Market Halls in Southwest France

Halle at Verfeil

Being a part-time unpaid librarian does have a few compensations. One of them is coming across a wonderful magazine – well, I think it is – entitled Midi-Pyrénées Patrimoine. It’s available in our Médiathèque. You’re not supposed to borrow the latest edition but I shamelessly exploited my position and took it home with me. 

The magazine contains articles on history and culture in our region and each issue has a theme. The latest issue is devoted to markets and market halls. I’ve already written about local markets but I didn’t say much about the halles (halls). So, armed with my trusty camera, I went out and took a few snaps.

Markets and fairs were not only sites for commercial exchange but also provided places for meeting and entertainment. Apparently, markets in Toulouse date back 2,000 years to Roman times. By the middle ages, many towns and villages had their own weekly market for grain, fruit and vegetables. Some also had a livestock fair held monthly or quarterly at a separate foirail, frequently on the outskirts of the town.

Local markets took off from the 11th-14th centuries. The seigneurial system required peasant farmers to pay local taxes in cash so they had to sell part of their production. The markets also supplied the needs of a growing population. By the 1340s, the region counted 271 active market places and no inhabitant lived more than seven kilometres from a market. The Hundred Years War and plague epidemics disrupted the markets but they resumed largely as before from the 1450s. Seventy-five per cent of existing markets in the region in 1900 were founded in the Middle Ages.

From the 13th century, covered markets became current, normally open to the elements but with a roof supported by stone or wooden pillars. During this period the bastide towns were constructed. They were characterised by a large – sometimes enormous, e.g. Marciac in Gers – central square from which the streets radiated in a grid pattern. Usually lined with arcades housing permanent shops, the square often contained a market hall as well.

Arcades at Villefranche-de-Rouergue

You don’t have to go far to find some good examples of medieval market halls. Many local villages have them and they have mostly been well-preserved or restored. With the château and the church, the market hall was one of the most important buildings in the town/village.

Halle at Cordes-sur-Ciel

Halles were normally rectangular but varied in size according to the importance of the town. They also appear to be constructed in two different styles: first, as at Cordes-sur-Ciel, above, where the columns rise straight up from the ground, a bit like a Greek temple; second, where the columns rise from a low wall, as in the one at Caylus below. 

Halle at Caylus

The 14th-century Caylus halle is a curiosity. Old photographs show that it was originally on the opposite side of the market square. It was moved to its present position in 1906. I haven’t been able to find out why they did this but speculate that it was to enable the free movement of traffic along the north side of the square.

Halle at Caylus - Interior

The wooden roof beams are not original but much of the stonework was transferred. The original grain measures were incorporated into the new halle, although the one below is in poor condition. Each halle had several measures of different sizes. They played an important part in the development of trade and commerce in the region by standardising the measuring of grain and deterring fraud.  

Grain Measure in Caylus Halle

The most beautiful halle in the region must surely be the one at Auvillar, pictured on the cover of the magazine. It’s on the other side of the department and therefore on the dark side of the moon, so I’ve not been there. It is unusual in being round. In fact, it’s not medieval but was built in 1834 and replaced the original rectangular halle. Whoever designed it remained faithful to the medieval architecture of the town and the style of the region, so it blends in well.

Halle at Auvillar

I love these old buildings, partly because they have a simple beauty despite being functional structures but also because most are still used for their original function, even after 800-odd years. The weekly markets are a thread that connects us with the distant past. 

Copyright © 2011 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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6 Responses to Market Halls in Southwest France

  1. Steph says:

    There are certainly some wonderful market halls in your part of France. I can think of a few round here, but not that many. However, maybe I’m not really looking. As you say, you can stop seeing the things around you.
    I suppose that 7km distance from a market was as far as people could walk twice in a day.
    Another lovely, interesting post, thanks!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      There are some particularly good examples around here. Maybe it was a regional thing, like pigeonniers, which are less in evidence in other parts of France. The seven kilometre thing was obviously intended as a sort of standard. At that time, people thought nothing of walking 14 km in a day. They were just used to it. No choice, I suppose.

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  2. David says:

    Growing up in the area, I never thought they were anything special, until I left the region for a while and rediscovered it.
    They are indeed great.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree that if you grow up with something or live with it for a long time you take it for granted. Having lived here for 14 years, I’m in danger of getting blasé about our region. Writing my blog helps me see things with fresh eyes – there are many things I hadn’t previously noticed.

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  3. nessafrance says:

    I know very little about Spain, despite living not more than 3 hours from northern Spain. I therefore have no idea if they have market halls in the same way as France. Maybe they do on the Spanish side of the Pyrénées? I need to look into this.

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  4. robinnis says:

    That was really interesting, nothing like that here in Spain (that I know of) markets are of course popular, but held in the street. Some towns have an indoor market but not in such interesting buildings.

    Like

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