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During the Quaternary Era some two million years ago, glaciers spread over the highest mountains (Günz, Mindel, Riss and Würm Ice Ages) and humans began to populate Europe, particularly the Pyrenees. Phases of human evolution are divided into periods and classified according to archaeological and scientific methods of dating. Earliest is the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), followed by the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and finally the Neolithic (New Stone Age) .

Lower Paleolithic

In the Pyrenees the Lower Paleolithic is represented by Tautavel man , whose skull was discovered in a layer of ancient sediment in the Caune de l’Arago by Professor H de Lumley and his team in 1971 and 1979. Tautavel man belongs to the “Homo erectus” genus, which inhabited Roussillon 450 000 years ago. He was 20-25 years old, 1.65m/5ft 6in tall and stood upright. He had a flat receding forehead, prominent cheekbones and rectangular eye sockets beneath a thick projecting brow. No trace of any hearth has been found, so it is assumed that this intrepid hunter probably ate his meat raw. He used caves as look-outs to track animal movements, as temporary places to camp and to dismember prey, and as workshops for manufacturing tools.

Palynology, the analysis of fossilised pollen grains, helps scientists determine the characteristics of flora and fauna from different prehistoric periods. We know that Mediterranean plant species like pines, oaks, walnut trees, plane trees and wild vines have been indigenous since prehistory. Large prehistoric herbivores included deer and mountain goats, prairie rhinoceros, bison, musk ox and an ancient species of wild sheep. Carnivores (bears, wolves, dogs, polar foxes, cave lions and wild cats) were hunted for their fur. Small game comprised rodents (hares, voles, beavers, field mice) and birds still found today: golden eagles, lammergeyer vultures, pigeons, rock partridges, and red-billed choughs. Prehistoric tools consisted of quite small scrapers and notched tools (with the largest stones averaging 6-10cm/2-4in) made into choppers, or flat two- or more-sided implements of varying degrees of sharpness.

Middle Paleolithic

The presence of numerous Mousterian deposits is evidence that Neanderthal man lived in the Pyrenees. Taller than “homo erectus,” he had a well-developed skull (1 700cm3/103in3), constructed vast dwelling and burial places, and produced more sophisticated, specialised tools such as double-sided implements, stone knives with curved edges, chisels, scrapers, pointed tools and various notched implements.

Upper Paleolithic

With “homo sapiens” a significant human presence developed in the Pyrenees. During the Aurignacian period, stone implements were supplemented with tools made of bone and horn, and during the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods, technical evolution progressed even further. Towards the end of the last Würm Glacial Period (Würm IV), boar and deer inhabited the changing landscape. Humans hunted and fished, yet their greatest innovation was the birth of art--remarkable cave paintings and sculpted human figures like the Aurignacian “Venuses.”

Mesolithic Age

The historical landscape of the Pyrenees stabilised at the end of the Ice Age.

During the intermediary Mesolithic Age, a multitude of civilisations appeared. In the late Upper Paleolithic, the Azilian culture employed the harpoon as an important weapon, but their art consisted only of enigmatic pebbles with symbolic markings.

Neolithic Age

The Neolithic Age brought polished stone tools and earthenware, but the cave swelling population in the eastern Pyrenees and the Ariège adopted earthenware sometime later. Valuable ethnological information was discovered in the Font-Juvénal shelter, between the River Aude and the Montagne Noire. Here cattle-rearing and wheat and barley cultivation had become a means of subsistence by the fourth millennium, and dwellings became more elaborate, with supporting structures, flat hearths for cooking and silos for storage.

In the Narbonne region communities developed specialised activities and began bartering and trading with one other. During the third millennium, Megalithic constructions like dolmens and tumuli were introduced to the Pyrenees from the western zone. Inhabitants of the densely populated middle mountain slopes raised stock and developed weapons (arrows, axes and knives), jewelry and earthenware. In the Catalan region, the Megalithic culture lasted until the Bronze Age.

The Pyrenean dolmens (2500-1500 BC)

Dolmens are prehistoric grave sites usually found at altitudes of 600-1 000m/ 1 968-3 280ft. These massive stone structures were originally covered by a tumulus of earth or a heap of stones as high as 20m/65ft, and could be enclosed by a stone circle. The largest dolmens, erected in areas with a stable population, contain the remains of hundreds of people. Dolmens on the higher pastures were much smaller and were eventually replaced by cists, individual burial chests made of stone slabs.

Time Line



1800-50 – Metal Age.

1800-700 – Bronze Age. End of Pyrenean Megalithic culture.

