Opinions of Race
In her essay “An Accursed Race,” Elizabeth Gaskell describes the wretched conditions under which the Cagots of Brittany lived. The style and format of her essay brings the question of the meaning race to the fore, especially concerning the origins of peoples. Gaskell’s discussion of the physicians’ report on the Cagots and her speculations on their suspected ancestry complement the displays of hypocrisy in the Church-going members of the “Pure Race” in a shining example of how a well written and a sometimes sardonically humorous format can influence a reader. In this manner, she begins to counter the Hudibras saying: “He that’s convinced against his will / Is of the same opinion still” (p. 228).
While it seems to recount the history of the Cagots, Gaskell’s essay begins to unravel the shroud of race by illuminating the humanity fundamental to all peoples. In describing the findings of the surgeons of the king of Navarre, Gaskell reports that “their blood was just like that of other people” (p. 226). The lack of biological difference between Cagots and their oppressors is underscored by the fact that the surgeons were looking for a new salt in their blood, which would account for their supposedly heightened body temperature. Even in trying to establish scientific reasons for their oppression, the physicians were forced to conclude that one did not exist. Gaskell alerts the reader, however, that this only intensified the persecution of the Cagots.
Gaskell continues to question the notions that underlie the construction of race by exploring the possible origins of the Cagots. Using a sardonic tone throughout, Gaskell traces the characteristics for which the Cagots are renowned. Her purposely faulty reasoning in each case proves both humorous and enlightening, as she recounts “proof upon proof!” (p. 231) of many possible origins. In facetiously trying to establish to the root of their difference, Gaskell demonstrates for the reader that they share a common origin with their oppressors, just as they share a common origin with all of humanity. They are ascribed characteristics which relate them to almost any and every race of people.
Gaskell’s most poignant case involves the infuriating hypocrisy of the Church. Not only did the Cagots have a separate entrance, but in some cases, they were not allowed to partake in the Mass and in the breaking of bread. While learning of God’s tolerance for their own shortcomings and follies, the Cagots’ oppressors confidently deemed an entire race of people unfit to worship in the same manner as themselves. This illustrates the height of the senselessness of the Cagots’ persecution. While Gaskell reveals the multitude of reasons once offered for the subjugation of a race, she brings the reader to understand that the very foundations of race are superficial and tentative. When used as a justification for oppression, race fails to provide any justification; it merely exemplifies the folly of the oppressor.