The last serf village in Europe

As you drive from Málaga airport through the Málaga mountains into the interior of Andalusia, just before the Antequera junction where the roads branch off to Seville, Córdoba and Granada, a compact cluster of houses looks down from a hilltop along the way. Traditional Andalusian white houses, standing shoulder to shoulder, coming together as a single closed settlement, as if they were preserving an old story. I give in to my gut feeling and pull off the highway to listen to that story.

Approaching the village on the access road, the compactness of the settlement is even more striking. Behind the fields and olive groves shining in the warm January sunlight, the white façades arranged in a straight line seem to be the first protective wall of a fortified settlement, and to the right, the large block of buildings behind the white church tower looks like a fortified monastery or a castle.

And it is indeed. As I park the car on the left side of the village and walk down Granada street between closed rows of white houses leading to the church – the other two streets are named after Seville and Málaga, as if giving a hint as to where you can go from here –, the many-windowed façade of a large, thick-walled block of buildings gradually unfolds behind the white church tower. This large peasant castle, assembled over the centuries, is none other than the Moorish castle of Cabeche or Qawŷ.

The castle of Cabeche was first mentioned by the 10th-century Córdoban historian Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Razi in his History of the Rulers of Andalusia, which became known in Spanish as The Chronicle of the Moorish Rasis. According to this, the castle was built in the early period or golden age of Andalusia, sometime during the Umayyad emirate.

The castle of Qawŷ was mentioned in the chronicle Yannat al-Rida of the 15th-century Muhammad Abu Yahya ibn ʿĀsim from Granada among the castles that the Christians captured in 1410 on the western border of the Sultanate of Granada, but in 1447 the Muslims recaptured from them for a while. Ibn ʿĀsim describes the location of the castle quite precisely, and it roughly coincides with the castle of Cauche. It is not known whether this is identical with the castle of Cabeche mentioned by al-Razi, because he does not localize it exactly, but it is not excluded.

What is certain is that the castle, as a Moorish fortress, oversaw the main road from Málaga to Medina Antequera for centuries.

However, the settlement has a much older history. A little south of the former Moorish fortress, the foundation walls of the Roman-era town of Aratispi are still visible, which the locals also call Cauche el Viejo, as if the original population of today’s Villanova de Cauche came from there. The mill of the village, which today stands in ruins on the banks of the Cauche river, was also built from its carved stones. And this is also where three beautiful carved stones with Roman inscriptions from the 2nd century come from, built into the tower of the village church in 1731, so placed as to indicate not simply the use of free stone material, but antiquarian interest.

The stone on the SE corner commemorates the death of Emperor Trajan (53-117), who was born in this province, Hispania Baetica. It ends: Res publica Aratispitanorum decrevit et dedicavit – ordered and established by the community of Aratispi

A tombstone on the S wall with the initials M. Fulvio Senecioni Aratispitano – erected to Marcus Fulvius Senecio of Aratispi by his friends

The stone on the E wall of the tower was erected in honor of Emperor Hadrian (76-138), who was also born in Hispania Baetica: Res.P. Aratispitana D.D. – ordered and installed by the Aratispi community

After King Ferdinand II in 1487 captured Málaga, the southernmost stronghold of the Sultanate of Granada, the castle of Qawŷ, which depended on it, also fell, and the king had it destroyed along with several other small Moorish fortresses. The depopulated area of the castle was resettled in 1509 by the nearby town of Antequera with Christian residents. This is why the name of the village was expanded with “Villanueva”, new settlement, so characteristic of Andalusia that was undergoing a change of population. Their descendants are the 65 inhabitants of today’s Villanueva de Cauche. The land was given to the Arreses noble family, whose eighth descendant, Pedro de Arreses y Aspillaga was raised to the rank of Marquis in 1679. They built today’s manor house on the ruins of the Moorish fortress, to the wall of which the three streets of the village run.

The inhabitants of the thirty-five houses of the three streets were thus the serfs of the Marquis of Cauche for several centuries. They cultivated their lands, partly in the form of compulsory free work, partly for their own benefit, but in return for a tithe. Even at the turn of the millennium, the residents of Cauche regularly delivered chickens and crops to the manor house. Although they had lived in their houses for generations, they had no title deeds, only a document signed by the Marquis, which allowed them to live there. In this way, the houses could neither be sold nor rebuilt.

After 2005, the new heir reorganized the noble estate into a modern farm and gave the residents of Cauche the opportunity to buy the land they cultivated at a price of 90 euros/m². This was realized, but the new owners only received a private contract without an entry into the land registry, because the Antequera land registry was not able to transform the records of the Marquis’s estates according to the new parcels. Finally, in 2015 it was possible to solve the reorganization and register the ownership of the lands and houses. In 2015, the Middle Ages ended also in the last serf village in Europe.

