Apr. 17th, 2012

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Carcassone.  If you're a medieval purist, you either love it or you loathe it. 

It's a UNESCO site, but visitors beware!  It's not a genuine medieval city. What we see today is the result of a long process of interpretation and reconstruction instigated by a nineteenth century antiquarian named Viollet Le Duc, who didn't even live long enough to see the results of his work.  He recognised the quality of the built heritage here, and focussed on restoring the city to its medieval glory.  The ramshackle buildings which had sprung up in its interiors were cleared, their inhabitants bought out and relocated, and the town was rebuilt in the form that we see today.

So...  Was he a visionary, or a cultural vandal???  I doubt he'd get away with such a massive rebuilding project in this day and age, and not just because the cost would be absolutely prohibitive.  I think such reconstruction on such a scale would now be considered unethical, because the site is just too complex, and therefore, any intepretation has to be physically imposed upon the surviving structure in a ham-fisted manner.  Just like an Ugly Sister hacking her foot to shape so she can fit it into the glass slipper....

But having visited the site, and having spent several days exploring it, I have to say that I don't have that much problem with it.  If the walls had been daubed with harling or limewash, the restored site would be totally uninformative.  But Le Duc worked hard to understand his site.  He wrestled with the interpretation of its structures, and he knew, too, that he couldn't make a monument which was all things to all people.  He had to focus, so he chose to rebuild the site at its zenith, as it was when it was rebuilt in the early 13th century following its annexation to the King of France. 

This is not the city as it was when it was inhabited by the Cathars, the city made famous in a number of historical novels, including Kate Mosse's Labyrinth.  But Le Duc's restoration has been carried out with a sufficiently light touch to allow its complex narrative to be unravelled by the eagle-eyed visitor, and the French authorities have assisted in this by providing a number of helpful information boards which detail its chronological development.

Carcassone's origins lie in the prehistoric period.  It started out as a fortified hilltop settlement, probably first occupied in the Late Bronze Age, perhaps the site of an organised settlement or oppida in the Iron Age.  Roman occupation followed, and then came a succession of increasingly elaborate fortifications which ended up in the layout that we see today.

The first line of defence around the site is a massive rock-cut ditch (I hesitate to call it a 'moat', because there ain't no water, and I very much doubt there's meant to be...).  Set within this are two encircling ramparts, laid out in a fashion which made the city at its most developed pretty much impregnable. 

Here are some external view of the outer ramparts, in two photographs which clearly show the extent of Le Duc's restoration work.  Where the work appears rough, the fabric is original.  Where the blocks are smooth, around the wallhead and the crenellations, the fabric is nineteenth century.  The roofs, too, are new.

The outer ramparts were built in the early thirteenth century following the city's annexation to the French crown, and they were subject to some modification towards the end of the thirteenth century.  It's the inner ramparts which are perhaps more interesting, because they incorporate elements from a much earlier fortification of Roman date.

And it's the inner ramparts that I'll be featuring tomorrow!!


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