Paris in the Age of Absolutism
Paris in the Age of Absolutism
“Cities do not grow beautiful by chance. None have. A fact forcibly brought home in [this] brilliant book. . . . Here we see how Paris grew, not only in people, in commerce, in riches, but also how it became a symbol, an expression of the aspiration of Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, who wished to emulate Augustan Rome. *From the original edition”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Ranum's tour of Paris begins in the late 1500s with a French capital city exhausted by the violence of the Wars of Religion and proceeds through the long century that ends with the death of Louis XIV in 1715. Henry IV (1589-1610), head of the Bourbon branch of the royal family, laid the foundations of modern Paris, but it was during the mature years of his grandson, Louis XIV, and during the service of his visionary minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, that a New Rome was created. By 1715 the city was far different from what it had been in 1590. There were now large geometrical public squares with statues of the King at their focal point. There were arches of triumph, hospital-prisons, a new and gigantic wing on the Louvre, handsome stone bridges, streetlights, and massive stone quays along the Seine.
Ranum ranges widely through the streets and quarters of Paris, attentive to the achievements of town planners, architects, and engineers as well as to city politics, social currents, and the spirit of religious reform. Behind it all lay the rule-creating authoritarianism of the absolute state, which, ironically, unleashed Parisians' creative impulses in everything from literature, painting, and music to architecture, mathematics, and physics.
Paris in the Age of Absolutism is one of those rare books that combines elegant prose with stunning erudition, making it both captivating for general readers and challenging to scholars. This new edition has been thoroughly revised and expanded to take into account the wealth of scholarship that has appeared since 1968. Of particular note are a new introduction and a new chapter on women writers. A larger format accentuates a full selection of illustrations, many of them new to this edition.
“Cities do not grow beautiful by chance. None have. A fact forcibly brought home in [this] brilliant book. . . . Here we see how Paris grew, not only in people, in commerce, in riches, but also how it became a symbol, an expression of the aspiration of Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, who wished to emulate Augustan Rome. *From the original edition”
“The seventeenth century comes alive… Ranum has done much to explain the place of Paris in the development of absolutism, the evolution of society during the Ancién Regime, the importance of the corporations, and the gradual alienation between Paris and the crown. * From the original edition”
“It was, and still is, an intricate blend of architectural, economic, social, political, and intellectual history, coming together to produce a powerful impression upon the reader.”
“When travelers take a walk around twenty-first century Paris, they should take Orest Ranum’s Paris in the Age of Absolutism with them.”
“But this classic—and now sumptuously produced—book is still a wonderful read, and it is good to have it available again in this mildly updated format.”
Orest Ranum is Professor of History Emeritus at The Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Fronde: A French Revolution (1993).
Introduction: Parisian History as Part of French History
Part I. The Medieval Burden
1. A Traveler’s View in 1600
2. An Explosive Political Climate
3. The Necessity of a Capital
Part I. Foundations of Modernity
4. Early Bourbon Absolutism
5. The Birth of Modern Paris
6. The Neighborhood Builders
7. The First Women Writers
III. Medieval Revival
8. A Generation of Saints
9. The Last Heroes
10. The Corporate Parisians
IV. Urban Absolutism: The Flight from Modernity
11. The Frondeurs
12. A Generation of Tartuffes
13. The New Rome
Introduction: Parisian History as Part of French History
You politely, almost fearfully, asked for another piece of bread. Your father simply stared at you coldly. You are perhaps fifteen, maybe sixteen, you are not sure which. The soup had been hot, but thin; the eggs watery and vaguely sulphurous, a sign that they should have been eaten weeks earlier. The gnawing in your belly was almost as strong after supper as before it. Your older brothers had sat in silence, not quite staring the other way, but deliberately avoiding your eyes. Your exhausted mother is heavy with yet another child.
The next morning, you packed your other shirt in a little canvas bag, put on your hat, and set off alone on the road to Paris, some eighty miles away. A three- or four-day walk. Finding a straw stack last night was no problem, for the harvest has just ended. A cousin on your mother’s side of the family, who is a cook and lives with a printer’s family on the rue Saint-Jacques, can be counted on to put you up for a few nights when you reach Paris. Somewhere, somehow, you will find someone who needs wood hauled to the attic, a cellar cleaned out, manure loaded onto a wagon, water carried upstairs, or ashes removed from fireplaces. You walk along the dusty road in the August sun. When the cousin had gone to Paris, they had had to find someone with whom she could travel; for only women of ill repute, or the very poor and the aged, walked the highroad alone. Your name is Jean.
