Why France must give three cows to Spain every year

by Lorraine Williamson
Tratado de las Tres Vacas, the Treaty of the Three Cows

AMPLONA – According to what is considered the oldest treaty in Europe, France is obliged to supply three cows to Spain every year. It is called the ‘Tratado de las Tres Vacas’, the Treaty of the Three Cows. 

This treaty is observed annually on the border between the two countries in a part of the Pyrenees. This unique treaty between France and Spain requires France to deliver three cows to Spain on July 13 every year. This tradition takes place in two adjacent valleys: Baretous in France and Roncal in Spain. Here the Spaniards and the French gather every year to pay their ‘tribute’. 

Tradition with roots in the Roman Empire 

The legal basis for this agreement dates back to the Middle Ages, namely 1375. However, historians believe that this tradition has existed for much longer, possibly as far back as 1,200 years before this date. Its origins go back to the year 125 AD. Then there was a conflict in the Pyrenees because of the invasion of the tribes of Cimbri and Baretous. After these events, the northern tribes agreed to pay this “tribute” as compensation. 

Although this tradition has its roots in the Roman Empire and the invasions of Germanic tribes such as the Cimbri, it has since become a peaceful and touristic tradition. In 2011 it was even recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the government of the Navarre region. 

Legal record 

Since the legalisation of the agreement in 1375, this tradition has been observed at least 448 times, as reported by the Spanish daily La Razón. Despite some interruptions in the 17th century and other historical events, the tradition lives on. 

The ceremony takes place at the Piedra de San Martin. It is not only an administrative act, but also attracts many people from both countries. It is a moment of brotherhood, commemoration of histories and of course the exchange of cows. 

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Ceremony according to a fixed protocol 

During the ceremony, the participants follow a set protocol: the representatives of the Valle de Roncal in Spain wear traditional dress, while the French from Baretous appear in their Sunday attire with a tricolour French band across their chest. 

The meeting takes place at boundary stone 262, as the original Piedra de San Martín disappeared in 1858. The mayor of Isaba, who presided over the ceremony, asks the inhabitants of Baretous three times if they are willing, as in previous years, to honour the Tribute of the Three Two-Year-Old Cows with the same coat and horns, and without any spot or injury. The respondents answer affirmatively three times. 

Then one of the mayors of Baretous places his right hand on the boundary stone, after which a resident of Roncal places his hand on top. The other representatives take turns. The last to place his hand is the mayor of Isaba, who utters the words: Pax avant, pax avant, pax avant (peace henceforth).

The inhabitants of the neighbouring valley respond with the same words. The cows are then inspected by Isaba’s veterinarian. After they have been found healthy, he decides that two cows will go to the village of Isaba and the other cow will rotate every year between the villages of Uztárroz, Urzainqui, Uztárroz and Garde. Subsequently, the alderman of Isaba hands over the corresponding acknowledgement of receipt. Then he asks those who would like to contribute to step forward and have their say. 

Nowadays, after the ceremony at the Ernaz Pass, the cows return to their territory and the “tribute” is paid with the equivalent of their current market value. In recent years, this act, which lasts only a few minutes, has become popular and attracts thousands of people. 

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