The Bastides: the birth of French Democracy

800px-Domme_sky_viewDomme is an almost perfect bastide: a walled village sitting on a hillside.

(credits: by Luc Viatour, August 30, 2012)

The Bastides: the birth of French Democracy

Between 1220 and 1372 about 700 bastides, also referred to as new towns, were built to colonize the wild and fertile lands of Southwest France.  They grew as small, self-sufficient  hamlets which eventually had to become fortified for   protection. The following picture is the oldest and simplest that we saw: bastide Couvertoirade.couvertoirade


Compare that one to a more successful bastide of Eymet.

Eymet3These bastides enabled the rulers and those wealthy enough to own land to centrally locate their population, protect them, and to make money by raising taxes on their production. BUT, most importantly, it converted the serfs into freemen! Hence the birth of Democracy in France from the 13th century.

As the bastides grew in popularity and goods, they needed stronger walls and banding together inside them. Many were built on minimally established sites or on trading routes and were open to passersby and local farmers.

They were planned to put some order into society….and did just that.

Bastide de Villefranche du PerigordThe bastides all had a central square lined with arcades that acted as a commercial hub and market. As you can see in the first picture, the arcades were rough hewn, but,  for the 12th and 13th century, they were magnificent. The buildings themselves were 2 rooms deep: the first room the store, the second living quarters and the arcade for the display of wares.

Villereal StreetThis is the square in Villereal. Since churches were not allowed on the square but were to be, in addition to the religious center, the Keep and fall-back in case of a serious attack. The façade is built as a fortress topped with large open areas where weapons and hot oil could be dispersed. Standing in front we could see the stanchion openings where the chains would either raise or lower the ramp to cover the moat….now filled with stones.

Although Villereal started in the 12th century, it must have done very well to support the family that built this castle in the 15th century.Villereal Castle

Although noting the solid wall around the castle, the marauding continued. Before we began this journey, we decided to locate near Bergerac, both for the wineries and the bastides. The beautiful Chateau Des Vigiers in Monestier, France was our residence for 5 days.

The ideal situation: the Chateau has 2 restaurants, 2 bars and is located on A hill-top with woods and a golf course. Busy days and lovely evenings.


The next morning we drove to Montpazier.

Notice how much bigger and more elaborate the following site is. Reason: in the 12th century the King of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine. And they established  this village….in spite of the problems between the French and English. This next picture shows more of the royal grandeur in the elegant town-houses.800px-Monpazier

Notice some of the 2nd floor windows. We had lunch straight across the plaza under an umbrella and watched mini-vans plus horse drawn carts  bring produce and wine.

Chateau De Monbazillac

On our way back we stopped at this formal  bastide, fully self-contained. The Chateau was built in the 16th century and owned by the same family for over 600 years. The Chateau had a deep moat surrounding it. We also found a trap door for emergency escape in the basement….swimming out through the moat would be fine…except for the alligators.

Monbazillac Dordogne1One look at those lush vineyards reveals the success of this estate. We made sure of it by sampling in the tasting room. We stopped at the Lalinde bastide that was located right on the Dordogne River on our way to the hotel.

Lalinde Dordogne

It was well protected by the strong currents.  The water levels could vary by as much as 50 feet and it was very swift  at any level. We headed back to our Chateau to celebrate with a marvelous dinner and a clink of glasses for this wonderful discovery of the Bastides!



About carolinebotwin

Caroline Botwin and her husband Mike are retired educators who have always had a yen for travelling: he with a PH.D and teaching Architectural Engineering plus California wine education, and she having taught high school English, speech and drama. Both wanted to learn first hand about other cultures. While Mike predominately studied buildings and structures and met with winemakers, Caroline hunted for ancient sites and peoples. And kept journals of all their travels.
This entry was posted in France. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Bastides: the birth of French Democracy

  1. As Johnny Carson would say, “I did not know this.” Any of it! I had heard the word bastide but never bothered to look up the meaning. Very interesting to learn about the history and see the photos.

  2. graceberg3 says:

    Beautiful! I want to live at the Chateau Des Vigiers!

  3. myfrenchawakening says:

    This takes me back! Thankyou and hope you’re still travelling! Therese

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.