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buber.net > Basque > History > Introduction to Basque History
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Introduction to Basque History

by Curtis Aguirre

Although the Basques were probably inhabiting the area they now do since the stone age, our oldest historical records come from the time of the Romans. Around 75 B.C., the Romans established the city of Pamplona as a regional centre. The Basques seem to have come down from the hills to trade with the Romans, but the Romans seem never to have extended actual control of the Basques living in the hills. The Basques living on the plain around Pamplona probably adapted to the Roman presence, but we don't know to what extent.

Around A.D. 830 century A.D., toward the end of the tumultuous period that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Navarre (Nafarroa in Basque), centred in Pamplona, came into being. Originally this kingdom covered all of modern Navarre, plus the three Vascongadas (Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba), the modern French Basque country, and into neighbouring areas in modern Spain. Navarre was not conquered by the moors. Navarre was probably not a "Kingdom of the Basques", but it was a kingdom whose dominant ethnic group were the Basques.

Through the high and late middle ages Navarre gradually lost bits of its territory through various dynastic marriages and inheritances. Between 1200 and 1332, the three Vascongadas placed themselves in allegiance to the crown of Castille. By 1500 the Basques lived in three kingdoms: Navarre, Spain, and France. In 1515 Navarre was divided and absorbed into Spain and France along the current border (more or less).

In Spain, the Basques, especially those of the Vascongadas, retained special "fueros", privileges of self-governance and local assemblies for that purpose. The Basques were not individually subjects of the crown, but rather as a group subject to the crown (as long as they resided in the Vascongadas). In the 1800's a series of civil wars were fought in Spain (the "Carlist Wars") between factions who either sought to retain the medieval legal structure of Spain, or to reform it using the principles of the French Revolution. Rural Basques sided with the more conservative faction of King Carlos V in order to preserve the fueros. They lost. Many Basques fled Spain after these conflicts.

The loss of the fueros became more critical under Francisco Franco because he sought to take the integration of the different liguistic minorities in Spain one step further. He wanted total Castillianization. Catalan, Galician, and Basque were to be eradicated. After the death of Franco, King Juan Carlos and the Spanish Parliament established a system of autonomous regions that restored the fueros in spirit, if not in every detail.

During the time of the Carlist Wars, a "bertsolari" (wandering minstral) named Jose Mari Iparraguirre wrote a song about the famous oak tree that stands in Gernika. It is the traditional site of the gathering of the councils that goverened the Basques under the old system. That song, "Gernikako Arbola" has become the national anthem of the Basques. It is quite a long song, but here is the first verse with a rough translation:

        Gernikako arbola
        da bedeinkatua,
        euskaldunen artean
        guztiz maitatua.
        Eman da zabal zazu
        munduan frutua;
        adoratzen zaitugu,
        arbola santua.

        The tree of Gernika
        is a blessed symbol
        loved by all the Basque people
        with deep love.
        Give to all the world
        your fruit;
        we adore you
        sacred tree.

The rest of the song tells the story of the tree.


Collins, Roger. "The Basques" from "The Peoples of Europe" series, Basil Blackwell, New York: 1987 (first published Basil Blackwell, Oxford: 1986)

This book covers the history of the Basques from pre-historic times to the end of the Middle Ages. Collins seems to be a skeptic when it comes to some of the grander or more mystical views of Basque history. He makes few sweeping pronouncements, but offers many possibilities when evidence is inconclusive. Very sober writing.

"Euskalerria" copyright Basque Government Department of Culture and Tourism, date and publisher not specified.

This is a big coffee table book with many beautiful photographs. The book begins with six articles or chapters on various aspects of Basque history, culture, politics, etc. I used "A Short History of the Basque Country" by Martin de Ugalde and "Aspects of the Basque Economy Past, Present, and Future" by Rafael Ossa Echaburu for some of my information.

Minta, Stephen, "Aguirre", Henry Holt and Company, New York: 1994 (originally published by Jonathan Cape, UK: 1993)

This is a travelogue/historical study of the life and adventures of Lope de Aguirre, the crazy Basque conquistador who led an army of renegades through the Amazon and into the Carribean, before he was finally stopped in Venezuela. There is a fair bit of information about Basques scattered throughout (see the index of the book).

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