Located in the Occitania region, Toulouse is a very ancient city. Its origins can be found in Antiquity, around the 8th century BC. Whilst little from this period remains, buildings from successive inhabitants have been recovered. Romans, Visigoths, Frankish and Merovingians gave a rich base to the city’s history and, from the Middle Ages to Modern Times, Toulouse has been at the centre of many historic events which have contributed to the city as it is today: a “pink city”, made of clay bricks and of amazing buildings from all eras. Let’s find out more about the main events of Toulouse History.
Toulouse History and the beginnings of a great city
Ancient Times: the rise of Tolosa and its Roman development
The first inhabitants of Toulouse were the Volques Tectosages. They settled in the hills, south of the actual position of the city, around the 8th century BC. The city of Tolosa was well located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, making it one of the main centres of trade. In 118 BC, the Roman armies allied with the Volques Tectosages and built their first military fort close to the city. But in 109BC, the Volques Tectosages, taking advantage of the ongoing invasions by the Barbarians from the North, revolted against the Romans. The reconquest was quick, but there were no real settlements, only a garrison installed to watch over the newly installed population. This situation changed with Julius Caesar and the Gallic War in 52 BC. Tolosa was turned into a real Roman city, integrated into the Empire. Due to its central position, Tolosa developed, thanks to the trade of Italian wines.
The city was moved further north around 10 AD and then continued to expand, eventually covering 90 hectares. Mainly built with clay bricks, Tolosa had all the elements of a major Roman city: aqueducts, circus, theatres, therms and even a forum. Protected by its wall and its far location from the northern border of the Rhine, Tolosa escaped much of the damage from invasions during the 3rd century. This wasn’t the case for the major part of Gaul, a situation that allowed Tolosa to be ranked as the fourth largest city in the western half of the Roman Empire (after Rome, Treves and Arles). This was also the time when Christianity appeared in the city. The first bishop of Toulouse, Saint Saturnin (known as Saint Sernin) worked hard to extend the Christian community but was martyred by the Romans, as Christianity was opposed by pagan priests. In 313, the Edict of Milan established religious freedom, ending the persecutions. In 403, Saint-Sernin Basilica was opened on the site of the Bishop’s grave, near which more and more believers were buried. Unfortunately, there are almost no vestiges of this era.
Toulouse as a capital city: the Visigoth kingdom and the Frankish decline
In 413, three years after the sacking of Rome, the Visigoths captured Toulouse. But the Roman army fought back and forced the Barbarian troops to withdraw south of the Pyrenees. Peace was made between the aggressors and the Roman forces and, in exchange, in 418, the Visigoths were granted the region of Aquitania and at its border, Toulouse. With the empire going from France (in Brittany) to Spain, the Visigoths chose Toulouse as their capital city, ending Roman power over this city.
But the Franks, who were marching south from Germany in the 6th century, quickly confronted the Visigoth kingdom. War started and the Frankish King Clovis defeated the Visigoth king at the battle of Vouillé in 507. The Franks then walked south, forcing the Visigoths to withdraw to their Hispanic dominions. Unfortunately for Toulouse, the Frankish realm was weak during the dark period of the 6th and 7th centuries and the city fell into a period of anarchy and decline. The Merovingians succeeded the Franks, but couldn’t strengthen the realm either, allowing power to slip away from their hands to local organisations. This is why, in 680, Felix was able to become the first independent duke of Aquitaine, even without being recognised by the Merovingians. Toulouse was designated as the capital city of this free duchy, gaining some recognition from this new position. But, in 778, during the war between the Merovingian King Charlemagne and Arabic troops posted in Spain, Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, was attacked by Basques soldiers in Roncesvalles (this story is told in the Song of Roland). This attack inspired Charlemagne to realise that his realm was not sufficiently unified. He, therefore, decided to impose a direct Frankish administration over Toulouse and Aquitaine.
