I crossed off a bucket list item in the last of my visits during the recent Journées du Patrimoine. La Bastide-l’Evêque sits on the edge of the granite Ségala plateau amid the rolling Aveyron hills above the River Lézert. This village is off the beaten track, which has a significance in its history, but it once represented the ambitions of a powerful bishop.
Once again, the local tourist office offered a tour by a very knowledgeable guide. We saw, and learned, far more than if we had simply wandered about on our own. Being fairly high up, there was an autumnal nip in the morning air, but the sun shone from an azure sky. People chatted while they queued at the boulangerie for their Sunday bread.
Medieval new towns
As its name indicates, the village is a bastide, one of the hundreds of new towns that developed across Southwest France from the 12th to the 14th centuries. They aimed to colonise the wild countryside, stimulate economic development and, ultimately, consolidate the power of the Crown at the expense of local nobles.
People who moved to a bastide became free men and were no longer subject to a minor feudal lord. In addition to a parcel of building land, the people also received cultivable plots just outside the walls.
A charter enshrined the bastide’s rights and responsibilities. A group of consuls normally governed the town, under the authority of a bayle, himself subject to royal, ecclesiastical or seigneurial authority, depending on who had founded the bastide.
Bastides were usually developed on greenfield sites. Typically, they follow a grid pattern of intersecting streets, carreyras, which were wide enough for carts, and carreyrous, smaller alleys. A large central square was the site of markets and fairs.
Being at the extremity of the region, Aveyron has only six bastides, grouped in the Rouergue in the West of the département: Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Villeneuve d’Aveyron, Najac, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, Rieupeyroux and La Bastide-l’Evêque.
The Bishop of Rodez, Raymond de Calmont, founded La Bastide in 1280. He intended the town to compete with and limit the power of Villefranche-de-Rouergue. Alphonse de Poitiers founded the latter in 1252 but failed to consult Bishop Raymond’s predecessor. The land for La Bastide came from local nobles, the Morlhon, who had to forfeit it when convicted of heresy.
Raymond de Calmont was obviously an energetic chap. He ordered the construction and organised the financing of la cathédrale de Rodez after the previous one collapsed in 1276. He had a house in La Bastide but didn’t visit often. A busy job plus the distance from Rodez were enough to deter him from dropping in for the weekend.
La Bastide had several natural advantages. It was on an ancient route linking Rodez and Cahors. Seams of silver existed in the area, which had been exploited since Roman times. The dense woodland supplied fuel for the smelting of metal, while the fast-flowing Lézert provided power for water mills and hydraulic forges (martinets) for beating copper. From the 14th century, La Bastide specialised in the manufacture of cauldrons and other metal utensils. This activity gradually declined but nonetheless continued to the end of the 19th century.
A group of volunteers has restored one of the martinets. You can visit and see it in action at certain times. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time during our visit. An addition to the bucket list.
The church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste was built in the 14th century by one of Bishop Raymond’s successors, but it’s more than likely that a church existed there already.
The porch/belltower probably dates from the 16th century and emulates la collégiale de Villefranche on a smaller scale. Next to it, one of the main entrances to the village passes through a gateway.
La Bastide-l’Evêque never managed to rival Villefranche in importance. The silver seams gave out, eroding part of its economic foundation. The ancient mule track gave way to a more direct route between Rodez and Cahors that bypassed La Bastide. The village never achieved the growth and power which Bishop Raymond had envisaged. Interestingly, though, the inhabitants are still called les Episcopois.
The tourist office lady led our small group around the three parallel streets of the village. She showed us numerous architectural and historical features that we might otherwise have passed by.
Few dwellings from the Middle Ages still exist, often having been constructed of wood, but a number of features have survived. This bridge over an alley is the extension of a house, called un pontet. During the Middle Ages, people were taxed on the ground floor area of their house, so they had an interest in making as much of the upper floor area as possible. This explains why the upper floor often juts out above the ground floor.
The well in the main square has probably existed since the foundation of the village, although the structure is clearly much more modern. A source of fresh water was a prerequisite for choosing a site to establish a bastide.
The houses are constructed of the local pink granite, which suffuses them with a warm glow.
Stones from former buildings appear in later constructions, such as this stone featuring a heart and a cross (sadly, a drainpipe conceals part of it). The guide told us that a heart inscribed on a stone lintel signified a recent marriage.
This was a really interesting visit. I intend to return to La Bastide-l’Evêque one day to see the martinet in action and also to do some of the walks around the area.
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