Are you fictional? Are you historical? The answer is: A bit of both. Until you marry, or more accurately, if you marry—or until you commit a major crime and get caught—no one will ask you for your surname: Jean will suffice. You lack the cash to be apprenticed to an artisan, so your only hope is to become a household servant, somewhere in the capital. Work in an inn is a possibility, or work in a stable.
Are you part of history? Yes, but not the high, lofty type of history that centers on battles and politics. Thousands of young people left their homes and villages to, as the phrase went, "seek their fortune" in the capital. Their parents had loved them, but by the time adolescents were fifteen or sixteen, they were considered more than grown-up; and there simply were too many mouths to feed every night. The Parisian population in the seventeenth century was not yet self-sustaining, that is, more infants died than reached childbearing age. Without the steady arrival of teenagers such as Jean, the population of the capital actually would have declined; and since that population is known to have roughly doubled over the seventeenth century, there clearly were thousands of young migrants such as Jean. There is something startlingly contemporary about teenage migration to Paris in the seventeenth century; for today it still occurs, legally, vaguely legally, or downright illegally, around every great urban center of the world.
Normans, Picards, Bretons, young people from the Beauce and from Champagne who know how to take care of babies, make fires, rub down horses—all with regional accents, colloquial turns of phrase, and some sense of pride at hailing from a particular market town or province—came to Paris in search of work. If a foreigner asked them where they came from, "France" was the immediate reply; but if a French person asked the same question, the name of the province of their birth was the answer. These young migrants would seek out relatives, often not all that close, or other young people from their village, and would beg for shelter; and as in all cultures of poverty, the hospitality they received was often accompanied with a warning that it was temporary. It was discouraging to walk the streets, looking for work or for a handout. On each street, in each quarter, the artisans, their apprentices, and the common laborers knew one another: they drank and caroused together. Merchants and their wives conversed as they set up their stands, all the while eyeing passersby or "idlers," to ensure that they did not filch a sausage. It was not easy for a new arrival to worm his way into the street sociability of the capital. Knowing someone, and being introduced, was almost indispensable.
At certain hours, traffic was horrendous. Coachmen shouted, "Make way for the Duchess of Such-and-Such," and in reply arms would fly up, with an obscene gesture. Clergymen, judges, attorneys, and physicians—in the gowns and caps appropriate to their profession and rank—majestically skirted the slop-filled potholes in the street, their trains or capes held up by livery boys dressed in the colors of their master. Wearing livery was a source of pride, not servitude: it indicated that the wearer belonged to a household, that he ate regularly, that he had a roof over his head.
Street scenes certainly changed over the course of the seventeenth century. As the decades passed, there were more richly gilded and carved coaches than ever before. Sedan chairs proliferated, as did great two-wheeled carts loaded with huge barrels of wine. The number of beggars, hawkers, flower-girls, prostitutes, magicians, jugglers, and pickpockets soared, despite police efforts to arrest them, make them pay for licenses, or chase them into the suburbs. Young people coming to Paris for the first time could not, of course, measure the changes brought by increased population and greater luxury consumption; but change there was.
In times of epidemic, food shortage or extreme cold, the city fathers and the churches and monasteries of the capital would make little-used cellars, stables, and partially abandoned chapels available to the poor. There would be serious epidemics, that is, plague, in the first quarter of the century, and in the 1680s cold weather ruined wheat crops and drove up the prices for flour and bread. When bread prices climbed, the city fathers would legislate to keep them down, and they would post militia guards at flour and bread markets, to reduce the danger that the hungry poor would riot. Monasteries and prominent, well-off, and devout Parisians would open soup kitchens. The typical Parisian cared little about the power relations between the city fathers and the king’s ministers, but they closely followed decisions about bread prices, excise taxes on wine, and regulations concerning the places where one could work and the hours during which work could be done. Over the century, a more hands-on regulatory administration would be created, along with special police and judicial powers and officials. Heaps of legislation, decrees, and orders had been pasted on walls or announced by town-criers, but enforcement remained ineffectual until well into the 1660s.
