The Bastide Towns of SW France

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The bastides, or fortified towns, of south-west France were the new towns of the Middle Ages. The very first, Cordes, was founded early in the thirteenth century, and others were built and developed right up to the seventeenth century, affording their people both protection and prosperity. The architecture of the bastides is as stunning as their rural settings. It is characterized by elaborate double rings of fortifications, huge arcaded market squares, chequerboard urban layouts, and exquisite combinations of wood and stone pillars and vaulting.

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Bastides began to appear in numbers under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1229), which permitted Raymond VII of Toulouse to build new towns in his shattered domains, though not to fortify them. When the Capetian Alphonse of Poitiers inherited, under a marriage stipulated by the treaty, this “bastide founder of unparalleled energy” consolidated his regional control in part through the founding of bastides.

The bastides were also an attempt by landowners to generate revenues from taxes on trade rather than tithes (taxes on production). Farmers who elected to move their families to bastides were no longer vassals of the local lord — they became free men; thus the creation of bastides was a force in the waning of feudalism.

The “Bastide” towns of southwest France are a growing tourist attraction, and comprise one of the largest collections of  well-preserved mediaeval townscapes to be found anywhere in Europe with many of the more rurally sited bastides, the layout of streets and buildings has remained virtually unchanged for over six centuries, if not longer.

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There are said to be some 500-700 bastides in France, depending on how wide the definition is extended. Most of these are the southwest, and the majority of them were built in the two centuries from 1200 to 1400. At the time, the southwest of France was a frontier region, belonging partly to France, and partly to the kings of England. It should be remembered that until the mid fifteenth century, when the “English” were to all intents and purposes driven out of France, the kings of England, French-speaking, were actually Angevins, one of the four great French dynasties, who had moved their power base from Angers (in the Loire valley) to England, but still had large possessions in France, notably Aquitaine.

Since they were built at a time of relative peace and prosperity, before the start of the Hundred Years’ War, the early bastides were not fortified; however once Anglo-French relations deteriorated into a state of on-off conflict, many bastides were fortified either on the initiative of individual occupants, who built walls at the outer end of their properties, or by the coordinated building of town walls.

While medieval towns and villages generally evolved gradually over the centuries, these fortified new towns were often built in one go, and to a perpendicular plan with streets laid out at right angles.

And unlike the towns of the earlier Middle Ages built around their church, the bastide towns were laid out around their central square. This was a space for business, where stalls were set up for fairs and markets, and for civil and municipal activities, with the house of the seneschal or governor taking pride of place. The church often stood on one corner of the square.

The main bastide area covers most of  Aquitaine and a part of the Midi Pyrénées regions of France, stretching from the Dordogne to the Aveyron, and down to the Spanish border. The largest concentration of bastides is in the Lot et Garonne department (47), along what was the shifting boderline between the English and the French held lands.

In the Middle Ages, Aquitaine had as many as 250 fortified bastide towns. These medieval counterparts of today’s new towns (nova bastida) have not all survived the passing years, but of the 315 known in France today, more than one third are in Aquitaine.

Seven hundred years later, the fortified towns of Aquitaine are still a hive of activity. Shows, festivals, fairs and night-time markets are held on the squares and under the arcades. People gather there to buy local produce, to meet up with friends or just to enjoy the ever-pleasant atmosphere.