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Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Once the river Tarn became navigable, passing in close proximity to an easily fortifiable site with dominating access to the river, all the elements were assembled for the establishment of a small settlement; Albi.

During the high Middle Ages Albi made itself a stronghold or ‘oppidum’. Protected by walls, the city occupied the plateau between the river Tarn and the Bondidou stream.

With its Episcopal seat, power in Albi was split between the Bishop and the Viscounts who paid tribute to the Counts of Toulouse. In 13th century feudal France the vassals (serfs) were emancipated from royal authority and so Albi, like many of the towns in the south of France, became a largely independent community.


Throughout the centuries Albi has had long cultural and intellectual traditions. During the middle ages the town was host to a large scriptorium linked to the Episcopal presence. In this workshop the compilation and copying of the books and texts indispensable to liturgical life was undertaken. Monastic schools and Cathedrals were intellectual centres producing geographical treatises often compiled from antique texts and enriched with glossaries. Particularly detailed cartography can be found in an Albi codex from the 18th century.

The Albigensian crusade (1208-1249) was proclaimed by the Catholic Church as countering heresy, principally Catharism but in a lesser measure also Waldensianism. Texts from the early 12th century mention heresy in the Albi area despite the city being no more strongly Cathar than surrounding towns.

Catharism was mainly present in the Languedoc region, dominated by two families of the houses of Toulouse and Trencavel. Having failed to come to an agreement over a united front, the count Raymond VI of Toulouse made his amends and began a crusade, whilst Raimond-Roger Trencavel prepared to defend himself against this crusade. Once Béziers and Carcassonne were taken and the Viscount Trencavel was imprisoned, the crusaders elected one of their own, Simon de Montfort, to continue the fight (1209).

This crusade rapidly evolved into a conquering war, initially on account of Simon de Montfort but after his death (1218), and the defeat of his son Amaury, for the profit of the crown. This did not hinder the fight against Catharism which continued initially under the orders of the local Bishops before passing under the control of the Inquisition (from 1233).

Urban planning

In the second half of the 14th century, the town was divided into six quarters in which the suburb of the Pont (bridge), itself protected by walls, became an independent quarter. The Pont-Vieux was fortified both on the suburban and town sides with a drawbridge at each end and, like other mediaeval bridges, houses were built above the bridge’s pillars. At the centre of the bridge there was a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Albi must have seemed a very compact town, bound by its city walls and served by a network of narrow streets. Life was centred around numerous watering points - springs or fountains - and also the ’Plassa,’ the heart of the city situated at the foot of the Cathedral. Here would have been found the grain measure, the market was held and close by was the salt works.

The mills and tanneries were found in the suburbs but also, away from the centre, the colony for the sick – an indispensable establishment in a society rife with diseases.

La Renaissance

Towards the end of the 15th century mediaeval insecurity began to recede and year by year prosperity returned to the town. Great lords acceded to the Bishopric – the Amboises, Robertets.... They brought with them the craze for Italian art which was sweeping through the Loire valley and which gave birth to the French Renaissance style.

The cultivation of woad brought prosperity to Albi and ensured the fortunes of the bourgeois merchants who played a leading role in the town. The affluence of the citizens was evidenced in the speed of urban growth and the beautiful Renaissance buildings. New unrest in the 16th century brought an end to the good life of the South. Calvinism emerged in France in 1540 and with it violent confrontations; a civil war which would last almost 30 years. The Catholic Church reacted to the development of this new heresy by organising atoning processions.

19th century to the present day

The railway arrived in Albi 1864. A second bridge was built over the river Tarn along with a viaduct for the train. The town developed around its stations.

The 1870 Franco-Prussian war put a sudden stop to this burst of development and only at the start of the 20th century did new industries begin to develop; with mills, lime factories (for the manufacture of cement) and the coal mines at nearby Carmaux. A new metal industry grew up at Saut du Tarn, 6km from Albi, bringing with it specialised foundries. The best known activity was the Verrerie (glassworks), founded in 1896 as a workers cooperative thanks to the help of Jean Jaurès (1859-1914, French journalist and leader of the French Socialist Party before World War I).

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