Be careful what you wish for. We wanted rain. We got rain. And cold winds. We consoled ourselves today by getting a takeaway lunch from l’Oustal del Barry in Najac – jolly good it was, too.
Meanwhile, last week’s visit to Verfeil (previous post) got my research antennae going.
Southwest France boasts a collection of uniquely well-preserved medieval towns, known as bastides. More than 500 of them exist altogether, from the Dordogne down to the Spanish border, and many of them are astonishingly unchanged in key respects since they were built. Verfeil is a small bastide, and our immediate area includes a number of examples.
I thought I had already written about bastides, but I had only mentioned specific examples. Even I forget what I have and haven’t included in my 698 posts to date!
What is a bastide?
Simply put, they are towns constructed on a grid pattern, with wide intersecting streets separating the buildings into regular blocks. They usually include a large market square in the centre surrounded by arcades and sometimes with a covered market hall. In some cases, such as Cordes, they were greenfield sites; more often, they modified an existing town or village, such as Villeneuve-d’Aveyron and Najac.
For obvious logistical reasons, I can’t easily obtain an aerial view of a bastide, so I have found this public domain diagram of a typical Aquitaine bastide’s layout.
The majority were constructed during the 150 years or so after 1229. In that year, King Louis IX and Raymond VII of Toulouse signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the Albigensian Crusade in southern France. The treaty allowed Raymond to rebuild towns that were damaged or destroyed during the crusade.
However, our Préfecture, Montauban, which was established in 1144, is sometimes thought to be a model for the others, since it comprises the classic grid layout and spacious market square.
Why were they established?
Bastides originated to provide centres of population and establish social order in what was effectively untamed border country at that time. Concentrations of people are more easily controlled and defended than smaller groups in isolated farms and hamlets.
The bastides also stimulated economic development through trade and facilitated the raising of taxes. They favoured the growth of specialist trades and professions.
Alphonse de Poitiers, who became Comte de Toulouse in 1249, was a bastide-builder par excellence. He used these towns to enhance his power and influence in the region. The towns’ rights, liberties and responsibilities were enshrined in charters.
Some bastides were actually built by English kings. Edward I built Monpazier in the Dordogne, which is one of the best-preserved examples, in 1284.
Despite their partly defensive role, the bastides were mostly established during a time of peace and were not fortified. In fact, the Treaty of Paris expressly prohibited fortifications. This resulted in the destruction of some of the towns during the Hundred Years War. Other towns rapidly built fortifications in response.
Life in a bastide
People who moved from the countryside to a bastide became freemen. They were given a plot for a house, which had to be constructed according to certain rules and dimensions, a vegetable garden and a larger cultivable plot outside the town.
The market square was the focal point of the bastide. The church was normally built near, but not in, the square, an interesting prioritisation of economic interests over spiritual ones. An exception is Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where the collégiale (cathedral) dominates the Place Notre-Dame, but it is of later construction than the square.
Bastides were also characterised by streets 6m-10m wide, enough for a cart to pass along or sometimes two abreast (carreyras). These thoroughfares also ran through the market arcades in many places, which no doubt meant you risked being mown down if you weren’t careful. Narrower pedestrian alleyways (carreyrous) connected the streets.
You can imagine that bastides were lively, bustling places. Unfortunately, the closely packed population and the concentrations of visiting merchants and tradesmen allowed illnesses and epidemics, such as smallpox or the plague, to spread more quickly and more devastatingly.
Bastides in our area include Verfeil, Septfonds, Albias and Réalville in Tarn-et-Garonne; Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Villeneuve-d’Aveyron and Najac in Aveyron; Beauregard in the Lot; and Cordes in the Tarn.
I wonder if our own village, Caylus, also displays some of the characteristics of a bastide, with a large central square, surrounded by grid pattern streets. This might make sense, since the town was sacked by Simon de Montfort in 1211, and was part of the Comte de Toulouse’s domain.
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