Let's discover the Bastides
As you drive along the roads of the Périgord, you will see signs such as “Bastide de Molières”, “Bastide de Monpazier”, or “Bastide de Beaumont-du-Périgord”. But what is a “bastide”?
Some people think, wrongly, that a “bastide” is a castle or a fortress, but when we talk about a “bastide”, we are referring to a town or village with very specific characteristics. We will help you discover them.
What is a Bastide?
A bastide is a new town that was founded on the orders of a secular (king of France or England) or a religious (bishop) authority during the 13th or 14th century.
The design of these new towns was quite revolutionary, both in terms of their architectural organisation and their administrative management.
Most of the time, bastides were built in sparsely populated areas. They were founded to attract economic activities that would make these sites a centre to attract people to live and work there. Above all, the bastides made it possible to assert royal authority at the expense of the lords. If the need arose, they were transformed into fortresses with the construction of a wall.
For economic reasons, the sites chosen were often located on major land or river routes. Sometimes strategic and military reasons determined the location.
In the case of Molières, it was necessary to monitor and populate a forest area that had become dangerous for pilgrims travelling to the abbey of Cadouin *. Moreover, this area, between the Dordogne and the Couze rivers was in the extreme north of the area governed by an English vassal. It was a frontier area that needed to be controlled by an active administrative and economic presence.
* This abbey housed within its walls a piece of linen from the Holy Land, venerated, erroneously until the 20th century as the Holy Shroud.
The characteristics of a Bastide
Bastides have common characteristics that distinguish them from other medieval towns and villages.
1. A regular plan
Bastides are almost all built according to a geometric plan, either square or rectangular. There are parallel and perpendicular streets, which lead off a central square, often lined with arcades, as at Monpazier or Beaumont. In Molières there is only one left: the “porche”, also called “la maison du Bayle”.
The square is the most important place in the village, it is here that the economic, administrative and social life takes place. Often there is a market hall. So far, no trace of a market hall has been found in Molières.
In most bastides, the church is built a little way from the square. But in the case of Molières, the location of the church is particularly remote. The reasons for this distance could not be determined with certainty.
In a bastide, the streets intersect at right angles. Three types can be distinguished:
- the main streets which allowed the passage of carts. They were 7 to 8 metres wide and are called “charretières” or “carreyras”;
- secondary streets, less wide than the first ones, which measured between 5 and 6 metres. These are the “transversales” or “traversières”,
- and finally the small lanes that served the back of the plots, 1 to 3 metres wide. They are called “carreyrous”. Today, they are particularly pleasant, shady and cool in the heart of summer. They attract the curious walker who can discover very old walls, doors and the remains of the oldest houses in the bastide.
The land was divided into plots, all of which had the same measurements. The standard size plot was an administrative simplification for the lessor and a tax guarantee for the lessee. Each family received its plot of land and had to build on it within a fairly short period of time.
One can distinguish different uses for the land made available:
- Near the centre, there were building plots measuring 4 aunes or about 8 by 20 metres, intended for housing. These were large enough to accommodate the house, a yard and outbuildings.
- A little further back were the gardens, called “cazals”. There was one per house. Their surface area varied from five to seven ares or about 700 square yards.
- Outside the town there was agricultural land.
In general, in these new towns, the houses were not adjacent to each other. A “sanitary” space of about 50 cm, sometimes less, the “entremis” or “andronne” separated two buildings. It was used to collect rainwater which flowed from the sloping roofs towards the interspace and not towards the street. The water never fell on the neighbour’s roof, which eliminated neighbourhood quarrels. Contrary to popular belief, the primary function of these voids was not to prevent the spread of fire.
2. The Charter of Customs
The charter * is one of the main original features of the bastides. It is granted by the founder. This novel municipal code, which was opposed to feudalism, made it possible to affirm the rights and duties of everyone. It was at the same time the civil code, the penal code and the tax code.
To attract new inhabitants, the founders did not hesitate to offer new freedoms:
- ten years of tax exemption,
- the right to marry off one’s daughter at will,
- the possibility of sending one’s son to join the clergy,
- the free disposal of one’s property,
- the right to choose a profession other than that of peasant and to become a craftsman,
- the administration of communal affairs by means of an elected consulate, rather like the town councils of today.
In this way, the bastides allowed the peasants to escape the feudal hold, because – let us not forget that – at that time many peasants were serfs. The emancipation promised to serfs who agreed to live in the bastides was a powerful argument at the time. It was really revolutionary!
* The Charter of Molières is recorded in a document currently held in the National Archives. The text of the charter was transcribed in 1877 in a bulletin of the Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord, which enabled us to consult it.
3. The administration
The administration of the bastides was quite democratic for the time and was mainly based on two pillars:
- The Bayle: He was the representative of the founders of the Bastide. The Bayle (or Bailiff) was in charge of management, administration, justice and the collection of taxes. He had to respect the rights of the inhabitants, as described in the charter. He was paid for his services and could not accept “extras” from the inhabitants.
- The consuls: In order to take into account the interests of the community, a municipal administration, formed by representatives of the inhabitants, was established. The heads of the families chose 6 consuls from among themselves who were elected for one year only. This was a forerunner of town council. They were in charge of roads, fortifications – if any -, the maintenance of fountains and bridges, the defence of the town and the maintenance of order.
So, you will understand that by walking through the streets and carreyrous of Molières, you have found yourself on the trail of a brand new concept of life, of the beginning of a democratic society in those medieval times. Also by understanding the bastide of Molières, you will better understand the other bastides of our region, which are just waiting to be discovered by you.
Let yourself be drawn into the fabulous history of our bastides!