Carcassonne: Castles and Cloth

The ramparts of the Cité of Carcassonne, overlooking the bastide across the Aude. Photo C. Davis

The ramparts of the cité of Carcassonne, overlooking the bastide across the Aude. Photo C. Davis

Though my voyage to France was supposed to consist of a visit to the textile museum in Mazamet, a wool producing town east of Toulouse that is incredibly well represented both in documentary sources and in the lead seal evidence, I learned the hard way that there are downsides to travelling by train. The textile museum was open on Sunday when I had planned to visit, but was only accessible via a 30 minute car ride from the town, and the rest of the area’s visitors aid facilities were closed for the weekend. So, unable to explore Mazamet this time around, I decided to take an impromptu trip to Carcassonne by train for the day. Apart from dreams of visiting the famous walled medieval cité, I was motivated to visit because I already knew from prior research that Carcassonne was an important center for woolen broadcloth manufacture during the 18th century. The town was largely employed in a constant attempt to create écarlatine, a specific type of finely finished thick woolen broadcloth, of a quality that imitated British varieties. France, Britain, and the Netherlands were locked in a heated competition to control the worldwide market for woolen textiles over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. British écarlatines were vastly preferred by many Native American consumers in North America, and the French constantly struggled to successfully produce imitations that were as valuable in trade as those of their main rivals. As one famous French officer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, remarked during his time in Canada during the French and Indian War, “…It is not because the woolens (from Carcassonne) are not better and are not also as beautifully colored, but we can still not make bands in a nice black there; in general our merchandise is worth more for the quality than those of the English, but the Natives prefer theirs; they better capture their tastes.”

Manufacture Royale de draps (est. 1696). Photo C. Davis

Detail of epigraph on the old Manufacture Royale de draps, Carcassonne (est. 1696). Photo C. Davis

While writing my undergraduate study on seals from Fort St. Joseph I identified a seal marked “Drap de Carcassonne” that testified to the presence of woolen broadcloths from Carcassonne in the interior of New France. The building that once housed the Manufacture royale de draps (the Royal cloth factory) in Carcassonne is still standing, though like everything in France from the Ancien Régime, it shows the impact of the French Revolution. On its otherwise pristine and restored façade, the word “Royale” is missing from the epigraph above the front door. While acquiring a map of the city at a visitors center near the train station, one of the guides behind the counter showed me places of interest in town. He quickly informed me that there “wasn’t much to see” in the bastide (the part of town that experienced rapid growth in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of cloth manufacturing) and that in order to get to the medieval cité I should cross the bridge over the Aude as soon as possible to ensure I had enough time to see the castle. However, I spent hours wandering the bastide in order to see some of the past haunts of wealthy cloth merchants from the 17th and 18th century.

Hôtel Rolland (1761), a private mansion built in the bastide by a wealthy cloth producer and merchant to showcase his wealth and success. Photo C. Davis.

Hôtel Rolland (1761), a private mansion built in the bastide by a wealthy cloth producer and merchant to showcase his success. Photo C. Davis.

The former residence of one of the most prominent cloth merchants is now the city hall, with its marble staircases and gilt balconies. I did finally get to visit the cité and its castle, but if I return to Carcassonne I will be sure to arrange visits of the interior of some of the merchants’ homes in the bastide. Visiting them would allow me to grasp just what sort of wealth a French clothier had in a time when being a négociant (international trader) had the power to lift a commoner into the ranks of the nobility. It was fascinating to turn corner after corner in a place famous for its unique medieval history and see instead a more modern but equally important period in French and North American history secreted away in plain sight.

DSC_0341Fun fact: Carcassonne was restored in the 1850’s by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the same architect behind early historical restorations on Notre Dame de Paris, including the addition of new gargoyles (including elephants) and the famous spire, lost this year in the fire that captured the world’s attention. Viollet-le-Duc studied the ruins of the cité in depth and greatly furthered our understanding of medieval architecture. However, he also erased centuries of the cité’s more recent history when rows of houses from the 17th-19th centuries that had taken root between the interior and exterior walls of the fortifications were removed. Restoring sites to a specific period in their history at the detriment of others still remains an important and unsettled debate in the field of historic preservation, as does the merit of Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration projects, which were heavily criticized for lacking authenticity or promoting inaccuracy even in his own time.