Monday, 18 June 2012

Preview: Carcassonne

History was never easy for the people who had to live it. These days we might worry about shopping bills, or being accosted by charity people in the street, or the roll of fat amassing around our stomachs, but back then the worries might include a foreign army turning up one day and destroying everything and killing everyone you know and love. Even somewhere nice like the south of France, where bridges of baguettes span rivers of wine, could never be assured that the next day wouldn't bring a holocaust. Understandably, people wanted to allay these fears. And so they built for defence. Nowhere is this more evident than the ancient walled city of Carcassonne.

Occupied from around the 6th Century BC, Carcassonne is a testimony to man's long requirement for defence. It has been described as a combination of nature, art, and history, being as it is positioned scenically but strategically on a hillside, overlooking the river Aude, and being an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with a sprinkling of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Historically, it is rich. From its ancient roots as a settlement for farmers and hunters, the Romans later occupied it for many centuries, building the first layer of walls, before the German Visigoth tribe, fresh from sacking Rome, took over in the 5th Century AD. The Saracens also had a shot for a few decades in the 8th Century. Local nobles were in charge in the 11th and 12th Centuries, further fortifying and building inside the town, but couldn't withstand the siege of the French in full crusader mode. They tried to get it back from the French, but the French went into defence overkill, bulking up the walls and towers and building an additional outer wall. This is what we see now - three kilometres of walls and 52 towers. Carcassone became impregnable.

So Carcassonne as a settlement has over 2500 years of history, but it is as a Wonder that I am viewing it, and the key period here is the early 13th Century. At the turn of the 13th Century, Carcassonne was in the hands of the Trencavel dynasty. This family had ruled the area for around 300 years, since taking over from early French rule, and built upon the walls and construction left behind from the Roman era. The town's castle was built, over the western end of the Roman walls, and surrounded by its own fortified enclosure - a double line of defence - and the grand cathedral (now a basilica) of St Nazaire and St Celse was built. Although with impressive defences, it was a peaceful time and Carcassonne's role was more of a prosperous trading town rather than a fortified one. It was the age of the troubadours, popular lyric and poetry performers specialising in themes of chivalry and romance, and an essential image of the Middle Ages. It is regarded, with a slight hint of the rose-tinted, as a golden age for Carcassonne, with civic independence and rights for the townspeople. A flourishing, bustling medieval community, made wealthy by peace and trading, and seemingly enlightened local rule.

But it was the open doors to traders and passers-by that sewed the seeds of the downfall of the Trencavel dynasty and this golden age. Some time in the 11th Century, Catharism was introduced to Carcassonne. Catharism was a kind of extreme ascetic offshoot of Christianity, in which it was claimed that the material world was entirely the work of Satan, God reigning in some other, invisible realm. Anything associated with the material world was condemned, including sex, marriage, and possession of private property, and no images or symbols - including the cross - were allowed. You probably wouldn't want to invite them down the pub for a pint. Fortunately, for the normal person, only elites within the Cathar religion, or people at the point of death, could receive the sacrament of the doctrine and become initiates of the church - everybody else was allowed to do whatever they wanted. It was, to put it bluntly, a pretty weird religion.

Catharism was spread across Europe, but was particularly prevalent in the Languedoc region that Carcassonne is in, and numerous Cathar castles can still be found in the region. Probably it was still a minority belief there, less popular with the average person and more one for the nobles, but in Carcassonne the Cathar church was openly worshipped. And this became a problem.

You see, although the weirdness probably didn't help its cause, it was the attitude to the Catholic church that sealed Catharism's fate. The Cathar church was not one to mince its words, and called the Roman Catholic Church a "harlot" and "synagogue of Satan". This was perhaps a bad move. The powerful Roman Catholic Church, historically, was not necessarily known for turning the other cheek - and the Cathars incurred its full wrath. Condemned as heretics, in the end it wasn't Rome that sealed its fate, but King Louis IX - later to be Saint Louis - based up north in Paris. He declared the Albigensian Crusade (the Cathars were also known as the Albigensians) and a huge army of knights came down to teach the heretics a lesson.

Against this huge invasion there could be little resistance, and Raymond-Roger Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne and the nearby town of Bezier, stood alone against the onslaught. When invited to hand over the Cathar heretics, he declared, "I offer a town, a roof, a shelter, bread and my sword to all the outlaws who will soon be wandering about Provence with neither town, roof, shelter, or bread". Bezier was assaulted first, and the good Christian knights from up north took no mercy - every man, woman, and child was slaughtered, almost 20,000 people. The pope's representative on the crusade, when asked how to tell a Cathar from a Catholic, is said to have replied, "Kill them all, God will know his own." Then to Carcassonne, and Raymond-Roger Trencavel. The knights decided not to launch an all-out assault as it would have been too difficult, so just besieged the town, suspecting Carcassonne wasn't cut out for the long haul. They were right - the water supply was a problem - so Raymond-Roger met with the knights one day for negotiations. And the sneaky knights took him prisoner. Carcassonne fell, but the population got off lightly. They were told to leave, just leave, and the French moved in and set up shop. Raymond-Roger was imprisoned in his own dungeon, and died, aged less than 25 years old, in suspicious circumstances a few months later.

In the century that followed, the Trencavel dynasty and the local population launched two sieges upon the French to reclaim their land, but were unsuccessful, and this led to a further campaign of fortification of Carcassonne. The golden age was past and the back was broken of Catharism. It survived on for another century, before being finally and ruthlessly exterminated by a bishop called Jacques Fournier, later to be Benedict XII, the third Avignon Pope.

With the second envelope of walls constructed around the first, and numerous towers, Carcassonne became an invincible fortress. During the Hundred Years' War in the 14th and 15th Centuries, Edward the Black Prince, of England, captured many cities but couldn't manage Carcassonne. There were two failed attacks by the Protestant Reformationists, the Huguenots, in the 16th Century. And although the advent of gunpowder and cannons removed the veneer of indestructibility, in the end the decline of Carcassonne was simply due to politics. A 17th Century peace treaty shifted the border between Spain and France, and Carcassonne all of a sudden lost its strategic value. The military left, and Carcassonne slowly began to go to ruin.

This isn't quite the Wonder we see now though. In the 19th Century, France started to get its act together regarding all its crumbling monuments, damaged and desecrated by war and revolution. One man, the beautifully named Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, was at the forefront. Don't forget this name, as we see it associated with almost all of France's ancient monuments and many of my French Wonders, as he was involved in numerous major restorations in his lifetime, from Mont Saint Michel to Notre Dame to Amiens Cathedral. Something like a third of the Carcassonne we see now are his efforts. There are quite a few dissenting claims that although his work was aesthetically pleasing, it perhaps isn't altogether authentic - but here I'll leave UNESCO to speak, when listing one of their reasons upon making Carcassonne a heritage site in 1997: "It is of exceptional significance by virtue of the restoration work carried out in the second half of the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc, which had a profound influence on subsequent developments in conservation principles and practice."Carcassonne owes as much to a 19th Century interpretative restoration as it does to its original medieval builders.

With defence being a long-gone commodity, Carcassonne now opens its doors to visitors. Around two million tourists a year flock - a monument designed to repel intrusions now attracts. I'll be one of these, and will be visiting Carcassonne on the 13th and 14th July, to see its famous annual Bastille Day fireworks display, and will give a fuller account of its history and my opinions then.


  1. Another place I knew nothing about. Looking forward to seeing it.


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