1000-600 – End of Bronze Age and first Iron Age. Arrival of continental, then Mediterranean influences.

600-50 – Foundation of Massalia (Marseille) by the Phoceans. Development of metallurgy in ancient Catalonia (Catalan forges). The eastern Pyrenees are populated by numerous small clans.

6C – The Celts invade Gaul.

214Hannibal crosses the Pyrenees into Roussillon.

2C – Roman Conquest. The Romans occupy the region later known as Bas Languedoc.

118 – Foundation of Narbonne, capital of Gallia Narbonensis , at the crossing of the Via Domitia and the road to Aquitaine.

58-52Caesar conquers Gaul.

27 – Bas Languedoc becomes part of Gallia Narbonensis, marking the beginning of a long period of prosperity.

AD3C and 4C – Christianity arrives in the region. Decline of Narbonne and Toulouse.

313Edict of Milan . Emperor Constantine grants Christians freedom of worship.

356Council of Béziers , Arian heresy.

Invasions, the Middle Ages

3C-5CInvasions by the Alemanni, the Vandals, then the Visigoths. Toulouse becomes the capital of the Visigothic kingdom.

507 – Battle of Vouillé: Clovis defeats the Visigoths, and restricts their kingdom to seven cities (Carcassonne, Narbonne, Béziers, Agde, Nîmes, Elne and Maguelone).

719 – The Saracens capture Narbonne.

732Charles Martel defeats the Saracens at Poitiers.

737 – Charles Martel recaptures the seven cities from the Visigoths.

759 – Pépin the Short recaptures Narbonne.

801Charlemagne marches into Spain and integrates Catalonia into his Empire, allowing it to remain autonomous.

843 – The Treaty of Verdun divides Charlemagne’s Empire: territories west of the Rhône to the Atlantic Ocean are given to Charles the Bald.

877Charles the Bald dies and most of the great princely houses that will rule the south of France until the 13C are established. The counts of Toulouse own the old kingdom of seven cities and the Rouergue; the Gévaudan belongs to the Auvergne family.

10C – Religious revival and pilgrimages to St James’s shrine in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

987 – Hugues Capet is crowned king of France.

11C – Renewed economic and demographic growth in the West. The counts of Toulouse assert their power. Wave of construction of ecclesiastical buildings. Tour of Languedoc by Pope Urban II.

1095First Crusade .

1112 – The count of Barcelona becomes viscount of Béziers, Agde, Gévaudan and Millau.

Union with the French crown

12C-13C – Flowering of the art and culture of the troubadours. First bastides (fortified towns) are constructed.

1140-1200 – The Cathar doctrine spreads.

1152 – Henry II Plantagenet marries Eleanor of Aquitaine.

1204 – The king of Aragon gains sovereignty of Montpellier, Gévaudan and Millau.

1207 – Raymond VI, count of Toulouse is excommunicated.

1208 – Pierre de Castelnau, legate to Pope Innocent III, is assassinated.

1209Albigensian Crusade . Simon de Montfort captures Béziers and Carcassonne.

1213 – Battle of Muret.

1226 – A new crusade: Louis VIII seizes Languedoc.

1229 – The Treaty of Paris ends the war against the Albigensians. St Louis annexes the whole of Bas Languedoc. Toulouse University is founded.

1250-1320 – The Inquisition quells the last strongholds of the Cathars.

1270 – St Louis dies.

1276-1344 – Perpignan is capital of the kingdom of Majorca and the Balearic Islands, which was founded by Jaime I of Aragon and includes the Cerdagne, Roussillon and Montpellier.

1290 – The counts of Foix inherit the Béarn.

1292 – Annexation of Pézenas, the Rouergue and the Gévaudan.

1312Philip the Fair dissolves the Order of the Templars, and their considerable estates in the Causses are given to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem (or of Malta).

1331-91 – Life of Gaston Fébus.

1337 – Beginning of the Hundred Years War lasting until 1453.

1348 – The Black Death decimates one third of the population of Languedoc.

1349 – The king of Majorca sells the seigneury of Montpellier to Philip of Valois.

1350-1450 – The Pyrenees and Languedoc suffer a long period of war, unrest, epidemics and famine.

1360Treaty of Bretigny : end of the first part of the Hundred Years War. Saintonge, Poitou, Agenais, Quercy, Rouergue and Périgord are ceded to the king of England. Languedoc is then divided into three seneschalsies: Toulouse, Carcassonne and Beaucaire.

1361 – Outlaws plunder the ­countryside.

1420 – Charles VII enters Toulouse.

1462 – Intervention of Louis XI in Roussillon.

