The bastide: modern mediaeval town

Precursor of planned urban areas

Situation en 1271

Geographical and historical mapping of the Bastide phenomenon

The period between 1230 and 1373 saw the emergence of roughly 300 bastides in France's southwest; it corresponded to the end of the crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars (from 1202 to 1229) and the beginning of the Hundred Years' War.

The Bastide phenomenon occurred in a particular economic and political context and was an important step in the settlement of the southwest from the Cathar territory to Entre-Deux-Mers. Today, it would include the departments of Ariège, Haute-Garonne, Tarn, Aveyron, Lot, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn-et-Garonne, Gers, Hautes Pyrénées and Pyrénées Atlantique. Not unlike the Hanseatic cities of the coastal regions of northern Europe, Bastides were intended to attract a “new population” and flourish under economically favourable conditions. Each new construction was preceded by a landscaping contract, a detailed plan and a comprehensive urban planning ordinance. Charles Higounet, an expert in medieval studies, defined the bastides as follows: “New cities created by a landscaping contract that brought together two or more forces to form a new population centre”. Thus, organizing settlements in Bastides had political, demographic, security and economic reasons.

Bastides were not always created ex nihilo, i.e. from nothing; Romanesque churches or ancient remains prove they were often based on the foundations of an existing settlement centre. Conversely, not all new towns in the Middle Ages were bastides. The inhabitants of these places benefited from a special charter that defined their rights and duties.

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Historical and political context

The crusade against the Albigensians ended with the defeat of Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse and his Languedoc allies. According to the Treaty of Paris, the Count was entitled to rebuild certain agglomerations if they were not fortified. At the same time, the English authorities of Bordeaux were brought together in Guyenne. For both kingdoms, the aim was to define limits of influence and build the administrative apparatus of a new centralised power by implementing a large-scale urbanisation programme.

13th-century southwestern France was not as populated as it is today: the region only had three large cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux and Bayonne. This “bastide movement” was therefore a regional planning movement that established centres of administrative and judicial power and restructured agricultural activity.

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From feudal castrums to bastides

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the feudal lordship intentionallly erected his castles on hills and organised economic enterprises around these. In Quercy, circumstances of the crusade led to a local power shift to the Bishop of Cahors, who then sought the land of the barons near the Count of Toulouse; a new urban structure was organised: the village of Puy-L'Eveque. High up, with a pyramidal structure that extended to the basin of the Lot Valley, this “castrum” had its feudal tower, noble houses and an urban structure. This new village, governed by a market economy, benefited from the“trade route” the river provided.

His economically successful system led to a steady income for the bishop, encouraging rival barons to align themselves with the more powerful Alphonse de Poitiers, successor of the Count of Toulouse and brother of St. Louis. In 1250, Poitiers, known as the Count of Poitiers, took possession of Quercy. He discovered that there were no land reserves to establish new cities and was forced to form alliances with these barons to acquire his own land. The barons, in turn, used his protection against other aggressing barons.

As a response to the the Bishop of Cahors' Puy-l'Eveque, the count and his allies established the village of Villefranche du Périgord, which was located just a few kilometres from Puy-l'Evêque, in the Dordogne. This new village, founded in 1261, had several new features distinguishing it from Puy-l'Eveque: no castle, no pyramid-shaped structure, but a flat and rational plan: a typical bastide. The name “Villefranche” is in itself a reference to the underlying project: it translates to “city” (and not a castrum) “open” to new settlers. It attracted settlers with tax incentives.

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Founding period

From 1229, Raymond VII had already erected about twenty bastides for political and financial reasons and to resettle the population affected by the Albigensian Crusade. Alphonse de Poitiers, successor to Raymond VII, was a true promoter of the bastides, with which he strengthened the royal power against the English. Tensions with England continued to increase under the rule of Poitiers' successor, Eustache de Beaumarchais, seeing the establishment of more bastides in the region, mainly in the southwest of Aquitaine.