The laws regarding work rules, marketing, quality-control in manufacturing, acceptable or unacceptable street behavior, and even drinking, gambling, and loudness in cabarets, were much more coherently promulgated and enforced in the reign of Louis XIV than they had been over the previous centuries. Parisians had little choice but to conform to these state-enforced rules, most of which came down from high, that is, from the king in council through the office of lieutenant of police, created in 1667.
The word police in seventeenth-century France was a very general moral and legal concept that extended far beyond simply repressing criminality and assuring that laws were enforced. Police meant not just the good society, but the way to live the good life together, in community, according to divine and natural laws. On the one hand, police meant the government’s duty to lift up the wayward, protect any and all persons and provide them with charity, and repress all threatening, violent and heretical behavior and thought. The laws establishing police were not only moral but religious and political. They all came down from the king for the good of each and everyone; and individuals had little if any right to challenge, in court, the royal definition of the best life-style and the best community.
For almost two centuries, historians have used the term "absolutism" to characterize this new regime of laws and police power, be it for Paris in particular or for the entire realm. The word, in its political and legal significance, simply means total, complete, without appeal, unquestionable. Royal power was not only deemed to be legitimate and divinely ordained; it was absolute. There were no legal or spiritual grounds for disobeying it.
Confronted by the lieutenant of police’s coercive powers to legislate and enforce a virtually religious utopia in the form of a safer, cleaner, morally conformist, and more regimented and more prosperous Paris, the old city officials saw their power decline and their functions become largely ceremonial. Political emasculation in the name of absolute legal and royal authority? Yes, in a sense. While the old, late-medieval oligarchical city government run by merchants, lawyers, and guild officers had not been democratic, there had been at least a modicum of citizen participation in the Paris Hôtel de Ville.
Could some medieval centuries actually have been more "democratic" than the Parisian governance prevailing in the seventeenth century? This idea challenges our one-directional sense of progress involving civic rights for individuals and government by laws established by and for the people. Such was the case, however, in the history of Paris, in no small measure because the sixteenth-century movement not only to attain but also to increase individual civic rights became linked to a zealous Catholic religious reform movement that had as its principal aim the conversion, the exclusion, and finally the execution or murder of Protestants. The blending of the religious with the political community of civic rights occurred to a degree of intensity that made it "thinkable" to contemplate the murder of entire families in one’s neighborhood, prompting a paroxysm of violence in the capital known as the Wars of Religion.
p a r t o n e
The Medieval Burden
A Traveler’s View in 1600
Imagine a circle of gray stone walls a mile and a half in diameter lying on a green,
rolling plain. This circle of walls, cut by the meandering Seine and surrounded by the
distant "mountains" of Passy, Montmartre, Montparnasse, and Valérien, embraced an
artificial mound of aged houses, churches, and monasteries. This medieval painting
come to life was Paris, principal fortified city of the Île de France and customary residence
of the French kings.
Towers and spires rose above the walls from a hodgepodge of stone and half-timbered
buildings, all squeezed together. Merian’s engraving of Paris in or around 1600 depicts
a still-medieval town. The buildings seem piled on top of one another, teetering, out
of proportion, unrepaired, situated at every angle, and walled-in as if their builders
were oblivious of their neighbors.
The city walls were two parallel rows of cut and mortared stone filled in with rubble
to make a solid mass six feet thick and about twenty-eight feet high. Towers jutted
out and up to break the circle’s course every two hundred and twenty feet. Gates,
moats, bridges, and massive bastions with trees growing out of their turrets still guarded
the dozen major entrances in the walls. At the four points where the walls came down
to the Seine rose tall, quite neglected towers, from which heavy iron chains could be
suspended across the river at both extremities of the city to prevent enemy ships from
sailing into Paris during a siege.
