Thursday, February 11, 2010

June 9, 2009 - Bastides 101

There are numerous definitions of a bastide, several explanations of their origins and purpose and numerous contradictions about the nature of their design. Great stuff for historians to write endless dissertations and bicker among themselves, but what does it all mean for the hapless tourist seeking his next titillation? Not very much we decided. Thankfully, there are a number of attributes that practically all "authorities" do agree on, one of which is that bastides are scattered across southwestern France from the Mediterranean Languedoc region to the Atlantic Aquitaine. It is also pretty certain that there are between 500 and 700 extant examples and that they were all built between 1200 CE and 1400 CE with most, but not all, being on hilltops. Other common threads include small populations - usually less than 1000 - and that the vast majority are now fortified, although many that were built before the Hundred Years War commenced did not originally possess defensive properties. These tiny towns were built both by the French and the English, often at the site of an existing community and occasionally in the middle of nowhere. As much as anything, this was an effort on the part of each nation, to colonize the wilderness areas of southwest France and to establish a more modern society. The latter was accomplished by inducing peasants out of serfdom and making them free men with small land grants along with the privilege of paying taxes.
Side effects of the concentration of population areas were the benefits of developing trading posts and markets which were more easily defended than the previously scattered or non-existent communities. A typical bastide layout might include a central square, an adjacent church and a grid like pattern of steeply inclined streets.

While many bastides have already vanished and most of the remainder seem moribund, they have captured the imagination of the tourist industry in latter years and this influx of visitors (and money) could extend their existence for years to come. Our purpose, while in this part of France, was to visit some of these historic villages to see for ourselves. More pictures here.

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