, , , , , , , , , ,

That title was how I breezily summed up a 10-minute whirlwind history of the south of France for my son last fall. We were having a dinner of mussels (him) and brandade (me) in a cafe next to the arena in Nîmes, the first stop on a visit that would take us from the Roman sites of Provence to medieval Carcassonne and Cathar country.

Languedoc-Rousillon-map-france       Languedoc-Rousillon

We had spent the afternoon basking in romanitas, or at least the version put out by Nîmes tourist bureau: the noble Roman virtues of legalism, stoic integrity and civic-mindedness–and therefore their famous civil engineering, as exemplified by the local arena and aqueduct. We had also learned that “arena” comes from the Roman word for sand, as in what you throw on the ground to soak up the blood of the various wild animals, criminals and gladiators being maimed and killed for the enjoyment of the public. Romanitas.

Now I explained how as the Roman Empire crumbled due to decadence and demographic pressures in the east, the Visigoths (Romanized Germans) moved in to southern Gaul and took over/married for farmlands from the local Gallo-Roman gentry. And then the Franks (less-Romanized Germans) spent several centuries trying to establish control of the area. The Capetians (descendants of the Salian Franks, now speaking middle French with lots of German mixed in) spent decades massacring the population of the Languedoc in the 1200s, ultimately replacing the region’s leaders with northerners with direct personal allegiance to the French king. This largely ended the south’s de facto independence from the Frankish north. And then the Nazis (the Germanest of Germans, and despite Third Empire rhetoric, definitely not Roman) occupied the whole place during WWII.

The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. – Voltaire

“What about the English?” my sister later asked. After all, the English have been hating the French for centuries, and the French have happily responded with arch contempt. But the English were really just a problem for about three centuries in the western part of France, until they finally realized that their continental empire had in fact been lost with the death of Richard the Lionheart in 1199. (There were some further frictions between the two countries in the 18th and 19th centuries as they tried to carve up the rest of the world between them, but here we’re discussing things happening on French soil.) The people of the Languedoc never bothered about the English much; in fact, given the centuries-long rivalry between the dukes of Aquitaine and the counts of Toulouse, having the westerners tied up with the irksome English was very much to the southerners’ advantage. No, for the southerners, it was always the Germans. Nearly 2,000 years of Germans.

The Angevin Empire. Notice that the Languedoc region is a separate entity. (Credit:

The Angevin Empire. Notice that the Languedoc/Toulouse region is a separate entity. (Credit: “France 1154-en” by Reigen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

To be fair, it was the original Germans, the Visigoths, who put their stamp on the local character. So let’s go back a bit:

Visigothic kingdomSource: galvanito.blogspot.ae

You can see from the map that Visigoths had conquered both the area of Languedoc-Roussillon as well as Aquitaine and most of Iberia by the time of their formal recognition as a Roman tributary state in the 470s. Their capital was at Toulouse. The Franks, allied with the Burgundians, took most of Aquitaine and then some in 507, leaving only the province of Septimania–which corresponds almost exactly to the modern Languedoc-Roussillon–as the only bit of Visigothia north of the Pyrenees. The Visigothic capital moved to Toledo, and Septimania became a political backwater, though still a wealthy and relatively stable one, owing to its long Roman heritage and web of commercial relationships throughout the Mediterranean. After the Spanish king converted from Arian to Catholic Christianity in the 580s, the Church became increasingly powerful in the political sphere, making things very difficult for Spanish Jews. Forced conversions and later an expulsion edict were instituted in the 600s, leading large numbers of Jews to flee to Septimania. There they stayed, with relatively tolerant laws, including a number governing intermarriage with Christians, allowing them to live according to their own lights. In fact in Carolingian times, according to Riche, Languedocian church officials started agitating for changes to intermarriage and conversion laws, as they felt they were losing too many parishioners to Judaism.

The southerners so thoroughly disliked the Franks that the siege of Narbonne (752-759) even saw the Septimanian nobility allying themselves with the Umayyad Moslems who had conquered Spain and were invading southern Gaul. (After all, they’d been trading profitably with North Africa for centuries.) They lost, and the Languedoc region officially became part of the Frankish Empire in 759. Even so, the local nobility in Languedoc continued to marry into Spain, particularly the kingdoms of Navarro, Aragon and Catalonia, until the 1200s. They shared a common language–the various dialects of Occitan–and degrees of religious fervor aside, a fairly similar culture that was clearly distinct from that of the Frankish kingdoms: less martial, more commercial, with a cosmopolitanism that tends to come along with international trade.

This general disposition to tolerance and a fondness for the good life would get the region in trouble in the 1200s, when the Pope was persuaded to preach a Crusade–the first on European soil–against a group of heretics called the Cathars who were rapidly winning converts all across the Languedoc. The Catholics in the region were guilty by association, since they didn’t make much of a fuss about it. (When asked about their shockingly laissez-faire attitude by a contemporary outsider, the answer was simply that everyone had friends and family members who were Cathars, and they were manifestly good people, so what was the harm?) The ensuing wars, which lasted from 1209 to 1255, ended with millions killed, the Languedoc economy in ruins, the invention of the Office of the Inquisition (1234), and the Count of Toulouse effectively ceding his lands, via his daughter Jeanne, directly to the French king.

Some still seem a little bitter about it.

173Tourist brochure from the cathedral of Carcassonne

The Inquisition continued its work in the south into the 1300s, even after military actions had ceased. The Wars of Religion of the 1500s–which killed and sent into exile millions more heretics (this time Protestant Huguenots)–probably didn’t help improve lingering hard feelings much either.