Outside the walls, rows of houses and hôtels lined the roads leading out from every
gate, forming the city’s faubourgs or suburbs. Between these roads, monasteries rose to
encircle Paris with a belt of cloisters, refectories, churches, and gardens. The abbey of
Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the most illustrious and extensive of these establishments,
occupied what were to become the most fashionable parts of Paris in the eighteenth
Beyond the monasteries stretched the unbroken patchwork quilt of tiny vegetable
gardens, vineyards, quarries, and pastures cared for by the Parisians themselves on
Sundays and saints’ days. Such holiday gardening seems not to have been forbidden
or, if it was, neither the priests nor the magistrates sought to enforce the prohibition.
The traveler passing through these fields in 1600 would come on what still appeared
to be an independent political entity. Its fortifications were still intact and essential for
protection, the gates were locked and guarded at night, and the cannon of the Bastille
stood primed and attended. Robert Dallington described Paris in about 1590 as
"reputed not only the capitall city of France, but also the greatest in all Europe. It is
about the walls some ten English miles: these are not very thick, the want whereof is
recompenced with the depth of the ditch, and the goodness of the rampart, which is
thick and defensible save on the south side, which no doubt is the weakest part of the
town." For Dallington, the "greatest in all Europe" signified the largest population on
the continent, and this large population and the Seine River were also the most impressive
things about Paris for Giovanni Botero, the Italian author of the Greatness of Cities.1
There were probably about a quarter of a million souls living in Paris in 1600. This
made it the largest urban center in France, the most populous country in Europe.
Why had Paris become so "great"? The reasons are mainly geographic and political,
though the fact that it was the largest university town in Europe also counted.
Paris is situated in a fertile valley just about halfway between the places where the
Oise and Marne rivers flow into the Seine. Together these three rivers link most of
northern France, and their tributaries reach south and east, to Montargis, Auxerre,
Troyes, and numerous lesser towns. Paris had become a natural capital for trade early in
the Middle Ages, and it never lost this primacy. The Seine was an ideal river. Its broad
and deep currents were not too swift, and hard turf or stone instead of swamps lined
most of its banks. Some of the early descriptions of Paris comment on the extraordinary
capacity of the waters of the Seine to support heavy loads. Tanners, dyers, and drinkers
alike praised its sweetness.
The Seine enabled Paris to dominate trade in the North the way Lyons on the
Rhone did in the Center and Bordeaux on the Garonne and Nantes on the Loire did in
the West. France therefore did not have a single, exclusive economic capital until the
nineteenth century, when canals and rails gave Paris the lead over other French cities.
In the beginning, the ease of fortifying the city made Paris as attractive to feudal
lords as its rivers were to traders. Stone quarries lay close at hand. The Seine, smaller
rivers such as the Bièvre, and the deep ditches around the walls, made Paris almost an
island. The oldest part of the city, of course, was the Île de la Cité, a real island, where
Notre-Dame and the Palais had been built on the foundations of Roman buildings.
This island had offered men protection since the beginning of civilization.
The political reasons for Paris’s greatness are more difficult to discern. In 1600 it was
fashionable to assert that the kings of France, ever since the days when they lorded over
only Paris and the tiny Île de France, had favored the city’s prosperity by granting merchants
special trading privileges and had honored the city with their presence. Humanists
and jurists served up this royalist propaganda without ever examining critically
whether or not it was true. The Capetian kings had unquestionably supported the
claims of Parisian merchants to control the Seine trade, especially in feuds with the
Dukes of Normandy, who controlled Rouen and the mouth of the river; but their
motives may have been less to make Paris prosper than to make other towns suffer.
The king was the lord of the city, its defender, judge, and principal resident. He was
the first Parisian, from whom all bounty flowed, or so thought seventeenth-century
historians of the city. He possessed the largest, strongest, and finest palaces and
châteaux, received more guests, held a finer Court, had more prayers said for him, and
bought more than anyone else in the city. The purchases of arms, furniture, clothing,
silver, relics, and works of art by the king’s immediate family and the rest of the Court
stimulated the city’s growth and helped orient its manufacture toward luxury goods
and articles de Paris, as they were called all over Europe.
