La Féte des Pailhasses

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In my last post, I put up a bunch of pictures of the village where I now live, Cournonterral. Who caught the image of the two dummies on the side of the building? 🙂 Did anyone wonder who they are?

What you are looking at are in fact signs of a festival of medieval or pagan origins that still takes place every year here in this village on the Wednesday before the Lenten season. These figures are called “pepettes” and are a representation of the two major players in this festival. (The signs are in Occitan which is the regional dialect here in the  Languedoc. (Langue (language) d’Oc, see?)

My understanding is that “Taisa-te” (in French, “tais-toi”) basically means “Shut up”; “Lenga de Pelha” (langue de peille) means “tongue/language of rags”(which is an expression that kind of translates as “gossip” or “bad mouthing”.

It’s a VERY local variation on Carnival, and is unique to this village. There isn’t any information on it in English on the web, so I translated the Wikipedia article to give you an idea of what it’s all about! I’m including the original Wikipedia text for fun:

La fête des Pailhasses se déroule chaque mercredi des Cendres dans le village de Cournonterral (département français de l’Hérault).

Les Pailhasses tiennent lieu de carnaval de dernière minute avant le Carême, mais seuls les habitants du village et quelques invités privilégiés peuvent y participer. Pour éviter tout malentendu, les forces de l’ordre interdisent même l’accès à Cournonterral l’après-midi en question.

Durant trois heures, les Pailhasses donnent la chasse aux Blancs à travers les rues du bourg, en s’efforçant de les salir à coup de “peilles” (littéralement « serpillières ») imbibées de lie. Mais toute personne passant par là est considérée comme participant au jeu et peut être salie. À la fin de la période, les ex-Blancs attrapés sont carrément plongés dans des cuves remplies de lie. Les Blancs ont cependant l’initiative puisque ce sont eux qui provoquent en quelque sorte les Pailhasses qu’ils croisent sur leur chemin.

À l’origine, les Pailhasses étaient les habitants de Cournonterral et les Blancs ceux d’Aumelas, mais désormais chacun choisit le camp auquel il veut se joindre. Résurgence médiévale ou païenne, la fête des Pailhasses permet d’évacuer les frustrations éventuelles entre villageois et tout le monde peut ainsi entamer le Carême avec plus de sérénité…

D’où vient cette tradition ? Les habitants de Cournonterral avaient l’habitude d’aller couper du chêne vert dans les forêts communales et seigneuriales attenantes à celles d’Aumelas. Les habitants d’Aumelas, considérant le chêne vert comme leur seule source de revenus, entretenaient une haine sourde contre les Cournonterralais qui venaient se servir, et c’est ainsi qu’un jour où les habitants de Cournonterral avaient décidé de couper du bois, les Aumelassiens les accueillirent à coups de fronde et de flèches. Il y eut plusieurs blessés. Les consuls et le seigneur du lieu en furent informés et ordonnèrent au Bayle “Pailhas” de faire cesser cette rivalité.

Dans le film d’Agnès Varda “Sans toit ni loi”, Sandrine Bonnaire passe par Cournonterral le jour de la fête et est terrorisée quand elle est prise à partie par quelques Pailhasses.”

Here’s my attempt:

The festival of the Pailhasses occurs each Ash Wednesday in the village of Cournonterral (French department of Hérault).

The Pailhasses takes the place of carnival on the last day before Lent, but only the habitants of the village and some privileged invitees are allowed to participate. To avoid misunderstanding, the law enforcement even forbids access to Cournonterral on the afternoon in question.

Over the course of three hours, the Pailhasses give chase to the “Blancs” across the streets of the village,  staining their clothes with “peilles” (literally, “serilliéres, or rags, soaked in lie, or the thick purple sediment or dregs found at the bottom of wine fermenting barrels). However, any passerby is considered a participant in the game and may be soiled. At the end of this period, the former-Blancs are captured and forcibly plunged into barrels full of lie. The Blancs however are the initiators, since it is them who in some way provoke the Pailhasses that are crossing their street.

  

 

  

Originally, the Pailhasses were habitants of Cournonterral and the Blancs were from Aumelas, but henceforth, each chooses the camp that they want to join. Revived in medieval or pagan times, the festival of the Pailhasses allows for the venting of current frustrations between villagers and thus everyone can enter the period of Lent with more serenity.

Where does this tradition come from? The habitants of Cournonterral had the habit of going to cut green oak in the communal forests and adjoining fiefdoms of the village of Aumelas. The habitants of Aumelas, who considered the green oak to be their sole source of revenue, harbored a silent hatred of the habitants of Cournonterral who they came to serve, and it was thus that one day when the Cournonterralais had decided to cut some wood, the Aumelassiens greeted them with bows and arrows. Many were injured. The Cournonterralais, furious, returned home and prepared for retaliation. They dressed with badger skins over their faces and stuffes straw under their clothes, and camoflaged themselves with branches of green oak. They slipped through the forest armed with sour rags dipped in foul smelling dark purple lie from the wine harvest, and, dressed as strange monsters, attacked the Aumelassiens with  the rags, even dragging them off and plunging them in barrels full of the stuff.

The councils and the lord of the territory, in fury, informed and ordered the Bayle (at the time the Bayle, or Bailli, was the king’s representative and lord of the territory) to cease this rivalry.

In Agnés Varda’s film, “Sans toit ni loi”, Sandrine Bonnaire passes through Cournonterral on the day of the festival and is terrorized when she tries to take her leave by some Pailhasses. (“Sans toit ni loi literally means “Without roof or law” and is a play off the French phrase: “Sans foi ni loi”, or, “Without faith or law”. In English the film is simply called “Vagabond” (click for more information)

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Here’s the scene from the movie. Not at all terrifying, right? 😀

And here’s a Youtube video, shot in 2009, of the festival.

It looks like the town gets completely trashed. Can you see where they’ve actually covered the first floor of the buildings with plastic sheets?

It’s coming up soon, and it will be my first time seeing it, although I’ve known about it for a little while. As you enter our town, there’s actually a concrete statue near one of my running routes that I used to pass all the time and never really look at, but you can clearly see that it’s a depiction of a Pailhasse.

One of the things to me that is interesting about living here is this amazing sense of place. It’s extraordinary to me to see a tradition like this get passed down over the centuries! Apparently a lot of the people from Paris and up north that move to the south after retirement to enjoy the climate and sunshine despise this festival and have made attempts to get it to be discontinued – mostly because, as you can see, the town and the houses suffer a lot of damage from the thick purple lie each year (not to mention the drunk participants.) However, the weird uncanny danger of the whole thing (captured really well in the clip from the movie) is part of what makes it interesting and unknowable and anarchic to me. I’ll take pictures and report back as the festial approaches!

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3 thoughts on “La Féte des Pailhasses

  1. Oh so very strange! Beware the Wednesday! Do they rent pressure washers the next day?

  2. Pingback: Chaos in the Streets | Vin au Verre

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