Theses Doctoral

"On Earth as It Is in Heaven?" The Creation of the Bastides of Southwest France

Love, Melissa Jordan

In southwest France starting in the early thirteenth century, an estimated 500 to 700 new towns were created over the course of about 150 years. These new towns, or "bastides," were most often created on unoccupied lands and took the form of a geometric grid plan that was designed around a central market square ringed with arcades, or couverts. Created for economic trade and settlement purposes, the bastides represent one of the first forays into urban planning on a grid system since late Roman times, especially on such a large scale, and they coincide with new economic and political rights and grants of land laid out in the town charters to attract inhabitants to move to the new communities.

Many of the bastides were founded by the kings of France and England, as well as local lords including Count Raymond VII of Toulouse, and were made in cooperation with local landowners who were often Cistercian monasteries or minor nobility. While many studies thus far have focused on the economic and political implications for these charters, which included sales and property taxes that replaced traditional tithing, other scholarship has focused on their geographic placement and their geometric planning. However, few have addressed larger issues of identity formation, the social production of space, visual relationships such as between the market hall and the church, or the impact of the Cathar heresy in the region on the relationship between bastides and ecclesiastic authorities.

This dissertation addresses these issues of social context, town design, and architectural form. The Cathar heresy was initially put down by a crusade called by Innocent III and resulted in the wholesale destruction of many cities in southwest France. The bastides were created partly as a consequence of the devastation in order to fulfill the need for new settlements. Because of this history of heresy, many bastides were built on former Cathar lands and utilized a strong stamp of authority through naming practice and the development of over-large church clocher-porches that dominate the town squares. Other bastides reflect identity and ambition through the appropriation of European city names, most of them Spanish or Italian, many of which were developing new economic and political rights of their own that were allowing them to thrive. These included the Fueros de Valencia and the Liber Paradisus of Bologna, which targeted the merchant class at the expense of the nobility, and the latter did so through the rhetoric of biblical metaphor. Many of the names used by the bastides were Italian communes, which had a tradition of written odes that described the ideal city in language that included the visual description of compact, state homes on organized, broad streets. These reflect the wide straight streets of the bastides and not the narrow, overbuilt urban tangle that was more common in medieval cities.

Though the underlying geometry of bastides is somewhat tenuous, the massive size of some of their squares stands as a marker of their founders' ambition. Metrological investigation shows that they were designed in proportion with the market halls, are often oriented with the cardinal directions, and appear to use mainly the Roman or royal foot length in whole numbers that could be subdivided into an even number of house lots. The churches of the bastides display more pronounced geometry and were also proportional to the town lots; however, they seem divided between those that aligned themselves with the new town grid and those that were built against the grid in order to maintain a strict east-west alignment or to maintain a direct sightline into the square. These churches also display a plain Cistercian-like simplicity in form, a reflection not only of that monastic order but the presence of the mendicants and the latent belief system of the Cathars that rejected materiality. They also use hallmarks of military and ecclesiastic architecture in common with the region's cathedrals. However, many of these elements were not functional, suggesting they were an aesthetic choice. Some, in fact, were added artificially during the nineteenth century in order to celebrate the medieval heritage of France.

I also address how bastides became bearers of meaning, addressing the issue of loose ties to Roman sources and the writings of Vitruvius. I also suggest possible ties to the Heavenly City of Jerusalem through churches that replicate the Holy Sepulchre and the similarity of their form and geometry to Beatus manuscripts depicting the Heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. One such manuscript was made for the English monarchy the same decade that the English began founding bastides. However, the bastides also acquired meaning through ceremony, including the ritualistic raising of the pau staff bearing the arms of the founder and another reference to the local bishop riding into the bastide on a white mule. Through this examination of the bastides through their formal, ritualistic, and social context, we get a more holistic understanding of the production of space and meaning, and how such urban spaces were created and used over time.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Murray, Stephen D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 23, 2012