Town Squares and Round Streets: Mediaeval Urbanism in France

Those of you who followed my journey through southern France a few weeks ago may remember the spectacular walls of Carcassonne or the inaccessible situation of Minerve, perched above a river gorge. Their irregular shape and walled exteriors highlight them as stereotypically mediaeval–growing up organically, with no overarching plan, and oriented towards communal defence. The mediaeval villages of the Languedoc come in all shapes and sizes, however, from the concentric orientations of the circulades to the regular planning of the bastides.

Houses along one of Bram’s circular streets.

Examples of the former are scattered all throughout the region, but are hard to notice until you walk their streets for yourself. Usually formed around a church or a square, they extend in concentric rings of streets, with the houses facing inwards. This provided a defensible exterior, without the costly maintinence of walls, but also gives these towns a curious sense of introversion.

A plan of Bram.

At Bram, a circulade only a few miles west of Carcassonne, the curving street plan can easily be seen from ground level, although it is difficult to get a sense of the overall lay-out until you see it on a map, like that above.

Further east, another circulade called Aigne as a distinctive feature at it’s centre–a spiralling road called the Escargot, or snail. With only one entrance to the rest of the town beyond, this enclave with a square and church at it’s heart must have provided a sense of safety to the villagers of this low-lying, agricultrual area. Today, however, Aigne is more focused upon welcoming visitors than on keeping them out.

A curving ‘corner’ in Aigne’s Escargot–a spiral street.

Nothing could be further from the feeling, if not the intent, of these circulades then the town form known as the bastide.  Founded primarily during the 13th and 14th centuries, the bastides, or ‘new towns’ were planned constructions, conceived of as a single unit and often laid in grid patterns.

Typically, a bastide would be centred upon a plaza with not only a church, but also a marketplace. This alluded to one of the main attractions of founding a bastide. For a local lord (including ecclesiastical figures such as abbots) founding a bastide and fostering trade through urbanisation could improve revenues. On the other hand, those who moved from the countryside into a newly created bastide gained legal privileges through the town charter, often becoming free men, rather than dependent tenants.

In Lagrasse, the modern town hall (Mairie) overlooks the square with the mediaeval covered market–signalling the importance of trade to the growth of civic identities.

Mirepoix, in the Languedoc, is an archetypical bastide. Once walled, it covers a rectangular area divided by a grid of streets converging upon the mediaeval town square–a format laid out after flooding destroyed previous houses in 1289. Today, a remarkable number of timbered mediaeval buildings (largely from the 15th century onwards) survive to line this square, their open arcaded first floor giving a sense of the town’s original character.

Timber arches support the late mediaeval houses of Mirepoix that line the square.

Their facades speak of the increased prosperity which came to Europe with the rise of towns, as economic activity was differentiated and tradesmen flourished. Signs of this growing urban hierarchy are evident in the decoration of Mirepoix’s houses, particularly the Maison des Consuls. Fronting the square, it flaunts a number of carvings incorporated into the timber-beam ends, each a unique testament to the inhabbitants’ social aspirations.

Carved beam ends on the Maison des Consuls in Mirepoix.

Whether built in concentric circles or in strictly perpendicular grids, therefore, the mediaeval villages of France reveal the unique social conditions of a changing Europe–one which required defence for predation, but desired the benefits of ever-larger urban communities. These needs were met in the town squares and churches, the curving, inward facing walls, and the covered markets that came to characterise the circulades and bastides–features whose effectiveness can be seen in their continued vitality as social and commercial centres.

6 thoughts on “Town Squares and Round Streets: Mediaeval Urbanism in France

  1. The curious sense of ‘introversion’ you note in the inward turned circular streets reminds me of something I’ve often thought: that a large proportion of emigrants from Europe to the New World came to the Americas not so much for political or economic reasons (the reasons given us here in America when we learn about these things in school), as because they wanted to escape what they experienced as claustrophobic social and living conditions at home. Once the medieval period was over and the New World had been discovered and opened to settlement, it must have seemed a breathtaking prospect indeed to go from a narrow compacted circular street in Languedoc, for example, to a vast continent available for the taking. And I’m thinking of the social freedom involved primarily, not just a grabbing of free land. Towns which may have felt reassuringly safe to most during the medieval period may have felt stiflingly close and rigid in social terms in later centuries.

    • This is an idea I’ve heard floated before, and I think it’s very probable that for many, the ideal of a wide open frontier, where everyone was an equal, provided a powerful motive for emigration. In reality, however, I’m not sure if the social situation in early America would have been much better. As you probably know, most early settlers were indentured servants, and died before the 7 years of their indenture were up. For them, the opportunity for upward social mobility remained beyond reach. The pilgrim settlements, too, were hardly characterised by openness and equality. All that said, though, I think I would still prefer early America to 13th century Languedoc, although neither environment provided much personal safety….

      • Wasn’t it mostly religious reasons that people left Europe and moved to America? That seems to have been the most common reason, though of course there were always evergreen optimists for whom the grass is always greener on the other side of the Atlantic.

      • Religious reasons are often highlighted, as with the pilgrims and their buckle hats, but many settled in North America purely out of an expectation of economic gain. Religion wasn’t the motivating factor in many of Virginia’s tobacco plantations, for example, and of course, the very earliest settlers may have expected to find gold. Many historians, however, do think that religion fuelled a lot of America’s trajectory, including Max Weber (whose thoughts on capitalism I’ve mentioned before.) Unfortunately, my remembrance of high-school level American History isn’t high enough to say much more😛 Thanks for joining the discussion!

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