After the death of Eustache de Beaumarchais in 1294, new bastides were built by the English and local rulers in Lauragais and near the Pyrenees to ensure transit to Spain. However, the Hundred Years' War and the plague epidemic of 1348 slowed down construction. The last bastide, Labastide-Danjou in Aude, was finished in 1373. The different founding periods describe very well the changing motives for the founding of bastides. In some cases the bastide was used to preserve a fortress, in others it served as an agricultural centre or a region that quickly develops into a city with administrative functions. Some of the bastides were a component of military strategy, others served as stations to supply troops. Many were located on the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela and other places of devotion.

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The foundation of a bastide was almost always preceded by a landscaping contract, whether it was a newly built town or the result of the transformation of an existing village. In the case of bastides, the parties were typically the King or Count decreeing a new bastide and the lord or abbot providing the land. After the contract was signed, the surveyors were responsible for designing the bastides and the distributing plots of land to its future inhabitants. The landscaping contracts were not only a city reform, but also a legal reform.

The contract stipulated the legal and tax status of the bastide, its boundaries, the division of land, the number of building sites and their costs and taxes. This tax was a genuine tax reform and can be seen as a forerunner of today's housing tax. Each new resident received a building plot (“cayral”) and a garden (“casal”). He had one year to build his house, otherwise, he was fined and risked his rights to his plot.

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Modern administration and justice

“Le bayle”

The legal representative of the Bastide founders was the “Bayle”. His task was to make the bastide attractive to the outside world and to represent the rights of the founders internally. The Bayle was also responsible for the judiciary and the administration of the bastide. Like a collector, he also received the various taxes, which he then paid to the founders.

The consuls

The bastide had a codified municipal administration which represented the inhabitants and took into account the interests of the municipality. The heads of the families elected 6 consuls or jurors from their midst. The bayle had to confirm their appointment. The consuls were only appointed for a year, responsible for the administration – and were able to significantly increase their power in the second half of the 13th century.

With the Bastides, the southwest of France at that time had a legal system in which a multi-level judiciary was established. Minor crimes were tried before the bayle and consuls, while murder cases were expelled from the royal court. Since there were two courts, two prisons also had to be established. This was also the beginning of the separation of the penal system and the court.

It should be noted that Bayle was prohibited from accepting financial or material benefits from the residents; this incorruptibility was very different from the usual feudal system. The Charter also foreshadows a modern approach to justice regarding conflict resolution, including the notion of “investigation” and “witness “* as opposed to justice through duel. The charter provided for all cases of misdemeanour and associated fines, including offences such as “dumping garbage on the public highway”. In the 13th century, two forms of justice, an “old” and a “modern” one, coexisted within the bastides.

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Pragmatic structure and architecture

Detailed urban planning

The bastide plan followed rational logic. As it were, bastide structure and layout varied depending on topography, the surroundings of a village or the altitude. Different bastides also served different functions. If Raymond VII was forced to create high bastides for defensive use, Alphonse de Poitiers was the initiator of the “chessboard plans” with a systematic floor plan, which were applied to the bastides of the plains, near watercourses and to increase the value of agricultural land.

In the layout of the bastides, the “village square”, for instance, was the central element, even before the church. It played several roles because it was the place where the administrative buildings were located and where fairs and markets were held. A bell tower served to regulate working hours of ordinary life.

The church

Even if the presence of a church is well planned in a bastide, it does not benefit from any privileged location, unlike their counterparts from two centuries earlier. The churches are not at the centre of the bastides, it is the square that constitutes the heart of them. The vast majority of churches built in the bastides were built between 1250 and 1350, in a “southern Gothic” style, separated from the official French Gothic style by its austerity and fortified military component. This architecture was a reaction to the ostentatious luxury of the Roman Catholic Church that the Cathars denounced.


Actual walls around the bastides were built later, namely during the Hundred Years' War when migrating troops were ravaged.

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Visiting bastides today

Today there are still many bastides that have been preserved in such good condition so that visitors can discern the historical context and the specific charm of each place very well. Carcassonne, Libourne, Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Mirande, Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Montpazier were once bastides. Some serve regional administrative functions while others remain picturesque rural villages.
Bastides are a valuable, intense testimony to life in the Middle Ages.

Discover bastides and other medieval towns on our historical tours:

- Medieval Occitania – traces of the Cathars
- Hiking in the heart of the Rouergue region

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