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Medieval Carcassonne town view, France. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe

Carcassonne: Europe’s Largest Medieval Fortified City Was Defended by Straw Soldiers


Carcassonne is Europe’s largest fortified city that still stands today. It is located in Aude, a department in the southern French region of Occitanie. The city is divided into two parts by the Aude River, the Ville Basse and the Cité - the latter being the finest example of a fortified medieval town in Europe. These well-preserved fortifications are the city’s main attraction, drawing tourists from near and far and earning it a place in UNESCO’s World Heritage List .

How Was Carcassonne Established?

According to folk tradition, Carcassonne derives its name from a legend set in the Early Middle Ages . During the 8th century AD, the city was part of the Umayyad Caliphate and was besieged by Pepin the Short as he expanded the Frankish Empire. To add flavor, however, the legend states that it was Charlemagne, rather than his father Pepin, who was besieging Carcassonne. In any case, the governor was a man named Ballak, and when he died during the siege, his wife, Dame Carcas, continued to defend the city.

Carcassonne had been resisting Charlemagne’s troops for five years already and the defenders were on the brink of surrender. But Dame Carcas came up with a ruse which she hoped would fool Charlemagne. To make the defenders seem more numerous than they actually were, Dame Carcas had straw men dressed in armor and placed on the ramparts. She also fired crossbows at the besiegers to convince them that these were real soldiers.

Replica of a Dame Carcas bust. Dame Carcas led the defense of Carcassonne during the attack by Charlemagne. (Pinpin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Replica of a Dame Carcas bust. Dame Carcas led the defense of Carcassonne during the attack by Charlemagne. (Pinpin / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Truth Behind Carcassonne’s Name

When stock was taken of the city’s remaining supplies, it was found that only a pig and a sack of wheat was left. This disadvantage was turned into an advantage by Dame Carcas, who stuffed the pig with the wheat and threw it over the ramparts at the enemy.

The pig burst open, revealing the contents of its stomach, giving the impression that the defenders had so much food that even the pigs were being fed with good wheat. Charlemagne fell for the ruse and believed that it was futile to continue the siege, so he lifted it.

As the army began to leave, all the bells in the city rang out and the men exclaimed ‘Carcas sonne!’ meaning ‘Carcas is ringing!’ Dame Carcas called Charlemagne, made peace with him, and pledged her allegiance to him.

Despite the fanciful legend, the name of the city was in fact given by the Romans. Even before the Romans, the site, being a strategic point in the landscape, was first occupied by the Iberians and then the Volques Tectosages. When Provence and Languedoc were conquered from the latter by the Romans in 122 BC, they fortified the oppidum that had been built by their predecessors at the site and named it Carsaco.

Over the centuries, additions were made to the Cité by the various peoples who occupied Carcassonne. The Visigoths, for instance, added an inner rampart in 485 AD. Later on, during the 11th and 12th centuries AD, the Basilique Saint-Nazaire and the Château Comtal were constructed by the viscounts of Carcassonne and Béziers.

At the end of the 12th century, the viscount of Carcassonne was Raymond Roger Trencavel, who granted protection to the Cathars in his lands. When the crusade against these heretics (known as the Albigensian Crusade ) was preached by the pope, Carcassonne and the rest of Trencavel’s lands were seized and handed over to Simon de Montfort , one of the leaders of the crusade.

Basilique Saint-Nazaire , Cité of Carcassonne. (arenysam / Adobe)

Basilique Saint-Nazaire , Cité of Carcassonne. ( arenysam / Adobe)

The French Take Over Carcassonne

In 1224, Carcassonne came into the possession of the French Crown . It was during this time that the Cité achieved the form that we still see today. As the site was on the border with the Crown of Aragon , its military significance increased, and three successive French kings – Louis IX, Philip III, and Philip IV, enhanced the Cité’s fortifications. For instance, the turreted, towered, and crenelated outer ramparts were commissioned by Louis IX, while Philip III added the Porte Narbonnaise to the inner ramparts.

Porte Narbonnaise, Cité of Carcassonne. (Maja / Adobe)

Porte Narbonnaise, Cité of Carcassonne. ( Maja / Adobe)

In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between France and Spain, and Roussillon was annexed by the former. As a consequence, Carcassonne lost its importance as a border fort, and gradually lost its local significance. While the Cité deteriorated into a poverty-stricken area, the Ville Basse grew rich thanks to the wine trade and the woolen textile industry.

During the 19th century, the French government had plans to demolish the Cité. Fortunately, the site was saved thanks to the efforts of Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, a historian and resident of Carcassonne, and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a prominent architect and restorer of medieval landmarks in France. Under the two men, restoration of the site was carried out. Work began in 1844 and continued long after their deaths, being completed only during the 1960s. In 1997, Carcassonne was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This drawing of Carcassonne from 1462 was found by Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, who had a major influence on the project of Carcassonne's restoration. (Public Domain)

This drawing of Carcassonne from 1462 was found by Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, who had a major influence on the project of Carcassonne's restoration. ( Public Domain )

Top image: Medieval Carcassonne town view, France. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe

By Wu Mingren


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2017. Carcassonne. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Carcassonne
UNESCO, 2019. Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne. [Online] Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/345
www.audetourisme.com. 2019. Carcassonne city. [Online] Available at: https://www.audetourisme.com/en/discover-aude/history-and-heritage/carcassonne-city.php
www.famouscastles.net. 2019. Cité de Carcassonne - History and Facts. [Online] Available at: http://www.famouscastles.net/list-of-famous-castles/cite-de-carcassonne/
www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk. 2019. Carcassonne History. [Online] Available at: https://www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk/decouvrir-english/carcassonne-history
www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk. 2019. The Legend of Dame Carcas. [Online] Available at: https://www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk/histoire-de-carcassonne-english/the-legend-of-dame-carcas

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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