Living in an anxious age
Lots of French towns are surrounded by walls. Some of them look easy to breach; they were meant mostly to control access to the town so taxes and tolls could be collected and outsiders could be excluded. Other walls, though, clearly mean business – they were put there centuries ago for more obvious military purposes, in a time when even remote places lived under constant threat of pillage and destruction.
It’s true that our current age is an anxious age. A quick reading of any online forum reveals the concerns felt by people in France (and many other countries, too) about their physical security in the face of terrorism, crime, and escalating conflict. But try imagining a time when threats were so immediate, so constant that everything about your little town was built to ward off the danger, even far from the population centers in Paris or Lyon.
Our destination today – Monpazier, which also shares the distinction of being officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages” – transports us back to such a time in the long, violent history of the country.
Monpazier is a product of the terrible Hundred Years’ War, the long series of conflicts that gashed the western half of France from 1337 to 1453. Pitting Plantagenets against Capetians, “English” against “French” (although that distinction wasn’t really based on national
identities, given the cross-pollination between the royal families of the 2 territories), the constant raiding and pillaging of villages left many parts of France looking like the proverbial “scorched earth”, and every aspect of life was disrupted for its victims.
Monpazier is an example of a particular kind of military defensive structure, a bastide. Like other bastides in the Dordogne region of France, it follows the formula described in Wikipedia: “any town planned and built as a single unit, by a single founder”.
In practice, that means you won’t find the rabbit warren of narrow medieval streets you might see in a town that’s grown “organically” over the centuries. Instead, you find in Monpazier a whole town laid out on a neat grid inside its walls, with broad boulevards leading to the main gates and a great open square right in the geographical center.
The English King in the Dordogne
In this particular case, the town was built even before the generally-recognized start of the Hundred Years War on the initiative of an English king, King Edward I. With his troops deep in the heart of France, he established Monpazier in 1284 as a base on the frontier between his territories in Aquitaine and the territories belonging to the French king. (Several similar bastides were built in this same area to outline the frontier and to serve as a base for “colonizing” the Perigord region.)
Towns like Monpazier became essential refuges for the people living around them. Imagine working in the fields and hearing the distant, urgent ringing of church bells that signaled a fresh invasion on the way. Imagine the mad scramble to safety, the push to get inside the city walls in time. And imagine the stress and anxiety you might feel in the face of a more or less permanent threat stretching across all the decades of your life. One day your king was French; the next English; then the cycle repeated.
As part of its defensive walls, the bastide originally had seven great gates controlling access to Monpazier. Only three remain, but they’re massive and impressive. The gatehouses in the original walls were meant to be left open most of the time, but with mechanisms for closing the massive doors and dropping a heavy grate in front of them.
One story about the period relays the level of threat and uncertainty faced by a town like this during the Hundred Years’ War: according to the site NorthOfDordogne.com, one night “the Monpazier population set off to plunder the nearby town of Villefranche-du-Perigord. Finding the town quiet they plundered the town and returned to Monpazier. Unfortunately, the reason Villefranche was quiet was that the villagers had chosen that very same night to plunder Monpazier. When the sorry facts emerged, the residents of both Monpazier and Villefranche returned the things that they had taken from each other.”
Wars and Pestilence
And the Hundred Years’ War was not the only threat that hung over the inhabitants of Monpazier through the centuries. The 16th century “Wars of Religion” effectively meant that France lived in a perpetual state of civil war as Catholics fought their Protestant neighbors across the country, and again Monpazier changed hands several times as one side or the other surged into control of the territory.
Almost as soon as the Wars of Religion came to an end, this part of France was subject to a series of uprisings called the “Revolts of the Croquants” – violent populist rebellions against the aristocrats who ruled in the region. Then it was the Black Death, then typhoid, and … you can understand the constant terror and uncertainty that gripped people here for generation after generation!
Artisans and arcades
It’s not necessarily easy to recreate these feelings walking through the streets of Monpazier today. The atmosphere these days is definitely more “artisan” than “military”, with many small galleries and elegant shops displaying local crafts along the boulevards and around the central plaza. The fine old houses that surround the square have all been built with arcades in front, so you can make the complete tour with only an occasional step out into the sunshine or the rain. In fact, there are so many well-preserved buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the ensemble of buildings in the center has earned Monpazier the designation of “monument town”.
Monpazier’s church, the Eglise Saint Dominique, is worth a particular visit. Begun on the instructions of King Edward I in the 13th century, it’s a “sober” building with a plain front. Inside, though, you’ll find a beautiful rose window and a fine Gothic vaulted roof.
It’s not a very large village – no more than 600 residents – so it’s easy to cover all the highlights in a visit of a 3 or 4 hours. Some of the richest attractions of the Dordogne are close by – it’s about an hour’s drive southwest of the medieval treasures of Sarlat-la-Canéda, the twin fortresses of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac, and the extraordinary gardens at Marqueyssac. The great wine regions of Bordeaux are only a couple of hours to the west.
But if you go to Monpazier, take a minute to stand in the sunlight in the central square, close your eyes, and listen for the ringing of the church bells, and imagine a world not much less anxious than our own. Then open your eyes and spend a pleasant afternoon taking in a place that clearly qualifies for its place on the list of “most beautiful villages of France”.
Have you visited a place in France where you felt particularly close to the past? Or where the connection between past and present seemed particularly vivid to you? Please tell us about it in the comments section below. And please take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in traveling in (or knowing more about) France.