Fredelon of Toulouse and the lineage of Toulouse counts
In 849, Fredelon was the Count of Toulouse, which was at the centre of a war of succession between Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s grandson, and his nephew Pippin II. Upon his death, in 852, Charles the Bald appointed Fredelon’s brother, Raymond as the new Count of Toulouse. This appointment was a special favour because counts were at the time only administrative agents who could not be chosen in the same family. This nomination proved to be the beginning of the dynasty of the Counts of Toulouse, all descending from Raymond I of Toulouse. By the end of the 9th century, the Counts of Toulouse ruled the county of Toulouse, in theory under the sovereignty of the King but in reality totally independent. Even if their position was contested by other lineages, such as the Counts of Auvergne, the Counts of Toulouse managed to keep their position.
Under the protection of the counts, Toulouse continued its development which had been halted by the Frankish invasion. During the 11th century, the district of Saint Sernin extended beyond the grave of the martyr bishop and became known as Saint Cyprien on the other bank of the Garonne. In 1181, the Daurade Bridge was built to connect Saint Cyprien to the rest of the city.
The Capitouls: new masters of the city
In 1152, Count Raymond IV joined the Crusade, where he died. A council of eight men, selected for one year, was established at this time to rule the state: the council was called ‘the Capitouls’ and was called to rule Toulouse for 600 years. In 1176, the council of the Capitouls already had 12 members, each of them representing a district of Toulouse. They quickly opposed the new Count, Raymond V. Although the population of Toulouse was divided, the count finally submitted to the council in 1189, after ten years of fighting. This submission was the first step in the accumulation of power by the Capitouls. They slowly took all the power from the hands of the Count: law, justice, police and trade affairs.
In 1190, the Capitouls started to build the Capitole. This place was to be the town council headquarters. As a symbol of their power, the Capitole was extended by adding new buildings to the existing structures. With 24 members, the Capitouls even started conflicts with some of Toulouse’s closest cities, of which Toulouse was usually victorious and thereby extending its domination. But their powers were slowly taken back by the King and by the Parliament established in the 15th century, to the point where the Capitouls remained responsible for everyday affairs.
Toulouse in the Middle Ages
The Cathars times and the division of the city
In the 13th century, the Cathar ideology started expanding in Toulouse. This new religion was not accepted by the main religion, Catholicism, leading to a civil war between the orthodox White Brotherhood and the heretical Blacks in the city. The Whites received the support of the Abbot of Foulques. On the other side, some residents supported the Blacks, besieged in their own city. The Capitouls, not wishing to encourage the division of Toulouse, made the choice to defy the authority of the Pope and refused to acknowledge the heretics. The position of the Counts of Toulouse varied in this period: Raymond IV was Catholic, but his grandson, Raymond VI, was excommunicated after a dispute with the Pope and he then positioned himself on the side of the heretics, in opposition to the extermination of Béziers.
This event took place during the Albigensian Crusade, a 20-years crusade against the Cathars of Languedoc. Between 1209 and 1229, the Pope and the Kings of France sent troops to eradicate heretical behaviour but also to bring Languedoc and especially Toulouse under the power of the French crown. During this time, Toulouse was besieged three times by Simon de Montfort, the commandant of the royal troops. The first siege, in 1211, was a failure, but two years later, he started a second siege and defeated the Toulouse army. He entered the city in 1216, by threatening to execute a great number of hostages. He claimed the position of the Count of Toulouse, chasing Raymond VI from the city. But, in 1218, the population revolted against the Whites and the army of Raymond VI came back for a third siege, during which Simon de Montfort was killed. The French King, Louis VII, finally surrendered in 1219. Toulouse could remain under the authority of Raymond VI who, as a recognition of the support he received from the population, gave up his last prerogatives to the Capitouls.