The construction of the Louvre and other royal palaces, law courts, chapels, and hôtels
for members of the royal family, favorites, mistresses, and officials maintained a steady
flow of money into the city in the form of salaries for masons, plasterers, carpenters,
roofers, wood carvers, cabinetmakers, gold-leaf workers, and so on. Most of this money
came either from excise and income taxes collected from the realm, or, in the case of
lesser builders than the king, from seigneurial dues and the sale of grain or cattle. Year
after year, century after century, the expenditures for construction by the Court remained
very high, for such buildings as the Louvre, other royal residences, and private hôtels
were periodically refurbished in the latest style or had new apartments added on to
them. Thus both the privileges granted to the city’s merchants by the monarch and
his presence caused Paris to grow by pumping outside wealth into the city in the form
of salaries. In an agrarian economy such expenditures represented a major market for
imports and manufactured goods.
From the thirteenth century on, the presence of the University on the Left Bank
(the Sorbonne was the college of theology) had caused that part of Paris to grow rapidly
and become very populous; but in the sixteenth century and throughout the
seventeenth century the number of students declined. However, the numerous new
monastic foundations established as a consequence of the Catholic Reformation, and
the growth of royal courts, added new and costly buildings in many quarters of the
city and provided a new source of expansion. They also added inhabitants.
In the mid-sixteenth century, Rabelais’ giant, Gargantua, came from the provinces
to attend the University. Annoyed by the Parisians swarming around his giant feet,
Gargantua sat down on the twin towers of Notre-Dame, facing west on the Île de la
Cité. The streets beneath him were extremely narrow, some only six feet wide, and all
were lined with medieval houses. Some were half-timbered, with each succeeding
floor built out over the other, until the streets seemed tunnels beneath peaked roofs.
Beyond the little open space before the cathedral, and past the first narrow streets,
Gargantua could see the Hôtel-Dieu, the central hospital for Paris, just to his right,
then the Marché Neuf, and finally the tall stone buildings of the Palais de Justice
enclosing the lacelike Sainte-Chapelle. The yet-to-be-constructed Pont-Neuf would
one day span the end of the island, beyond the gardens of the Palais.
Raising his head even further, and looking to the right, the giant could see the
Louvre, unfinished and disparate, with its mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles.
On the left was the old Tour de Nesle, located where the walls came down to the
Seine. The great Italian silversmith Cellini would soon establish his workshop there.
Outside the city walls, Gargantua glimpsed the three tall spires of Saint-Germaindes-
Prés and the fields beyond.
Notre-Dame is on the southern side of the Cité, so when Gargantua decided to
wash away the annoying swarm of Parisians by urinating on them from his cathedral
stool, those who could fled across the Petit-Pont and the Pont Saint-Michel to the Left
Bank. Rabelais states that Gargantua drowned two hundred thousand Parisians, or
nearly half the population. Escape from the torrents of urine would have been difficult
in the narrow streets, and the Pont Notre-Dame and the Pont-au-Change leading
to the Right Bank might both have been too crowded or too far away for escape.
People, horses, carts, hawkers, beggars, and bankers jammed these bridges from morning
until night. Garbage, manure, and mud lay as much as a foot deep on the surrounding
streets. But for those who could take their eyes off Gargantua, there were
other things to see.
There was the cathedral itself. Robert Cerceau (d. 1560), Bishop of Avranches,
proved that in length, width, and breadth the dimensions of Notre-Dame exceeded
those of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus "so much praised by the ancients." This gave
a venerable and out-of-date monument a new, but unneeded, status. Most contemporary
writers still found Notre-Dame "very beautiful, great, and majestic" despite the
critics who condemned the Gothic style as vulgar. But all unanimously disliked the
huge statue of Saint Christopher on the façade. Was the statue simply too "primitive"?
Notre-Dame had long since become a shrine for all of France. Something holy and
supernatural enveloped it; even its construction was a subject of mystery and wonder.
Notre-Dame had neither sagged nor cracked inside or out; the "forest" of huge beams
and rafters above the vaults humbled the little artisan who worked with his hands. It
was long believed that Notre-Dame had been built on giant pilings, until excavations
in about 1700 proved this to be untrue. One more miracle was refuted.
From the façade stared the statues of twenty-eight Old Testament kings, symbolizing
the union of the Church and the monarchy, a favorite theme of guidebook writers
under the Bourbons after Henry IV’s abjuration of Protestantism.
