- the thematic guide to France
Bastides: a network of medieval towns
Villeneuve d'Aveyron, a small tranquil bastide.
The "Bastide" towns of southwest France are a
growing tourist attraction, and comprise one of the largest collections
of well-preserved medieval townscapes to be found anywhere
in Europe. Obviously, the built environment of the more
important bastides has been significantly modified since medieval
times, but in many of the more rurally sited bastides, the layout of
streets and buildings has remained virtually unchanged for over six
centuries, if not longer, and many of today's buildings have walls, if
not much more, that date back to the early days of the town.
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
Monpazier, in the Dordogne area.
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.
The large number of bastides in the
southwest of France were set up in order to establish a more modern
society in what was, at the time, a rather wild and inhospitable part
of Europe. The establishment of bastides was a way for rulers to bring
the population together in centres which could be more easily
controlled and defended than isolated farmsteads or hovels, while
helping to develop trade and other activities associated with the town.
The bastides, by promoting economic activity, also allowed the lords
who founded them to raise more taxes, while ensuring a better standard
of living - and also more importantly the status of freemen rather than
serfs - for the people who moved into them.
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.
The main square of a large bastide town,
Villefranche de Rouergue
sometimes said that bastides were established in a fairly arbitrary
manner, often on greenfield sites; but in actual fact, most were set up
on the sites of existing villages or at the intersections of routes. It
seems unlikely that any bastides were built in areas where nothing
existed before; in a sense they were "new towns", but their rationale
was very different from that which inspired the new towns of the
twentieth century in Britain, France or other counties. They were built
in order to put some order into society, not to accommodate a rapidly
growing population. They are not all built on hills, as is
sometimes written. For instance, while the much-visited bastide of
Cordes sur Ciel sits on a hilltop, Villefranche de Rouergue, not too
far away, sits at the bottom of a fairly deep valley.
bastides are laid out on a grid pattern, with a central square; while
the grid pattern may have been inspired by the
Finely preserved bastide on the
Mediterranean coast : Aigues Mortes, based on an earlier Roman
model of the roman "castrum", of which there were plenty of examples in
the south of France, such as the walled city
of Aigues Mortes, on the edge of the Camargue
, the medieval port
from which Crusaders set forth (photo right). the idea of the central
square may actually have come from the Islamic world, either via the
crusaders or via moorish Spain. As likely as not, there is
some truth in all these theories. The central square of a
bastide is generally surrounded by arcades; the central square served
as the commercial hub and market place, and was sometimes equipped with
a covered market hall. The main roads in the grid are knowns as
carreyras, or carriage ways, since they are wide enough for carts.
bastide area covers most of Aquitaine and Occitanie 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.
the more famous, best preserved or most attractive bastides are:
- Dordogne: Domme (24), Eymet
(24), Monpazier (24), Villefranche du Périgord (24),
- Gard: Aigues Mortes
- Lot: Rudelle (46),
- Lot et Garonne: Montflanquin (47),
Montpezat (47), Villeréal (47), Vianne (47), Puymirol (47),
Sauveterre de Rouergue (12), Villeneuve d'Aveyron (12), Villefranche de
- Ariège: Mirepoix (09),
- Landes: Labastide d'Armagnac (40),
- Pyrénées Atlantiques: Navarrenx
- Haute Garonne: Villefranche-de-Lauragais
- Gers: Cologne (32).
Cordes sur Ciel (81)