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Things to see in the Languedoc:  Bull Running and Bull Fighting

Here's a question. When did the ancient Roman practice of holding animal games in amphitheatres die out. Answer: They never died out completely. Bullfights are almost unchanged since Roman times. All the features are there. Fierce dangerous animals facing professional gladiators and other animals (in this case horses). A fight to the death, set up as public show in a roman arena (or a modern reproduction of one). The musical band, the ritual, the crown participation, the president of the games - these are all features preserved from Roman times.

Bullfighting is often thought of a specifically Spanish, but it is not. Much of what we now call the South of France was long an independent state - or patchwork of states - where different traditions flourished. In recent years these traditions have found new strength, and bull running and bull fighting is flourishing throughout the Midi, and especially in the Languedoc.

Bullrunning and bull jumping tends to be condemned less than bullfighting by outsiders, since the bull is not killed.

Féria, Béziers: bullfighting festival. August

Féria, Narbonne: three days in Spring, five days at Pentecost (Whitsun, June), and three days on the third weekend in September. All with daily corridas (bullfighting).

The typically Spanish Form of Bull Fighting. Bull fighting is associated with Spain. It is popular there - with several thousand Spaniards going to bull-rings each week. It is said that one million Spaniards watch bullfights every year. Spanish bullfighting traces its modern origins to 711 A.D. In that year a bullfight took place to celebrate the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. Bullfighting was originally a sport for the aristocracy and took place on horseback.

King Felipe V took exception to the sport and banned the aristocracy from taking part, believing it to be a bad example to everyone else. After the ban, around 1724, commoners adopted the sport as their own and, since they did not have horses, developed the practice of dodging the bulls on foot, unarmed.

In a modern Spanish bullfight the bull is let into the ring. A bullfighter called the Matador watches as an assistant waves a yellow and magenta cape in front of the bull to encourage it to charge. The Matador watches to determine the bull's qualities and mood, before taking over himself. A trumpet is sounded and other bull fighters (Picadores) weaken the bull by placing spears into it. This phase takes around 10 minutes, after which another trumpet is sounded and the Matador removes his black winged hat (strangely redolent of Mickey Mouses's ears) and dedicates the death of the bull to the president - or to the crowd - before beginning his faena.

The faena is regarded as the most artistic and skilled phase of the fight, where the matador proves his courage and artistry. The bull charges the Matador who carries a muleta. The muleta is a piece of thick crimson cloth draped over a short stick (held in either the left hand) or else over the killing sword or espada (which is invariably held in the right hand).

It is the Matador's job to create a dramatic show enjoyable for the audience. The faena continues until the Matador has demonstrated his mastery of the bull and the bull is ready to be killed. The matador now stands around ten feet away from the bull, keeping the animal's attention fixed on the muleta. He aims the espada between the bull's shoulder blades. Approaching the animal he thrusts forward, over the bull's horns, pushing the espada deep between the animal's shoulder blades. If the sword goes in to the hilt it is an estocada, which results in the bull dropping immediately to its knees and dying.

If the sword hits bone it is a pinchazo or media-estocada. If the bull fails to die the matador may use a sword with a short cross piece at the end (a descabello) which he stabs into the bull's neck severing the spinal cord.

According to his skill in killing the bull, and the show he has put on for the crowd, the matador may be awarded trophies by the president. Trophies can be one or two ears from the bull, the tail and the hooves. The crowd may encourage the president to award trophies by waving white handkerchiefs. This waving may continue after trophies have been awarded in an attempt to induce the matador to cast his trophies into the crowd. The crowd in return throws flowers into the arena which are collected by the matador's assistants. It is almost indistinguishable from scenes throughout the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.

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Bull in the ring.
Bull Running
Bull Fighting