What is a Bastide Town?

In their recent blog, Alaisdair and Barbara of St Louis Barge wrote about Antoine Laumet and mentioned that he was born in a small bastide village – we thought perhaps ‘bastide’ is a word that not everyone is familiar with and thought we’d answer a few questions about them.

As our name – Caves & Castles – suggests our Tours cover not only prehistory, but the medieval period too. And since Steve is both a professional archaeologist and medieval historian, he is well placed to cover this extensive time span. In fact, our visitors often marvel at the breadth and depth of his knowledge!

So what is a ‘Bastide town’?

These are very distinctive towns that sprang up in the south west of France in the 13th and 14th centuries (between the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and the Hundred Years’ War). They are mostly in the south west because of the proximity to the Agenais area, which in the Middle Ages was a major playground for the rivalry between the French and English kings – the Bastides served as pieces in their strategic chess game. Others were planted further north between the rivers Dordogne and Dronne.

How can they be recognised?

1. They were nearly always built from new – the site of VERGT needed to be hacked out of the Forest of Barade. BEAUMONT and MOLIERES however were founded in places where there were already a few houses. But Bastides were never existing towns, renamed or reinvented.

Beaumont en Perigord

Beaumont en Perigord

2. There were 2 documents essential for the foundation of a bastide:

• the Act of Pareage which was a contract between the founder of the new town (probably the French or English king) and the owners of the land on which it was built. They agreed to share the revenues ((taxes, fines, etc) usually 50:50.

• the Act of Customs which stated exactly the rights, privileges and duties of the citizens of the new town.

3. A very characteristic geometric town plan, with a system of streets in a grid. MONPAZIER is in a rectangle 460 metres by 200 with a central market place and its streets all at right angles. BEAUMONT has its market place in the centre of an H and two parallel main streets linked by lanes and alleys.

Monpazier - this remarkable bastide is possibly the best known of all.

Monpazier – this remarkable bastide is possibly the best known of all.

Who founded the bastide towns?

Bastides were founded mainly by kings, but also great lords and senior church prelates, notably the French kings Phillip III the Hardy (ruled 1245-1285) who founded DOMME and his son. Philip IV the Fair (ruled 1285-1314) who founded ST. LOUIS-EN-L’ISLE.

On the English side, the Plantagenet kings of England had inherited Aquitaine (a huge part of south-west France) when Eleanor (Alienor down here) married Henry II (ruled 1154-1189) in 1150. They, in theory, were vassals of the French king but they ruled far more of France than he did. Edward I (king 1272-1307) wished to extend his full power over Aquitaine against Philip the Beautiful. So he was very active in developing Bastides – for example, BEAUMONT, MOLIERES, VERGT, FONROQUE and above all MONPAZIER owe their foundation to him. His son Edward II (ruled 1307-1327) was nowhere near as active and only founded SAINT-BARTHELEMY-BELLEGARDE in 1316 in Perigord.

Why were they started?

1. The main reasons were political and military. French and English kings were pushing into each others territories. Bastides could have an offensive (securing a newly-won area) or defensive (limiting the oppositions expansion).

2. Demographic pressure. It has been estimated that the population of Perigord and Aquitaine at least tripled after the end of the massacres of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). Old holdings were too small to support large families. So younger people, for example, would move into the Bordeaux area to find work in the vineyards. The Bastides were different. They were more like a process of colonization of nearly uninhabited territory, to settle and develop economically ‘new lands’. Their defences also gave relative security in dangerous times. Apart from periods of outright war brigandage was also very common. In a survey of 1365, carried out on the orders of the Black Prince, Duke of Aquitaine, Eymet and Beaumont had approximately 200 families living there while Monpazier had 315. A bastide could easily have a population of 1000-2000 – a significant number.

3. Financial. All these inhabitants would have to buy land on which to build a house, they would then pay a range of taxes, tolls and fines on their business activities. The profitability of the Bastides is well shown in 1284. Henry the Welshman, lord mayor of London, paid Edward I 170 pounds for the right to collect the taxes in Beaumont, Molieres, Lalinde and three other ‘English’ Bastides as a form of investment.

There is lots more that could be said on this subject, but perhaps that’s enough for now.  If you want to know more, by all means, contact us – or come on a Tour!


Steve and Judie Burman live in the beautiful Vezere Valley in the Dordogne region of South-West France. Together they run Caves and Castles, specialising in prehistoric Cave Art and medieval Castles Tours. You can join a small group (up to 6) 4 night/5 day Tour based 2 nights each in the medieval towns of Sarlat and Montignac-sur-Vezere or book a custom Tour for a day or more.

Professional archaeologist, Steve loves to share his passion for the ‘Cradle of Humanity.’ World famous sites such as Lascaux, the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ and Font de Gaume are close by. Coupled with gastronomic meals and superb wines, your Caves & Castles Tour is really special.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

 

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