Professor Fredric Cheyette
Department of History
Amherst College
Southern France: the Orb river plain between Béziers and the Mediterranean

This geodetic survey aerial photograph made in 1965 shows a portion of the countryside between the city of Béziers and the sea. It includes portions of the fields and vineyards belonging to the villages of Vendres, Sérignan, and Sauvian. The dominant pattern of field roads forms a series of "spider web" patterns radiating out from the village centers. Close inspection shows that some of the field roads running north-east from Sauvian [orange arrows] cross over the river Orb without a change in orientation. Documents indicate that the river changed its course in the mid-thirteenth century; the old mouth of the river is about 5 km. east of the modern one. The field roads that appear to cross the river without a bridge were therefore laid out before the river changed its course. Surviving documents show that some of the field roads that radiate eastward across the river from Sérignan [green arrows] were already in existence in the tenth century. The structure of these village fields has therefore remained remarkably constant for at least a millenium, despite frequent flooding and changes in the meanders of the river before it altered its course. There are traces of an earlier layout of the countryside evident on this photograph as well: a series of parallel roads and field boundaries running north-south, and a few that run perpendicular to these. They are indicated by yellow arrows. The distance separating these parallel roads, approximately 710 meters or multiples of that distance, indicates that they are the ghostly traces of the Roman field system, a checkerboard pattern called centuriation, radically different from the field systems that came into existence sometime before the year 1000. The centuriated fields are most evident just to the east of Béziers, in the area called St-Jean-d'Aureilhan, which at the time this photograph was made was being rapidly urbanized. Some of the Roman centuriation field roads are now four-lane streets. Unfortunately, at the time of this urbanization, no rescue archaeology was done. An opportunity to trace the transformation of this portion of a suburban countryside from Antiquity through the Middle Ages was thus forever lost.The contrast between the Roman centuriated landscape, whose phantom remains are evident on this photograph (and whose extent and variations have been traced in detail by classical archaeologists), and the medieval landscape that survived until the major development projects and reorganization of the rural world of the last few decades destroyed it, presents a major historical problem: How did the Roman rural world vanish and the medieval rural world come into being? What was the chronology? What happened in between? How might we explain what happened?


























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