OBITUARY: Julio Caro Baroja

The Basque country, with its unique language, culture and traditions rich in oral literature has produced many outstanding artists and writers. Among the greatest was Julio Caro Baroja, who practised both writing and art.

He was one of the modern world's finest ethnologists and historians, with an impish sense of humour apparently in total contradiction to his reserved and studious nature, but freely displayed in the almost maniacal detail of his weirdly witty drawings, reminiscent of the bizarre phantasmagorias (deeply appreciated in Spain) of Hieronymous Bosch.

Though he was born in Madrid, Julio spent most of his life in the family residence at Vera de Bidasoa, just inland from Fuenterraba, in northern Spain. He was a son of a family of well-to-do intellectuals, most prominent of which were his uncles, the modern novelist Pio Baroja and the painter Ricardo, from whom he learnt the joys of reading, writing and drawing. His revered uncle Pio bequeathed him an enormous library of precious books and manuscripts that Julio added to all through his life. Thus he became a living encyclopaedia of arcane knowledge and folk wisdom in the fields of ethnology and the history of the Spanish people. He developed a concise, clear yet elegant and eloquent style that makes even his most scholarly works a pleasure to read. He was a scholar without compare in the Basque country, and indeed in the whole of Spain and the rest of the world, where his books were translated into many languages.

Pio Baroja once described the Basque character as serious, silent, simple - all qualities found in Julio Caro Baroja's solitary, reserved nature. His reclusiveness, modesty and touching timidity were seen in a documentary programme on Spanish television as he opened the big, heavy, nail-studded door of the Baroja house and gazed warily at the person coming to interview him. He was a typical Basque, but a Basque with a wide European and international influence: he was no cautious provincial, but a man of the best kind of worlds - that in his own mind.

The Civil War period was a very trying time for the Baroja family. Julio, whose health was always delicate, took refuge from it by isolating himself with his books and paintbrushes in Vera de Bidasoa, where the family managed to survive on gifts sent to them by Uncle Pio. In 1942, after taking his doctorate in ancient history, Julio Caro Baroja swore he would never again set foot in a university. In 1944, he was named director of the Museo del Pueblo Espanol, in Madrid, a belated recognition of his authority as a historian evidenced in Los pueblos del norte de la peninsula iberica (1943), which was followed by Los pueblos de Espana in 1946, and Los vascos ("The Basques") in 1949. He became Professor of Ethnology at the University of Coimbra (1957-60).

But he preferred the intimacy and solitude of his own library, where he wrote classics like Las brujas y su mondo (1968, "Witches and their World"), and Inquisicin, brujeria y criptojudaismo ("The Inquisition, Witchcraft and Crypto-Judaism", 1970). His three-volume work Los Judios en Espana Moderna y Contemporanea ("Jews In Modern and Contemporary Spain", 1963) is his greatest achievement. His collected works total 80 volumes. He was laid to rest in the graveyard of the town he loved so well, Vera de Bidasoa.

James Kirkup

Julio Caro Baroja, ethnologist, historian, artist: born Madrid 13 November 1914; died Vera de Bidasoa, Navarre 18 August 1995.