Land development in south-west France

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Map of France from the year 1030

Land expansion in southwestern France refers to the internal colonization of the largely settlement-free area in what is now the region of Aquitaine, which fell to France with the victory of the French crown at the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. This process took place in the second phase of European land expansion from the 10th century onwards.


One cause of the colonization movement is considered to be the increase in population between the 11th and 13th centuries in Europe. This had made it necessary to use more land for cultivation. The land gained was called artiga (French artigue, ‘freshly cultivated’). This term is found in many place names (Artiga : Artigue, Artigas, Artigat, Artigaou, Artige, Artigues, Artigos, Artigoeyte, Artigolles. Artiguemy, Artiguedieu, Artiguelaube, Artiguelongue, Artiguelouve, Artiguemale, Artiguenave, Artiguenause, Artiguevieille) and conclusions can be drawn about the origins of individual villages and towns. From the current research perspective, two functions of land expansion in southwest France can be deduced: “The movement both concentrated the population and absorbed its surpluses.”[1]

Climate and soil conditions

The region has a mild, humid maritime climate, with locally varying annual rainfall. The characteristics of the soils are also very different. The Landes de Gascogne, for example, are dominated by black clay, which was difficult to work with the means available at the time because of its high clay content. The soils of the plateaux, in the Périgord and the Agenais, are for the most part very ferruginous and acidic.

With the large-scale forest clearances, the natural landscape in the region changed for the first time towards a cultural landscape. However, the area only acquired its present appearance with the many years of drainage projects from the early modern period onwards and soil melioration in the 19th century. Grazing on acid soil rapidly degraded the soils and a barren heath landscape emerged. It was not until the arrival of the railway that lime could be brought in almost any quantity to neutralise the soils, which then allowed intensive agriculture.

Settlement types

In the period from the 11th to the 14th century, more than 600 new village communities and towns were created in south-western France, with various settlement types serving as models.


The settlement type Castelnau (plural: Castelnaus; also Castelnaux) was formed around a motte or a stone castle. In order to gain additional protection from attackers as well as a distant view, the castle was usually elevated, for example on a rocky spur. The houses were either built concentrically (as a circle or an arch) and terraced around the castle – as for example in Fourcès in the department of Gers or stretched out, following the rocky ridge – as for example in Brian in the department of Gers. Also because many of these settlements were surrounded by a city wall, they are narrow and compactly built. These settlements were typically founded by a feudal lord who resided at the castle. The castle is also an expression of the insecurity that prevailed in the south of France at the time. It offered protection from the grip of rival dynasties and from marauding bands. Moreover, this type of settlement ideally corresponded to the idea of the feudal lords.

According to the historian Charles Higounet, the heyday of the Castelnaus took place between 1100 and 1175. He describes the construction of Lauzerte in Quercy as the high point and simultaneous decline.

The settlement model is found today in many place names in southwest Aquitaine. Places such as Castelnau de Montratier, Castelnau de Montmirail and Castelnau-Magnoac bear witness to this.[2]


Unlike the castelnaux, the sauverés formed mainly on lands under the patronage of clergy around churches, abbeys and monasteries. Especially between 1030 and 1144/1150 many sauverés were founded. Charles Higounet describes the sauverés as a “[…] perennial extension of the Treuga Dei […] it offered protection to the population, securitas [security] to their estates and land work, by imposing a ban on whoever broke it.”[2] The new settlers were allotted as much land by their landlords as they could work with two oxen. The exact size of the land could therefore vary. The new settlers could be obliged by their landlords to pay a poll tax. A few places were also granted market rights. The respective territory of the Sauverés was delimited by crosses, which symbolized that these territories were under the protection of the peace of God. Through the place names and through the document books of the abbeys and monasteries, it is possible to identify the origin of the villages and towns.[3]

“The most extensive colonizing enterprise of this kind was carried out by the Knights of St. John in Comminges. The Comminges of Saint-Clar founded over 40 sauvetés in the first decades of the 12th century, covering an area of about 800 square kilometers.”[3]


Example of a bastide: Sauveterre-de-Rouergue

The term bastide (Occitan: bastir = “to build”) is the name of a settlement model in the Middle Ages in southwest France. These are village communities, which usually have a central market place and streets laid out at right angles. Bastides were either newly established or existing settlements were given the legal status of a bastide. The bastides reached their peak in the second half of the 13th century.


