From Cave Art to Gambetta: An Enchanting Journey through the History of Cahors

Cahors, medieval city

Dive into the millennia-old history of Quercy, a region rich in prehistoric mysteries and medieval treasures. From fascinating cave art revealing the artistic talents of ancient times to the medieval splendor of Cahors, this captivating adventure transports you through the ages. Explore the Quercy caves, witnesses to humanity’s earliest artistic expressions, then wander the medieval streets of Cahors, where every stone tells a story. Follow us on this enchanting journey where the past comes to life, and each discovery sparks a new fascination for the hidden treasures of this historically rich region.

Prehistory: The Cave Art of Quercy

IThousands of years ago, budding artists left their mark in Quercy’s caves, offering a breathtaking glimpse into the past. Visiting the Pech Merle Cave remains an incredibly emotional experience, with remarkable parietal paintings of punctuated horses, bisons, mammoths, aurochs, and the famous negative handprint, allowing you to feel the sensations of that time.

The horses of the Pech Merle Cave" refers to the remarkable prehistoric cave paintings found in the Pech Merle Cave, located in the Quercy region, France.

Many caves in the area served as habitats, with some still shrouded in mystery, surrounded by an aura of fascination and curiosity. The legends surrounding them have left a lasting imprint on the memories of the locals, becoming an integral part of their history.

The Lot region boasts at least eight caves and paleontological sites open to the public, showcasing the richness of this department in terms of underground cavities. Embark on an exceptional experience, exploring and discovering an incredibly fascinating prehistoric heritage that will leave you enchanted.

Antiquity: Divona Cadurcorum, Capital of the Cadurques

The city has an ancient and prestigious history. As the capital of the Celtic tribe of Cadurques, it enjoyed a strategic location along the Lot River used by boatmen and sailors.

On the left bank of the Lot, the Cadurques erected a sanctuary in honor of Divona, the goddess of springs, using an imposing natural resurgence. The Roman Empire annexed Cadurques’ lands in 51 BC after a final battle led by Lucterios, the last Gallic chief to resist Julius Caesar, appearing as Abraracourcix in the Asterix comics, at Uxellodunum, in the current northern part of the department. Emperor Augustus then founded the city of Divona Cadurcorum to administer the new territory inside the meander.

Although now covered by the modern city, the ancient city of Divona Cadurcorum continues to reveal itself through archaeological excavations. Remnants of its rich past, such as the Arch of Diana or a section of the amphitheater’s wall, emerge in various places. Divona Cadurcorum, the Romanized capital of the Cadurques, had baths, a theater, a temple, and numerous houses adorned with mosaics.

The city evokes an image of a sacred spring (perhaps the Fountain of the Chartreux) and the presence of the Cadurques tribe. Under the Gallo-Roman Empire, its importance was evident, occupying the Lot loop with its bridge majestically spanning the river and its aqueduct supplying water from the Vers.

The Roman Amphitheatre in Cahors, Lot

Divona’s buildings testified to its privileged status: baths, temples, an amphitheater (under the current Place François Mitterand and the Fénelon alleys, with remnants visible in an underground parking lot), and a theater (demolished to make way for the railway). The Pont Vieux, connecting the city to the south, provided passage for Roman roads to Toulouse, Agen, and Rodez. In the mid-11th century, a new bridge became its successor.

Unfortunately, the city declined over the centuries due to barbarian incursions (in 471 and 513) and was partly destroyed by the Merovingian Franks during their takeover of the region in 574. However, thanks to the energetic bishop Saint Didier, the city erected its first cathedral and regained its splendor. Subsequently, it suffered successive pillaging assaults by the Saracens (in 732) and the Vikings.

Cahors’ underground conceals buried secrets of the ancient Gallo-Roman city, unfortunately devastated by Barbarian assaults in 471, 513, and finally largely destroyed in 571 by the troops of the Austrasian king Theodebert I.

Middle Ages: Saint-Étienne Cathedral, Witness to Medieval Prosperity

It was during the Middle Ages that the grand buildings that now characterize Cahors were constructed. Upon closer inspection, the ancient walls built in the 7th century by Bishop Saint-Didier proudly rise along the grand boulevard, dividing the city in two. Within these ramparts lies the historic center, a true “conservatory of the medieval house in France,” housing a multitude of merchant houses, witnesses to the golden age of Cahors.

Cahors and its surroundings were evangelized in the 7th century by Bishop Saint Didier (died around 650). In 1085, the bishops of Cahors became counts of the city, under the suzerainty of the Count of Toulouse. This transformation attracted the establishment of religious communities and the construction of a new cathedral.

