An Accursed Race by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

Essay review: An Accursed Race by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

When I started reading this novella on my Kindle, I was expecting some sort of fictional story. Turns out to be more of a non-fictional essay. Who’d a-thought it?


Gaskell is very well read, and there seems to have been a lot of research going into this. What she writes about is a group of people called the Cagots, who lived in the west of France and in northern Spain and were loathed by everyone else.

When I read Gaskell’s essay, I thought maybe it was some kind of gypsy folk she was describing, but no, it seems this is an entirely separate group of people. They weren’t allowed to enter through the same church door as other people, even though they were of the same religion, and they had to live in the outskirts of town and basically, you could compare them with the Untouchables in India, or the Jews under Nazi Germany. They were kept separate and thought dirty and horrible.

I could point you to the Wikipedia article about the Cagots, but on the other hand you could just go and read Gaskell’s essay.

It’s a chilling read. How can people be that narrow-minded? Quite easily, apparently. And for no reason. There were nothing to distinguish the Cagots physically, so the only way to tell was to know that they came from a Cagot family. It’s the sort of tale that makes you despair about humanity. Really? We have to behave like this to other people?

If you’re disgusted by what you read, Gaskell has done her job well. The only positive to come out of this is that the stigma faded after the Industrial Revolution and that today, there’s no specific social class distinguished as Cagot. Those who are of Cagot descent don’t exactly wave it about.

Very informative essay, though, and I enjoyed reading it. Even if what I read was shocking and disgusting.

4 out of 5 wooden spoons.

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