03.02.05, Lavigne, Essai sur la planification agraire au Moyen Age

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David Bryson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.005


Lavigne, Cedric. Essai sur la planification agraire au Moyen Age: Les paysages neufs de la Gascogne medievale (XIII-XIV siecles). Series: Scripta Varia vol. 5. Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2002. Pp. 299. ISBN: 2-910023-30-3.

Reviewed by:
David Bryson
Trinity Western University

This book is the published version of the author's doctoral thesis, prepared under the direction of Jean-Bernard Marquette at the Universite de Bordeaux III, and publicly defended in January 2001. The work examines and analyses the agricultural land surface surrounding towns and villages (bastides) which were founded and 'colonised' in Gascony during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It then seeks to identify and characterise, by methods which enable the analyst to distinguish features consistent with medieval origin, evidence of coherent medieval argicultural planning. This would, the author reasons, provide material for 'a history of the medieval agricultural colonisation of Gascony that remains to be written' (16). As he states, the traces of medieval land parcels are 'the projection on the ground of the political, economic and social realities of the period that produced them' (68), and so can provide a document of medieval history.

A great deal has been written about the history of the medieval bastides of Aquitaine or Gascony, and their purpose has long been the subject of controversy in the historiography. Were they built by the English and the French for military and political reasons during the period leading to the Hundred Years War, or were they social and economic experiments in the occupation and development of the land? Was new 'colonisation' the goal, or a more efficient and rewarding relocation and restructuring of existing occupation and exploitation? Each of these purposes has been successfully argued by historians ranging from Marc Bloch in 1931, to the work of Charles Higounet, and now others under the leadership of Jean-Bernard Marquette at the Universite de Bordeaux III, and Gerard Chouquer of the CNRS.

The author of this book argues that, while historians and historical geographers have dealt with these controversies about the bastide settlements themselves, little work has been done on the surrounding agricultural lands. Furthermore, such work as has been done has been based on general observation rather than on scientific geomorphology, the study of the structure and development of the land surface. Lavigne introduces his book by quoting Robert Fossier as follows (my translation): 'If the house is above all a productive cell, and if the village is the grouping of those cells, the real substance, that which provides the extension or the utilisation, is the neighbouring land' (14, n. 2 Fossier 1979; All translations from French into English herein are the reviewer's, except where otherwise noted). Therefore, Lavigne argues, conclusions have been put forward by historians which are either in error, or open to investigation.

Beginning with a list of 255 bastides located in 11 departments southwest of, or adjoining, the river Garonne, Lavigne uses vertical aerial photographs, topographic maps, and cadastral plans to identify the regular, geometric medieval parcels of land, applying 'filtering' techniques with a video camera to provide clear, measurable images. I am not able to judge the validity of these techniques. Cartularies and charters were consulted for the written record, as were the later tables of conversion from the medieval measures -- the arpent in particular -- to the metric hectare. Lavigne acknowledges (132) that his metric conversion of the arpent has attracted criticism during his oral presentations. His decision not to use any archeological or natural science sources for his investigation (24) also needs to be questioned.

Using as his model the bastide of Barcelonne-du-Gers (which was the subject of his MA begun in 1992, also at the Universite de Bordeaux III and supervised by Jean-Bernard Marquette), Lavigne analyses the land parcel measurements of this (plan p. 253) and of 10 other bastides, and postulates evidence of the same coherent system for each of them. He then does more extended case studies of three other bastides -- Gimont (in the Gers, founded 1266), Barran (Gers, 1279), and Sarron (Landes, before 1318), concluding that in certain cases the creation of the bastides, 'far from emptying the older surrounding habitations,' 'largely favoured the conservation and extension of the dispersed habitat' inherited from the preceding medieval period (189).

All of the 14 bastides analysed by Lavigne lie in the area between the plain of the Landes and the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the Gers department or close to its borders, founded between 1266 and 1331 (a period of 65 years), and grouped within a circle whose maximum circumference is 125 km. The reader may ask whether general conclusions can be drawn from such a limited (5% of the beginning list) and localised regional selection. This problem seems to be recognised in the concluding chapters of the book, 'Elements of Synthesis' and 'General Conclusion.' In 'Elements of Synthesis,' the author compares data from a broad list of the charters of 255 bastides, and 44 cartularies, with inconclusive results. His 'General Conclusion' ends with the statement that 'a vast investigation is therefore required which will exceed, one senses, the narrow horizon of Gascony which has been used here as the frame of reference' (246). The tentative nature of the conclusion of Lavigne's book is, perhaps, a consequence of its having followed so soon after his thesis. Some errors or ambiguities in the footnotes and the pagination of the illustrations may also have resulted from the rapid conversion from thesis to published book. For example, footnote 2, translated above, is cited as 'Fossier 1979', but the bibliography only lists a 1995 work by Fossier (and see below on the illustrations).

In view of the narrow field of his analysis and the tentativeness of his conclusions, the enthusiastic claims for Lavigne's findings put forward by Gerard Chouquer of the CNRS in his preface to this book seem too much, too soon. So too does the statement (in French and English) on the back cover, that 'This study demonstrates that this process of colonisation gave rise to the development of new forms of planning by surveyors. This phenomenon takes us beyond the context of the bastides themselves and represents a highly original contribution to our knowledge of the organization of rural space in the Middle Ages. As a result, the ground is prepared for a study of the actors involved in and the theory and practice of mediaeval surveying.'

Despite these reservations, this book is recommended as an original and important contribution to the study of the agricultural landscape of the medieval bastides of southwestern France, and, potentially, to the wider study of medieval rural planning. Of particular interest are the black and white figures (of which many illustrate the land parcel plans of the bastides) correctly placed in relation to the text, and the colour plates placed at the end of the book, but (usually) signalled by notes at the related points in the text (usually, but not always; at 154, for example, plate 36 is noted without providing its page number, 257).

A word of warning, however: this is a highly detailed and technical study, and even those with a good reading knowledge of French will not find it easy going. There is a glossary of terms, but many words such as borde, which have a particular meaning in this context, are not included. The index is of places only. There is an excellent bibliography of French primary and secondary sources (though I am not sure of the utility of the eight page long list of charters of places, most of which do not figure directly in the book). The considerable work of scholars in English on English medieval village land systems, and on the bastides of Gascony, is largely absent.

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David Bryson

Trinity Western University