The best books about the long and amazing history of the south of France

Why am I passionate about this?

While using the city of Albi in southern France as a base for visiting some cave art locations I became fascinated with the history of the early Christians of the region and the brutal Cathar Crusade which happened there. I was also surprised to learn this was the home of Toulouse Lautrec and other later artists. As an archaeologist studying cave art, I became caught up in the long and important history of this one small area. The idea for a story intertwining different religious movements and art over thousands of years quickly emerged. I couldn’t resist this unique opportunity to reveal a piece of the past from a perspective I hadn't considered before.  

I wrote...

The Artist of Aveyron

By T.C. Kuhn,

Book cover of The Artist of Aveyron

What is my book about?

Every so often a traveler can stumble upon a piece of forgotten history in an unsuspecting location. A prime example for me was the Languedoc region of southern France. From cave painters to Celts and Romans; from Christians, Cathars, and Crusaders, to a long and rich artistic tradition, the river valleys of the region wind their way through our history. The Artist of Aveyron weaves five episodes covering thousands of years in the history of a family and a piece of land into a unique blending of historic figures and important past events. These are the seemingly ordinary lives of the people who in every time and place are subject to and yet influence in subtle ways the land and the larger events form the richer, unrecorded tapestry of our larger history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion

T.C. Kuhn Why did I love this book?

In taking on any project dealing with the origins of art or religion in any time and place I have found Pfeiffer’s book to be an excellent and easily readable starting point. 

As an experienced journalist and writer, his ability to take on difficult subjects in the human origins story in a way the average reader can comprehend and enjoy keeps his work relevant, despite the passing years.

Following his own path through some of the art caves of southern France many years later, I found a reread of this book and the still relevant questions it asks and attempts to answer a virtual guidebook to my own understanding of this rapidly changing subject. Profusely illustrated and supported with color photos, this book challenges the reader to begin elevating both the abilities and complexity of our stone age ancestors in ways we may not have considered or even thought possible.

Written with wit and personal anecdotes, the author brings to life a subject too often left to the words of academics and professionals with far less ability to guide the reader on such an important journey through the human past.

By John E. Pfeiffer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Creative Explosion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An analysis of the origins of the prehistoric cave paintings and sculptures of Europe examines the link between art, creativity, religion and ritual, and group solidarity

Book cover of Labyrinth

T.C. Kuhn Why did I love this book?

Labyrinth is the opening novel in Kate Mosse’s bestselling Languedoc Trilogy set in Medieval southern France.

This story focuses on the pivotal period in the 13th Century of the much-reported Albigensian Crusade called by Pope Innocent III and brutally conducted by the King of France through his barons to put down the Cathar Heresy, which had migrated across southern Europe from the East and threatened the very foundations of the Catholic Church at that time.

Mosse weaves an intricate web of intrigue and suspense, beginning with a modern archaeological discovery that opens up the door to an overlooked but critical chapter in the broader history of France and the Church, the repercussions of which are still being felt in that region today. This was a time of almost unimaginable misery and bloodshed and the characters of this novel deliver that sense of tragedy to the reader with a forcefulness and empathy that is at times, emotionally difficult to deal with.

However, the authenticity of the moment is artfully maintained by a gifted writer and storyteller whose skill never fails to captivate her readers, despite the underlying shock waves her story often sets off in our emotions. 

By Kate Mosse,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Labyrinth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14.

What is this book about?

July 2005. In the Pyrenees mountains near Carcassonne, Alice, a volunteer at an archaeological dig, stumbles into a cave and makes a startling discovery-two crumbling skeletons, strange writings on the walls, and the pattern of a labyrinth.

Eight hundred years earlier, on the eve of a brutal crusade that will rip apart southern France, a young woman named Alais is given a ring and a mysterious book for safekeeping by her father. The book, he says, contains the secret of the true Grail, and the ring, inscribed with a labyrinth, will identify a guardian of the Grail. Now, as crusading…

Book cover of Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

T.C. Kuhn Why did I love this book?

It is virtually impossible to write or even investigate medieval southern France, especially the famous Cathar Period without delving into this classic work.

