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Situated in the Tarn department of south western France, the town of Cordes was given its charter in 1222 by Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse. Said to be the first bastide ever to be built, it clings to the top of the Puech de Mordagne and its physical location was ideal for a fortress to defend the Count’s northern territory. Standing 100 metres above the surrounding river valleys, the Mordagne peak had natural defences in the form of steep limestone cliffs on two sides, meaning that only two walls needed to be built in order to secure the town.
Although the area is known to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, followed by Roman villas and then mediaeval villages nearby, the Puech de Mordagne had always been considered to be too inaccessible for occupation. Legend has it that the site first chosen for Count Raimon’s northern fortress was the Puech de Gabel, where the village of Saint Marcel had stood before being destroyed by Simon de Montfort, the “Lion of the Crusades”, battle against the Albigensians. Construction of the new town began but, mysteriously, when the builders returned in the morning, all the work done been knocked down during the night. The same thing happened each day for 30 days and finally one of the builders lost his temper and threw his trowel up in the air. Although he later searched for it, the trowel seemed to have disappeared completely. Several days later, it was found on a neighbouring mountain top by a shepherd tending to his flock and it was taken to be a sign that the new town should be built not on Gabel, but on Mordagne.
Spurred on by this perhaps divine intervention, the original town and its defensive walls were completed within seven years. Many of the first settlers were Cathars, members of a religious sect which Count Raimon was mostly happy to tolerate in his lands. Raimon offered a generous incentive to newcomers in the form of free land, which they and their descendants would hold in perpetuity. In this way, the town fulfilled a dual purpose, as it formed a stronghold in the northern territories and also provided a stable home for local families who had been scattered far and wide during the crusade battles. The occupants of the new town became free men, no longer vassals to the local lord.
The town enjoyed enormous growth in its earliest years, spreading so far that a further five walls had to be built to accommodate the population which, by the first half of the 14th century, rose to more than 5000. Cordes’ merchants prospered, dealing in wool, cloth, and leather, as well as general trading and finance, and they built many imposing Gothic-style houses from the beautifully coloured local sandstone.
Cordes was one of the towns visited by pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela; weary travellers would stop here for a night or more on the leg between Conques and Toulouse and scallop shells, the emblem of St James’ Way, are to be seen in the pediments of some of the houses in Cordes.
Unfortunately, the town’s defensive walls were no match for the Black Death, which arrived in Cordes for the first time in the spring of 1348 and wiped out around one quarter of the population. The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) between France and England also took its toll on the town, as the English forces advanced as far as the surrounding hills. France as a whole was weakened by the conflict and Cordes was no exception.
Cordes gradually recovered and in the second half of the 15th century there was an upsurge in its fortunes, with the coming of the pastel industry. Pastel is derived from a plant called woad and is the source of indigo, used to create a strong natural blue dye. Merchants became very rich on the profits of exporting pastel throughout Europe, notably to Spain, the Netherlands and England, and many new buildings were added to the town as businessmen showed off the fruits of their success. There are no records of what the local population made of the smell of processing the woad, although in England Elizabeth I refused to allow such work near any of her palaces because of the stink. Eventually, the pastel industry in the region went into decline, firstly as wars once again ravaged Europe so that customers preferred to obtain their woad from other sources such as India, and then with the introduction of cheap synthetic indigo, but for generations pastel was one of the mainstays of the economy in Cordes.
The religious wars of the 16th century brought more sorrow to Cordes, as in 1568 it was besieged, then attacked and burnt by Huguenots, who were said to be jealous of the prosperity of the town’s inhabitants and who were seen as enemies as they had supported the Catholic cause. There continued to be occasional outbreaks of plague in the area and poor harvests caused famine which reduced the population further and over time the fortunes of Cordes declined. Towards the end of the 17th century, the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681 was a major blow as the town was no longer on the main trade route. The population dwindled further and by 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution, numbers had fallen to only 2500.
In 1870, success returned to Cordes with the introduction of mechanical embroidery and, at its peak, as many as 300 looms were operating. Embroidery continued to be a major prop to the town’s economy and during the Great War, whilst the men were away fighting, the women of Cordes produced many thousands of silk embroidered postcards, which were sent to Paris and then sold to allied soldiers who sent them home to their families all around the world. Later, and indeed the last embroidery works in the town before the industry ceased in the mid 20th century, were the famous Lacoste crocodiles.
Cordes is now a major centre for artists. In 1940 Yves Brayer and his friends, the sculptor Bizette-Linder and Albert Bouquillon, were captivated by the town’s beauty and many other painters, sculptors, poets and writers, including the celebrated Albert Camus, came to join them. The Cordes Academy was founded, which holds regular exhibitions that attract many visitors.
Cordes became formally known as Cordes sur Ciel in 1993 and its new name reflects the seasonal phenomenon in which the spring and autumn mists surrounding the foot of the Puech de Mordagne make the town appear to be floating above the clouds – Cordes in the Sky.