Wars of Religion and Union with France

1484 – The princes of Albret , “kings of Navarre,” gain ascendancy in the Gascon Pyrenees (Foix, Béarn, Bigorre).

1512 – Ferdinand, the Catholic monarch, divests the Albrets of their territory.

1539 – The edict of Villers-Cotteret decrees French the legal language of France.

1560-98 – Protestants and Roman Catholics engage in Wars of Religion .

1598 – The Edict of Nantes gives Protestants freedom of worship and guaranteed strongholds (Puylaurens, Montauban).

1607 – Henri IV unites his own royal estate (Basse-Navarre and the fiefs of Foix and Béarn) to the French Crown.

1610Henri IV is assassinated and religious strife is renewed.

1629 – Under the Treaty of Alès , Protestants keep their religious freedoms but lose their strongholds.

1643-1715 – Reign of Louis XIV.

1659 – The Treaty of the Pyrenees unites Roussillon and the Cerdagne with the French Crown.

1666-80 – Riquet constructs the Canal du Midi .

1685Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Numerous Protestants flee the country.

1702-04War of the Camisards .

From first spa resort to modern times

1746 – De Bordeu’s thesis on Aquitaine’s mineral springs promotes the creation of spa resorts and the popularity of “taking cures.”

1787 – Ramond de Carbonnières, first enthusiast of the Pyrenees, stays in Barèges.

1790 – The Languedoc is divided into new administrative districts (départements) .

1804-15 – First Empire . New thermal springs are discovered in the Pyrenees.

1852-1914 – Second Empire and Third Republic. Development of spa resorts, rock climbing and scientific studies of the Pyrenees.

1875Phylloxera destroys Languedoc’s vineyards.

1901 – First hydroelectric schemes implemented.

1907 – Wine-growers in Bas Languedoc join a protest (“Mouvement des gueux”) against overproduction, competition from imported Algerian wines and falling prices.

1920 – The Pyrenees convert to hydroelectric power.

1940-44 – The Pyrenees prove to be of vital importance to the French Résistance . The Massif de l’Aigoual is a major headquarters for the maquis.

1955 – Inauguration of the Compagnie Nationale d’Aménagement du Bas-Rhône-Languedoc, to develop an irrigation system in the region.

1963 – Plans are made to develop the Languedoc-Roussillon coastline.

1969 – Maiden flight of “ Concorde 001.”

1970 – Designation of the Parc National des Cévennes . Founding of Airbus Industrie.

1973 – Designation of the Parc naturel régional du Haut Languedoc .

1992-97 – The new motorway (A 75) linking Clermont-Ferrand with Béziers opens in progressive sections.

1993 – Toulouse underground railway ( métro ) begins operation.

1994Puymorens tunnel opens in the Pyrenees.

1995 – Designation of the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses .

1996 – The TGV high-speed rail link opens between Paris and Perpignan (journey time: 6hr). The Canal du Midi joins the UNESCO World Heritage List.

1997 – The medieval city of Carcassonne and the Cirque de Gavarnie join the UNESCO World Heritage List.

1999 – Massive December storms slam the southwest coast of France.

1999 – The euro was introduced in France to replace the franc.

The New Millennium

2001 – Explosion rocks the AZF chemical plant near Toulouse, killing 29 and wounding 2,400.

March 2005 – The maiden flight of Airbus 380 , a 555-seat superjumbo jet assembled in Toulouse.

2007Nicolas Sarkozy is elected President of France.

2008 – France ratifies the Lisbon Treaty on EU reform.

– EU governments pledge up to 1.8 trillion euros to shore up their financial sectors following economic crisis.

2009 – Govermment unveils $33.1bn economy stimulus package.

Way of St James

According to legend, St James travelled from Palestine to Spain to Christianise the country, but was beheaded. Two of his disciples carrying his body were stranded on the coast of Galicia and buried St. James remains there. The site of the grave was unknown until around 813 when a shower of stars falling over an earth mound drew a hermit’s attention to the grave. The spot became known as Campus stellae (Compostela) and a chapel was erected here. St James became the patron saint of all Christians as well as the symbol of the Spaniards’ struggle to regain their land from the Moors. After the first French pilgrimage in 951, Compostela grew as famous as Rome and Jerusalem, attracting pilgrims from all over Europe.

In 1130, the French monk Aymeri Picaud wrote a tourist guide for pilgrims, the Codex Calixtinus, which included a layout of the routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. Included in this guide are St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, part of the camino frances (the French way): the via Podiensis which links the Aubrac mountains and Condom, the via Tolosane (coming from Arles and traversing Toulouse and Auch) and the Caussade (via Conques, Rodez, Foix and Lourdes).

