The most marked features in the Basque character are an intense self-respect, a pride of race and an obstinate conservatism. Much has been written in ridicule of the claim of all Basques to be noble, but it was a fact both in the laws of Spain, in the fueros and in practice. Every Basque freeholder (vecino) could prove himself noble and thus eligible to any office. They are not a town race; a Basque village consists of a few houses; the population lives in scattered habitations. They do not fear solitude, and this makes them excellent emigrants and missionaries. They are splendid seamen, and were early renowned as whale fishermen in the Bay of Biscay. They were the first to establish the cod-fishery off the coast of Newfoundland. They took their full part in the colonization of America. Basque names abound in the older colonial families, and Basque newspapers have been published in Buenos-Aires and in Los Angeles, California. As soldiers they are splendid marchers; they retain the tenacity and power of endurance which the Romans remarked in the Iberians and Celtiberians. They are better in defence than in attack. The failure to take Bilbao was the turning-point in both Carlist wars. In civil institutions and in the tenures of property the legal position of women was very high.
The eldest born, whether boy or girl, inherited the ancestral property, and this not only among the higher classes but among the peasantry also. In the fueros an insult done to a woman, or in the presence of a woman, is punished more severely than a similar offence among men. This did not prevent women from working as hard as, or even harder than, the men. All authors speak of the robust appearance of the women-rowers on the Bidassoa, and of those who loaded and unloaded the ships in Bilbao.
In their municipal institutions they kept the old Roman term respublica for the civitas and the territory belonging to it. All municipal officers were elective in some form or other, and there is hardly any mode of election, from universal suffrage to nomination by a single person chosen by lot, that the Basques have not tried. The municipalities sent deputies to the juntas or parliaments of each province. These assemblies took place originally in the open air, as in other parts of the Pyrenees, under trees, the most celebrated of which is the oak of Guernica in Biscay, or under copses, as the Bilzaar in the French Pays Basque. The cortes of Navarre met at Pamplona. Delegates from the juntas met annually to consider the common interests of the three provinces. Besides the separate municipalities and the juntas, there were often associations and assemblies of three or five towns, or of three or four valleys, to preserve the special privilege or for the special needs of each. Hence was formed a habit of self-government, the practice of legislative, judicial and administrative functions, which resulted gradually in a code of written or unwritten laws embodied in the fueros or fors of each province, and the cartas-pueblos of the towns.
In form these fueros or charters are often grants from the lord or sovereign; in reality they are only a confirmation or codification of unwritten customary laws in practice among the people, the origin of which is lost in antiquity. The kings of Castile, of Spain and of Navarre were obliged at their accession, either in person, or by deputy, to swear to observe these fueros; and this oath was really kept. While the cortes were trampled upon and absolutism reigned both in Spain and in France, the Basque fueros were respected; in Spain to the middle of the 19th century and in France down to the Revolution. The fueros thus observed made the Basque provinces a land apart (una tierra apartada), a self-governing republic (una verdadera autonomia), under an absolute monarchy, to which, however, they were always loyal. And this independence was acknowledged, not only in local, but also in international and European treaties, as in art. 15 of the treaty of Utrecht 1713. So the act of the 3rd of June 1876, which assimilated the Basque Provinces to the rest of Spain, acknowledged the true self-government which they had enjoyed for centuries.
The circumstances and methods which enabled the Basques to preserve this independence were, first, the isolation caused by their peculiar language; next, the mountainous and easily-defended nature of the country, its comparative poverty and the possession of a sea-board. Then there were the rights and the safeguards which the fueros themselves gave against encroachments. The rights were: - freedom of election to all offices and to the juntas; exemption from all forced military service except for the defence of the country and under their own officers; and payment beforehand exacted for all service beyond their own frontiers (this did not of course exclude voluntary service of individuals in the Spanish or French armies). Then there was free trade with foreign nations, and especially between the Basques of both nations. The customs' frontier of Spain really began on the Ebro. Then no decree or sentence of the royal authorities could have effect in the provinces except countersigned by the junta. Otherwise the resisting and even the killing of a royal officer was no murder.
But chiefest of all the safeguards was the provision that no tax or contribution should be levied or paid to the crown till all petitions had been heard and wrongs redressed; that such a vote should be the last act of the junta or cortes, and the money should be paid not as a demand of right or a tax, but as a free gift and above all a voluntary one. It was paid in a lump sum, and the repartition and levying were left entirely in the hands of the junta and the municipalities.
As a further precaution against the inroads of absolutism, no lawyer was allowed to be a deputy to the junta and all clergy were likewise excluded. The Basques considered that men of these professions would be always on the side of tyranny. One lawyer (letrado) was present at the juntas for consultation on the points of law, but he was not allowed to vote. So strictly was this observed that after the battle of Vitoria in 1813, when it was difficult to get together a quorum for the reorganization of the country, the letrado, though one of the most active and influential members in consultation, was not allowed to vote.
