Note: Opening photo credit to Karin ten Kate, Groléjac, France
Périgord sits in the southwest of France, bordered by six départements: Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, both to the south, Corrèze to the east, Haute-Vienne to the north, and Charente and Gironde to the west.
The river Dordogne flows through the middle of the region from east to west, beginning its journey in the Sancy Mountains, then making its way across the volcanic land of Auvergne to the Haute-Corrèze, passing through many towns, villages, and landscapes before joining the Atlantic.
The area is a checkerboard of small regions: We have Périgord Vert (green), Périgord Blanc (white), Périgord Pourpre (purple), and Périgord Noir (black). This is the only region of France that identifies itself using colors.
Périgord’s inhabitants have been forged by fierce, ongoing, peasant uprisings and relentless wars. The area’s history is as rich as its soil; the people, hardy, proud, and friendly, blend hardship and happiness into a daily rhythm—one that welcomes others into their world.
The Past – A Brief History
Long before the time of Jesus Christ lived the Celtic Gauls, (Latin Galli, French Gaulois). They inhabited a vast area, including present day France, Belgium, Luxemburg, parts of the Netherlands, Switzerland, the west bank of the Rhine River in Germany, and the Po Valley in Italy.
The Gauls were united by a common religion and federations of people who believed they descended from a common source. Julius Caesar, in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, claims this source was the god Dispater (a Roman god), but it may have been Cernunnos (a Celtic god). Both were associated with the underworld and with prosperity.
Whoever the original god was, people in the Périgord have been through quite a few gods and religions since. Until around 300 A.D., the area experienced years of calm and development. The population grew, architecture flourished, and life took on a rhythm and structure. The Romans introduced fruit and wine production into the area, which is still a mainstay of the region today.
But that calm was not to last. With prosperity came battles. From the beginning of the sixth to the end of the eighth century, the European mainland was more or less free of external invasion. But early in the ninth century, warfare began. First between the Carolingians and Mérovingians, who fought one another for centuries. Their battles overlapped with the arrival of the Vikings, who sailed down the rivers into the valleys of what is now modern-day Frisia and the Aquitaine.
The earliest documented raids by the Vikings began in 793 at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. Historians distinguish three phases to the raids. The first phase of attacks was from 790 to 840. The Vikings used shallow draught longships, which were ideally suited for surprise raids on coastal locations and struck terror into their victims. Small fleets, using “hit-and-run” tactics to attack, were able to row away as swiftly as they had come. The attacks were usually seasonal and carried out by isolated bands. They began in the coastal cities of England and France, and then the Vikings moved inland to raid the river communities.
The Carolingian Empire was deeply affected by the raids. Frisia and Aquitaine, in modern-day France, were two of the first provinces attacked by the Vikings; Aquitane was attacked by Norwegian raiders returning from Ireland. The most notable attacks were on the monastery at Noirmoutier. This island monastery was attacked every summer. The monks tried many defenses, but they eventually left the island for safer lands. The trading centers in Frisia, particularly Dorestad, were a favorite target of the Vikings from 834 to 839.
During the second phase of Scandinavian activity, from 841 to 875, the raids increased in number, size, intensity, and speed. By 851, fleets had increased from three ships to 350 ships per raiding party. The Vikings arrived unexpectedly, plundering, burning, killing, or enslaving the inhabitants, and then left the conquered lands. This war tactic accounted for the Vikings’ great success in this period. They met no organized resistance, but were defeated here and there by particular clans.
In 843, the Viking warriors wintered on foreign soil for the first time. They settled in Aquitaine, which was thereafter never completely free of Vikings. Gradually, the Viking attacks moved from English and French soil to the Mediterranean Sea. In 844, a fleet attacked Nantes, Toulouse, Gijon, Lisbon, and Seville. This fleet was defeated, however, and returned to Aquitaine.
A second fleet reached even further, raiding North Africa, France, and Spain, and then continued on to Italy, where it was defeated. The Vikings formed the “Great Army” that consisted of thousands of individuals. This was an important military achievement at the time. The leaders continued to change, and different bands raided different areas. The war-bands increased in size, and each war-band fought for itself. Occasionally, the armies even fought against each other. As they expanded their conquests, the invaders also began to leave their ships and travel on foot or on horseback.
By remaining on foreign soil, the Vikings increased the political threat to the local rulers. Some Viking parties joined forces with enemies of the kings or rulers. Many Anglo-Saxon and Frankish rulers bought off the Vikings in an attempt to remove them from their lands. In 862, Charles the Bald tried to fortify the bridges to stop the passage of the Viking fleets, but it remains unclear if this was successful.
In the third phase, between the years of 876 and 911, the Vikings, along with their Great Army, continued to plunder on both sides of the Channel and began to colonize England and France. They also permanently settled in lands they had raided, such as Ireland, Iceland, and areas in Russia around Novgorod and Kiev. Military response from the conquered peoples varied from one ruler to another; in some places, the Vikings met great opposition from the people.
After suffering devastating blows from the Vikings, the English army reorganized; half its men were home and half out on service. A new type of craft was constructed to oppose the Viking longships in shallow coastal waters. When the Vikings returned from the continent in 892, they could no longer roam the country at will, due to opposition by the local army’s counterattack. Charles the Simple, King of the West Franks, ended the Viking raids in 911 by giving Normandy to the Vikings. In return, Rollo, a Viking leader, pledged his allegiance to Charles. Rollo was then baptized and defended the lands against other Viking parties.
In the Xth century, the four baronies of Périgord were set up: Mareuil and Bourdeilles in the north, Beynac and Biron in the southeast. Subtle games of alliance ensued among the families, creating a hierarchy that engendered more rivalry than peace. The area finally fell to the Talleyrand family.
The already weary population was now faced with famine and plague along with unsympathetic rulers. Despite these adversities, the people of the region, with the souls of builders, built temples to the glory of the divine spirit: abbeys. The Chancelade, Boschaud, Sarlat, and Cadouin abbeys are monuments from this epoch—an epoch that fostered the need for spiritual refuge. These refuges were built to allow the light of the divine to penetrate the darkness of the times. They still stand today, in settings that continue to inspire.