Over the last millennium, the pilgrimage tradition has enhanced the region’s cultural heritage, particularly in Conques, Rocamadour, Saint-Sernin de Toulouse and St-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

The Cathars

The 13C repression of the Cathar sect profoundly affected the history of the Languedoc, which then became linked with that of the French kingdom.

The Cathar doctrine

The Cathar doctrine originated in a labyrinth of Eastern influences prevalent in Europe during the 11C and 12C, and focused on the opposition of “Good” and “Evil.” Obsessed with a fear of evil, the Cathars (from the Greek kathari or “pure ones”) sought to free man from the material world, restoring him to divine purity. Their interpretation of biblical texts collided head-on with Christian orthodoxy. They strove to emulate Christ but denied Christ’s divinity.

The Cathar Church

Four bishops from Albi, Toulouse, Carcassonne and Agen headed this breakaway Church which came to be called “Albigensian.” The Cathar Church comprised a hierarchy of vocations which distinguished between Parfaits (“Perfect ones”) and Croyants (“Believers”). Reacting against the decadent laxity of the Roman Catholic clergy, the austere Parfaits embraced poverty, chastity, patience and humility. The Cathar Church administered only one sacrament, the Consolamentum , used at the ordination of a Parfait, or to bless a dying Croyant. The Cathars rejected the traditional sacraments of baptism and marriage, and tolerated different customs and attitudes. Their beliefs, way of life and religious rituals challenged Roman Catholic thought, causing violent disputes.

A favourable environment

The Cathar heresy spread to the towns, centres of culture and trade, and then into the Languedoc lowlands. It was probably no coincidence that the Cathar Church flourished between Carcassonne and Toulouse, Foix and Limoux, areas dominated by the Languedoc cloth industry. The “Bonhommes” (Parfaits) were often textile manufacturers or merchants. Powerful lords such as Roger Trencavel, viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne, and Raymond, count of Foix, supported the heresy.

The war against the Cathars

In 1150 St Bernard arrived in the Albigeois region to convert the Cathar heretics, but met with minimal success. In 1179 the Third Lateran Council drew up plans to counter the spread the heretical sect. In 1204, Pope Innocent III sent three legates to preach against the Cathars and persuade the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VI , to withdraw his protection of them. The count refused and was excommunicated in 1207. In January 1208, the papal legate Pierre de Castlenau was assassinated and Raymond VI was immediately accused of his murder. This sparked the First Albigensian Crusade in March 1208, preached by Pope Innocent III. Knights from the Paris region, Normandy, Picardy, Flanders, Champagne and Burgundy, and noblemen from the Rhineland, Friesland, Bavaria and even Austria rallied forces under the command of Abbot Arnaud-Amaury of Cîteaux, and then under Simon de Montfort . The “Holy War” was to lasted over 20 years. In 1209, 30 000 residents of Béziers were massacred. Carcassonne was besieged and fell in 1209. Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel was taken prisoner and was replaced by Simon de Montfort, who captured one Cathar fortress after another: Lastours, Minerve, Termes and Puivert (1210). By 1215, the whole of the Count of Toulouse’s territory was in the hands of Montfort. Raymond VII avenged his father by waging a war of liberation for eight years. Simon de Montfort died in 1218 and was succeeded by his son, Amaury.

Strongholds might fall, but the Cathar doctrine was not easily quashed. In 1226, a Second Albigensian Crusade was preached, lead by the King of France himself, Louis VIII. The Holy War evolved into a political struggle. In the Treaty of Meaux-Paris in 1229, Blanche of Castille annexed a vast territory to the French Royal estate. A century later, it became the Languedoc. The battle against heresy was not over; it was continued by the Inquisition . Pope Gregory IX entrusted the Inquisition to the Dominican Order in 1231. In 1240 the Crusaders captured Peyrepertuse. Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, the governor of the main Cathar stronghold at Montségur, undertook an expedition to Avignonet in 1242, killing members of an Inquisition tribunal. Six thousand Crusaders installed themselves at the foot of his castle, and their siege lasted ten months.

In March 1244 the fortress capitulated to the besieging Crusaders, and they built an enormous pyre on which they burned alive 220 unrepentant Cathars. Other Cathars took refuge in the fortress at Puilaurens, where they were butchered after the fall of Montségur. The war against the Cathars reached its bloody conclusion in 1255 with the siege and fall of Quéribus, the last remaining Cathar stronghold.

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