France – Carcassonne

As part of the Treaty of the Pyrenees between France and Spain in 1659, France gained Roussillon and Perpignan, parts of Luxembourg and towns in Flanders such as Arras and Béthune. The treaty set the new border with Spain at the Pyrenees and because of this decision Carcassonne’s importance as a military base dwindled rapidly in favour of Perpignan. Carcassonne fell into decay and the Middle Ages fell out of favour.

It wasn’t until the Romantic movement in the early 1830s that people began to notice Carcassonne again. The writer Prosper Merimee wrote appreciatively of the ruins in his 1835 travel memoir Notes d’un voyage dans le Midi de la France and at the same time a local archaeologist Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille was trying to instigate the reconstruction of his native town. As luck would have it, the major Gothic Revival architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his interpretive “restorations” of medieval buildings, visited the town and was so enthused by what he saw that he persuaded the Commission of Historical Monuments to undertake the restoration of Carcassonne, starting in 1844. This restoration was of the fortress known as ‘La Cite’.

Today, La Cite of Carcassonne is the largest fortress in Europe. The restoration work of Viollet-le-Duc probably added more towers and fortifications than were originally there, but no visitor really cares about this as Carcassonne is the physical embodiment of what most people imagine a fortified town from the Middle Ages to look like. Within a pair of massive curtain walls stands the Chateau Comtal, the keep in a motte-and-bailey type defensive position. The outer ramparts have 14 towers and are separated from the inner ramparts, with their 24 towers, by the lists or lices, an area where knights could ride horses, practice jousting or crossbow firing, and have archery contests. If an enemy ever breached the outer walls, they would be in open ground without any cover, and would be sitting ducks for any archers on the inner ramparts.

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