History of Toulouse

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Toulouse, France's aeronautics and space exploration capital can today afford to look skywards: its history has given it a solid base from which it can move towards the future with confidence. Nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees that lie between it and Spain, the city known as 'la Ville Rose' (due to the delicate purplish-pink hues of its buildings) has an immensely rich past, which through the centuries has alternated between periods of prosperity and much gloomier times.

The first inhabitants and Tolosa

The city's history goes back over 2000 years, starting with the Volques Tectosages, a small Celtic tribe that settled in the Garonne valley in 300 B.C. Because of its strategic position, Toulouse - which provided a link between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic - was already (in 100 B.C.) of great interest to the Romans, who made it one of their colonies in the 2nd century A.D. The colony subsequently prospered from the wine trade and by the 3rd century A.D. it had its first city wall, which reached northwards as far as the Porterie (now Place du Capitole), while its southernmost point was Porte Narbonnaise, which is now Place du Salin and the Place du Parlement. Around this time Christianity was introduced to the city by Saint Saturnin, who later died at the hands of a frenzied heathen mob who tied him to the tail of a bull. Many of the city's buildings and monuments named in his honour recall his martyrdom: Rue du Taur (from 'taureau', meaning 'bull'), Notre-Dame-du-Taur church, Saint-Sernin basilica and Matabiau station (from matar bios, meaning 'to kill the bull').

The barbarian invasions

From the 5th century A.D., the city was subjected to barbarian invasions: whilst the Vandals were stopped by Gallo-Roman defences, the Visigoths, who came from the area around the Black Sea, made the city their empire's capital. A century later, the Franks in their turn took possession of the city. Until the 9th century A.D. there followed a period of calm when Toulouse found itself relegated to the rank of simple county town. During the Middle Ages however it became (governed by Raimond II) capital of the County of Toulouse. Ruled by city nobles, Toulouse quickly expanded, due to a large influx of settlers from rural areas. The city then stretched beyond its walls to the north as far as Place Saint-Sernin, to the south as far as the Saint-Michel area of the city and to the west on the left bank of the Garonne. In the 12th century, the nobility lost the city to the Capitouls or city consuls.

The Cathars

In the 12th century A.D., the Cathars, members of a heretical sect, tried to establish themselves in Toulouse where they had many supporters. The king sent in his troops, led by Simon de Monfort (killed by a stone on the site where the Grand-Rond is today), which eventually succeeded in routing the heretics. As a result, the first wave of the Inquisition swept through Toulouse, bringing with it a religious fervour that was behind the founding of the Dominican monastic order in the couvent des Jacobins and, from 1229, the setting up of a theological university. Made a royal city in 1271, Toulouse experienced rapid economic growth (thanks to the Garonne river) and blossomed intellectually and artistically. However a dark period in its history was to follow from the 14th century onwards, when plague, the Hundred Years' War, famine, floods and fire each ravaged the city in turn.


The year 1420 was a turning point in Toulouse's history and marked the beginning of a wonderful century whose dominant theme was prosperity. Charles VII introduced a judicial body to the city: the Parliament. Pastel merchants, who had become rich by exporting this plant-derived blue dye throughout Europe, converged around the Grande Rue (today Rue des Filatiers, Rue des Changes and Rue St Rome), built magnificent town houses (Hôtel d'Assézat, Hôtel de Bernuy) and took control of a wealthy Toulouse society in which architectural design and fine arts flourished. From the middle of the 16th century however, Toulouse experienced its second major crisis: indigo, a much less expensive dye, arrived from America, wiping out the pastel trade. A new civil war, this time between Catholics and Calvinists, caused an enormous fire to break out causing untold damage and up until the 17th century, famine followed on swiftly from the numerous outbreaks of plague that befell the city. A period of development followed, which saw the coming to fruition of a number of industrial projects, such as the building of the pont Neuf, Place du Capitole and the Canal du Midi.

The Age of Enlightenment and growth during the 19th century

The Jean Calas affair caused uproar in 1761: accused of murdering his own son who wanted to become a Catholic, Toulouse merchant Jean Calas - in spite of protesting his innocence - was sentenced to death and burned alive in 1762. This prompted widespread condemnation by key figures in French society of Toulouse's Parliament's persecution of Protestants. Although somewhat hindered by the Inquisition and religious intolerance, the city was slowly but surely modernized during the 18th century. A period of urban reorganization began, which went on until the end of the 19th century. From 1750 onwards, Toulouse witnessed the building of the Jardin royal, the Grand-Rond with its six splendid avenues, the Canal de Brienne, Quai Dillon, the Patte-d'Oie area of the city, Place Wilson and Place du Capitole. The opening of Matabiau station in 1856 heralded the age of transportation, while boulevards replaced the city walls and main thoroughfares were created at the end of the 19th century, following the example of the wonderful improvements made by prefet Haussman in Paris. These large-scale projects were to give the city, which had long outgrown the original and very cramped medieval town, a whole new look. Meantime, the French Revolution of 1789 marked the end of the Capitouls' reign, and Joseph de Rigaud was voted in as Toulouse's first mayor.

The 20th century: the age of aeronautics

The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by a huge population increase, caused by the arrival of immigrants fleeing the numerous fascist regimes of the period (immigrants came from the north of France in 1914, from Italy in the 1920s and Spain in 1934). World-wide conflict forced the city, due to its strategic position close to Spain, to change and undergo its own industrial revolution, which resulted in the arrival of chemical industries in 1915, the Latécoère aircraft factory, and the setting up of Aéropostale, the French airmail service. Aérospatiale (the internationally-known aeronautics firm) was created here in 1920. During the Second World War, Toulouse's resistance network went from strength to strength during the Occupation. A new wave of immigrants arrived just after the war in Algeria and forced the city to spread further west towards the suburbs. Since then, industries - particularly the aviation industry - have continued to flourish, as have electronics and space exploration sectors. France's fourth biggest city, home to the country's second biggest university and France's aeronautics capital, Toulouse is a dynamic, forward-looking city whose pinks (for its buildings) and blues (for its pastel) are a constant reminder of its rich and colourful past.

M. Delmas