Were the Pinels Basque mercenaries?

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By Winston Pinel


As my family has almost certainly been in Jersey since Norman times, I had always considered them to be of Norman and thus Viking descent. But my first inkling of more southerly roots came when, in the early 1990s, I discovered a reference to a village called ‘Pinel de Bray’, near Tarragona in Spain. Next, I came across a book in a shop in Perpignan, France, which listed Pinel as being a Catalan name.

Later, in 1996, I obtained the following information from the French Internet:- 'The name PINEL is derived from the Latin word for a pine-tree, pinum, and referred to the fact that a person lived in an area of small pine-trees. The name originates from the South of France and is quite a rare name, because only 4,385 people (including babies) bear this name in France. The majority living in the Tarn region of the South of France and also in the area of Nantes.' 'Out of interest, no PINELS are on record as having been killed during the French Revolution of 1789.' I was intrigued by these snippets of information but they proved nothing!

Last year, the French Internet provided me with information on the current distribution of Pinels in France. This indicated that 19% of Pinels live in Languedoc, 19% Brittany, 17% Normandy, 10% Paris, 6% Massif Central, 4% Provence, 3% Alps (Isere) and with the rest scattered sparsely over the other regions.

If one ignores the capital, Paris, which is bound to have attracted large numbers from all families, then 40% of Pinels live in the north and 26% in the southeast. So did we originate in the north of France and move south or visa-versa? Here, I turned my attention to Languedoc. What if it was the birthplace of the Pinel name? I soon discovered that, if it had been then, sadly, large numbers of our family were probably killed here in the 13th Century when thousands of Cathars were massacred during the Catholic Church’s Inquisition. Even whole towns were destroyed; 20,000 in Beziers in 1209 and 7,000 in Marmande in 1219 and this was at a time when France as a whole was not highly populated. To add to their problems, a century later in 1348, the Black Death killed one third of the population. This could be the explanation for there not being a majority of Pinels still living in the south of France or this situation could just be due to a long term migration to the industrial and wealthier north.

In the 5th Century AD, Toulouse, in the Languedoc, had been the capital of the Visigothic kingdom, which then stretched from the River Loire in France to the southern tip of Spain. During the following centuries, the Visigoths had been driven south by the Franks and north by the Moors to this land on either side of the Pyrenees, Languedoc and Catalonia. [The name Catalonia being derived from Gotalonia, meaning the land on the Goths.] Again ignoring the Spanish capital, Madrid, my research also showed that 41% of the Spanish Pinels of today live in Catalonia, although they total only a fifth of those living in Languedoc. So was this the birthplace of our family? Were we descendants of the Visigoths? What a surprise when local historian Frank Falle published an article on Dr Lathan’s theory that the Visigoths had settled in Jersey before the Vikings. This fitted perfectly with my own ideas. Then, thanks to Frank Falle’s efforts in persuading the BBC to include Jersey in their DNA sampling for their programme ‘Blood of the Vikings’, my brother was tested along with many others. This involved testing the Y-chromosome, which is only passed down the male line but from every father to all his sons. This would prove or disprove my theory!

But, alas, my brother’s results came as a complete surprise. He had a ‘Y-chromosome type, called M26, that is rare or absent across our British Isles sample locations. It is also rare in the Channel Islands. This type is interpreted as being associated with the indigenous Palaeolithic people who inhabited Europe before successive population movements such as the Neolithic expansion from the Near East 10,000 years ago.’ Only three Jersey samples were found to be type M26 and two of these were Pinels, one my brother and the other a very distant cousin. So now I knew that we Pinels did not descend from the Visigoths but from a more ancient European race. I was reminded that the Basques are also considered to have descended from Palaeolithic man and that even their language does not appear to relate to any other known language, ancient or modern.

Just recently, I received a copy of a report on DNA frequencies in European populations, which appeared in the Science Magazine in November 2000. Although this was not based on a large sampling, it showed type M26 as being found only in the people of the Spanish Basque, 4.4%, the French Basque 9.1% and in Sardinia, where it was in an amazing 35.1% of the samples taken.

All the evidence now tends to confirm that we Pinels descend from the indigenous people of the Pyrenees region, which was invaded first by the Celts, then by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC, followed by the Allemani, Vandals and Visigoths in the 3rd to 5th Centuries AD and later by the Franks in 737 AD. Yet, against all odds, some of them still managed to keep their separate identity and language, the Basques. So how did we arrive in Normandy all those years ago?

The Jersey born poet Wace who, in his 12th Century ‘Roman de Rou’, wrote about the Battle of Hastings, said that the companions of William the Conqueror included mercenaries from many lands, some wanting land and some wanting money. Certainly, some Pinels had received grants of land. At sometime before 1204, a William Pinel had been granted land in Jersey and the Domesday Book in 1086 lists a Ralph Pinel who had held land ‘by the King’s gift’ in Essex and Suffolk.

So, were we Basque mercenaries?

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