However the independence of Toulouse was still a problem for French kings, and Raymond VII, after succeeding from Raymond VI, surrendered to the King in Paris in 1271. The Languedoc area was once again tied to the French territory. The Catholic Church had to work in Toulouse to recapture the attention of the population. Using the repression of the inquisition, but also by constructing massive churches and developing education and by the establishment of the first university in the city in 1229. The city prospered, establishing a trade of Bordeaux wines with England. At the same time as this economic development, Toulouse also became a city of arts, with the Consistori del Gay Saber, an institution established in 1323, to preserve the lyric art of the troubadours. With the use of the Occitan language in most of their works, members of the Consistori installed Toulouse as the centre of Occitan literary culture, for a hundred years. The Consistori was last active in 1484. And as a political power, the Parliament of Toulouse, established by Charles VII, became the second Parliament in France, decreasing the prerogatives of the Capitouls.
But after this period of expansion, Toulouse faced many threats: the Black Plague, massive floods which destroyed the suburbs around Saint Cyprien, the Great Fire in 1463 which burned half of the city which was mainly constructed of wood at that time. This fire was the starting point in the use of clay bricks in construction, as in Roman times. And the biggest threat for the city was the Hundred Years’ War, resulting in massacres and destruction. Within 70 years, Toulouse lost 10,000 inhabitants, taking the total population to 22,000 in 1405.
The Pastel era: the rebirth of the city
After those disasters, Toulouse entered a golden century, from 1463 to 1560, called the Pastel era. Indeed, Toulouse’s wealth was built on the production and trade of pastel. Grown in the countryside around Toulouse, pastel leaves were then crushed and moulded in the shape of a shell. Pastel shells were used to tint clothes and fabric. Massive personal fortunes were built on this trade and the rich merchants then competed to show off their wealth by building the most beautiful renaissance style houses in Toulouse.
But this golden age was halted by the discovery of indigo in the colonies, a product that could tint fabric for longer and with a more vivid blue. Pastel was put aside, until the Modern Ages. Another event that halted Toulouse’s growth was religious wars. During the 1562 Riots of Toulouse, Huguenots and Catholics fought in the streets. The battles resulted in over 3,000 deaths and the burning of 200 houses in the Saint-Georges district. These riots were part of a 32-years civil war.
The Renaissance in Toulouse
The 17th century: a welcomed time of peace
The religious wars were stopped by the publication of the Edict of Nantes in 1600. But the tension remained, with the development of ultra Catholicism in Toulouse at the end of the 17th century, opposing Protestant cities such as Castres and Montauban. Plague epidemics devastated the city once again in 1629 and 1652, but even with those deadly threats, the city was able to continue its development, with the construction of the Pont-Neuf in 1632 and the Canal du Midi in 1682, two gigantic projects.
During this period, Toulouse also positioned itself as a leading city, at a local scale and also at a national one, in the field of law. It still holds this position today, with a university of law recognised on a global scale, and with a locally important court. In 1750, the Capitole’s facade was built by the Capitouls, unifying the building complex. This work was carried out as a competition between the members of the Toulouse Parliament, who were building amazing houses and buildings in the streets of Toulouse. In this period, Toulouse was also considered as the wheat loft of Languedoc, growing and selling large amounts of wheat in the region.
1789: the French Revolution and the redefinition of Toulouse’s role
Toulouse supported the Revolution, however, the settling of a new order could not happen without endangering the position of the authority already in place. The Capitouls and the members of Parliament demonstrated in the streets to protect their position, but they received close to no support from the population, which abandoned its former protectors. The prerogatives of the Capitouls were abolished in December 1789, and Joseph de Rigaud was the first elected mayor.
But the creation of departments put Toulouse in a position less prestigious than expected, reducing its power and giving the advantage to its main rival: Bordeaux.
From the 19th century to nowadays
The Industrial Revolution and the development of the factories
Toulouse did not follow the movement of the first Industrial Revolution, which turned out to be a good choice since the city did not get caught up in the Second Revolution. But even so, the city did not embrace this new technology until 1856 when the first railway line between Toulouse and Paris was constructed. Parisian investors started to develop Toulouse, setting up branches of big banks and Parisian brands. But the narrow streets of the city, dating from medieval times, limited the development of the shops and factories. As in Paris, Haussmannian street projects were adopted. Fortunately, only two avenues were constructed: rue Alsace-Lorraine and rue de Metz, preserving the prestigious buildings from previous eras.
