Basque Fact of the Week: Hard Apple Cider once Dominated Basque Life

Before wine and beer and soft drinks became popular, before land was devoted to corn, sagardoa, or apple cider, was the drink of the land. This was true up to maybe 100 years ago. Family farms, or baserriak, made cider for family consumption and sagardotegiak, places to drink cider that were the de facto main public meeting place, existed in all towns. These sagardotegis were the ancestors of the gastronomic societies that later sprung up in places like Donostia.

  • The word sagardoa is a contraction of two other words, sagarardo, literally meaning apple wine. Curiously, this term entered the popular speech of Andalusia with the meaning of bad woman, perhaps explained by some association with the acid taste of the cider broth.
  • Since at least the mid 1300s, the regulation of cider has been encoded into local laws, with the goal of controlling quality and to defend the local production of cider. Already by November 1, 1335, the town hall of Tolosa warned the cider merchants that if they were caught selling watery cider they would be fined 100 maravedis. Both aspects of law – the defense of local cider and the prosecution of fraud – appear in title XXI of the Fueros de Gipuzkoa of 1585.
  • The judge of Bordeaux, Pierre Lancre, who at the beginning of the seventeenth century burned several hundred people accused of witchcraft, wrote in his book Inconstance des Demons that the perversity of the Basques was caused by the cider that was drunk in the Basque Country, being the juice of the demonic fruit that caused the condemnation of Adam and Eve. (He also believed that “the root of the natural Basque tendency towards evil was love of dance.”)
  • Basque sailors, in their contracts, demanded cider as part of their pay, requiring 2-3 liters per day. The high level of vitamin C in cider protected them from scurvy, a disease that ravaged sailors from other regions that did not drink cider.

Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon; Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon. Sidra. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [en línea], 2019. [Fecha de consulta: 09 de Febrero de 2019].

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Originally Didn’t Have Separate Words for Blue, Grey and Green

In modern Basque, there are words for blue, grey and green. However, only one of these, urdin, that is native to the language. While today urdin means blue, originally it also encompassed the colors grey and green.

  • Urdin, meaning grey, can be found in several phrases. For example, grey hair and beards are still often called urdin. And, the word for an old maid, motxurdin, has the sense of grey. Larry Trask described this word here.
  • As for green, there is a mushroom that is called gibelurdin. Gibel means back, so one might think that this word means “blue-underside,” but, as Larry Trask emphasizes, the actual mushroom has a green underside.
  • Other color words native to Basque are beltz (black), zuri (white), gorri (red), and hori (yellow). There are also words that describe shades of color more than a specific color, at least originally. However, all other words for specific colors are borrowed from other languages.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque was only Standardized in the 1970s

The Basque language — Euskara — became standardized in the 1970s. The Basque Language Academy (the Euskaltzaindia) felt that a standard was needed to give the language a better chance of survival against the pressures of languages like French and Spanish. This unified Basque, Euskara Batua, was based on a dialect of Basque from Gipuzkoa.

The density of Basque speakers, from Wikipedia.
  • There are at least 5 dialects of Basque, subdivided into 11 subdialects and 24 minor variants. I’ve heard it said that every valley — indeed every baserri — has its own dialect. My dad, a Bizkaian, would say he couldn’t understand the Basque of the French side.
  • In comparison, the Royal Spanish Academy, founded in 1713 to ensure the stability of Spanish, published its first grammar in 1771, though the first Spanish grammar was published back in 1492.
  • Euskara Batua is now an official language in Spain, but not in France.

Basque Fact of the Week: Bermeo, not Bilbao, was Originally the Capital of Bizkaia

Bermeo, a town of about 17,000 on the Bizkaia coast, was founded between 1234 and 1239 by Lope Diaz de Haro. Bermeo was the capital of Bizkaia between 1476 and 1602, at which time Bilbao was made the capital of the province.

Historical coats of arms of Bizkaia, from the Auñamendi Encyclopedia.
  • Bermeo’s history begins in 1051, with the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (meaning “the craggy fort” in Basque), which has gained recent fame as one of the filming sites of the series Game of Thrones.
  • Bilbao, founded in 1300, gained strength through a series of charters that, amongst other things, forced an important trade route to go through Bilbao.
  • From about 1040 to 1876, Bizkaia was ruled by the Lord of Bizkaia. One legend says that the first mythical Lord of Bizkaia, Çuria (in other tellings, Jaun Zuria — the White Lord), was the son of the god Sugaar and a foreign (typically Scottish) princess and was born in the village of Mundaka (now famous for surfing).

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basque Fox, the Last French Corsair

Étienne Pellot Aspikoeta (1765-1856), known as the Basque Fox (le Renard Basque in French), was the last known French corsair. He was imprisoned at least twice by the British, though much of his later activity was centered off the coast of Galicia. He was born and died in Hendaia.

Image from the Auñamendi Encyclopedia.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Song of Roland is Really about the Basques

The Song of Roland, one of the oldest major works in French, describes how Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, takes the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army back through the pass of Roncevaux, where they are ambushed and slaughtered by the Muslims. In reality, it was the Basques that attacked Roland.

Image from Wikipedia.
  • While The Song of Roland was written between 1040 and 1115, the Battle of Roncevaux, or Orreaga in Basque, Pass occurred in 778.
  • The Basques attacked in retaliation for the prior destruction of the walls of Pamplona. Some accounts say that the whole city was destroyed.
  • The Basque force was essentially a guerrilla army. “A typical Basque mountain warrior was armed with two short spears and a knife or short sword as his main weapons, and bows or javelins for missile weapons. He would not normally wear armour.” (from Wikipedia)
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