Aquitaine, Limousin and Occitan culture

Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine
Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine, grand père de Richard Cœur de Lion (miniature tirée de Chansonnier provençal, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

Aquitaine, which included Limousin, held a place apart within the wider kingdom of France. Distant from the seat of the king’s power, the duchy had given birth to a specific culture, based on the Occitan language and the art of the troubadours, which doubtless influenced Richard. Although Aquitaine had not escaped from the break-up of centralised power and the division of its territory into a multitude of lordships, it, however, kept some particularities such as a legal code that was written rather than customary, and its dukes were powerful lords enjoying a lot of autonomy. Among these dukes of Aquitaine, the most famous was the grandfather of Eleanor, William IX, one of the earliest known troubadours of the Middle Ages.

The art of the troubadours was born in Aquitaine at the beginning of the 12th century. William IX was one of their precursors. It consisted of the re-telling and playing of courtly songs and poems, extolling love and the virtues of chivalry. It developed in the “courts of love”, notably held by the mother of Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Aquitaine of Richard was steeped in this Occitan culture which had developed in the South whereas the North of France at that time had been strongly marked by a culture that was Germanic and Norman. The South of the kingdom had experienced a deeper Roman influence during Antiquity. Driven by the Dukes of Aquitaine and the Church, this culture had been able to develop throughout the century and give this part of the kingdom a specific identity.

Limousin in the 12th century
Blason des vicomtes de Limoges
Blason des vicomtes de Limoges.

Limousin had been a bishopric since the end of the Roman period.Its limits were approximately the same as those of the Gallo-Roman city state of the Lémovices. During the Carolingian period, having been itself under the authority of a count of Limoges, Limousin passed to the counts of Toulouse, then to the counts of Poitiers. It was then divided between different viscounties. At the time of Richard, because of the independence that Aquitaine had already known, many Limousin lords, including the viscounts of Limoges, did not accept the authority of the powerful Plantagenets. On many occasions, they revolted against Richard the Lionheart. In consequence, Limousin was the scene of recurrent conflict in this period.

Ségur le château
Ségur le château

Many knightly families held lordships of greater or lesser importance as vassals of the viscounts. Feudal society was complex in Limousin in the 12th century, as it was in the rest of the South of France at the time. Most of the lordships were held as co-lordships. Several lords and knights shared the rights of one castrum (castle) and the land that went with it. This resulted in the construction of several towers and knights’ residences within the same enclosure. This was the case at Ségur-le-château, Lastours and Montbrun.

At this time the region experienced a real golden age, both spiritual and cultural. The episcopal town of Limoges was of a large size for the time, with its two districts, that of the castle, ruled by the viscount, and that of the cathedral, under the authority of the bishop. Saint Léonard de Noblat and Aubusson were both sizeable towns.

Abbaye de Solignac
Abbaye de Solignac, (photo Office de tourisme des Monts de Châlus)

The Church, at the heart of the great bishopric of Limoges, played a very important role in this blossoming of Limousin. Although political power was divided between several viscounties, notably those of Limoges, Comborn and Ventadour, the Church guaranteed the unity of the territory of Limousin and its ancient boundaries. The abbeys of Solignac, Grandmont and St Martial became powerful and very rich, as a result of the increasing prosperity of their numerous possessions. They were an enormous influence in the development of the arts and crafts of the region, which is still famous today for its enamels and work in gold. It was certainly the Church in Limousin, far from the influence of the king of France and answering only to Rome, that allowed Limousin to experience a golden age in the 12th century.

Bertran de Born
Bertran de Born(miniature tirée de Chansonnier provençal, XIIIème siècle, BNF).


Limousin enjoyed a real flowering of culture in this period. This manifested itself in the variety of types of art which were born in the region and later spread throughout Europe. Limousin was the birthplace of some of the most celebrated troubadours, like Bernard de Ventadour in Corrèze, or Bertran de Born, closely connected with Lastours.


Bernard de Ventadour
Bernard de Ventadour, (Miniature tirée de Chansonnier provençal, XIIIème siècle, BNF).


It was in this cultural and social milieu that the young Richard was brought up; it was there he gained his first experience and there that his life as king saw so much action.