Still available in different translations, Le Roy Ladurie takes us into the life of a 14th-century French mountain village and its people in a way no one else has ever attempted. Based upon meticulous church records of contemporary individual interviews and interrogations with alleged heretics in one small village by Church Inquisitors, the author gives us a look into the lives of common people of that time that has never been equaled.

I found myself returning to this small book time and again in creating my own setting and characters (including borrowing authentic names at times) for a near-contemporary portion of the story I wanted to build within the larger framework of time and place I was focused upon.

The reader gets a true sense of the isolation of thought and the despair of the hope for a better present the average person of that time must have faced when confronted with an all-powerful Church, which displayed no desire to change or improve either of those points of view.

I would also recommend the author’s later work, Carnival in Romans, for any reader interested in medieval life in southern France.

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Montaillou as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has had a success which few historians experience and which is usually reserved for the winner of the Prix Goncourt...Montaillou, which is the reconstruction of the social life of a medieval village, has been acclaimed by the experts as a masterpiece of ethnographic history and by the public as a sensational revelation of the thoughts, feelings, and activities of the ordinary people of the past."―Times Literary Supplement.

With a new introduction by author Le Roy Ladurie, this special edition offers a fascinating history of a fourteenth-century village, Montaillou, in the mountainous region of southern France, almost…

Book cover of A Year in Provence

T.C. Kuhn Why did I love this book?

No book list on any aspect of southern France would be complete without one of Peter Mayle’s many books on his travels and adventures in Provence. 

His initial best seller is a grand introduction to the many small villages, customs, foods, and peoples who maintain the traditional aspects of the unique lifestyle to be found there, which in some places reflects hundreds of years with little change.

I have found in my travels that because this area of France was spared the ravages of the two World Wars, any trip to the region puts the visitor in touch with this remarkable past in a way few other European locales can. I often found myself wrapped up in the incredible history that surrounded me everywhere I went in the region, leading to my own attempt at expressing some of it.

I’ve learned that Peter Mayle, through his books, is like having my own personal, experienced, and witty guide to usher me around through the region he so obviously has come to love. It is a part of our world which has left its own indelible imprint on the larger history of which it sits at the very center and is a place Time can stand still, if one looks close enough.

Peter Mayle certainly gives his readers that opportunity time and again.

By Peter Mayle,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Year in Provence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A personal description of Provencal life as seen through the eyes of the author and his wife when they move into an old farmhouse at the foot of the Luberon mountains between Avignon and Aix. The bestselling work of non-fiction in paperback of 1991 in the UK.

Book cover of Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre

T.C. Kuhn Why did I love this book?

Why a book on Toulouse-Lautrec on a booklist about southern France? I might have asked myself that same question before visiting the region.

In the city of Albi, attached to the amazing 14th Century medieval cathedral there, I happened into the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and learned he was born and raised in the town. After his death, his mother assembled the largest collection of his works, which are housed at this location. I became fascinated by his troubled and unusual life and followed him to Paris and the Moulin Rouge, where he became a famous Impressionist painter and pioneer of poster prints. 

This collection of essays by several experts deals not only with his unique early life, physical handicaps, and amazing, if troubled and short, career as an artist but also delves into the larger scene of turn-of-the-century Paris in 1900 at a time when the world of art was undergoing a major transformation, of which Lautrec was an integral part.

This book is rich with color prints of his work, and differing opinions about his very controversial personal and public life. When choosing to include him as a historical figure in my fictional work, I found these essays an incredible, one-volume resource on both principal locations in his life for increasing my understanding of and fueling a continued interest in this most unusual and influential talent and in the region of southern France that produced him.  

By Richard Thomson, Phillip Dennis Cate, Mary Weaver Chapin

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Childhood illness and injuries steered Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) away from customary rural aristocratic avocations and toward a profession as an artist. He became a painter, draftsman, and lithographer whose work was immersed in famously hedonistic, fin-de-siecle Paris. In his hands, advertising posters were raised to a high art; he portrayed the nightlife of Montmartre - circuses, cafes, dance halls, and brothels - with clear, bold color and a certain seamy panache that is instantly recognizable as his. His much mythologized life has found its way into many biographies and into two feature-length movies called Moulin Rouge. Lavishly illustrated with…

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Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

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Interested in France, Provence, and the Pyrenees?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, Provence, and the Pyrenees.

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