The renowned scholar and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) founded the University of Berlin and devised an educational model in his homeland, Prussia, which had a strong influence on the US education system. Humboldt’s other significant American connection was his early interest in, and significant contribution to, the study of Native American languages.
In Humboldt’s Selected Basque Writings: The Basques and Announcement of a Publication, we are treated to a rare and privileged description of Basque life on the cusp of the modern age. He visited the Basque Country twice, in 1799 and 1801, and this work is the result of his observations on those trips. In the work he is keen to see how culture thrives, and just what makes the Basque Country “Basque.” Here in English translation for the first time, these accounts will be of interest not just to scholars but anyone fascinated by what life was like in the Basque Country before the great nineteenth-century industrial changes. Let’s take a look at these writings via snippets that reveal the keen insight of this famous scholar.
On Basque women:
Regarding industriousness, it seems as if the sexes in the Basque Country, specifically in the French Basque lands, have switched roles. I have never seen as much and wearisome work carried out by women as here. In the Spanish part, they often break the harshest and hardest of soil while hunching over the abrasive laya, an implement for tilling that I will describe later. In Bilbao, they unload the ships, carrying the heaviest of weights on their heads, especially the much-traded iron rods, from the river to the storehouses. I even saw them hammering away on the anvil in the smithies. The most remarkable thing is, however, that their unusual strength is equally matched by their quickness and agility.
I grew accustomed to admire this especially among the sardinières or sardine carriers of whom I encountered many on my way to Donibane Lohizune. It is a weird sight to see a row of five or six, sometimes even ten or twenty mostly tall and scanty female bodies trotting toward you, one by one popping up behind a hill, each carrying big, round, covered baskets of fish on their heads while keeping their bodies motionless and stiff. Each one hurries to be the first to market their sardines in Baiona, and so they jog the whole way, slowing down only where the terrain ascends. I was assured that during the fishing season they carry their load to the market even twice a day. Thus they cover the distance of about three French miles four times on the very same day in spite of a road without shade and the sun burning down on them.
On Basque food:
in Markina they told me that they have meat at every lunch, always have wine in the evenings, and their midmorning snack is abundant, too. I once took part at one such family elevenses. The patron, his two sons, his menial, and a day laborer sat around a bowl with cut pieces of bread that was fried in lard; with it they had omelets and a good wheat bread given that cornbread is a worse and paltrier nourishment. The woman stood behind them and merely watched them, as she had already eaten at home.
There are various ways of eating the corn. In some areas they make a mash of it and they either eat it fresh or bake it and cut it into pieces. In others they make bread out of it. As this always remains solid, moist, and cakelike, they eat it seldom as we do our bread. Instead, they cut it into thin slices, roast them on the fire, and sometimes cover them with ham. This is then called chingarra. Sometimes, they take a piece of corn bread, heat it on the fire, add cheese to it, and knead it into a ball in their hands. Such a ball is called marakukia and commonly part of their breakfast. These taste not bad at all, but a lot depends on the hands that make them. As long as the chestnut season lasts, four consecutive months that is, this fruit is the only food that the Lower Navarrese eat in the morning and in the evening. For lunch they will have a soup of beans, without any fat, but with a lot of red pepper. Meat, with the exception of ham, and wheat bread can only be seen in the houses of the wealthy … In Lower Navarre and the little land of Lapurdi I noticed an odd way of boiling milk. Instead of putting it on the fire, they throw glowing pebbles into it. It swells up at once and acquires a burned taste, but the people seem to love it.
On Basque dance and traditions in general:
Unlike elsewhere, in Biscay such popular things (like dance and revelry) are not left to the private sphere, but are, in a sense, part of the constitution, subject to public supervision. They are steadfast traditions handed down, truly national, and, moreover, traditions that have a fixed form depending on the individual’s place of birth. The character of the Biscayans, for the most part, recurs on these very things, and it is these aspects of their character that are praised, in preference to other nations. It reinforces the Basque’s tie with his land and his compatriots, and nothing can supersede the power of this tie in terms of the beneficial influence it has on the strength and the upright integrity of his character. Even the highest of culture could not fully take its place as it cannot lend itself to all branches of society; love for the homeland and national ambition, however, are readily adopted by both, the beggars and the elites of a people, if in different shape. It is only natural, though, that with increased commerce with foreign countries, these institutions will ever more fall into oblivion. In fact it is deplorable that the authorities have ceased to see to its preservation. Thus, one public custom after the other continues to fall asleep.
Interestingly, Humboldt concluded that, despite his obvious affection for the Basques, he could see little future for either their language or culture. In fact, he thought it only a matter of time before both disappeared for good, swallowed up by their more powerful neighbors.