Bastides: Medieval New Towns

La Place des Conques in Villeneuve-d’Aveyron with arcades

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.

FRAMYJO / Pubic domain


Market hall in Cordes

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.

Montauban’s Place Nationale with arcades

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.

Collégiale Notre-Dame in Villefranche, which towers over the market square
Place Notre-Dame in Villefranche, showing the arcades. The buildings are Renaissance, rebuilt following a fire that destroyed most of them. Incongruous modern fountain in the foreground.

The upper part of Najac is a bastide. La Place du Barry, above, is a large area with pillared arcades along one side (opposite to the side shown above).

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.

Arcades in Villefranche-de-Rouergue

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.

Beauregard (Lot) – la halle, set in the centre of a disproportionately large market square, given the size of the village today

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.   

Caylus. This shot clearly shows the square with its arcades. The upper part around the castle is older.

You might also find these of interest:

Beautiful Bastide: Villeneuve d’Aveyron

Villefranche-de-Rouergue: Past Glories

Cordes-sur-Ciel: Dramatic and Timeless

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.

10 comments

      • Yes, at Carcassonne it’s la Ville Basse or the ‘new town’ that’s a bastide. Bastides really are fascinating when looked at on aerial photographs! Mirepoix has some lovely arcades around the main square with fantastic timber framed houses…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was in Carcassonne a couple of years ago in September, when they had that odd yellow radio waves art installation stuck on the walls. I could see that the Ville Basse was set out on a grid pattern, but I didn’t actually know it was a bastide. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Mirepoix, but it’s on the bucket list. For the moment, visits to places are sadly curtailed due to you-know-what.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. We have a house in the beautiful Montricoux, which is a small, well preserve, example of a Bastide and which has the claim to be the origin of the Knights of Templar! We love it.
    Thanks for writing about Bastides and I look forward to reading your 700th post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice to hear from you, David. I didn’t know Montricoux was a bastide. It’s not on any of the lists, but there is some debate about what actually constitutes a bastide. Some say there are 300 of them in SW France, others say 700. It’s more than 20 years since I visited Montricoux, so it’s definitely on the list.

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  2. I love the bastide towns. We have several near us including our nearest town, Bretenoux. There is a big gap in one side which joins it to the main road through the town but the other three show all the traditional features including one side with arcades. Thank you for the names for the cart and people alleyways.

    Liked by 1 person

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