The Cité épiscopale
Cité épiscopale d’Albi
The Episcopal city is an urban ensemble, unique in its colour, power and harmony.
Albi illustrates the spiritual and political power exercised by the bishopric in mediaeval times; demonstrating the symbiosis of a city with an Epsicopal group.
Each city in which a Bishop resides may be called “Episcopal city” but the relation of Bishops with their town of residence varies considerably. In the case of Albi, the notion of Episcopal city is both vast and contained. A large part of the origin and development of the town is owed to the presence of this Episcopal seat.
The town’s powerful Epsicopal palace and imposing Cathedral illustrate the spiritual and temporal power the Bishops held at the time of their construction, begun in the 13th century.
The sheer exclusivity of the Bishops in defining the urban landscape is illustrated in the absence of any other monumental focal point and notably of a civic centre, town hall or market hall. In addition, the collegiate beside the Cathedral, housing the sepulchre, carries the name of a 6th century Bishop, Saint Salvi, which only serves to further underline the resolutely Epsicopal influence.
In every era the Bishops played a role in the creation and definition of the urban fabric as well as in the economy and day to day life of the city. From modest Gallo-Roman village, Albi became a town thanks to its promotion to the ranks of regional capital, city and diocese at the beginning of the 9th century.
The presence of an Episcopal seat largely explains the survival of the city throughout the 9th and 10th centuries whilst the Counts of Albi were relegated to second place behind those of Toulouse. The Bishops’ intervention in 1040 was a determining factor in the foundation of the bridge, capturing important traffic and becoming a nodal point in roads leading from Catalonia to Auvergne and the Limousin region and from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
The Saint-Salvi district expanded right up to the Pont-vieux and became a centre for merchants and craftsmen. In the 12th century the construction of the Castelnau district was, in part, overseen by the prelates. The birth of this new district led the town’s primitive site to be renamed Castelviel. In time and with the support of the townsfolk, the Episcopal power began to supersede that of the Viscounts within the town. This evolution, crowned by the Albigensian Crusade, led to the Bishop becoming the secular as well as spiritual liege of the town.
This situation was rapidly contested by the town’s elite and the King’s officers. This was also a time of spiritual contestation led by the “bons hommes” (known today as the Cathars). It was in answer to these challenges that the Bishops launched the construction of the Palais de la Berbie (Bishop’s palace) and the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile.
The Cathedral and palace represent a definitive Episcopal stamp on the town of Albi. Excluding all other influences these monuments obliterated the canons’ quarters whose stamp can be found in the topography of other towns. The twin edifices also recall a period in which a kind of Episcopal monarchy was founded within the diocesan church.
The Bishops enjoyed an enhanced role within the Ecclesiastical order; they were considered heirs to the apostles by virtue of their holy orders and of the Holy Spirit. The word for pulpit or rostrum (cathedra), the dais from which a Bishop holds forth on the teachings of Christ, became used to designate the mother church of the diocese, the “Cathedral”.
The Bishops strongly influenced life in Albi until the end of the 18th century. They were responsible for the founding of a general hospital, the establishment of a quay joining the bridge to the place du marché and the installation of gardens around the foirail du Vigan.
The 19th century saw the disappearance from the Episcopal city of all cemeteries and the steeples of several of the churches. A radical town planning incited the destruction of the merchant heart of the city whilst the Episcopal city remained a major centre of the town. Since 1975 the development of tourism led to a shift of activities back around the ancient heart.
The Episcopal group constitutes a relatively homogeneous whole from the density of the buildings to the maze of narrow, picturesque streets whose harmonious tint comes from the Romanesque tiles and the red bricks.
Text credit: “Albi the Episcopal city. Capital of Brick”
Published by ‘Editions Grand Sud’, Jean-Louis Biget ; Henri Bru.