The Basques are a group of people living in the area of northern Spain and southern France. The Basques are a distinct ethnic group, although they have genetic similarities to many Portuguese, Britons, French, Irish, and Spaniards.
The modern-day Basques are thought to be holdouts of the early people of Western Europe, most of whom were exterminated or enveloped by early conquerors. Various Basque tribes, notably the Aquitani and Vascones, were mentioned by Roman writers. The Basque region was known as Vasconia during the Middle Ages, and was eventually divided during the time of Charlemagne into two distinct kingdoms, the Kingdom of Pamplona and the Kingdom of Castille. The Kingdom of Castille annexed a great deal of the Basque territory from the 11th to 16th centuries, and this land eventually became a part of Spain. The rest of the Basque territory would become part of France.
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The Basques are fiercely self-deterministic, and many are part of a movement claiming sovereignty throughout the Basque region. The Basques speak their own language, have their own radio and newspapers, have their own educational system, and continue to embrace a culture spanning thousands of years.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Basques joined in with the Separatist movements, hoping to at last have total autonomy. When Franco defeated the Separatists, however, the Basques were reassimilated into the Spanish government. Since then, however, a number of reforms have taken place, granting the Basques steadily more and more autonomy, even while they remain a part of Spain and France. The Basques have been granted the right to speak Euskara, to run their own schools, and to practice their own culture.
At the same time, many Basques see the perceived continued occupation of their homeland as a great injustice. The ETA, a Basque separatist group, or terrorist group according to the US State Department and other governmental bodies, continues to fight for complete autonomy. The Basques convene their own Parliament, and in both 2002 and 2006 this Parliament reasserted their right to self-determination.
Ancient Basques are thought to have worshiped the goddess Mari, and ancient Basque culture was thought to be largely matriarchal. The old Basque religion also included a number of mythical figures, including nymphs, giants, genies, and supernatural beings that supposedly built the stone circles that dot the landscape. Since the advent of Christianity, the Basques have historically been almost entirely Roman Catholic, and a number of prominent saints, including Francis Xavier, have been of Basque origin. In fact, the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, was a Basque. In recent years, however, religious attendance has fallen off dramatically, echoing similar shifts in the larger region.
The Basques are well-known for their close ties to their land and their families. Many Basque surnames are derived from the names for traditional Basque farms, giving an immediate tie to the land the people hail from. Inheritance in Basque culture traditionally places a premium on keeping land together, passing it all on to the oldest son. This is one reason why so many Basques, mostly younger men, made their way out into the larger world to seek their fortunes.