The Saint-Étienne Cathedral was erected in the 11th and 12th centuries on the ruins of a modest Carolingian church, probably wooden and destroyed in the 11th century. The construction of the new building was undertaken by Bishop Géraud de Gourdon, a supporter of the Cluniac reform. The works continued under the rule of Bishop Géraud de Cardaillac, contributing to the splendor of this monumental cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, the majestic Cathedral stood out for its imposing structure. Built from the 11th century and restored in the 14th century, its north side features a Romanesque portal adorned with a quality tympanum depicting the Ascension scene. Pope Calixtus II consecrated the cathedral’s altar in 1119. At that time, the nave, built between 1085 and 1120, was virtually completed, reaching a length of 55 meters and a height of 32 meters. It was covered by two domes on pendants measuring 18 meters in diameter and rising to over 30 meters in height. The choir was surmounted by an adjacent half-dome.

The Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Cahors - Lot

The West facade presented a beautiful Romanesque portal in the 12th century, but it was moved to the North side in the 13th century when the facade was completely rebuilt in a Gothic style. As for the cloister, it was created later, between 1493 and 1550, in a flamboyant Gothic style.

The Saint-Urcisse Church in Cahors - Lot

The church of Saint-Urcisse has a long history, initially dedicated to Saint Saturnin and later to Saint Urcisse, the first bishop of Cahors, between 581 and 595. Nevertheless, the Romanesque remains from the initial 12th-century construction are beautifully preserved in the majestic interior pillars, adorned with their historical capitals. The West portal, dating from the 14th century, is finely decorated in a remarkable Gothic style. The charming side chapels, added later, bear witness to the evolution of religious art in the 15th century and beyond. Once endowed with a crypt, the structure was unfortunately buried during the great Lot flood in March 1927. It is now closed for safety reasons.

The city subsequently became a must-visit for pilgrims on the Via Podensis (Way of Le Puy) heading to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

The pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle

In the 12th century, the city became very prosperous, akin to the reconstruction of the cathedral. It transformed into a commercial city, with the arrival of merchants and Lombard bankers, who gave it a significant financial position, as mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy. The Pont Valentré, erected in the first half of the 14th century at the request of the city’s consuls, stands as a majestic architectural feat. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it symbolizes one of the routes of the Way of Saint James.

It was a period of economic prosperity and renown for the people of Cahors, spanning from the mid-12th century to the 14th century. Indeed, these merchants turned usurers engaged in trade and interest-bearing loans worldwide, thereby contributing to the city’s development. Additionally, it was also the era when Jacques Duèzes (1244-1344), hailing from Cahors, was appointed Pope John XXII in Avignon in 1316 and subsequently established the University of Cahors.

The Pont Valentré, erected in the first half of the 14th century at the request of the city’s consuls, stands as a majestic architectural feat. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it symbolizes one of the routes of the Way of Saint James.

The Pont Valentré, located in Cahors, Lot

To the West, a busy ferry ensured the crossing of the river. In the 14th century, the city was at the height of its prosperity. In 1306, the Consuls of Cahors decided on the creation of a new bridge, but financial difficulties delayed its completion until 1355 or even the 1370s.

That said, the association and contribution of the King of France, Philip IV the Fair, helped strengthen the city’s fortifications and essential structures, including the famous Pont Valentré built from 1308 to 1350. Moreover, by the end of the 13th century, the cathedral was in a state of alarming disrepair, leading to extensive restoration work from 1290 to 1320.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the city experienced a period of decline. Drapers and tanners abandoned their activities, causing the city to empty of its inhabitants in the 14th century, leaving behind a meager population of 5000.

However, the fortifications were restored and strengthened to guard against invasions, including that of the English army, which took possession of Cahors in 1360 after the Treaty of Brétigny.

Renaissance: Humanist and Artistic Heritage

n the 16th century, Cahors was a center of intellectualism thanks to the University, colleges, and printers who established their businesses there. The renowned humanist poets Clément Marot (1496-1544), a classical poet alongside François I and a pioneer of modern French language, and Olivier de Magny (1529-1561) were born in this city. The latter, a famous poet born in Cahors at the beginning of the century, was close to the Protestants. In 1544, he emigrated to Switzerland and then to Italy.

At first glance, the Renaissance did not leave a significant mark on Cahors.

Only the Saint-Jean archdeaconry and the Roaldès hotel, standing on the East side of the Cathedral quarter, are architectural jewels built at the end of the 15th century, featuring four floors, including a large gallery at the top. This Henri IV House is famous for hosting the King of Navarre and Duke of Vendôme in May 1580, during the capture of Cahors by the Protestants. A beautiful example of Quercy’s Renaissance!