Casales are carefully planned and structured village communities. The settlements are “[…] laid out in small rectangular or square blocks of houses, resulting in a system of geometric streets.”[2]

Push and pull factors

For the settlers

Land expansion brought many advantages to the new settlers. On the one hand, they were under the protection of the landlord, on the other hand, it meant freedom and a peasant business for them.[4] Thus a new social middle class emerged, bridging the gap between the unfree rural population and the nobility. Many landlords granted privileges to the new settlers, such as the alleviation of compulsory labour or freedom from taxes.

For the landlords

The landlords, for their part, hoped that the new settlers would bring them fixed and lasting income. Furthermore, the new settlement or repopulation made parts of the country usable again that had been devastated by wars. This meant an economic and financial gain for the landlords as well as the strengthening of their position of power and the enlargement of their territory. Charles Higounet argues that landlords also had military-strategic reasons for resettling. He observed an accumulation of bastides within the Anglo-French border areas.
The motives of the landlords are currently disputed in research.[5]

The role of the monasteries

An important role within the land expansion (both in France and during the German Ostsiedlung) was played by monasteries and religious orders. Until the end of the 12th century, about 50 new religious houses were founded. Especially the Cistercian Order was important for the resettlement and cultivation of agricultural land. The Cistercians combined the spiritual life with practical work in agriculture. Within France, the building of new monasteries and foundations was encouraged by the king. One of the most famous Cistercian monasteries is Fontenay Abbey, founded in 1118.[6] The Cistercian reform monasteries also participated to varying degrees in land development in the 12th and 13th centuries, building part of their farmsteads (granges) on new pasture and arable land.[7]

End of the settlement movement

From the year 1320 onwards, a decline in the Aquitanian settlement movement could be observed. Many bastides and sauvéres failed in their foundation because not enough new settlers could be found. Thus, the settlement movement ebbed away despite numerous attempts to open up new territories. The king also tried to continue the expansions, but with moderate success.


  • Peter Erlen: Europäischer Landesausbau und mittelalterliche deutsche Ostsiedlung: Ein struktureller Vergleich zwischen Südwestfrankreich, den Niederlanden und dem Ordensland Preussen. Herder-Institut, Marburg/Lahn 1992, ISBN 3-87969-224-6. (Accessory: Diss. Univ. Bochum, 1986).

Individual references

  1. Charles Higounet: On the settlement history of southwestern France from the 11th to the 14th century. In: Walter Schlesinger (ed.): Die deutsche Ostsiedlung des Mittelalters als Problem der europäischen Geschichte – Reichenau-Vorträge 1970-1972. Thorbecke, Sigmaringen 1975, ISBN 3-7995-6618-X, p. 693.
  2. a b c Charles Higounet: On the settlement history of southwestern France from the 11th to the 14th century. In: Walter Schlesinger (ed.): Die deutsche Ostsiedlung des Mittelalters als Problem der europäischen Geschichte – Reichenau-Vorträge 1970-1972. 1975, p. 668.
  3. a b Peter Erlen: European Land Expansion and Medieval German Eastern Settlement – a Structural Comparison between Southwest France, the Netherlands, and the Order’s Land of Prussia. 1992, S. 136.
  4. Charles Higounet: On the settlement history of southwestern France from the 11th to the 14th century. In: Walter Schlesinger (ed.): Die deutsche Ostsiedlung des Mittelalters als Problem der europäischen Geschichte – Reichenau-Vorträge 1970-1972. 1975, p. 675.
  5. Peter Erlen: Europäischer Landesausbau und mittelalterliche deutsche Ostsiedlung – ein struktureller Vergleich zwischen Südwestfrankreich, den Niederlanden und dem Ordensland Preußen. 1992, S. 155.
  6. Duden: Basiswissen Geschichte Schule, 2003. page?
  7. Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages Author?, Article?, Volume?, Page?