There are hardly more historically significant towns in France than Aigues-Mortes. Within the walled city, legends and facts reveal a rich history of conquering heroes and suffering martyrs. Today the place has transformed into a popular destination for travelers, filled with souvenir shops and sidewalk cafes. Visit with me inside Aigues-Mortes’ walls.
It all started with salt
From its earliest days Aigues-Mortes was significant for its salt fields and its location bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks and later the Romans, led by Gaius Marius (102 BC), occupied the land known as “Aigas Mortas,” meaning”dead” or “stagnant water.” Benedictine monks resided in the area in the 5th century and lived off the abundant fishing, hunting, and salt production. So important were the monks and the region to Charlemagne that in 791 he ordered the Matafère Tower to be erected amid the swamps to warn the residents if there were enemy fleets approaching.
Before you can grasp the significance of Aigues-Mortes to kings and conquerors in France, it is essential to understand the importance of salt in the ancient world. As a trade item it was as valuable as gold. It was used a religious offering and a currency. A landowner who possessed a salty pond was considered a rich man.
In the 13th century it was Aigues-Mortes’ salt fields and the proximity to the sea that appealed to King Louis IX (Saint Louis). Intent on creating a passageway for trade and for his crusades, Saint Louis turned his attention to the spit of land in the marshes. He obtained the land from the Benedictine monks in exchange for property in Languedoc where the monks could plough the soil and grow crops. When the Benedictines left, Saint Louis built the town; rebuilt the Matafère Tower; named it the Tour de Constance; housed his garrison there; and used Aigues-Mortes as the point of departure in 1248 for the Crusade of Egypt (7th Crusade) and for the crusade where he died in 1270 (8th Crusade).
King Louis IX
As Louis IX had envisioned, Aigues-Mortes became prosperous as a trade route. The population and town grew on its own, but largely because those residing in Aigues-Mortes were exempted from paying tolls, tariffs and taxes. The Carbonniere Tower (Tour Carbonniere) was constructed as a watchtower in the marshland outside of town. The narrow road beneath the tower was the only land access to the town. Guards were stationed there to control who entered and exited the town and to collect tolls. The passageway continued be used as a toll road into the 1700s.
The Carbonniere Tower (Tour Carbonniere)
In 1272, Louis’ son and successor, Philip III the Bold, ordered the construction of the walls that completely encircled the town. The work was not completed until 30 years later. Aigues-Mortes was a busy port in the 13th and 14th centuries, but when Provence was reunited with France, Marseille took over in prominence and prestige.
Inside Aigues-Mortes’ Walls: Battles and Torture
From the 14th-19th century Aigue-Mortes was the site of battles, torture and merciless imprisonments. In the 14th century Templars were incarcerated in the Tower of Constance, tortured and burned at the stake. During the winter of the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war in the 15th century, a troop of marauding Burgundians were killed. Their bodies were dragged inside the walls, salted and stacked into the Tower of the Bourguignons (Tour des Bourguignons).
Tower of the Bourguignons (Tour des Bourguignons)
Protestants who pillaged Aigues-Mortes in 1575 and took it over as their own were imprisoned there after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). They remained in prison until their deaths. In the late 1800’s, one of the largest massacres of immigrants in French history took place inside Aigues-Mortes walls. A riot broke out between French and Italian workers who labored together in the salt fields. Police were unable to contain the riot and, reportedly, up to 150 men were killed — all Italians.
“Resist”inscription in the Tower of Constance
Inside Aigues-Mortes’ Walls: Women Prisoners
After religious freedom was declared in France, it is said there were fourteen women prisoners in the Tower of Constance.
They were hidden away in a room deprived of air or of the light of day. The governor of Languedoc, who was on an official visit to the prison, found them there. It is said “they fell at his feet, overpowered with weeping so that they could not at first speak, and when speech came, they all together recounted their common sufferings. He was interested by the story of Gabrielle Guinges, who had given two sons to die in the French wars, yet was permitted to languish in prison. He was touched by the miserable appearance of Jeanne Auguiere and Isabeau Maumejan, who were eighty years of age, and of Isabeau Anne Gaussaint, of Sommieres, who was ninety years and who had been imprisoned for 36 years.” The most famous women prisoner was Marie Durand who engraved the word “Resist” on the prison wall. Incarcerated at the age of 17, she was released 38 years later.
Inside Aigues-Mortes’ Walls: A Transformation
While Aigues-Mortes is no longer the important port it used to be, salt remains a major product of the region. Compagnie des Salins du Midi, now known as “Salins,” is one of the main salt producers in Europe. It is tourists that have captured the ancient city recently. Aigue-Mortes’ walls seem to bulge and vibrate with all the energy.
If you plan a visit to Aigues-Mortes, please stop by the tourist office and take a guided or audio tour. You can read about the history, but there’s nothing quite like hearing it from an expert. Time and money well spent!
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