Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Carcassonne's Cité's Walls

Carcassonne's medieval Cité is a favourite tourist destination for one main reason--its spectacular medieval walls.  Even the most determined and best armed military forces of the middle ages found these walls to be formidable. The walls were so unusual that in 1997 the old Cité was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The double walls (the higher inner and the lower outer walls) circle the Cité for just under 2 km and have more than 50 watch towers.  The city's roots go back into the mists of antiquity, but we know that the Romans constructed substantial fortifications in the 1st century BC, naming the location Julia Carsaco.  The name later became Carcasum.  Most websites thoughtlessly repeat, as if it were fact, the apocryphal story of the city being named on account of the sounding [sonne] of the bells by the châtelaine Carcas (Carcas sonne), announcing that the enemy troops had raised their siege after being fooled into thinking the cité had a great supply of food (according the the legend, the cité fed all of its remaining food to a pig and tossed it over the wall).  Like most stories too good to be true, this one is lore, and of more modern invention.

At one of its high points in history, Carcassonne was an important stronghold of those permitting the Occitan Cathars to exist, a group deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  In 1209, the north launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against the south, essentially a land grab which crushed the economy and culture of the south, both of which were then outshining anything encountered in the north.  The cité's next role was to be a crucial military fortification keeping an eye on Aragon (later becoming part of the present-day Spain).  Throughout the 1200s, extensive construction extended the walls considerably, both inner and outer, making them seemingly impregnable to the weapons then available.  The Cité could not be captured, not even by England's Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War in the 1300s.  However, once gunpowder became a common part of warfare in the early 1600s, the design of the medieval walls became obsolete.  However, they were never destroyed, seriously dismantled or quarried for stone.  In the 1800s, Propser Merimée (author of the novel Carmen) convinced the government of France to restore the walls, a task handed over to Viollet-le-Duc.  Some say that he added too many crenelations and slate roofs in the style of northern France, but the walls were saved.

Let's begin with several photos showing the medieval walls towering above the western hill, laden with poppies.

 These days, workers living in the lower city sometimes take a more direct route to and from Cité, via a steep path.

However, for a more safe approach in the middle ages, one might rather use either this route, which has 13th-century fortified walls on both sides.  These walls were once part of the system of fortifications designed to prevent intruders from camping between the Aude River and the Cité's outer walls.

Today, one can also take this more open road which is often used by tourists approaching by foot from the lower city.

Another paved pathway for pedestrians takes one through one of the buttresses supporting the high outer wall.

This road leads to another entrance way, large enough for horse-drawn carts.  Again, citizens, farmers and workers would have been well protected from arrows.

The principal entrance to the east needed additional fortifications because the more gentle slope of the hill offered less protection.  The Narbonnaise Gate is consequently the most impressive entrance, featuring two very large towers.  A portcullis gate (made of wood, iron or both) could be lowered relatively quickly to keep out unexpected troublemakers, and various holes above the gate would let guards drop or shoot things while defending the entry. Now tourists can stroll through this gate and simply look around in amazement, cameras in hand.

 The stone work of the walls varies.  This shows the inside of the walls which could typically use local stones and cement rather than the type of finely chiseled rectangular stones required for constructing corners, arches,  doorways or the more sturdy outside facing of outer walls.

 Once inside the outer walls, one still needs to climb in order to gain access to the Cité proper.  Here we see someone starting up a stone ramp (drained to the centre).  When the ramp becomes too steep, we switch to steps.  Even though the ramp and its final steps are well within the outer wall (on the far left), a shorter wall was still thought necessary to protect one from stray arrows which may fly over the outer wall.

A closer look at the same entrance and its protective wall, from the ramp itself.

As the walls were expanded, new passageways were required.  Here we see where defenders and watchmen could stand on the outer wall.

Various buttresses still help retain the walls from various angles.

I was told that there are 52 towers around the walls.  Some were essentially five-story living quarters for guards or soldiers, complete with their own wells, latrines, dormitories, food storage and ovens.  The oldest well is the Cité is 36 meters deep (some of it cut through solid rock in Roman times).  Good wells were absolutely essential for sustaining life at any time, but particularly while the Cité was under siege.  Other towers doubled as living quarters for a variety of people, including the inquisitors during their brutal 13th-century attempts to purge the south of all possible heretics.  One tower served as a holding place for those to be questioned, or those awaiting death.

The roofs were 'modernized' in the 1800s by Viollet-le-Duc, who insisted that the northern spiked roofs were superior, particularly when covered in slate.  Purists realize that this imported design destroys the original look. 

At times, the space between the inner and outer walls on the western side is rather narrow.  On the right you can just see the crenelations.

Crenelations at the top of the walls offered at least some protection to defenders attempting to keep an eye on armed intruders.  The additional and more narrow slits offered excellent protection from incoming arrows, while allowing one to shoot outgoing arrows at various angles.

One final shot will lead nicely into the following blog showing how these walls look at night.  I believe that this is the jousting "field", the widest and reasonably protected area between the inner and outer walls in which knights could practice jousting daily, keeping both horses and bodies in shape for future battles, and training preteens for a military life.  Tournaments could also be held which would provide winners substantial prizes, some of which were the equivalent to a year's wages, but they could also cause serious injury or even death, though the term "friendly fire" had not yet been coined.