The barbecue of Cabrit and Bassa

The Cossiers are coming out to dance again. In Manacor they appear for the start of the town's fairs and fiestas, while in Alaro they celebrate the fiesta for the Mare de Déu de Maig - the Mother of God of May.

The Catholic tradition has special devotions to the Virgin Mary in May. Quite why May became as important as it did is a bit of a mystery. It does perhaps owe something to Alfonso X, the King of Castile from 1252 to 1284. The Canticles of Holy Mary are generally attributed to him, and contained in them is a specific honouring of the Virgin in May.

The Alaro fiesta has significance over and above this May tradition. The Cossiers dance on the last Saturday of the month, and on this day there is a special mass for two of Majorca's most legendary figures - Guillem Cabrit and Guillem Bassa. It was a royal contemporary of Alfonso X who ensured that Cabrit and Bassa would become the legends they are.

Alfonso III of Aragon reigned for only six years - 1285 to 1291. He acquired nicknames, the Liberal or the Free. Where Majorca was concerned, neither of these nicknames was particularly apt, and they certainly weren't in the cases of Cabrit and Bassa. The gruesome story of their demise is one of being roasted alive on the order of Alfonso III.

The legend goes along these lines. Alfonso, or Alfons if you prefer, decided that he would reincorporate Majorca and the Balearics into the Crown of Aragon - Majorca was at the time an independent kingdom. He declared war on his uncle, Jaume II. The Ciutat (Palma) was taken without any resistance having been put up, but in Alaro there was resistance. Loyal supporters of Jaume holed up in the castle. They were led by Cabrit and Bassa.

When a messenger was sent to urge them to surrender, Cabrit and Bassa supposedly asked in whose name he was speaking. The messenger responded by saying it was Amfós. This was an old Catalan version of Alfonso. This produced a mocking reply. The only "amfós" that Cabrit and Bassa were aware of was the "amfós", a Mallorquín word for the grouper family of fish, of which sea bass is one.

On hearing this, Alfonso was livid. There are slightly different versions of what Alfonso said. One, which was contained in a mediaeval ecclesiastical book, Brevari mallorqui, went: "I swear Cabrit that, as your surname, I will roast you over a fire." Cabrit meant and still does mean kid goat.

Jaume was to recover the kingdom. On so doing, he paid homage to the victims of Alfonso's campaign. From this point on, the legend of Cabrit and Bassa was ensured. But it took until the seventeen century for it to be cemented. A painting by one Miquel Bestard revealed their torment in Alaro. Around this time, there were two dynamics - one was a papal promotion of saintly Majorcans, into which bracket fell Cabrit and Bassa. They, however, were not religious martyrs but political ones, and the second dynamic had to with centralising ambitions of the Spanish king, Felipe III.

Consequently, Cabrit and Bassa were in effect rediscovered as heroes who had once defended the kingdom, albeit it against an Aragon monarch rather than one representative of Castile. Many years later, they were honoured in verse by the twentieth century Majorcan poet Bartomeu Guasp, who wrote of their heroism and faithfulness.

But did Alfonso actually carry out his threat to roast them alive? It would seem so. Pope Nicholas IV was certainly convinced and excommunicated him for the barbarity. The nineteenth-century discovery of a document in the archives of the Audiencia court in Palma refers to Guillem Bassa having been sentenced to death and to having his assets confiscated. The year was 1286, which was when the Alaro incident occurred.

So today, Saturday, the Cossiers will dance and mass will be held. And afterwards they'll gather in the Plaça Cabrit i Bassa for a barbecue. What's on the menu?

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