Today, I had my very first day of travelling in France, in the southern region known as the Languedoc. This area has a long history, from the ancient hunter-gatherers of several thousand years before Christ to the turbulence of 20th century wine-growers, and the landscape attests to the many cultures which have traversed it.
My first explorations into the area centred around the wine-growing region of Minervois. Grapes have been cultivated here since the Romans first moved into the area and began to appreciate its products. Traces of earlier inhabitants, however, can be seen in the Dolmen des Fades (Dolmen of the Fairies) outside the town of Pepieux. One of the largest in France, it sits on a low hill overlooking the modern vineyards, with three chambers and a large stone forming the roof. At one time, it would have held the remains of several people, and been buried under a tumulus or cairn.
In the mediaeval period, however, this region was marked by small hilltop towns, inaccessible and for the most part impregnable. Minerve, from which the area takes its name, is one such town. Surrounded by the gorge of the River Cesse, Minerve sits perched atop a limestone outcrop, a position which allowed it to resist siege in 1210. The attack was led by Simon de Monfort, lord of a minor lordship in the Ile de France who rose to prominence through his leadership of the Albigensian crusade.
Thanks to the town’s tall ramparts, Minerve had managed to resist his attacks for several months. When a trebuchet situated across the gorge from the town destroyed the well within Minerve’s walls, however, resistance crumbled. During the taking of the town, over 100 ‘heretics’–men and women resisting the social pressures of a reforming church–were massacred.
Deeper into the hills and gorges of the Massif Centrale, another mediaeval town, Ologues, presides over the modern scenery. Its major mediaeval survival is the tower of the hilltop fortress built in the 11th century. Converted into the bell-tower in the 15th century, it is the only remaining structure from the castle, destroyed on the orders of Louis XIII. Unlike Minerve, however, cherry orchards, not vineyards, surround Olourgues.
Together, they provide a glimpse of the developing urban centres of mediaeval Europe in a region known by 12th and 13th century authors as regressive and remote. Far from extensive by today’s standards, they nonetheless speak to the highly localised identities of the region, its close-knit communities, and the geography which for so long prevented the ascendancy of outside influences. As the eventual fall of Minerve attests, however, even the hilltop towns of Languedoc could not resist the military and ideological pressures of the Albigensian Crusade forever. Undertaken in the first decades of the 13th century, they began a process of integration with the outside world that continues to this day.