The most famous factory from this period is the Manufacture des Tabacs (Tobacco Factory). Built in 1810, the production of tobacco enjoyed a royal monopoly, established by Napoleon I. Located on the banks of the Garonne, it operated using hydroelectric power from the river. This factory was the main employer of the city, with 2,000 workers (mainly women). This ranked Toulouse as housing the second-largest factory in France, after Paris.
World War One and the new role of Toulouse
During World War One, Toulouse was requisitioned and had to develop its industrial activity, because the battlefield in the northeast of France froze activity in this really highly industrialised area. Toulouse was requested to specialise in the production of gun powder and ammunition, as well as in aircraft materials.
This last activity was established successfully in Toulouse, which specialised in aeronautic and aero-spatial industrial activity. In 1917, Georges Latécoère founded the Aeropostale, a company specialising in the delivery of mail by plane, to Morocco, Barcelona and later to South America. Based in Montaudran, the runway was directed by Daurat and talented pilots such as Saint-Exupéry, Guillaume and Mermoz landed there.
However, in the 1930s, Aeropostale was hit by the financial crisis. Unable to obtain assistance from the state, the company slowly declined, until it was integrated with other local airline companies into a newly created company: Air France.
Today, Toulouse is considered to be at the centre of the European aerospace industry, with Airbus, Galileo positioning system and other companies specialising in satellites.
AZF: a tragic story
As a legacy from WWI, the AZF factory was a chemical plant owned by the National Society of Powders and Explosives (Société Nationale des Poudres et des Explosifs). On September 21, 2001, the plant was totally destroyed by a massive explosion caused by the storing of 3,000 tons of Ammonium nitrate in a building, 1,000 tons more than the permitted limit. The explosion left a crater 200 metres in diameter, with a width of 20 to 30 metres. This accident killed 29 people and injured more than 10,000 others. Large parts of the closest quarters had to be evacuated, especially in the Mirail.
Investigations are still going on and the possibility of a terrorist attack was considered at one stage, particularly since, after the accident, a terrorist group took the name AZF. However, in 2009, Grande Paroisse, part of the Total group, was found responsible by a judicial inquiry, before being cleared in November 2009. The court was recalled in 2011-2012, this time holding the company responsible for the accident, a judgement that Grande Paroisse appealed. The appeal hearing is yet to be held to determine if Grande Paroisse can or cannot be held responsible for this tragedy.
Nowadays Toulouse has become a popular tourist destination. Its preserved streets coming straight from previous eras, its easygoing atmosphere with small cafés in pedestrian streets give you the impression of wellbeing. The city also cultivates its artistic dimension with museums such as the Musée des Augustins or with classical music concerts at Saint-Pierre-des-Cuisines, for a very affordable price. Because Toulouse is a very important student city, it is also very dynamic, which makes it attractive for new inhabitants. All this activity allows Toulouse to compete with its centuries-old rival counterpart city of Bordeaux.
Toulouse History: English-French Vocabulary
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective, (adv) for adverbs and (v) for verbs
- Ancient Times = Antiquité (f)
- Barbarians = les Barbares (m)
- Bishop = l’évêque (m)
- Black Plague = la Peste Noire (f)
- Brick = la brique (f)
- Cathar = Cathar (m) / Cathare (f)
- Clay = l’argile (f)
- Franks = Francs (m)
- Gallic War = la Guerre des Gaules (f)
- Lineage = la lignée (f)
- Mayor = le maire (m)
- Merovingian = Mérovingien (m) / Mérovingienne (f)
- Middle-Ages = Moyen-Âge (m)
- Renaissance = Renaissance (f)
- Therefore = Par conséquent (adv)