Occitans - History and Cultural Relations



While there is, in the broadest sense, a geographical and linguistic basis for the designation "Occitan," the developmental trajectory followed by Occitanie that differentiates it from France as a whole is rooted in a series of significant historical and protohistorical events that linked the French meridian more closely with the cultures of the Mediterranean than with that of the Germanic tribes that were much more influential in the north. First to come to the region were the Greeks, who founded Massalia (now Marseille) in 600 B.C. and brought the indigenes of the meridian into the already lively world of Greek-dominated commerce in the Mediterranean. This commercial trade carried with it cultural influences, introducing a Hellenist tradition in architecture and in the layout of urban centers and public monuments that this region shares with the Mediterranean, but not with northern France. The second significant event, or events, was the successive waves of Celts immigrating into the Gallic isthmus, driven there from the north and east by the expansionist movements of Germanic tribes at their backs. Celtic "conquest" of the Territory was by settlement rather than by force of arms. By the time the Romans arrived in the mid-second century B.C. —the third profound foreign influence—there already existed a thriving, "modern" Mediterranean culture. The climate favored the adoption of "Mediterranean" crops such as grapes, figs, and grains, while proximity and commercial contact facilitated the adoption of Hellenic modes of social organization and cultural expression.

The Hellenic influence, however strong it may have been on the Mediterranean littoral, was essentially based on Commerce and thus was strongly localized to the area of Marseilles. With the coming of Rome's legions, there emerged for the first time a larger meridional unity. Although Roman Conquest extended far beyond the southern isthmus that is now, properly speaking, Occitanie, it was primarily in the south that the direct effects of Romanization were felt—for here the Romans established true colonies, rather than simple military outposts. The Romans introduced what are now felt to be distinctive characteristics of the region: cities designed and built according to the Roman model; agricultural enterprise ordered on the principles of the latifundia; military monuments and temples celebrating Roman gods; but, above all, the strong Romanization of the language and the introduction of Roman law to the region.

This ostensible unity did not last. Germanic tribes from the east and north, themselves under constant pressure from the westward expansion of the Huns, were moving westward. By the start of the fifth century, the imperial government of Rome could no longer bar their incursion into the Gaulish territories. Quickly losing its more northern holdings to the invading Vandals and Suevis and, later, the Franks, Rome regrouped and Consolidated its presence in the south. Gaul, Brittany, and Spain assumed great importance as a sort of protective buffer zone for Italy. The invaders of the northern part of Gaul took these new territories by force of arms and settled in relatively large numbers. In the south, the newcomers were Visigoths, who constitute the fourth great external influence on the region. The Visigoths approached the annexation of these new lands in a less obtrusive manner than that adopted by the invading tribes in the north. Their settlements were comparatively less numerous—they were not so much interested in land occupation as in administrative and economic control, and so they permitted preexisting cultural practices to coexist with their own.

The first significant historic references to an "Occitan" entity occur in the Middle Ages. This was the time of the Region's flowering in the fields of art, science, letters, and philosophy. The various smaller kingdoms of the region at the time were stabilized in the hands of established families—for the most part derived from powerful families of the Gallo-Roman and Gothic periods but also including "made" noble families of Frankish descent, who came to the region during the Carolingian period.

During the 1100s and 1200s, three major houses rose to the status of kingdom (although smaller independent realms had existed in Occitanie prior to this time). These were: Aquitaine, to the west, which later passed through the Plantagenets to English rule for a time; the dynasty of the counts of Saint-Gilles and of Toulouse, in the center and to the east of the region, whose most noted figure was the Count Raimond IV; and finally, in the west, a region in fealty to the Catalans of Spain. The history of the region at this rime is essentially the history of the struggles among these three powers.

Losing, in the late 1200s, in the Albigensian Crusades, Occitanie began also to lose its independence, a process completed in 1471, when English Aquitaine was made part of France. Never again an independent political entity (or entities), Occitanie retained its distinctiveness through the retention of its language. The language was banned from official use in 1539, thus beginning its decline in prestige as well as use, although it never disappeared entirely. The poet Mistral, through his work with the Provençal dialect of Occitan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was one of the first to bring back a certain amount of respect for and appreciation of the Language. He and some colleagues established a movement, the Félibrige, dedicated to standardizing Occitan on the basis of the Provençal dialect and developing an orthography with which to write in it. Throughout its history, the Félibrige has suffered from dissension among its members—partly because of its having given pride of place to only one of the many Occitanie dialects, and also because the movement soon took on a political role as well, rather than confining itself to purely linguistic and literary concerns. Its current role has lost much of its former political thrust, giving way in that regard to more militant regionalist movements.

During World War II, the concerns of the Occitan Regionalist movements aligned most of their members in support of Petain—exceptions included Simone Weil and René Nelli. During the early postwar years, the Institut d'Estudis Occitans attempted to formulate new approaches to the Concept of regionalism, becoming an ideological competitor of the Félibrige. The region's economic problems, arising from the fact that it remains largely agricultural in a national Economy that favors industry, has fed the regionalist movement, giving rise to claims of "interior colonization" by the Paris-based government and financial structure. The region today is splintered among rival political factions, which make any concerted efforts for the overall betterment of the region difficult to organize. Perhaps the most influential of these rival movements is the Comitat Occitan d'Estudis e d'Accion, founded in 1961, whose founders first popularized the term "interior colonization" and focused on increasing the autonomy of the local communities within the region. This group, taken over in 1971 by a more militant and revolutionary Organization called Lutte Occitane, presses on today in pursuit of the creation of an autonomous Occitanie, and it strongly identifies itself with working-class protest movements throughout France.

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