Rebellion & resistance: The history of Languedoc Roussillon, South France
If history lessons at school bored you to tears, you’re in for a treat in Languedoc Roussillon, south France - history here is of the jaw-dropping variety.
Our timeline, below - sums up the region's main tussles. And below that, James Proctor (Rough Guides author) has written an equally punchy outline of the history of the area.
Get your head around this for a start: in several caves across the region there are traces of habitation dating back over 450 thousand years. But people weren’t just hunting and gathering then, they were decorating their homes with magnificent drawings of the wild animals they lived alongside. These extraordinary cave paintings have stood the test of time and are still visible today.
However, you don’t have to look far in Languedoc to find even more tangible signs of former civilisations. From the 6th century BC seafaring peoples from across the Mediterranean began arriving and settling. It was the Greeks of Phoecea, for example, who founded Marseille whilst the Phoenicians created Agde. Importing their traditions of olive and grape cultivation, still a key part of the local economy today, this region soon developed into a major market for trade with northern Europe.
The Romans were next in line to set their sights on Languedoc. In 118 BC they founded Narbonne, Nîmes and Béziers followed, and the whole region finally came under Roman rule with the setting up of the province of Narbonnensis. The architectural legacy of the Romans is all around: the mind-blowing aqueduct, the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, the Amphitheatre and the Maison Carré – a completely intact temple from the fourth or fifth century BC – in the city itself are Roman Languedoc at its most impressive.
During the proceeding centuries, invading tribes came and went, however, one group hung around longer than the others: the Visigoths, around the fifth century, established a kingdom taking in much of southwestern France, centred on Toulouse. However, bands of invading Muslims soon brought a destructive end to the rule of the Visigoths, only to succumb themselves in the late 700s to the might of Charlemagne and his Frankish knights.
Power struggles during the Middle Ages achieved little other than to allow the Catholic Church to extend its influence. Corrupt in the extreme, many people became disillusioned with the Church and turned instead to Catharism, a belief that the material world was evil and the spiritual world was the source of enlightenment, with strongholds in Béziers and Carcassonne. Keen to regain control over these wayward heretics, the Church launched a merciless crusade in 1209 which ended in the indiscriminate slaughter of 20,000 people in Beziers alone – their ruined castles are dotted across the landscapes of southern Languedoc.
Arguably, though, it’s Protestantism that’s left an indelible mark on the religious face of Languedoc. Establishing itself firmly among the peasant classes in the 1600s as a show of resentment against the ruling elite, the religion is still particularly strong in the Cévennes mountains today.
Following the French revolution of 1789, the Languedoc economy slowly began to get on its feet, producing vast quantities of textiles. An embryonic wine industry also developed during the 1800s, though the vineyards were all but wiped out by phylloxera in 1875.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, slowed economic revival leaving the region ill-prepared to accommodate the tens of thousands of refugees who poured over the border from Spain in 1939 fleeing civil war. During World War II, the resistance movement in Languedoc was particularly successful in frustrating Nazi attempts to increase their stranglehold on France.