Friday, May 13, 2016

Sorting Out the Names: A Brief History of Bordeaux

The names of the regions in and around Bordeaux can be confusing. For one thing, Bordeaux is the name of a city, a winemaking region, and a wine. In addition, many names get tossed around in relation to this part of France:  Bordeaux, Aquitaine, Gascony, Gironde, Dordogne. Let’s take a brief trip through history that will help us figure out what everyone is talking about.  Here’s the general area in question:

The city of Bordeaux and surrounding areas.


Pre-History to the Middle Ages

Paleolithic humans lived in this area and created the famous Lascaux cave paintings not far away, which are more than 17,000 years old. In pre-Roman times the area’s settlers were descended from the Iberians and/or Basque people of Spain, rather than the Celts who inhabited most of France at that time. We know these people as the Aquitani. In the 1st century BC the Romans conquered most of France during the Gallic Wars. They understood the region as “Aquitania” and kept the name when they controlled the province.

Roman map of Gaul before the Gallic wars.*

Roman map of Gaul after they conquered it.*

Middle Ages to the Renaissance

In the early Middle Ages the Visigoths took over as Roman rule disintegrated, but were soon defeated by the Franks (c. 500 AD). The area surrounding the present day city of Bordeaux became the Duchy of Aquitaine, and the area to the south became the Duchy of Vasconia or Gascony. These two united under Felix of Aquitaine in 660.

The semi-independent Kingdom of Aquitaine was made up of Gallo-Romans north of the Garonne River and Basques to the south of the river. When the kingdom was threatened by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate invading from Spain, it submitted to the rule of the Frankish kingdom next door in exchange for help. The Franks won a great battle here at the Battle of Tours in 732, led by Charles Martel (“The Hammer” – he’s the tough, smart general), grandfather of Charlemagne. Without this victory, the expanding Arab empire could have conquered much of Europe.

The (Frankish) Carolingian Empire officially began with Charlemagne’s crowning in 800, though the Franks had ruled France and Germany for a long time already. For the next few centuries the region of Aquitaine was passed around between various other ruling kingdoms, and the title “King of Aquitaine” (“Aquitaine” now including Vasconia/Gascony) was more honorary than literal.

Aquitaine officially joined France in 1137 when Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII King of France, but the marriage was annulled in 1152. In 1154 Eleanor married King Henry II of England, and Aquitaine became part of England. (Eleanor and Henry’s sons include Richard I (the Lionhearted), famed for his military prowess in the Crusades, and John, who sucked his thumb and annoyed Robin Hood. They were both kings of England after Henry II – first Richard, then John.)

Eleanor marries Louis VII.*

King John wants his Mummy (Eleanor).*

The French and English fought over Aquitaine (and other things) for roughly 300 years, but Aquitaine remained English until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, when the French won it back for good at the Battle of Castillon. (1453 was a big year for important territory changing hands.) During these centuries Aquitaine and England developed close ties, including a booming wine trade. Profits from Aquitaine were a large source of income for England.

Aquitaine’s borders shifted periodically during the Middle Ages, as land was won and lost. It was also commonly known as Guyenne, though the boundaries of Guyenne varied, and the two names were not always synonymous.

French Revolution to Today

Guyenne and Gascony were French provinces until 1790, when the system of Departments was introduced as a result of the French Revolution. The new French leadership figured that a reorganization of the administrative districts would break up old power centers and loyalties and give them better control of the country. 

Today France is divided into 18 administrative regions. Several regions have recently been combined, and have temporary names until a new name is chosen. The region encompassing Bordeaux, previously known as Aquitaine, has merged with the neighboring regions of Limousin and Poitou-Charentes, forming the new region temporarily named Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. By October 1, 2016 this region will have its new official name. Bordeaux, the capital of the former Aquitaine, will remain the capital of this new region, which will be the largest in France.

The 18 administrative regions contain 101 Departments. Bordeaux is the capital of its Department, Gironde. The Dordogne Department sits immediately to the east (upriver) and is closely associated with the area, particularly as a common tourist destination along with Bordeaux. (The Lascaux Caves are in the Dordogne.) From the time of the earliest kingdoms until now, Bordeaux has always been the largest and most important capital city of this evolving region.

Sorting Out the Names:  Maps are Helpful

Here’s your quick-reference checklist for the nomenclature.

Aquitaine = the name of the region surrounding Bordeaux since pre-Roman times. The name remains part of the French administrative region today (Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes), but could change later this year.

The former French administrative region of Aquitaine.*

The new region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes.*

Gascony = the region south of old Aquitaine, near the present France/Spain border, which merged with Aquitaine during the Middle Ages. The term is still used in reference to the southern part of this general area. 

Gironde = an administrative Department within the region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, with the city of Bordeaux as its capital. The Gironde Department encompasses the Bordeaux wine region. Gironde is also the name of the estuary formed where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers come together and flow into the Atlantic Ocean (see below). 

Bordeaux, both the city and the wine region, are in the Gironde Department.*
(In green -- click to enlarge.)

Bordeaux = the historic and modern capital city of the Aquitaine region (now Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes) and the capital city of the Gironde Department. It is also the name of the wine region.

The city and the wine region.*

Dordogne = the administrative Department immediately to the east of the Gironde, but the name is often heard in conjunction with these other areas. Also the name of 1 of the 2 rivers flowing through Bordeaux. 

Garonne = the other river that flows through Bordeaux. To the southeast the Lot et Garonne Department bears the river’s name.

The Dordogne River and the Garonne River come together to form the Gironde Estuary.*


*Most of these pictures are stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia. A few of them are stolen shamelessly from other places.


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