Home » history

On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when tax strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy!

North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departments are a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life’s pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide’s covered market on a summer’s day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting tax strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.

Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France

The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout – specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.

1 Lodge Photo, Dordogne, France, charm, country, department, french, medieval, old, region, rural, tourism, tourist, travel, visitors
The covered market in the bastide town of Monpazier, Dordogne region, France.

The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section – a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?

Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy

And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace – and by implication, trade – was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?

To find the answers to these questions, consider that the first Bastides were built in the 13th century, some time after 1229. This was a time of crusades, knights in armor and pitched battles fought by men in plate and chain mail, with swords and shields. We tend to think of medieval times as backward and simple. In fact, the 13thcentury was also a time of major economic change, as the importance of trade grew, and power exerted through the feudal system began to slip away.

1 Lodge Photo, Dordogne, France, charm, country, department, french, medieval, old, region, rural, tourism, tourist, travel, visitors
Beynac castle on the Dordogne river in France. This castle was on the front line of the 100 years war between France and Britain.

In feudalism, the general population swore fealty to a lord. These vassals (literally, property) of the lord paid tithes – taxes – out of whatever they could produce. A lord kept law and order: police, judge and jury all in one, enforced by his private army. The army was led by knights – local gentry with allegiance to the lord. However, war technology had weakened the power of knights, to the point where they were becoming less decisive in battle. The development of the pike – essentially a long pointy stick – meant that foot soldiers could unseat charging knights very efficiently. A knight in plate armor knocked from his horse was lucky to be able to get up, never mind fight. Compounding the problem, the development of the bow – and in particular the English longbow – meant that archers could decimate a group of charging knights before they even reached the pikemen.

This was bad news for the French lords, because without effective military protection, vassals resented tithes even more than they had before. At the same time, money was becoming a problem: French lords enjoyed a lavish lifestyle (for the time) and there had already been several expensive crusades to the holy land before 1229. Some years later, the 100 years war with England would begin, putting a further strain on finances. Farmers didn’t make a lot of money, and mostly grew grain and raised enough cattle to live, with only a little left over. Lords needed another way to finance their lavish lifestyles, the crusades, plus whatever demands the church made. The lords needed a way to generate more money than the tithe system could produce.

The Bastide was devised to solve this problem. The idea was to clear some land, build a fortified village and attract the local population to live there and work the land around it. If critical population density could be achieved (the speculative part), this would attract merchants to the markets, which could be taxed. The incentive for people to live in a Bastide was release from fealty to the lord, and exemption from tithes.

Men who moved to a Bastide became free, yet still enjoyed the protection of the lord’s army – the beginning of the end of feudalism. The lord could now make money through property taxes on those living in the Bastide, and also sales taxes on the town market. The market was the center of the town instead of the church because it generated sales taxes. The Bastide was laid out on a grid because that made assessing property taxes easier and more equitable.

The laws of the Bastide said that trade could only take place in the market square, and the purpose of the covered area was to protect the weighing and measuring devices of the lord’s representative and tax collector. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War, Bastides survived well, though many came close to demolition or “improvement” in the earth 20th century. They were saved by the recognition of the contribution that tourism made to the local economy. The glass of Cahors you drink in the cafe is not just a good bold, dark wine – it’s also a way to preserve Bastides for future generations.

Want to learn more about Bastides? Check out these resources:

Agen tourist office

Espace Bastides
Place des Arcades
47150 Monflanquin
Tél : +33 5.53.36.40.19
Fax : +33 5.53.36.42.91

Email : [email protected]

Centre d’Etude des Bastides
5 place de la Fontaine
12200 Villefranche de Rouergue
Tél : +33 5.65.45.23.37

Fax : +33 5.65.45.39.61

We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world’s longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery.

This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can’t tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse.

Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It’s quite an event in itself — there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade.

Once the horse is safely inside the contrade’s stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it’s considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!

 

Templar knights
Templar knights

Temple Church is a remarkable building because it has survived largely intact in the centre of a major city for over 800 years, and because it has been the scene of key events in British history. Its role in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and subsequent surge of popularity is merely the most recent chapter in a long and distinguished history.

Temple Church has survived a series of major events, any one of which could easily have resulted in its destruction:

  • The crushing of the Knights Templar by Pope Clement in October 1307
  • The disbanding of the Knights Hospitallier (its subsequent owners) by Henry VIII during the reformation of 1540
  • The Great Fire Of London in 1666
  • Unwarranted “restoration” by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire
  • Victorian remodeling in 1841
  • A 1941 incendiary bomb during World War II

Temple Church was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the presence of King Henry II. It is one of the oldest buildings in London: only Westminster Abbey and the White Tower at the Tower Of London are older, and is one of the few remaining examples of Romanesque architecture left intact in the city.

The building’s architecture is the most striking feature when you first approach the church, which is found by navigating a series of narrow alleyways between Fleet Street and the Embankment alongside the river Thames. Suddenly, you find yourself in an open square right next to a round crenelated building of honey-colored sandstone, attached to a larger rectangular structure.

The round section of Temple Church was built first and is based on the church on the temple mount in Jerusalem. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown attaches significance to the fact that the design doesn’t follow the typical cross-shaped plan of Christian churches, implying that it is a deliberately pagan design. While that suits the conspiratorial nature of the plotline, the design is actually a deliberate echo of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in what was (at the time) the Christian Holy Land. This is the site where the Templar order was founded. That church is round because it’s a conversion of an older Roman building.