The relations between Church and State among the Basques have been very remarkable. They are a highly religious people, eminently conservative in their religious practices. In religion alone, through Ignatius de Loyola of Guipúzcoa and Francis Xavier of Navarre, they have left their mark upon Europe. They have kept the earliest form of Christian marriage and of the primitive order of deaconesses, forgotten elsewhere in the West. The feast of Corpus Christi instituted by Pope Urban IV. (1262) still appears in Basque almanacs as Phesta-berria, the New Feast. The earliest notice that we have of them speaks of their liberality to the clergy; yet with all this religious conservatism they have never allowed themselves to be priest-ridden. They constantly resisted the attempts of the crown to force upon them the authority of the Spanish bishops. When Ferdinand the Catholic came to Biscay in 1477 to swear to the fueros, he was compelled to send back the bishop of Pamplona whom he had brought with him. No strange priest could enter the town when the junta was sitting, and in some places if a deputy was seen speaking to a priest before a session he lost his vote for that day.
The bishops had no share in ecclesiastical patronage in Guipúzcoa; all was in the hands of the king, of the nobles or of the municipalities, or else the priests were chosen by competitive examination or elected by the people. They would not allow the priest to interfere with the games or dances, and when the drama was forbidden in all Spain in 1757 by the authority of the Spanish bishops, the cortes of Navarre compelled the king to withdraw the order.
For a stranger coming from lands of larger farms and apparently higher cultivation, the agriculture of the Basques seems poor, but the old scattered homesteads show a sense of security that has been lacking in many parts of Spain; and the Basques have shown great adaptability in suiting their agriculture to new conditions, helped by the presence of the courts at San Sebastian and Biarritz. When the old self-sufficient village industries declined, in consequence of the invention of machinery and manufacture elsewhere, the Basques entered at once upon emigration to the agricultural parts of the Americas, and the result has been that the Basque Provinces and the Pays Basque probably have never been more prosperous than they are now, and perhaps a new Eskual-herria and a new Eskuara are being built up in the distant lands to which they are such valued immigrants.
For so restricted a literature the Essai d'une bibliographie de la langue basque, by Julien Vinson (Paris, 1891), with the volume of additions and corrections, 1898, is practically exhaustive, and is a mine of information on the principal works. See also for the language, A. Oihenart, Notitia utriusque Vasconiae (Paris. 1638 and 1656), 4to., ch. xiv.; Fl. Lecluse, Manuel de la langue basque (Toulouse, 1826); C. Ribary, Essai sur la langue basque (1866), translated from the Hungarian by Julien Vinson (Paris, 1877); W. J. Van Eys, Grammaire comparée des dialectes basques (Paris, London, Amsterdam, 1879); Prince L. L. Bonaparte, Le Verbe basque en tableaux (London, 1864-1869); J. Vinson, articles in Revue de linguistique (Paris, 1867-1906); L'Abbé Ithurry, Grammaire basque (Bayonne, 1895-1906); Dr H. Schuchardt, Die Entstehung der Bezugsformen des Baskischen (Wien, 1893); W. J. Van Eys, Dictionnaire basque-français (Paris, 1873); R. M. de Azkue, Diccionario vascongado español-français (Tours, 1906); Monumenta Linguae Ibericae, edidit Aemilius Hubner, fol. (Berlin, 1893) (texts and introduction good; analysis and interpretation faulty). Other works of interest on various subjects are: - Wentworth Webster, Basque Legends (London, 1877 and 1879); Puyol y Camps, "La Epigraphia Numismatica Iberica," in tomo xvi. of Boletin de la Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid, 1890), (for geographical distribution of the alphabets); T. de Aranzadi, El Pueblo Euskalduna. Estudio de Antropologia (San Sebastian, 1889); and the same author's Existe una raza Euskara? Sus caracteres antropologicos (1905); La Tradition au pays basque (Paris, 1899), (a collection of papers by local authorities); Julien Vinson, Les Basques et le pays basque (Paris, 1882), a sufficient survey for the general reader; the same author's Le Folk-Lore du pays basque (Paris, 1883), treats of the Pastorales and embraces the whole Folk-Lore; Le Codex de Saint-Jacques de Compostella, lib. iv. (Paris, 1882), by R. P. F. Fita and J. Vinson, gives the first Basque vocabulary; Les Coutumes générales gardées et observées au pais & baillage de Labourt (Bordeaux, 1700); G. Olphe-Galliard, Le Paysan basque à travers les âges (Paris, 1905); Pierre Yturbide, Le Pays de Labourd avant 1789 (Bayonne, 1905), (for the time of the English domination); Henry O'Shea, La Tombe basque (Pau, 1889), (valuable for the comparison of Basque and Celtic sepulchral ornament). See also the bibliography to Basque Provinces.
(W. We.; J. Vn.)