Occitania: history of a non-state

Occitania: history of a non-state

Unlike in other European territories, such as Anglo-Norman England, Castile, or the kingdom of France, in the counties of Occitania in the period between the 11th and 13th centuries there was never a state-wide project, in other words, a minimally centralised feudal monarchy. Several historians, like Pierre Bonnassie (1979) and Hélène Débax (2003), have wondered about the reasons behind this situation, so strikingly different from what happened in Catalonia and the House of Barcelona. There are marked similarities in the evolution of the two territories in other aspects: both originated from Carolingian counties and, because of their distance from the centre of power, both gained autonomy at the same time that their respective societies underwent a feudal mutation in the 11th century. However, the balance of power between counts, viscounts, and other important lords was radically different between the two regions.

During the 9th century, the devolution of power to Languedoc gave rise to two large territorial blocs: one headed by the dukes of Aquitaine (who were at the same time counts of Poitiers and Auvergne), and the other by the counts of Toulouse. The former ended up within the orbit of the Plantagenets, who, from the mid 12th century governed England, Aquitaine itself, and the continental duchies of Normandy, Brittany, and Gascony. The latter, on the other hand, dominated a fairly extensive area, roughly between the Garonne and the Rhône, with little internal coherence and with two capitals, Toulouse and Saint Gilles. They started to lose real influence from the end of the 10th century, in particular following the increasing power of certain viscounties. For example the Trencavell family accumulated the viscounties of Albi, Nîmes, Béziers, Agde, Carcassonne, and Razès and the viscounts of Millau also became the counts of Rodez. Other families also contributed to the loss of power of the counts of Toulouse, such as the Guillems in Montpellier, who consolidated their position in the viscounties of Agde and Béziers and in the county of Magalona.

Raimon VII, comte de Tolosa (1222-1249)

Seal of Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse (1222–49)


Seal of Raimon VII of Toulouse (1222–49), document from 1204

Nonetheless this concentration of power in just a few families did not favour unity. During the 12th century the entire Occitan territory was the setting for a lengthy war. Although the main cause was a dispute between the counts of Toulouse and kings of Aragon over the county of Provence, this protracted rivalry only served to entrench internal enmities. In addition, the participation of the counts of Toulouse in the conquest of the Orient was a drain on their resources and sapped their political energy, thus making it more difficult for them to assert themselves as the preeminent lords of the viscounties that had formed within their domains1

Even so, as research by Monique Bourin (1983), Jean-Louis Biget (1993), Claudie Amado (1994), and Hélène Débax (2003) shows, the main cause of the lack of political cohesion in Occitania lies further back in time. We need to link it to different dynamics in the process of feudal change around the year 1000. In the Languedoc territories, there was a far-reaching feudalism in the sense that all the pre-10th century principles of public power ended up being dismantled. The result was that the government and judicial bodies in the public sector were disempowered at the same time as the domains and property of the treasury were privatised. In the light of all this, it is no surprise that none of the princes of the Languedoc aristocracy in the 11th and 12th centuries managed to position themselves at the top of the feudal pyramid and make significant progress in the judicial and administrative organisation of a state. The lack of precision regarding obligations between lords and vassals, together with the lack of territorial definition of the various powers that coexisted, hampered the full reconstruction of the political framework after the feudal mutation. In the absence of a balance of powers that would allow a family to assume control of all the fortifications and gain recognition from the rest of the lords, evolution towards a principality with concrete geographical boundaries was not therefore possible.

Reference list

  • Amado, Claudie, 1994: La famille aristocratique languedocienne: parenté et patrimoine dans les vicomtés de Béziers et d'Agde (900-1170), thesis Université Paris IV.
  • Biget, Jean-Louis, 1993: Albi et l'albigeois Ve-XVe siècle, thesis Université Toulouse-Le Mirail.
  • Bonnassie, Pierre, 1979: «L'Occitanie un État manqué?», L'Histoire, 14, 31-40.
  • Bourin, Monique, 1983: Village et communautés villageoises en Bas-Languedoc occidental (vers 950-vers 1350). L'exemple biterrois, Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Débax, Hélène, 2003: «L’échec de l’Etat occitan. Sur les divergences de l’évolution entre Occitanie et Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles)», Càtars i trobadors. Occitània i Catalunya: renaixença i futur, Museu d’Història de Catalunya, Generalitat de Catalunya, 68-75.

Albert Reixach (2017)

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