All this did not change in the view of the village. Its most significant building is still the Marquis’s manor house with the church. Apart from this, there is only one community institution in the village, the “Antigua Peña”, Old Club, that is, the pub. It was closed when I was there now, but according the local papers reporting on the end of feudalism, there is a lot going on here. There is no store: a grocery truck comes twice a day with bread, meat, fish and other basic foods, and on Saturdays the mobile supermarket. “In which other village do they deliver the goods to your door?” the residents say proudly. The built heritage of the village is subject to strict regulations of monument protection. Even if the Middle Ages are over, the traditional Andalusion white houses – preserved by the constraints of serfdom – must be maintained without any changes.

Villanueva de Cauche photographed from a plane this afternoon

The glass trumpet of the Magi

Every year now, the thre Magi pay their respects on their holiday here on the blog. This time, they are signing in from Mallorca, where they arrived last night on their fancy caravel, and then with their richly loaded camels and their luxurious entourage, they marched around the old town of Palma, distributing blessings and gifts, exactly along the route that the demons will march with their fiery chariots in two weeks.

These days, the procession of the Magi is accompanied by a brass band that fills the streets with rumor commensurate with the importance of the procession. In the nineteenth century, however, the chaotic musical background was provided by the population itself, and its typical instruments were the conch horn and the glass trumpet. The Mallorcan ethnomusicologist Amadeu Corbera Jaume recently devoted a special study to the latter. In this, he pointed out that the glass instruments were prepared by the glass factory workers in the Santa Catalina district of Palma for fun, inbetween real jobs.

“Our joy reached its height when the shouts and screams of the crowd, mingling with the shrill sound of the apocalyptic glass trumpets and the deep bleat of the conch horns, filled the street, announcing that the Magi were here.
«The Holy Magi!» we shouted. And we run out onto the balcony, watching the chaos, the children and lads waving burning torches, among them a figure with blackened face, dressed in dirty and ragged clothes, with a turban made of two different colors on his head, on top of a two-pronged ladder, which was carried by half a dozen street children on their shoulders, in the midst of a huge noise.” (Miquel Binimelis, La Tradición 1897)

The glass trumpets were mostly blown by unruly youngsters, into the faces of the passers-by, also engaging them in other ways. The procession of the Magi in Palma was also a more or less tolerated ritual occasion for street violence, like today’s fans’ parades before and after soccer matches.

“It is with the greatest indignation that we take up our pen to-day to condemn certain acts committed the night before yesterday by bands of boys who, without any consideration, provided with glass trumpets, conch horns and other various dissonant instruments, went about the streets of the city, brandishing torches in their hands, and throwing sparks to right and left, thereby causing considerable harm to the poor passers-by, whose bodies and clothing were in constant danger of damage.” (Diario de Palma Jan. 7, 1863)

However, the traditional objects of violence were not random passers-by, but certain well-established target groups. The Moors disappeared a long time ago, but the Jews were still there. It is true that the Mallorcan Jews, the Xuetas already converted to Christianity in 1391, as I wrote. But once a Jew, forever a Jew.

“I still remember that during the feast of the Magi, the suburban urchins marched up and down the city blowing their glass trumpets. And I also remember the rampage they had every year on Silversmiths’ Street [the main street of the Xueta neighborhood], breaking shop windows and damaging furniture. Fortunately, this came to an end during the time of Mayor Rubert, thanks to the measures of the silversmiths’ committee, whose president, Senyor Felicindo, as tall and fat as St. Paul, I even knew myself.” (From the memoirs of poet Miquel Forteza (1888-1968))

It is no wonder that in Palma the “old Christian” and the Xueta families did not intermarry, no matter how devoutly Catholic the latter were. So much so that even today the Israeli rabbinate recognizes the Xuetas as pure-blooded Jews, who only need to return to the Jewish faith in order to be readmitted to the People. And in the vestibule of the church of St. Eulàlia on Silversmiths Street, one of the three known medieval synagogues, there is still a marble plaque with the names of the Xueta families “who come here to Mass,” since traditionally no other local Catholic ever set foot there.

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But times change, and with them the means of noise making. The glass trumpet as an instrument of the poor has disappeared from Mallorca, just as I think that not one of the New Year’s Eve paper trumpets of my childhood can be still found anywhere. It was such a common and cheap item that none were ever kept around. Where it survived, writes Amadeu Corbera Jaume, is in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels. The museum, located in the Art Nouveau style building of the former Old England department store in the museum district of Brussels, was developed by its first curator, Victor-Charles Mahillon, into one of the largest musical instrument collections in the world at the end of the 19th century. He corresponded with folk music collectors worldwide, including Antoni Noguera i Balaguer (1869-1904) from Mallorca, who sent him three glass trumpets among several other Mallorcan folk instruments. They are still in the museum’s collection and are listed as number 1316 in the Mahillon catalogue.

When I got this far in reading the article, I got up and walked to the Museum of Musical Instruments, not far from my place, to see with my own eyes and capture with my own lens the famous noisemakers. But I had no luck. Only a fraction of the nearly four thousand musical instruments collected by Mahillon are exhibited, and they do not include the glass trumpets.