Marie, Jacqueline, Gabrielle, Guillaume, Pasquier, Thibaud, and the "Sparrows"—
the bells great and small—were rung on a schedule worked out over the centuries.
There were smaller bells in the flèche, the spire over the crossing of the nave and the
transepts, and there was a wooden bell too, which rang "only after dinner [noon] on
Maundy Thursday and continuing until Easter morning." People of the Cité would
not be deprived of their bells at the most solemn moment in the church year when
bronze bells were silenced to commemorate Christ’s death.
In 1600 the cathedral stood higher by several steps than the parvis or open space
before it. Its mass seemed to rise higher then, because it was impossible to stand far
away to view the whole above the much lower roofs. Inside all was darkness, candles,
gold, and incense. There were no long vistas, except upward toward the vaults.
Chapels, tombs, chantries, and a rood screen crowded the floor around a great choir
until canons in the eighteenth century pulled them down. When the king was at war,
battle flags captured in former victories were suspended to invoke God’s help again. Or
were they to remind Him and the king’s subjects of past blessings showered on the
monarchy? Notre-Dame symbolized the Gallican Church, unfettered by Rome and
royalist. The bishop had been nominated by the king since the early Middle Ages.
Seven popes had come from the chapter. Innumerable cardinals, bishops, royal councillors,
jurists, theologians, poets, and missionaries proudly claimed that they came
As late as 1742 the revenues of the chapter were thought to be 180,000 livres, not
including the canonical houses. Notre-Dame itself, with its 150 chapels, was reputed
to yield 700,000 livres a year. The diocese included 22 chapters, constituting 31
abbeys (10 in Paris), 66 priories (11 in Paris and the faubourgs), 184 monasteries (84
in Paris), 474 parishes (59 in Paris), 256 chapels (90 in Paris), and 34 hospitals, of
which 5 were in Paris and the faubourgs.
During festivals, when people’s thoughts turned to the problem of whether their
souls were destined for heaven or for hell, nuns from a nearby foundling hospital
brought orphan babies into Notre-Dame and placed them in a straw-lined box for all
to watch. The offerings for the hospital thus increased in proportion to the obsession
with sin and the compassion for these babies that gripped the faithful. Guidebooks in
the seventeenth century never mention the beautiful stained-glass windows that made
Notre-Dame very dark inside. In the eighteenth century, for the sake of light and
splendor, the lower ones were knocked out and replaced by blue glass, so that the long
rows of columns, now free of tombs and central chapels, could be admired by all. But
in 1600 the gloom was interrupted only by the points of candle and lamplight before
statues of Our Lady and the saints, each one invoked for a special problem or malady.
Notre-Dame was still something of a religious marketplace in which sinners wandered,
searched, and shopped for solace.
Notre-Dame was a busy place. Students filed in noisily to write examinations in
the nave while the great organ played to inspire them. And to the regular rhythm of
matins, vespers, and masses for church holidays was added the bustle of city functions,
ceremonies of the courts of justice, guild celebrations, weddings, and funerals.
Between this religious capital of France and the judicial capital at the western end
of the island stood a quarter full of old houses, with religious establishments and
parish churches. There were more than twenty churches on the island. Along the rues
de la Lanterne, de la Juiverie, and du Marché Palu, all torn down in the nineteenth
century, stood many medieval houses, by then subdivided into several dwellings, in
which lived bourgeois and notaries. There, too, was the "Pine Cone," a famous cabaret
and favorite haunt of Racine, Boileau, Molière, and Lully.
Beyond rose the Palais, a sprawling maze of chiefly Gothic buildings and courtyards,
which had once served as a residence for French kings. It still was a residence,
in theory, but since the fourteenth century the sovereign courts had expanded to use
all the space. Housed there were the Parlement, Chambre des Comptes, Cour des
Aides, and Cour des Monnaies, together constituting the highest courts in the kingdom.
The Sainte-Chapelle, built in the thirteenth century as a vast reliquary for a
thorn from the crown of thorns, stood in the center of the great courtyard, its flèche
rising higher than all the buildings around it. In 1600 the interior was still little
changed from what it had been in Saint Louis’ time, except that many relics and altarpieces
had been added to this royal chapel, endowing its wealthy, aristocratic clergy
with a rich treasure. The lower chapel served as a parish church for those living in the
Palais and nearby streets.
