Albi and Toulouse experienced a golden age during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, founded on the trade in pastel dye. I had vaguely heard of pastel (woad) but knew little about it. Visiting and reading up on these places recently prompted me to do some research about it.
Pastel takes off
Pastel is a plant, Isatis tinctoria, which produces an indelible blue dye, following an elaborate manufacturing process. Well known by the ancient Egyptians, the plant was already cultivated in the Lauragais region southeast of Toulouse by the 12th century, where the soil and climate were particularly suitable.
Cloth manufactured locally in the region was of inferior quality whereas pastel was an expensive luxury, so local demand was minimal. However, increasing demand for the dye by English and Flemish cloth manufacturers led to production and export on a large scale. The trade became highly organised with farmers cultivating the plants, collecteurs buying the leaves and manufacturing the dye and merchants organising its marketing and export.
Trade routes were established to the major Atlantic ports, up to Lyon and the Low Countries and down into Spain. Apparently, on the 8th November 1404, 13 ships from Bayonne and four from Bordeaux landed 127 cubic metres of pastel at Bristol. This gives some idea of the extent of the trade by that date.
Initially, Albi was the centre of the pastel trade in the 14th century. Toulouse soon overtook it for various reasons, including the superiority of its banking structure, which provided a stable commercial basis for the trade. The Toulousain pastel trade experienced a golden age between the mid-15th and mid-16th centuries. Merchant families amassed vast fortunes, which they spent conspicuously on constructing opulent mansions in the city.
The Albi-Toulouse-Carcassonne triangle became known as the ‘Pays de Cocagne’ (Land of Plenty), a word that derives from the balls of paste (Occitan coucagno) formed during the manufacturing process. The nickname became synonymous with wealth and abundance.
Cultivating the plants and making the dye was a labour-intensive cycle taking a whole year:
- Seeding took place in February/March and the leaves were harvested from June to November and then washed and dried. The yellow flowers played no part in the process.
- The leaves were shredded and pounded into a pulp in special pastel mills, moulins pasteliers.
- The pulp was dried for six months, during which time a first fermentation took place, allowing the pulp to be formed into balls 10-15 cm in diameter (the coucagno or cocagnes). The balls were then dried.
- Once dry, the balls were crushed and wetted to obtain a second fermentation. This produced a black, granular paste called agranat.
- To obtain the blue dye, a green juice was extracted from the agranat and oxidised.
This produced a dye that was highly prized not only for its colour but also for its indelible qualities. The weight of the final product was about 7% of the weight of the original harvest – hence its high price.
Decline and fall
All good things come to an end and pastel was no exception. Several reasons conspired in the decline of the pastel trade from 1560. First, the development of dubious practices undermined the merchants’ credibility, including wetting the sacks containing the pastel to make them heavier and adding less expensive substances like sand to the agranat while maintaining the prices. Second, heavy rainfall led to abundant crops but poor quality. Third, the Wars of Religion disrupted the trade routes from 1562. Finally, the introduction of indigo, which was more concentrated, easier to use and much cheaper displaced pastel production.
Some suggest that the growers’ and merchants’ failure to invest in the pastel industry was also a factor. The merchants preferred to pursue political ambition and construct lavish houses outside the areas of production rather than develop cultivation and production methods.
Attempts to revive the trade in the 18th century by simplifying the cultivation of pastel and getting it protected by royal warrant were unsuccessful. Napoleon also attempted to revive it and a school of pastel production was even set up, but a series of poor summers and the fall of the Empire in 1823 tolled its final death knell.
A company based in Lectoure (Gers) has revived the art of pastel making and produces dyes, paints and cosmetics.
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