One of my favourite markets, indeed one of my favourite towns, in the area is Villefranche-de-Rouergue. A sub-prefecture of Aveyron, it has great historical significance in the region. Like other towns in France, despite its picturesque features, it is also a bit down at heel. Shops in the centre are closing down, victims of la crise and the trend for out-of-town superstores. Nonetheless, it hosts a thriving weekly market, especially in summer. I like to think it hasn’t changed much in 750 years.
Villefranche is a bastide town, founded in 1252, although there was a settlement there before that. Alphonse de Poitiers granted the town the right to hold markets and fairs in 1256. He was brother to (Saint) Louis IX, king of France, and great-grandson of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Acquitaine. He married into the family of the Counts of Toulouse and thereby inherited their fiefs.
Villefranche occupied an important position on the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle and on the road between Cahors and Rodez. The town consuls exploited this advantage and the markets were soon amongst the most significant in southern France. At the end of the 14th century, the markets attracted the presence of marchands from as far as Carcassonne and Le-Puy-en-Velay.
During the 13th-14th centuries, Villefranche held three markets a week – on Monday, Thursday and Saturday – for foodstuffs of all kinds. Additionally, four fairs were established, each held at the gates of the town at different times of year. The fairs were a marketplace for livestock and agricultural implements. From the 14th century, standard weights and measures were strictly imposed on the markets and fairs.
In 1495, growing demand led the town consuls to petition the king for the right to hold three additional markets. The king granted the rights but history, as so often happens, intervened. A catastrophic fire destroyed many of the buildings in the Place Notre-Dame in 1497. A series of plague epidemics (the worst of which broke out in 1628) and the Wars of Religion kept the gates of the town shut. The townspeople regarded strangers with great suspicion during the plague outbreaks. Even those bearing passports from towns unaffected by the epidemics were mistrusted.
By the beginning of the 18th century, Villefranche held only two of the former four fairs. They enjoyed a resurgence in the late 19th century, when one fair per month was held. The two world wars inevitably affected them but they took off again in 1945, when Villefranche hosted a monthly fair in addition to the three markets per week. This continued until the 1990s.
Today, Villefranche still hosts its Thursday market, one of the busiest and most authentic in the region, in my opinion. Smallholders with tiny stalls selling the produce they have pulled from the earth early the same morning rub shoulders with purveyors of ‘vrais couteaux de Laguiole’ and leather goods from Millau. No doubt this reflects how it was all those years ago when the market first took place – local producers cheek by jowl with travelling marchands.
Last Thursday, I took some photos and tried to imagine how it might have been in the 13th century with the massive collégiale (cathedral) under construction. The noise level was probably similar but I suppose you would have heard mostly Occitan then. I also had the pleasure of having a coffee with Liz and Robert, who are moving from Tuscany to Aveyron and whom I met through my blog.
I’m greatly indebted to an article in Le Villefranchois, the local newspaper, dated 1 April 2010 (surely not a poisson d’avril?) for some of the information in this post.
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