong to the ‘Gallo-Romance language group‘ (a sub-section of the 37 listed Romance, or Latin, languages: wiki/section 3).   Over the centuries and with various adaptations, political currents led to langue d’Oil becoming the dominant language in France.  Today it is simply known as French.

Langue d’Oc, on the other hand, has suffered a less fortuitous life.  Otherwise known as ‘Occitan‘, there are six distinct dialects:  Provençal, Auvergnat, Limousin, Languedocian, Gascon and Vivaro-alpine.  All of these dialects are listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. In terms of being a geographic entity, Occitan stretches from northern Spain, throughout the south of France, and into northern Italy.  Though not a legal or political entity, a mythical Occitania has been previously  been granted the status of nation.  Which brings us back to the question of myth fabrication and nation building.

So – let’s now position the Camargue historically:

The Camargue sits at the opposite end of the France from Paris – that centralizing hub whose Jacobin revolutionaries established the French republic in 1789 by adopting various symbols:  The ‘Phrygian cap’, taken from Roman antiquity where it was worn by freed Phrygian slaves and worn as a symbol of liberty. ‘  ‘La Marseillaise‘ – a new national anthem.  ‘Marianne‘ – a female embodiment of the new French Republic.  A ‘National day’ – The 14th of July, commerating ‘The Storming of the Bastille‘ and the collapse of absolute monarchy.  ‘The cock’ (bird) as the official legal symbol of France.  ‘A new calender’, measuring decimal time with a ten-day week.  ‘New festivals’ related to different events within the French Revolution.  Yes, more myths created.  Who, in fact, was Marianne?

The problem was that as revolutionary tendencies and ideologies became radicalized (militant action, riots, ‘Storming of the Bastille’ etc.), and republican ideals were set to replace those of the ‘ancien regime’,  it wasn’t long before regional identity presented a threat to Republican issues of unity and nationhood.  (A simple matter of speaking French. Tom Holberg).   This had major consequences for Occitan and the Camargue, as well as for other regional identities around the periphery of the country – especially as an initial tolerance led to repressive intolerance.

Why the intolerance?  Pope Pius VI refused to accept a democratization of the Catholic church, whereby the clergy (‘the first estate’) would be elected members of a general synod; King Louis XVI refused to budge from his position of absolutism, then fled to leave a power vacuum; the nobles (‘the second estate’) clung to their aristocratic advantages whilst under-mining the monarchy, and the ‘third estate’ (workers/‘sans-culottes’), having struggled for years against exceedingly high food prices, joined the lower-middle classes (‘the petty bourgoisie’) to take the cause to their hearts and clamour for change.

And so, all hell broke lose.   The clergy were ousted; the king guillotined; the nobility also targetted for execution; counter-revolutionaries and those with more conservative tendencies too sent to the blade, and 40,000 heads were lopped off left, right and centre.  This was:   ‘The Reign of Terror’.

Hence; in striving for a unified republic (one of the underlying goals of the revolution), intolerance led to the repression of regional culture.  Language, as is so often the case, was the first to be attacked.  Many laws were passed to make French the sole language of school instruction, whilst children who continued to speak a local patois (a derogatory term in itself) were stigmatized.  The demise of Occitan languages had begun.  Local festivals too were banned, through being declared ‘seditious gatherings’.  Of great local significance, the ‘running of the bulls’ festivals were outlawed.  The bull, (‘totemic symbol of the Camargue’) was as much a symbol of the Occitan south as the cock is of the republic north, and was a clear challenge to Paris. Banning bull running (‘courses‘) symbolized banning Occitan culture.  Even Provençal dances, farandoles, were forbidden – it was argued that they ‘endangered public tranquility’ (R.Zaretsky.  2004).  Any philosophical base referencing ‘The Rights of Man’ and those central concepts of ‘egalité, fraternité et liberté’ seem to have been cast asunder in this revolutionary zeal.  A ‘totalitarian Jacobinism’, one writer declared (Jean-Baptiste Bénet, in R.Zaretsky. 2004).

