The sites to be seen here today represent the different habitations necessary for survival through different eras. Aveyron has prehistoric menhirs (standing stones or statues) and more dolmens (megalithic tombs) constructed in the Bronze Age than elsewhere in France and these can be spotted on many journeys here. Their sizes vary between 75 cm and 5.5 m They are the oldest sculpted stones in Western Europe - see the cave system of Foissac and Musée Fenaille at Rodez
The South of France was the first region annexed by the Romans, in about 125 B.C., decades before Julius Caesar brought the rest of Gaul under his control. The area was occupied throughout by the Ruteni tribe. The Romans relied on the native aristocracy to administer local governments. Najac has Gallo-Roman origins and the River Viaur derives its name from the Latin ‘way of gold’. At a factory near Millau, Graufesenque, slaves mass-produced pottery for the entire Roman army. A legacy from the Roman period is the suffix AC which is found at the end of a number of names of towns and villages in Aveyron. It can be argued that Roman culture had a longer persistence in the south of France than in Italy itself.
After the end of the Roman empire Visigoths, Moors or Saracens in turn occupied and crossed the region. It was not until the year 800 that stability was achieved by Charlemagne. One of his fortifications to protect the passage of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in Spain can be seen before Belcastel on a high cliff overlooking the valley and a shrine at that point. The splendour of the Abbey and relics at Conques owes a lot to the fear which was aroused by subsequent Viking attacks. It made sense to build abbeys and keep religious treasures at a distance from the main river routes.
The Cathar religion had a major following in the South of France and elsewhere between 1150 and 1325. Its belief in a dual god, the use of native language for prayer instead of Latin and their distrust of the institution of the Catholic church was seen as a heretical threat . The Popes launched the 20 year Albigensian Crusade (Simon de Montfort) and two brutal Cathar wars where northern nobles were able to make great gains from Cathars and the southern nobles protecting them. The Inquisition then followed with massacres and burnings of enormous numbers of Cathar ‘heretics’. The two regional impacts were thus the loss of power of the Cathar-supporting Counts of Toulouse, Carcassonne etc and the strong links with Northern Spain and, instead, the control of the Oc-speaking South by the northern Kingdom of France. Possibly, also, some Cathar beliefs were absorbed by the early Protestant sects and French protestantism- the Huguenots- 300 years later was strongest in the Occitanie south. The powerful social history 'Montaillou', by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, is based on the Bishop of Albi's (later Pope) interrogation of the inhabitants of one Occitan village during this inquisition. It gives unique evidence, with echoes perhaps today, of the way of life in South West France from the 12th and 13th centuries. Plenty of Cathar history to be discovered at Carcassonne (a long journey but worth it) and Cordes sur Ciel. New permanent exhibition of Cathar history at Mazamet- just south of Castres.
Walled towns such as Villefrance-de-Rouergue were erected during the Crusades period. The increase in population and desire of rulers to invest in their lands (also to compete with church power) saw royal bastide towns built, all designed to grid-like geometric patterns with straight roads and land plots of equal size- Najac, Sauveterre de Rouergue, Villefranche de Rouergue and a section of Rieupeyroux are local examples.
During the 100 years war Rouergue (now Aveyron) came under English control for a while! The castles and fortified churches (bastides) which scatter Aveyron today were constructed to achieve defence against the mercenaries who took control in the absence of strong government. The towers of Jouqueviel and Roumegous are very local examples that form a highlight for a walk or bike ride.
Between 1850 and 1904 120,000 persons emigrated from the Aveyron - then over-populated and impoverished- the greater number arriving in Paris and also large numbers to Argentina and the USA. Today there are perhaps 350,000 'Aveyronnais' in Paris when Aveyron's population itself is 280,000. The original language or dialect of Oc , of the Occitan people, predominated in much of southern France until relatively recently. The language has similarities to Catalan in Spain and shares a common Latin ancestry. The mixing of large numbers of young men from the region with the rest of France in the first world war meant that pressure was put on its survival. Today perhaps there is a revival with dual language signs on entry to many towns and villages and cultural events through the summer such as the Rodez Estivada. The designation of the new and enormous region of Occitanie reflects this history.
During the second world war this was very much part of Vichy (non-occupied) France but, because of the proximity to the Spanish border, there was a considerable resistance movement which was active in Carmaux. This involved miners, prisoners from Poland, Georgia and Russia in forced labour camps and included a Protestant pastor Paul Haering and his wife Suzanne who rescued many Jewish children. The victims of a Nazi atrocity are commemorated at Jouqueviel.
(thanks to ‘Valley of the Viaur, wild treasure’ , ‘Le Mag Aveyron, land of inspiration’ and aveyron.com, NY Times Elaine Sciolino 2009)