The rural farmhouse

The term caserío specifies both the economic institution as well as the dwelling it houses. From an economic point of view it is a mediaeval institution established between the 12th and 13th centuries.

The story goes that one midsummer day a brave hero by the name of San Martintxiki managed to steal from the lords of the mountain; the Brave giants, a handful of corn seed and later managed to spy on them as they were conversing and managed to find out which was the best time of the year to sew them.

This old legend, which Jose Miguel de Barandiarán heard during his youth in Ataun, tells of the ups and down of the fantastic adventure that enabled the Basque people to discover the secrets of their agriculture, which were only known by the creatures and spirits of the forest. Robbing secrets from the ancient Gods was how hungry Basque shepherds and hunters became transformed into cottagers and started the long cultural cycle that was to stretch until the Industrial Revolution.

The rural farm house, as a building, is more than five-hundred years old. A particular feature of Basque rural farmhouses is that each one has its own individual name, easily recognisable by the authorities and the neighbours, remaining generally unchanged throughout history.

More so than the crops; the farm animals and in particular the cattle are considered to be a symbol of wealth of the rural farmhouse and for that reason more than half of the lower floor of the building was kept for them. The entire floor above was kept for storage.

It is said that the house was a sacred family temple for the Basque people. However, this religious concept of the dwelling, somewhat extended in ancient villages, has became rapidly watered down until its extinction during the last century.

Heaven or other invisible forces were invoked to protect the house and the family which dwelt inside it. Safety was achieved by placing symbols and objects which acted as protective good luck charms.

During the Middle Ages the peasants dwellings were wooden huts. The first rural country house made of stone was built during the 15th century and during the 16th century there was a real explosion of new rural farmhouses built in stone and wood. While rural country houses are in general very large, with an average of 300m2 per floor, the space traditionally set aside for family life was very reduced. Always on the bottom floor, it is only during the last 150 years have there been bedrooms on the upper floors. The dwelling was divided into two parts: The kitchen; the fire, and the bedroom. The kitchen near the entrance was the heart of the rural home and the space for words; it was the place where the family came together and received the visitor, where the night spun out and where during the day all the events of local life were discussed.

This was the place where marriages were arranged and where the ancient rites of Basque culture were sheltered. In the beginning the fire was lit on a slab placed in the centre of the room. Then later low fires were lit under a bell-shaped construction attached to the wall and later during the 20th century metal plates became more popular. Each rural country house had three or four beds, each one with their respective double linen covers and there were always a carved chest for keeping the clothes.

Many had a Christian inscription, with anagrams such as IHS with a stone cross on the roof, blessed wooden crosses on the door, crosses painted with lime on the windows and crosses carved on the beams and lintels. Some plants were also considered to have protective virtues: Overall bay leaf branches accompanied the rural farm house from when it was built. The thistle flower was considered to keep bad spirits away and hawthorn was supposed to keep away lightning.

Accessories and artistic decoration in the rural house are discreet, fitting for a building that throughout history has aspired to make the hard life of those in the field more bearable. The fascination awakened on seeing the silhouette amidst the fog, with his round solid shape, archaic and lasting. There lies the rural farm house: The ancient lord of the valleys.

Author: Alberto Santana, fragments from the BERTAN collection, published by the Dip. Foral of Gipuzkoa-Dpto. Culture.

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