Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.06.17, Flambard-Héricher and Le Maho, eds. Château, ville et pouvoir au Moyen Âge

13.06.17, Flambard-Héricher and Le Maho, eds. Château, ville et pouvoir au Moyen Âge

Among the persistent problems raised by historians of the landscape in France and the UK, and more generally by medieval social historians who take forms of settlement to be directly or indirectly indicative of the operations of power, the connection of castles to settlements near or around them has returned to prominence during the last decade. In the late '70s and the '80s, Pierre Toubert's vision of incastellamento [1], gallicized and enlarged as encellulement by Robert Fosser [2], flared across the historiographical landscape in both France (where it appeared to be taken as dogma) and Italy (where it became a challenge for archeologists). Both these authors and their followers depended almost exclusively on written documents, which everywhere are notably scarce before the year 1000 and in some regions scarce until 1100 or 1200. The significant expansion of archeology--above all the rescue archeology that since about 2000 has accompanied the construction of highways, high-speed rail lines, urban tramways, commercial and industrial zones, and suburban housing estates--has shed light on the long histories of settlements of all sizes, from hamlets to cities, and at last offered an entirely new corpus of information to correct, refine, and complicate the all too broad generalizations of that earlier generation. This volume of conference papers brings together French (and one English) specialists in that expanding discipline. The areas studied range from Normandy through western regions south to the valley of the Charente, then from Provence northward through the Alps to Lorraine and Flanders, with a short flight across the Channel to reconsider an old, related, English debate.

A reader first coming to the issues involved would do best to begin with Elisabeth Lorens' concluding article, which places the studies presented here within the context of recent debates, especially useful since much of the debate has occurred at earlier conferences whose published reports have had relatively limited distribution (though probably some of them, with this annotated bibliography in hand, can be tracked down on the web). These debates have concerned research methods, on the one hand, and the generalizations that have dominated discussions for a generation, represented in the title of this conference as a kind of conceptual target. "Castle" and "town": once these are studied as physical objects on the ground, can they really be distinguished? That question may seem strange if we consider the remains of surviving castles and towers in their current environments. But those environments have changed over time (and well before industrial urbanization). If one "reads" the morphology of individual sites, that is the shape of an entire settlement--fortification, habitat, church(es)--at the time of its creation, the distinctions seem to disappear or at least be reduced to secondary importance. In France it is possible to do this by starting with the so-called "Napoleonic" cadastres of the early 19th century, on which the original but now vanished ramparts sometimes still appear, and, if they do not, their traces appear as streets. These cadastres also show the house lots surrounded by the ramparts. Even without excavation, surviving standing remains can often confirm such conjectural reading, though dating through excavation remains an ultimate desideratum, since the ramparts may have been rebuilt or extended. This volume contains several excellent examples of the method at work.

In "Du château au bourg castral en Vexin normand," Bruno Lepeuple studies seven of the castle towns in this frontier region, asking whether it was the fear of violence that drew local village populations to gather in walled towns next to castles. He concludes that in all seven cases the "bourgs," that is the fortified towns with their house lots along planned streets, were an integral part of the original defensive system, and that collecting commercial tolls and market taxes, as well as mill rights, were part of the original founder's purpose. Neighboring populations may have been forced to move there, but this explanation is less likely than the attraction of a special status for the inhabitants and work opportunities as artisans, as well as commercial exchange at the markets that were integral features of each site. He notes, among other things, the survival of inhabited un-fortified villages in the region and suggests that the newly founded centers drew mainly from villages whose abandoned locations are now marked only by isolated churches anywhere from a few hundred meters to several kilometers away.