Occitan and the Camargue was not alone in experiencing cultural repression – Brittany suffered much the same.  Perhaps more so, for Brittany had retained its Catholicism and conservatism to become an anti-Revolutionary stronghold.  The ‘Chouans‘ (anti-Revolutionary peasants)  were never fully subdued  (Read more).  In parallel, the Scots too can remain indignant at having cultural identity repressed as the English constitutionally joined with Scotland ( ‘Act of the Union’ : 1706).  It’s a question of ‘internal colonialisation’, occurring as smaller states expand and absorb those at the peripheries.  In the English/Scottish case, much of scottish culture was also eradicated; including the gaelic language and the playing of bagpipes (temporarily). Peripheral cultural regions suffer as ‘nation-states’ sets down their roots, grow and demand greater national unity.

Yet, in Provence and the Camargue there was a counter-reaction.  Once the revolutionary fires ceased to burn,  a group of seven writers and poets set up to meet regularly and guard against the loss of their cultural identity.  This group (founded: 1854)  was known as the filibrige: Frédéric Mistral, Joseph Roumanille, Théodore Aubanel, Jean Brunet, Paul Giéra, Anselme Mathieu and Alphonse Tavan.   Primarily, the group was concerned with keeping the Provençal language alive and in maintaining ‘fraternal bonds’ between Occitan and Catalan. To achieve these goals the filibrige created  it own journal (‘Aioli‘), and had a  patriotic hymn written by Frédéric Mistral: La Copa Santa‘.   It also established numerous Provençal festivals.

The filibrige writers were accepted by Parisian literary circles, with Mistral being claimed a new, French ‘Virgil’.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.  Republican Emile Zola called Mistral’s writing (i.e. ‘Calendal‘: 1867)  as ‘separatist‘ and indeed, his work was embraced by federalists.  Yet, Mistral always insisted he was ‘apolitical’,  avoiding any comment on the 1890s Dreyfus affair in the Aioli journal, of which he was editor.

 ‘The Filibrige was born outside of city life and outside it must remain‘.        (Quoted in F.Zeretsky. op cit)

However, one major event challenged the apolitical stance of the filibrige:  The wine-growers’ protests of 1907.

In the mid-19th century Languedocian region, textiles and mining industries declined, whilst vinyards bloomed.  Then a parasite (phylloxera) decimated the vinyards, which pushed up the cost price.  So, when the parasite was finally beaten (1870), viticulturalists sproated all over and reaped handsome rewards – especially as artificially fermented products (increasing output), with sugar imported from the north, were also classified as ‘wine’.   35% of France’s wine production was then from this region.

Following this boom canme the bust.  Sales and prices plummetted.  Wine-growers blamed competition from Spanish and Algerian wines and northern sugar beet manufacturers. Consequently, they sought a reversal of the law allowing artifially fermented products. Plus, they sought tax-relief.  The government, under President George Clemenceau, was slow to respond, and wine-growers took to the streets in protest.  Their leader, Ernest Ferroul (mayor of Narbonne) called for a general strike and Clemenceau sent in the army to arrest the strike leaders.  Violent confrontations followed leaving several dead.   This had now become a protest of the southern Occitan against the republican north.  It was a protest in which the symbolism of the wine and the bull played a prominent part:

     ‘If we can’t sell our wine, we will use our tridents’.

This became a popular slogan.  Tridents are tools used by bull herding ‘guardians’.

Furthermore, Ferroul, who had earlier in his life visited the tomb in Toulouse of Simon de Montfort (leader of the 13th century Albigensian crusade)  to spit on it, now re-invoked this historical period in which northerners had attacked and repressed southeners (some claimed it a genocidal repression) – thereby adding a historical base to this north/ south conflict.  In Ferroul’s eyes, this recent conflict was another northern conspiracy targetted against the south.  (R.Zaretsky.  op cit):  Past history mythologizing the present.

Frédéric Mistral and ‘The filibrige’, however, remained apolitical.  His cause was more in supporting an aesthitic appreciation of Provence.  Yet,  some felt his evasive pronouncements concerning the affair to be a betrayal.   Admittedly, he was now an elderly man.  Nevertheless, respect for the filibrige temporarily waned.

Enter stage right – the star of the show:  ‘Folco de Baroncelli’.

