Most flights into Toulouse or Carcassonne fly over ‘The Lauragais’, and as you drive along the A61 from Toulouse to Carcassonne you are passing through it, oblivious that its innocuous landscape is thick with ghosts. For those who have eyes to see them, there are Neanderthals at Naurouze and Romans at Renneville; Cathars at Castelnaudary and barbarians at Bram; assassins at Avignonet, fanatics at Fanjeaux, virgins at Villefranche and bigamists at Baziège.
The Lauragais has experienced the joy of sects. We had Arians and Huguenots, but the big story is the Cathars: forget the castles, the Lauragais, with more than 50% of its population Cathar, is the real ‘Pays Cathare’. But why should the suicidal fish-eating vegetarians have taken such a fancy to the area? The answer is probably embedded in the complex four hundred year decline and fall of the Counts of Toulouse.
The axis of the Lauragais is the valley running from Toulouse to Narbonne, and such a great artery could not but attract men of money and power. Its hectares were ‘the fattest lands in the world’, and grain has been the mainstay of its economy for an astonishing five thousand years. You will expect its invaders to include the Romans and the Franks, but what were the Magyars, the Visigoths, the English (three times!) and the Germans doing here?
We know that Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, so how did he and Becket come to be comrades in arms outside Toulouse? Why should a Pope raise an army of crusaders to attack the Christian Lauragais? Where had the tin traders come from, and where were they going to on their journeys through? Goths traded in salt through here for seven centuries: Goths? Salt? For two centuries the Lauragais was the real and mythical ‘Land of Cockaigne’ as huge fortunes were made out of the production and sale of the blue dye called ‘woad’.
When indigo brought the Lauragais to the end of the woad, a mighty genius stepped forward to rescue it. This was Peter Paul Riquet, who devoted his life and fortune to the construction of the main working part in the ‘Grain Machine’: this was the Canal du Midi, which linked the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and kept the Lauragais prosperous until the railways came. Nowadays the region’s economic revival is due to the booming sales of the mighty A380 airbus.
Some local historians lust after lamp-posts, are wowed by window frames and ravished by roof lines. For me it’s the people and what history did to them. Some mighty and worthy men and women have passed through the Lauragais, including emperors, kings, Popes and saints, but so have a fair sprinkling of deranged fanatics, misfits and criminals.
The Lauragais has seen disasters of Ozymandian proportions. Some very funny things have happened, but these do not include the events of the Nazi occupation.
This is the perfect book for anyone who wants to remedy a defect in their British education by getting an idea of the History of France in general and of this region in particular.
You can read a slice of the book before deciding to buy – CLICK HERE
To read it you will need a Kindle, or the ‘Kindle App’ which exists for other computers. My advice is to read the chapter headings. If they don’t make you laugh out loud this book is not for you.