Similar phenomena are described by Luc Bourgeois and Christian Remy in "Les agglomérations d'origine castrale entre Loire et Dordogne." In this extensive region (comprising five dioceses) the 10th- or early 11th-century movement in settlement locations is now often marked by isolated rural churches, often associated with cemeteries. Sometime the movement may be only from a valley location to a nearby hill spur or close to a monastic center. When provided with a rampart, these settlements were called "castra," while the fortified lordly residence was the "turris." The "castra" were home to the "milites castri," in residence when they were on guard duty, sharing the neighborhood with artisans, merchants, and peasants. In some cases another commercial "bourg" develops around the marketplace or parish church where the "milites" also started to move by the thirteenth century. In some towns the evidence for this social mixing can still be found in the remains of tower houses in the "lower town." Especially in the southern dioceses, these developments sometimes became fossilized early, but for the most part, the process of building and rebuilding ramparts was continuous from the twelfth century to Wars of Religion in the sixteenth, and in the more dynamic of these towns, the traces of past organization may be overwhelmed by later development, in particular the complete reorganization that sometimes occurred during the Hundred Years War.

In "Chateaux, villes et pouvoir princier en Lorraine médiévale" Gérard Giuliato deals with many of the same issues in a somewhat different way, first noting the various topographical forms that the combination of castle and habitat could take: those joined at inception, some of which with growth added on one or more "suburbs" with their own ramparts, other castles isolated in a region of older hamlets and villages, still others established in the midst of long-existing settlements. He then proceeds to narrate the development of one such new town, Pont-à-Mousson, created by charter in 1261 in the shadow of a strong point dating from about 1000. He argues that the flow of new inhabitants was neither "spontaneous" nor forced, but rather a response to privileges and material support given to newcomers. He concludes that in this region, even in the absence of clear narratives, the same was true of other new towns of the region, no matter what the status of their elite founders.

Giuliato's points are driven home in the account by Ètienne Louis of "Les origines urbaines de Douai," largely devoted to the town's development in the tenth century as revealed by excavations in the area of the earliest fortification. Douai at the time was a new "portus/castrum" founded by the count of Flanders at the point on the Scarpe river where further navigation upstream is impossible and goods heading south-west had to be transshipped from water to land. An older port already existed barely 2 km. away at Lambres, an estate belonging to the cathedral chapter of Cambrai. The count's new castle was neither a refuge for population nor a protective fortification for the clerical estate, but rather a competitor, designed from the beginning to welcome new settlers: house plots were an integral part of the original layout within the walls, indeed a large part, for the original tower occupied barely 1000 square meters of the 5 hectare area within the rampart. The new site quickly captured the river traffic and the tolls that made it profitable, and the continuing clerical rancor at their loss bubbled up in the eleventh century in the Gesta episcoporum Cameracensium. Etienne is convinced that a similar story lies beyind the displacement of the vic of Dorestad by the castle at Tiel and Quentovic by Montreuil. Force may have been involved in getting people to move to the new sites, but Etienne is convinced that other tenth-century displacements of river ports to new incastellated sites had purposes that were essentially fiscal and commercial.

It is to just such commercial advantages that Jean Chapelot, turns his attention in "Aux origines des châteaux et des bourgs castraux dans la moyenne et basse Charente." Though connected to the theme of the conference by his attention to the bridge and port at Taillebourg, the article is really about the boats that carried goods up and down 100 km. of river from the salt flats at the delta to the city of Saintes and beyond as far as Cognac. His database is 76 wood remains taken from the river, all but a few dating to before the thirteenth century, large dug-out canoes, assembled canoes and flat-bottomed boats, and the remnants of constructions to control river flow, attach fish-wires, support walks for river mills, and provide anchorage for river boats. From this he builds his argument that river commerce should be given a place of importance in historical accounts equal to or even greater than the long-distance "international" trade that has so dominated research and writing on the earliest stages of the medieval economic revival since Pirenne, a hundred years ago. On the Charente, the evidence for such traffic goes back to the ninth century, though the salt flats at the mouth of the river had been operating since the sixth century, and the so-called "E ware" pottery found in third- to eighth-century contexts in western Britain, may originate somewhere in the Charente valley.

One comes away from these articles with the feeling that archaeology will soon demand that we re-imagine the story of western Europe between the ninth and eleventh centuries, giving artisans and boat builders, surveyors and keepers of accounts their rightful place alongside men on horseback and monks with their relics.



1. In his Les structures du Latium medieval (Rome: Ècole française de Rome, 1973).

2. Developed most fully in his Enfance de l'Europe: Xe–XIIe siècles: aspects économiques et sociaux (Paris: PUF, 1982).