Born 1st November 1869, of Italian (father) and French aristocratic (mother) origins, Baroncelli learnt Homer, Virgil and smattering of the Provençal language from his grandmother.  After making contact with a felibrige founding member (Joseph Roumanille) he then set out to ‘Provençalize“. He first met Fréderic Mistral in Avignon in 1886 and they became friends.  He also became a breeder, of Camargue horses and bulls, seeking to create a pure bred ‘Camarguais bull’; much as Mistral had sought to create a purified Provençal language.  Questions of race and identity were particularly pertinent around the turn of the century.  Baroncelli believed that an ancient mithraic temple once existed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in which bulls were sacrificed-  hence leading the bull’s ancestry in the Camargue back into ‘time immemorial’.  This theory (myth) was later debunked.   Yet, he moved to the town in 1896, stating;

‘I knew that the guardians and peoples of Saintes-Maries- de- la -Mer were the last guardians of our language…It seem to me that the local passion for bulls was the best means to raise up our people and revive their national consciousness.’          (Quoted in R.Zaretsky.  op cit)

Unlike Mistral, Baroncelli was not apolitical in his support of Occitan, Provence and the Camargue. Indeed, he  was far more vociferous in his support of the wine-growers revolt of 1907 than Mistral had ever been, writing a poem entitled ‘Auzor’ (arise), which was quite simply a violent call to arms and criticizing Mistral for his political inactivity.

‘Poor people of the Midi, whose six hundred years of emasculation and slavery has marked you so deeply…’. 

‘Northeners…we shall gut your entrails the day all hell breaks loose.’    (Quoted in R.Zaretsky.  op cit)

Perhaps this is understandable, for he had married the daughter of a local wine-grower from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Enter stage left – Colonel William Frederic Cody.    a.k.a ‘Buffulo Bill.

Buffulo Bill came to France  twice (1889 and 1905).  These were enormous undertakings needing 16 boats to ship his team of 800 men, (cowboys and indians),  500 horses, and hundreds of tents across the Atlantic Ocean.  Spectators from Lyon, Paris and Marseille (1889) and 120 different French towns (1905) came to see ‘wild west shows’ featuring an enactment of General Custer’s last stand against Indians at the ‘Battle of the Little Big Horn’.   Although this battle was a defeat for the U.S. Seventh Cavalry and General Custer was killed, in essence the ‘wild west show’ displayed the story of western civilization’s annihalation of indigenous Indians. With Baroncelli subscribing to the view that the peoples of Occitan had suffered genocide at the hands of northern oppressors, the presence of Cody’s wild west show in France – ‘gave flesh to the historical narrative Baroncelli was weaving’.  (R.Zaretsky. op cit).  Blatant myth creation?

Baroncelli tried to establish contact with Cody – but unsuccessfully.  However, he did manage to establish contact and became friends with several Indians who had come to France with the show.  In particular- Jacob White Eyes.  Through this Indian, Baroncelli was able to gain clothing, moccasins, a  head-dress, and the spirit of the north American Indians fighting against oppression.  The parallel with the experience of Occitan dwellers fighting oppression from the north was, to Baroncelli, unavoidable.

Ancient myths of mithraic bulls;  historical precendents as in the 13th century Albigensian crusade; a history of oppression and suffering, of loss of culture and fights to keep it alive;  writers and poets penning creative lines to retain and restore what otherwise would be lost;  symbols of bulls and wine used to represent the Occitan.  Then in 1909 Baroncelli created the Nacioun Gardiano (‘the Nation gardiane’):  An organizatin to to defend and maintain the Camargue.

Evidently, much tradition invention is involved in this story.  Mistral’s provençal words were not strictly mother-tongue provençal; more a second-hand creation.  Nevertheless, his words, and those of the other writers and poets of the filibrige, were used for creative, aesthetic effect used to keep provençal traditions alive.  Baroncelli, by contrast, in taking the Occitan story to heart and ignoring Mistral’s apolitical stance, invented freely, to the point where he brought the ‘wild west’ American story to the shores of the Mediterranean.   Visit Sainte-Mairies-de-la-Mer today and the influence is unavoidable.  It’s in the architecture.  It’s in the restaurant meals (specializing in bull steak). It’s in the tourist trinkets in the tourist shops back in town.  It’s in the mini-ranches approaching the town offering horseback tours across the fields (praries). Remember the television series:  ‘The High Chaparral?  That could be ‘Saintes-Mairies-de-le-Mer’.

