search medieval land of plenty dye

Albi and Toulouse experienced a golden age during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, founded on the trade in pastel dye. I had vaguely heard of pastel (woad) but knew little about it. Visiting and reading up on these places recently prompted me to do some research about it.

Pastel takes off

Pastel is a plant, Isatis tinctoria, which produces an indelible blue dye, following an elaborate manufacturing process. Well known by the ancient Egyptians, the plant was already cultivated in the Lauragais region southeast of Toulouse by the 12th century, where the soil and climate were particularly suitable.

Cloth manufactured locally in the region was of inferior quality whereas pastel was an expensive luxury, so local demand was minimal. However, increasing demand for the dye by English and Flemish cloth manufacturers led to production and export on a large scale. The trade became highly organised with farmers cultivating the plants, collecteurs buying the leaves and manufacturing the dye and merchants organising its marketing and export.

Trade routes were established to the major Atlantic ports, up to Lyon and the Low Countries and down into Spain. Apparently, on the 8th November 1404, 13 ships from Bayonne and four from Bordeaux landed 127 cubic metres of pastel at Bristol. This gives some idea of the extent of the trade by that date.

Initially, Albi was the centre of the pastel trade in the 14th century. Toulouse soon overtook it for various reasons, including the superiority of its banking structure, which provided a stable commercial basis for the trade. The Toulousain pastel trade experienced a golden age between the mid-15th and mid-16th centuries. Merchant families amassed vast fortunes, which they spent conspicuously on constructing opulent mansions in the city.

The Albi-Toulouse-Carcassonne triangle became known as the ‘Pays de Cocagne’ (Land of Plenty), a word that derives from the balls of paste (Occitan coucagno) formed during the manufacturing process. The nickname became synonymous with wealth and abundance.

Making pastel

Cultivating the plants and making the dye was a labour-intensive cycle taking a whole year:

Seeding took place in February/March and the leaves were harvested from June to November and then washed and dried. The yellow flowers played no part in the process.
The leaves were shredded and pounded into a pulp in special pastel mills, moulins pasteliers.
The pulp was dried for six months, during which time a first fermentation took place, allowing the pulp to be formed into balls 10-15 cm in diameter (the coucagno or cocagnes). The balls were then dried.
Once dry, the balls were crushed and wetted to obtain a second fermentation. This produced a black, granular paste called agranat.
To obtain the blue dye, a green juice was extracted from the agranat and oxidised.
This produced a dye that was highly prized not only for its colour but also for its indelible qualities. The weight of the final product was about 7% of the weight of the original harvest – hence its high price.

Decline and fall

All good things come to an end and pastel was no exception. Several reasons conspired in the decline of the pastel trade from 1560. First, the development of dubious practices undermined the merchants’ credibility, including wetting the sacks containing the pastel to make them heavier and adding less expensive substances like sand to the agranat while maintaining the prices. Second, heavy rainfall led to abundant crops but poor quality. Third, the Wars of Religion disrupted the trade routes from 1562. Finally, the introduction of indigo, which was more concentrated, easier to use and much cheaper displaced pastel production.

Some suggest that the growers’ and merchants’ failure to invest in the pastel industry was also a factor. The merchants preferred to pursue political ambition and construct lavish houses outside the areas of production rather than develop cultivation and production methods.

Attempts to revive the trade in the 18th century by simplifying the cultivation of pastel and getting it protected by royal warrant were unsuccessful. Napoleon also attempted to revive it and a school of pastel production was even set up, but a series of poor summers and the fall of the Empire in 1823 tolled its final death knell.

A company based in Lectoure (Gers) has revived the art of pastel making and produces dyes, paints and cosmetics.

You can find out more about pastel here (in French only).

The most dangerous woman in the world

The Treasure of Trencavel

List of Characters

Table Of Contents



List of Places

Table of Contents

Pseudo History


Extract from The Prisoner of Foix--Chapter 43 -The EntranceNo need to buy a Kindle. Read it on your computer or tablet

John Stanley-26th April 1355


'Looks like we are going to see a bit of excitement, John. The Captain tried to get an agreement from the Prince that if there is surf running across the channel to Arcachon we will turn back to Bordeaux, but the Prince would hear none of it. Instead, he has offered to provide insurance for all three ships. If they are damaged or sunk, the owners will be compensated and every sailor who makes the passage will be given a bounty payment. What none of this seems to take into account is that if we sink in rough, fast-flowing waters we might all drown.'

John raised his eyebrows. 'But that is what we are going to do?'

'Yes, despite the fact that surf running accross the entrance is not uncommon and the deep water channel moves continually. In the end, the Prince attacked their captains on their weakest point, their professional pride! He threw down the gauntlet. He offered to take the Sally first through the channel, and to take control during the passage.' He raised his brow. 'We are going into the Bay of Arcachon, come what may! '

Extract from The Eagle of Carcassone -- Chapter 24-- A Real GoddessNo need to buy a Kindle. Read it on your computer or tablet

John Stanley - 22 July 1355

An hour later John walked with Ximene close to the river along the valley below St Feriole. It was the very essence of a summer’s day. The sun was fierce but in the shadow of the trees, it was cool and fragrant. The trees and shrubs along the riverbank hid their progress, from the Château, from St Feriole.

Eventually they reached a point where John thought it was safe to emerge from cover. To his satisfaction the stream extended into a pool with a sandy beach, shaded by trees. Where the stream entered the pool there was a flat grassy area, almost circular. Behind this, the bulk of two mountain ridges provided a splendid backdrop. He looked around once more ‘Not just a good training ground but a great training ground. If the Greek heroes knew about this they might be tempted to join me, to train with me’

Ximene laughed out loud. He turned to look at her. She had removed her outer clothes and was wearing a white chemise, cut short so that it barely reached her knees. Around her waist, she wore a plaited leather belt, obviously fashioned from the multitude of leather straps to be found in the tackle room.

She ran her hands down over her breasts. ‘When you were unconscious I heard you muttering about gods and goddesses, so  I have decided that from now on, for you, I will be the goddess.’

The Prisoner of FoixVol 1 of the series—The Treasure of Trencavel

Aquitaine, an English possession, is in crisis. It is under threat from neighbouring nations and internal dissension.

The Black Prince, King Edward III’s eldest son has been given the task of taking command in Aquitaine.

Suddenly there is an opportunity. Ximene Trencavel is the heiress to the lands of Occitan, to the east of Aquitaine: lands controlled by the Franks. Ximene wants independence, both for herself and for Occitan.

A union between Aquitaine and Occitan would be mutually beneficial. The Black Prince undertakes a secret journey to meet Ximene to negotiate a marriage contract. It is, however, a marriage neither of them really wants.

Meanwhile, the  Franks plot to murder Ximene to prevent ,not just the marriage, but any kind of union between England and Occitan.

The Eagle Of CarcassonneVol II of the series—The Treasure of Trencavel

The loose alliance between Ximene Trencavel and the Black Prince is under threat.

The Prince invades Occitan, to show his support for Ximene but it becomes an invasion which creates more problems than it solves.

The Prince has fallen hopelessly in love with Joan of Kent and Joan is now determined to marry him and become the next Queen of England.

Joan is therefore  determined to convince Ximene that she should not marry the Prince.

Part of her strategy is to encourage Ximene’s relationship with John Stanley—one of the Princes bodyguards—not an easy task as both John and Ximene have doubts about their compatibility.

However, John is grievously injured in a battle and Ximene commits herself to nurse him back to health.