The Archidiaconate of Saint-Jean in Cahors, Lot

Contrary to Montauban, Cahors remained faithful to the Catholic Party during the Wars of Religion. In 1560, Catholics massacred Protestants, but in 1580, the troops of Henri de Navarre, leader of the Protestants, seized the city, which was then plundered. Protestant troops damaged the cathedral and the city itself during the Wars of Religion.

Ancien Régime in Cahors: Between Religion and Architectural Transformations

In the 17th century, Cahors experienced a renewed interest in religion with the Counter-Reformation movement led by Bishop Alain de Solminihac (1593-1659), beatified by John Paul II in 1981. He restored his diocese and founded a large seminary. Very close to the population impoverished by the Hundred Years’ War, he visited each of his parishes several times, promoted preaching in the local language, and printed a catechism in Occitan. He was the originator of several charitable foundations, orphanages, and hospitals. He rebuilt Cahors’ large hospital.

The administration of the Court of Aids and the tribunal of the Elected attracted men of justice and important personnel who adapted medieval houses to their taste by sculpting beautiful doors, installing attic windows called “mirandes,” and straight flights of stairs. Additionally, the 17th century saw the development of the river with the installation of the first locks, significantly facilitating the transportation of goods through the initiative of the intendant of Guyenne, Pellot.

Beautiful Carved Door - Cahors, Lot

In 1751, the University of Cahors was moved to Toulouse, leading to the closure of the institution in the city. Examples of architecture from the Age of Enlightenment are hard to find, but wrought iron staircases are a true testament to the beauty of the time. During the Ancien Régime, the city remained nestled behind its medieval ramparts until 1770 when they began to be demolished, and the moats were filled, expanding the habitat to the West.

French Revolution: Revolutionary Storms and 19th-Century Renaissance

The French Revolution marked a turning point for the city, ushering in a new era of the development of legal administrations. Representatives of the administration acquired large and grand residences that were quickly modernized. The magnificent baroque portals that still adorn the streets of the historic center testify to the taste of the time. To find them, look for the carved stone framing that surrounds the richly decorated wooden door. Be patient, as Clément Marot aptly said: “Everything comes to him who knows how to wait.”

On the eve of the French Revolution, the city had just over 10,000 inhabitants.

The cathedral, a witness to history, was not spared the turmoil of the French Revolution. Although it was restored in the 19th century, the methods used were sometimes questionable.

On Boulevard Léon Gambetta, you walk in the footsteps of an illustrious Cadurcian. Born in Cahors in 1838, Léon Gambetta (1838-1882) left the city to study law in Paris in 1856. He became a renowned lawyer and vigorously opposed the Second Empire. In 1869, he drafted the Charter of the Radical Party, and in 1870, he proclaimed the Republic before leaving Paris – then besieged by the Prussians – in a hot air balloon to organize resistance. An iconic figure to discover in the streets of Cahors.

In 1871, this nobleman staunchly opposed the peace treaty with the Prussians and became the undisputed leader of the Union Républicaine party. By becoming the Prime Minister, he played a crucial role in the early years of the Third Republic. His unwavering commitment to secularism is an enduring testament.

The 19th century witnessed the emergence of the industrial era and large-scale urban development to improve quality of life and public hygiene. The city of Cahors was no exception. The newly laid major avenue saw the rise of powerful, recreational, and educational structures such as the theater, library, town hall, courthouse, and the girls’ high school.

In the second half of the 19th century, Cahors saw the railway being established to the west of the city. The station settled near the mythical Pont Valentré. Economic activity revived, and the city amassed nearly 20,000 inhabitants in 1890. The quays along the Lot River testify to the desire to control aquatic life.

Unfortunately, the main outlets of Cahors and Quercy fell victim to French and foreign competition, and phylloxera destroyed the entire vineyard. The population declined during the first half of the 20th century, reducing to around 12,000 inhabitants by around 1920. In the 1950s, a second wind was felt, leading to the extension of urbanization to the west, along communication routes and the slopes of the Lot hills. In 1970, the city’s population reached an impressive figure of 20,000 souls, becoming its official population. However, the beginning of the 21st century sees the agglomeration multiplying to accommodate around 40,000 inhabitants.

Cahors: An Odyssey Through the Centuries

Cahors, a witness to antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modern periods, embodies an odyssey through the centuries. From the moving cave paintings of the Pech Merle Cave to the majestic structures like the Saint-Étienne Cathedral and the Pont Valentré, each era has left its mark on the stones of the city.

Traces of the Celtic tribe of the Cadurques, remnants of Divona Cadurcorum beneath the modern city, medieval prosperity with its merchants and universities, the upheavals of wars and the French Revolution, industrial growth, and modern challenges – all these elements converge to form the dynamic tableau of Cahors’ history. A city that, despite the vicissitudes of time, has preserved its unique character and exceptional heritage, offering visitors a fascinating journey into the past.

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