Yet, there is more!  Apparently, accompanying the three Marys that had sailed over from Palestine following Jesus’s death (see above), was an Egyptian servant – a gypsy girl called Sara.  For this reason the town is central also to Gypsy traditions and is a pilgrimmage site for gypsies who converge here from across Europe every May 24-25th.   (see more here!) .    Myths, here in the Camargue, are abundant and widespread.  In fact, this particular myth was further mythologized in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’.

There are also created symbols.  In 1924, Folco de Baroncelli commissioned Hermann-Paul to design an emblem of the Camargue:  The Camargue Cross.  In fact, the cross contains three separate emblems:  An anchor, a heart and cross of three tridents.  The tridents represent the cowboy guardians and Christian virtue of  faith.    The anchor represents the fishermen of the region and hope – in fact, the anchor cross  is also an early Christian symbol .  The heart represents charity.

The Camargue cross was designed specifically for the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  Thousands of smaller versions can now be bought in every tourist shop in the town for a few euros.   The ‘running of the bulls’ (‘courses‘) occur there too.  Attending such an event this earlier this year (2011) I naively expected a Pamplona style affair.  In fact, I actually found it difficult to see the bulls – so tightly were they held within an encircling of ‘guardians’ on their horses.  I didn’t appreciate at the time the political issues involved with these ‘courses’ and how a status quo had been arrived at – although it still is a contentious issue.  Accidents, including deaths, do occur from time-to-time.   But the events remain, largely in opposition to northern (Parisian) policy makers.

It’s an Occitan snub to the north – but a mediated snub.  And the debate is not over yet.


E.J. Hobsbawm.  The Invention of Tradition.  1983.  Cambridge University Press.

Robert Zaretsky.  Cock and Bull stories.   2004.  University of Nebraska Press.

11 comments on “The Camargue: Invention of tradition

  1. tigercity says:

    what a load of old bull! a good read which highlights the need for identity among peoples..

    • english13 says:

      Yes, a need. Psychological? Intrinsic to the human condition? I agree with you, but it does make one think. Individual identity is one thing. Social beings with group identity, another. Nation states – yet another. Identity does seem important to existence.

  2. David Warr says:

    At the rugby world cup recently, I saw a green and red flag at a French game, the same design as the Union Flag. I know this is Basque, but is it also part of any French region?

    This was a great read. Thank you very much for it.

    • english13 says:

      Hi – and thanks,
      Concerning your question, at the moment I’m still unclear. Presumably more internet research will clarify the issue, but for the moment I offer two quotes:
      1. The autonomous community of the Basque Country should not be confused with the larger Basque Country
      2. The Basque region stretches 100 miles from Bilbao north to Bayonne, France.
      These are from two different web- sites. There’s plenty more to search through. But, for the moment, I can offer no more. Sorry, and best wishes.
      Phil Newman

  3. Hello Phil, You’re very erudite and I’ve learnt quite a lot through you to-night. Would you like to see a few photos of Camargue here?:
    The report is only in French, though, for I hadn’t started my blog in English at that time.

    • english13 says:

      Hi Hubert, yes, nice images. Thanks. I especially like your herons photos. The book “cock and bulls stories’ I bought through Amazon after visiting Camargue the first time last summer. The book inspired my blog.

  4. english13 says:

    sorry – flamingoes! Doctor’s given me some stong pain killers for a ‘frozen shoulder’ and it makes the mind a bit fuzzy.

  5. Kathryn Machi says:

    I absolutely loved this post! Have written a screenplay with a full second act set in Saintes-Marie for the pure reason of its spiritual connections to cowboys and Native Americans. I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting the Camargue yet (I live in California) but I am most definitely a spiritual daughter. Thank you for an excellently written and paced, thorough, unexpected, and fascinating history of this very special land.

    • english13 says:

      Thx, Kathryn, glad you liked it. Check out youtube clips too, especially of St.Maries ‘gitanes’ festival. I live just 40kms from the Camargues and haven’t been for a while. Time for a visit, methinks! It’s a place where the horizon is low and the sky dominates. Plus rice fields and saly flats etc. Interesting place.

      • Kathryn Machi says:

        Yes, I have checked out You Tube — it’s been awesome for visuals! Research has never been easier.

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