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Pioneer among medieval property speculators

Villefranche-de-Rouergue is a perfect example of how, in the thirteenth century, the times they were a-changing. The lord of the manor was starting to feel the pinch. His income from tithes, ten per cent of the annual produce from land or labour, was falling because his vassals, who lived in scattered, cultivated clearings, grew barely enough grain or raised scarcely enough cattle to do more than feed themselves. These vassals, tied farmers, were supposed to enjoy their lord’s protection but he was now hard-put even to defend himself: his once all-powerful knights in heavy plate armour and chain mail were finding that pikes and arrows could knock them off their horses and, once dismounted, that their lack of mobility made them easy prey.

To solve his difficulties, and keep up his lavish lifestyle, the lord of the manor engaged in what today would be seen as a form of real-estate speculation. He would clear some unused land in his domains, build a fortified village and attract the local population to live there and work the expanse of land around it. The incentive for people to live in a bastide, as such new towns were known, was release from fealty to the lord, and exemption from tithes.

What the lord usually did not tell his freed men was that they would be expected to live in neat little rows, the first streets and houses in France to be laid out in a grid system, which made assessing property taxes (an unpleasant shock for the new arrivals) easier and more equitable. Or that the whole deal depended on enough people accepting it, because only then would towns have sufficient population to attract merchants to set up a permanent market, which could then also be taxed. 

Just how well this concept worked at Villefranche-de-Rouergue can be seen from the road to Rodez, which rises steeply above the town. Below, the red roofs of Rouergue are set out in precise rectangles and all the principal streets converge not on the church - because churches did not generate revenue – but on the marketplace, which did, through sales taxes. And in this era before waterproof canvas awnings, the lord had to make sure that the merchants would come to sell their wares in wet weather and that his tax collectors, with their weighing and measuring devices, also kept dry. So he built, as an integral part of new properties in their prime location around the square, a series of arcades, like empty shop fronts, for use on market days.  

Which is why Villefranche’s Place des Couverts, entirely surrounded with medieval arcades, is the commercial heart of the town, unchanged in more than seven centuries. Of course, the street traders no longer need to huddle around the edges in anticipation of the occasional wet morning, but instead cluster in the centre under exotic umbrellas, more useful for keeping the sun off their stalls at midday. They sell an extraordinary variety of local produce at incredibly cheap prices, on Thursday and Saturday mornings, when there is not a spare pitch to be seen. Look out in particular for sweet hams, fruits, mushrooms and walnuts.

Villefranche was founded in 1252 by Alphonse de Poitiers after the male line of the Counts of Toulouse had conveniently died out, leaving him to claim their lands by marrying their eldest daughter, Jeanne, who by all accounts hated her husband but was powerless to object. Alphonse got the Church on his side by starting work on the town’s Eglise Notre-Dame, whose clock gateway, 58 metres high, looks enormous against the height of the quaint medieval houses in the surrounding cobbled streets and has wonderful views from the top. The church was not completed until the mid-fifteenth century, when King Charles VII added the finishing touches of the stained glass windows as a gift to the town.

In the same century a rich local merchant, Vézian Valette, paid for the Carthusian monastery, the Ancienne Chartreuse Saint-Sauveur, which has two cloisters, the smaller in flamboyant gothic style. This huge building took five thousand stonemasons and labourers almost eighty years to complete.

The Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs is rather later, early seventeenth century, and noted for its arched roof constructed entirely of painted wood, a rare baroque example. The chapel was consecrated by Louis Fouquet, the Bishop of Agde, who was banished to Villefranche by Louis XIV following the arrest of the bishop’s brother, finance Minister Nicolas Fouquet, in 1661. Louis Fouquet paid the local clergy to send the king at regular intervals letters the bishop had written, giving the impression that he was still in the provinces when he was secretly enjoying the distractions of Paris.


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