However, it is not pointless to visit the three floors of the Museum of Musical Instruments. You can see wonderful pieces from all over the world. And like the desert of the Little Prince, the collection is also beautiful because it includes three Mallorcan glass trumpets in one of its storerooms. Three items whose story is almost more interesting and important than the items themselves.

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There was a city

Assa (1987), directed by Sergei Soloviev, was as much a cult film of the Soviet change of regime as Hair was of an earlier change in the West. The theme songs of the movie – just like Aquarius in Hair – all became “anthems” of the change, but mainly the two that I presented some fifteen years ago here on the blog with the title There is a city: Перемен! – “Change!” and Город золотой – “The Golden City”

To the west of the Soviet Union, Assa remained largely unknown, and along with, its theme songs, too. But they are still popular in the Russian language area. This is attested by the fact that the Udmurt women’s choir Buranovskie Babushki won third place in the Russian pre-selection of Eurovision 2010 with the Udmurt version of The Golden City, along with the Udmurt version of Yesterday by Beatles, as I reported at that time. And that this is still the case, I found new evidence in the past few days.

An American spy story is running on Netflix under the title In From the Cold. In this, Russian spies trained in the 90s by KGB successor organizations, but inactive for twenty years, are reactivated – in Madrid. The two spies, who now work for opposite sides – Americans vs. Spanish far-right and ultimately Russians – had had a romantic relationship at the time. In one of the film’s key scenes, before the final showdown, this is recalled at a dinner, with none other than The Golden City as background music.

In fact, this music is not so background. It emerges as an independent actor. The figures reflect on it, telling that it was the song of an era that was beautiful but irretrievably gone.

The Russian references of the film are by the way just as stereotypical as in most other American movies. They present the image that the average American viewer thinks to know and wants to see to confirm their knowledge: the puppet figures of the vampire-like Russian KGB officer, the typically bisexual Russian woman who promotes her career with her body, the unscrupulous Russian mobster, the Russian scientist wanted for death back home because of his wonderful invention. This audience did not see Assa, and does not know what The Golden City means. Who is, then, this song for? Perhaps the movie’s Russian expert – because there had to be one, at least to recall the material world of Moscow in the 1990s – speaks out here with this song of his youth, like a message in a bottle thrown into the emptiness, without any hope of understanding, rather only to himself?

New Year’s bread

Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens, that the last truly great invention of mankind was agriculture, which completely transformed human society. Eight thousand years ago, during the process called the Neolithic Revolution, humanity was transformed from a loose network of free hunters into a complex production machine, whose calorie-producing efficiency was much higher, but its operation tied up all of mankind’s energy.

The top product and emblem of this machinery is bread, which, in addition to its primary energy-carrying and nourishing function, has also become the most comprehensive symbol and one of the main means of communication, the most important human activity according to anthropology. Donating and offering bread accompanies the most significant moments of human and divine communication. And from the Neolithic onwards, we find thousands of stamps that reinforce the communicative role of bread with various patterns.

In most European cultures, breads and cakes with such stamps and figures have largely disappeared. But in Sardinia, where the Neolithic is still present in everyday life in the form of thousands of imposing stone buildings, the offering and donation of decorated breads – su coccoi pintau – is still an important part of the holidays. And their patterns often resemble Neolithic motifs.

The pictures of the breads and archival photos come from the exhibition of the Museo Etnografico in Nuoro

The festive breads are usually consecrated in the church before giving them as gifts. In such cases, the priest and the poor also receive from the loaves.

One of the most important festive occasions is a wedding. In the three days before, the bride and her female relatives – sas manus bellas, “the beautiful hands” – gather at the bride’s house to prepare the wedding bread together. The work is often accompanied by music and dance, so it can also be regarded as a kind of bachelorette party. Guests recieve the beautiful loaves distributed at the home of a wedding, and usually keep them as souvenirs, put on the wall or in display cases. I visited an old Sardinian woman whose wall was covered with such breads, and she was able to tell her life story by reviving the memories related to them.

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Bread in the shape of a child is often given as a christening gift.

Eggs are sometimes baked with the Easter bread as a symbol of the desired fertility and wealth.

On the Day of the Dead and on other occasions of visiting the cemetery, the deceased also receive festive bread as a symbol of family togetherness. The nutritional value of this bread is of course unimportant, but its decorative value is all the more significant, since it remains on the grave for a long time, exposed to the critical gaze of other cemetery visitors.

Is this the bread of someone who died of covid? No, it’s a wedding loaf

One of the most important occasions for festive bread is St. Mark’s Day, April 25, when the flocks are driven out to the mountain pastures. On this day, the shepherds, their family members, and the owners of the flocks meet for a farewell mass at the solitary shepherd churches near the villages. The festive loaves are placed on plates around the altar, and each shepherd takes some of the blessed bread up into the mountains with him.

San Mauro shepherd church near Sorgono

Finally, the decoration of the bread given for the New Year represents the desired wealth and prosperity, symbolized by domestic animals, chickens, sheep, goats. Or, in fact, by bread itself, in the form of the small loaves, ears of corn and seeds placed on the decorated bread, as the main symbol of abundance.

The “beautiful bread” in Sardinia