The larger rectangular section that now forms the chancel of Temple Church was added in the 13th century in response to Henry III’s desire to be buried there. Without an extension, there was no way to accommodate the large tomb of a king. The chancel was consecrated on Ascension Day 1240, but Henry III later changed his mind is interred in Westminster Abbey instead.

1 Lodge Photo, London, UK, brown, church, code, column, da, da vinci, england, knights, outside, romanesque, round, templars, temple, verticals
The oldest part of Temple Church in London, modelled after the domed Church of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Visiting the church

The church opening hours are limited, and it does not open every day. Hours are posted outside and on the website, so it pays to plan ahead if you want to go inside. I visited on a Friday lunchtime, when the current master of the temple, Robin Griffith-Jones, offered a free lecture on Temple Church and The Da Vinci Code. Heading inside the church by the West door, you are immediately greeted by the sight that makes the church such a good location for The Da Vinci Code – the effigies of the Knights Templar on the floor of the round church.

There are nine effigies in total, including those of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and his sons dressed in full knightly attire. William began his career earning a living by winning tournaments: he was an accomplished jouster and swordsman, and tutored the young Henry I in chivalry. The plot of the movie A Knight’s Tale is loosely based on William Marshall’s early life. He went to the holy land as a crusader in 1183-1186 at the request of a dying Henry II (rumor has it as a result of getting too close to Henry’s wife), where he first encountered the Knights Templar, though he did not join the order until a few months before his death in 1219.

As The Da Vinci Code is quick to point out, these are effigies and not tombs – although William Marshall and his sons were originally buried in Temple Church, their remains are no longer here. The effigies are made from high quality Purbeck marble, which is quarried in Dorset, hundreds of miles to the South-West of London. The effigies of William and the other knights in the church are damaged, a result of a May 1941 incendiary bomb that hit the roof of the church, only shortly before Nazi Germany halted bombing raids on Britain. The fire consumed the roof, wooden interior and organ, damaged the effigies and badly cracked the marble columns – the roof is held up today by 20th century copies made from the same stone.

The wooden interior destroyed in World-War II was Victorian, dating from 1841. During reconstruction after the war, the wooden interior installed by Sir Christopher Wren sometime after the great fire of London in 1666 was discovered in storage, and that interior forms the core of what you can see today in the chancel. Temple Church wasn’t damaged during the Great Fire, but Wren “restored” it nevertheless; the original interior was lost.

1 Lodge Photo, 1200s, 1219, London, UK, brown, church, code, crusades, da vinci, dan, earl, effigy, england, gilbert, knight, marble, marshal, marshall, pembroke, templar, temple, verticals
William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and Templar Knight, who died in 1219. Temple Church, London, UK.

The Knights Templar’s rise and fall

Temple Church stood at the center of a larger Templar compound. As Robin Griffith-Jones explains in his talk, the Templars were rich and influential because they developed the foundations of modern banking. You could give the Templars your money in London, travel to Jerusalem and get the same amount back from the Temple there, less a commission. In a time when traveling with money incurred serious risk, this was a useful and important service, especially during the crusades. Ultimately, the Templars incurred the wrath of Kings and Popes by refusing to forgive the debts of either, or to hand over money they desired to seize from unfortunate nobles. It was this that ultimately led to the Papal order by Pope Clement V dissolving the order and seizing its assets on Friday, 13 October 1307.

Temple Church was taken over by Edward II after the dissolution of the Templar order, and it was eventually given to another knightly order similar to the Templars, the Knights Hospitallier. They rented some parts of the compound to two colleges of lawyers. Three hundred years later, after the break with Rome under Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, the lawyers were granted use of the land and the church in perpetuity. Today, the church is still surrounded by lawyers, now known as the Inns of Court, and specifically Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Standing outside, you’ll see British Barristers clutching briefs hurrying to and from the nearby law court on Fleet Street.

In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon and the other characters realise they’re in the wrong place and immediately dash off to Westminster Abbey in search of the next clue. Unburdened by any requirement to find the Holy Grail before The Bad Guys, I recommend regular visitors to Temple Church spend a little longer enjoying a remarkable building containing some of the most important Knights in British history, especially if the Master Of The Temple is providing an entertaining free lecture.

(c) Copyright 2006-2014 Mathew Lodge / www.lodgephoto.com. Reproduction in any form without written permission is prohibited.

 

Cadogan’s guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

Chateau de Biron is in the Dordogne region of France, south of Bordeaux in the South-Western corner of the country. Started in the 12th century, the chateau was in the hands of one family for 800 years, the Gontaut-Biron, and enhanced and expanded until the 18th century.

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

The castle itself with its renaissance galleries and chapel with carved effigies are well worth the visit — it’s not far from Monpazier and can easily be done in the same day. Lord Byron, the romantic writer, was a distant relation of the family. Unfortunately, it only took one man to end 800 years of ownership. At the end of the 18th century, the final member of the family to own the castle spent his entire fortune in the casinos of Paris, and the castle was sold along with everything else to pay debts. Today it belongs to the Department of the Dordogne.

The picture is taken with a polarizing filter — the deep blue of the sky is a give-away — from the end of the car park below the castle. The filter also helps to reduce the harshness contrast of the afternoon sun, and brings out the colors of the walls and greenery. With plenty of good light, the picture was taken hand-held.

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.

But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.

Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you’ll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced “Ca-hoares”), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France — the “Black Wine of Cahors” was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.


Ponte Valentre, the medieval bridge over the river Lot in Cahors

A glass of Cahors is dark red or “inky”, but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else.

The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France — clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn’t exist any more after France’s great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock.

Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.