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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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