On March 18, 1795 (28 Ventôse, year III in the Republican calendar), the French Revolutionary “people’s representative” or envoy to the High and Low Pyrenees, (Jean-François) Auguste Izoard (1765-1840), issued a declaration. Tellingly, the declaration was published jointly in French and Basque.
This proclamation is particularly interesting because it indicates a backtracking of sorts, on the part of the Revolutionary authorities, when it comes to Basques who had fled from Iparralde to Hegoalde (on this, and particularly the internment and deportation of thousands of Basques, see our March 3 post here). Previously, under the infamous “Reign of Terror,” many Basques had suffered persecution, for their religious beliefs, for speaking their language, and for refusing to fight in France’s Revolutionary Wars.
By the spring of 1795, however, Izoard’s declaration would indicate a relaxing of attitudes (to some extent at least). The text refers to numerous inhabitants of Uztaritze (Lapurdi) who had fled to Hegoalde in the wake of the Terror and internment. It suggests that they may not be aware of a new amnesty-like law that would allow them to return unpunished. In Izoard’s words:
The inhabitants, all Basques, driven into the interior of Spain, deprived of all relations with their relatives and friends, all speaking a particular language, unaware of either the French language or the Spanish language, cannot, or only with great difficulty, manage to understand the beneficent decrees of the National Convention
The proclamation goes on to extend the amnesty period, and underscores the fact that:
The present decree shall be translated into the Basque language, read, and published wherever it should be necessary.
Quite apart from the general importance of the document as regards the history of the Basque Country during the French Revolution–for example, to see how the language attitudes expressed here contradict, to some extent, previous Revolutionary notions, see our previous post in this respect here–the fact that the declaration was published in Basque would appear to reveal that, not only was it widely spoken at the time, but that it was also a literary language for a literate people. The French Revolutionary authorities had to publish in Basque, a language they were not especially interested in and even hostile toward, to get their message across.
On the Basque experience during the French Revolution, check out The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006, by Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga. See, also, Hills of Conflict: Basque Nationalism in France, by James E. Jacob.