France Ghost Towns
France is renowned as the country of fine wines, delicious cuisine and beautiful perfume but it is also a country of ghosts and ghost towns courtesy of centuries of misrule, warfare and religious purges.
Throughout its history, France has been a key possession in the empires of Europe, from the Romans to Charlemagne, from Napoleon to the Nazis and the battles for control of it have left villages destroyed or abandoned, populations executed or transported elsewhere. No wonder then that in the beautiful countryside amidst fields of corn, sunflowers and lavender or among the vineyards lay villages and towns whose only disturbance is the shrill song of the lark or the breeze blowing a door open and closed.
Still you may find this surprising in a country of 65 million people, the 20th most populous country in the world and one where the population is growing so fast that in 2003 it accounted for all of the growth in Western Europe. Offsetting this though is that it’s the largest country in Western Europe so the population has plenty of space to spread out! It has one of the highest life expectancies in the world too with the Mediterranean diet and healthy lifestyle accounting for much of those statistics. It is the world’s fifth largest economy and the most visited country in the world, so why are there so many ghost towns?
The story begins in the 3rd century AD with the decline of the Roman Empire and the attacks of the Barbarian tribes on the country. Many fled villages and towns fearful of what might happen and moved to more secure Roman controlled areas. These villages have not stood the test of time and are now just traces in the fields, raised hummocks where walls once stood and remnants of ancient orchards but they set the scene for invasion and counter invasion, religious culls and barbarous acts over the centuries.
In the 13th century, an offshoot of Christianity, The Cathars practised and lived in the Languedoc region of France, minding their own business but unfortunately for them causing the Catholic church to become jealous of their success, wealth and society.
A crusade was launched by the Pope, the Albigensian Crusade with the aim of exterminating the Cathars and their supposed heresy. First the town of Servian was attacked and the inhabitants killed or exiled. Then Beziers was besieged. It is estimated that 60,000 inhabitants were killed in the siege or burnt at the stake afterwards.
Later that year the ancient walled city of Carcassonne was besieged. Once its water supply was disrupted the inhabitants didn’t last long before seeking to surrender. This time the besiegers were more humane and almost all were spared although they were made to leave the city naked with no possessions and were exiled.
Many of these towns and cities remained deserted - ghost towns, for decades before populations began to renovate and move back into them. Today they are historic beautiful towns and cities but with more than a few ghosts. Kate Mosse the English author has written at length on the troubles and books such as Labyrinth, Sepulchre and The Ghosts of Winter put the events into context whilst showing how the effects are still felt today.
The Albigensian Crusade led to the formation of the Inquisition which aimed to totally eradicate Catharism. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a cruel court system but sought to reconvert the Cathars to Catholicism. Those that would not convert were excommunicated and exiled. Less than one percent were burnt at the stake.
In more recent times the Nazis were credited with emptying many villages and towns, either sending Jewish populations to the gas chamber or exiling errant populations or in extreme cases exterminating the whole village or town’s population in an act of sickening revenge.
Today the countryside is emptying at an alarming rate as young people seek better jobs in the cities and the elderly find they need easier access to facilities. Between 1960 and 2000, all 15 of the rural departments of France experienced depopulation with Creuse’s population falling by nearly 25%.
With the decline continuing, France will have many more ghost towns in years to come.