Poor Toulouse

Poor Toulouse.  It’s probably wrong to be more affected by a tragedy that happens in a place you know – but it’s human nature too.

I know Toulouse.  I lived there for a month 10 years ago, while my husband was working at the university, and fell in love with the city.  So the last few days of violence have felt very close, and very sad.  Angry young men exist everywhere, and no doubt what occurred in Toulouse could happen anywhere, but Toulouse has a long history of religious and ethnic violence – as well as a long history of culture and toleration.

Political map of Languedoc on the eve of the A...

Political map of Languedoc on the eve of the Albigensian Crusade, under the rule of the House of Toulouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the middle ages, the issue was heretics.  The Cathars, made famous by Dan Brown’s dreadful novel, may have been heretical Christians, or perhaps belonged to another religion entirely.  It’s hard to know now, since all we know comes from hostile sources.  Whatever they actually were, they had a widespread presence in and about Toulouse, where the religious tolerance of the Counts of Toulouse protected them from the wrath of the Catholic Church.

Then at the beginning of the 13th century, the French king and his warriors from the north launched a crusade against them – the Albigensian Crusade, named after the town of Albi, just down the road from Toulouse.

Today the bishop’s palace at Albi has been converted into the Musee Toulouse-Lautrec.  It contains the greatest collection of his art works, left to his mother after his premature death – so not including his more raunchy efforts, such as his delicate pastel depiction of a prostitute giving a blowjob, in the Foundation Bemberg in the Hôtel d’Assézat in Toulouse.

But I digress…

Toulouse was the capital of an independent County, and the cultural capital of the area known as Languedoc.  In the dialects of Paris and the north, the word for ‘yes’ was oïl (close in pronunciation to our ‘aye’) and later oui; in the south, the word was oc – hence Langue d’oc, the language/tongue of oc.  In Occitan, the city’s name is Tolosa.

Technically, a Crusade refers to a military expedition backed by the Papacy, and fought for religious objectives, but this, like other medieval Crusades, soon became a war of territorial conquest as well.  When Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, refused to attack the Cathars within his territory, Pope Innocent III excommunicated him, and gave the French king a pretext to invade his territory. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-29) brought northerners down to impose their rule: the French king and his feudal lords, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition.

Cathars driven out of Carcasonne

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne, 1209

But shorn of its status as an independent city-state, Toulouse survived and thrived. The Garonne River flows west to the Atlantic at Bordeaux, while traditional trade routes link it to Provençe.  In the 1680s, Louis XIV oversaw the building of the Canal du Midi through Toulouse, a canal that joins the Garonne to the Mediterranean Sea – and links cassoulet with the red wines of Bordeaux.

Toulouse controlled the woad trade, too.  The blue dye was used throughout Europe to dye cloth – or to paint the blue cloak of the Virgin Mary.   The French term for woad is ‘pastel’, and the colour is ‘bleu de pastel’.  Drawing pastels, on the other hand, are ‘pastels secs’.  That great master of pastels, Toulouse Lautrec, came from the region.  His aristocratic family (full name Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa) were remote descendants of the Counts of Toulouse.

Today Toulouse is a great metropolis, the city of Airbus and other high-tech industries, and the largest French university town outside Paris.  It remains a long way from Paris, though, a place with its own traditions, dating back to when it was the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa, in the 6th century.

I lived in Toulouse in early 2001.  The following September 9, fanatics highjacked 4 aeroplanes – and highjacked our history for a decade.  10 days later, on 21 September, an explosion ripped through Toulouse, destroying much of the south side of the city.  Our university friend was sitting in a seminar 4 kilometres from the explosion, and watched appalled as the shockwave opened up a brick wall in the seminar room.  29 people were killed that day, and about 35,000 homes were damaged, but in the aftermath of 9/11, Toulouse’s 2001 tragedy was largely overlooked, once terrorism was ruled out.  (It turned out to be an accident in a fertilizer plant.)

Now, 10 years later, there is another tragedy in Toulouse.  Even as a historian, I find violence very hard to comprehend, especially violence against children, but all the three great monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have been violently intolerant towards each other at one time or another.

In 1209, the invading Catholic troops laid siege to the little town of Béziers to the east of Toulouse.  When the town eventually fell, the troops were ordered to kill everyone inside, men, women and children.  One puzzled knight asked the Papal Legate, Abbott Arnaud-Amaury, head of the Cistercian Order, how could they tell the Catholics and Cathars apart?  He was told:

Kill them all, God will know His own.

See Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011), for a chapter on the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa.

This time last year:
Timezones, 24 March 2011

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