To the Palais scurried a population as diverse in interests and status as Paris itself.
There were probably four or five thousand magistrates, clerks, copyists, and minor
officials such as huissiers (doorkeepers) who together made up the personnel of the sovereign courts. In addition to these, merchants, booksellers, paper and ink sellers,
prostitutes, singers, letter writers, and beggars, among others, daily set up shop or frequented
the dozens of stalls displaying such items as cloth, mirrors, dolls, knives, lace,
and purses. In this maze of corridors and chambers the principal attraction remained
the grande salle itself, with its marble floor, heavy columns lined with statues of French
kings, and gold ceiling. It was considered smart to go to the grande salle, for it was a
favorite meeting place for distinguished people or for those who wanted to see them
and buy luxury goods.
From the gates of the Palais the street led north past the Tour de l’Horloge, across the
Pont-au-Change to the Châtelet and the ville; or south across the Pont Saint-Michel to
the University. The Right Bank, called the ville in medieval times because it was the
commercial part of Paris, had lost this special significance as early as the fourteenth century,
when merchants settled on the Left Bank, or University, around the Place Maubert.
Before reaching the Right Bank, one passed under a fortress gate. The Châtelet was
originally built as a castle to guard the bridge to the Cité, but very early it came to
house the courts and prisons of the prévôté of Paris. Jurisdiction was both civil and
criminal, equivalent to that of a bailliage in the provinces, nominally under the control
of the prévôt of Paris (not to be confused with the prévôt des marchands), who rendered justice in the king’s name in the city and who, in processions, marched right after the
president of the Parlement and before the nobility. By 1600 the Châtelet had come
under the Parlement’s control, through the lieutenant civil, who directed its functions.
Despite repairs under Francis I, from the fifteenth century on the Châtelet was partly
in ruins, as shown in a Silvestre engraving of about 1650.
Beyond the Châtelet stood the central commercial and marketing section of Paris.
After Philip Augustus established the Halles there as a kind of perpetual fair, the
Right Bank became the stronghold of commercial society in Paris. Street names were
usually functional: the rue de la Savonnerie (soap), rue de la Chausseterie (stockings),
rue de la Cossonnerie (fowl), and rue de la Lingerie (linens). There merchants, as
many as two dozen strong, would gather along a street to sell the same products. The
rue de la Fripponerie contained many clothing shops where one could bargain, trade
in the clothes on one’s back for some others, either used or new, and pay the difference.
Up the rue Saint-Denis from the Châtelet, and west along the rue de la Ferronnerie,
stood the Church and Cemetery of the Innocents. The chapels, galleries of charnel
houses, lamps, crosses, frescoes of the Dance of Death, and the open common graves
aroused the morbid curiosity of visitors in 1600. Some parts of the cemetery were
reserved for the dead of special corporations, such as the hospitals of Sainte-Catherine
and the Hôtel-Dieu, the chapter of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and the Châtelet, but
most of it contained common graves for Parisians from every part of the city. The
earth of the Innocents was said to be remarkable, because it could manger son cadavre
en neuf jours (consume its cadaver in nine days). When graves had to be dug again in
the same spot, the bones were pulled out of the earth and stored in piles along the
walls. Two or three common graves stood open at the same time.
Adjacent to the cemetery on the northwest were the Halles, a series of pavilions
where merchants rented stalls to sell chiefly grain, leather, cloth, and meat, and where
articles were sold retail and wholesale to merchants (foreign and domestic) and consumers
alike. The apparent confusion on market days belied the stringent laws and
customs regulating sales, the use of land in the nearby streets, and the organization of
produce by its place of origin. The Normans tended to put their stands together in
one part of the market, to stay in the same inns, and to travel together, as did merchants
from other provinces and foreign countries. Commerce was still familial and
provincial. The houses in the market parishes of Sainte-Opportune, Saint-Jacques-dela-
Boucherie, Saint-Martin, and Saint-Denis were both commercial and residential,
with their ground floors invariably a shop, either for sales or manufacture, and the
upper floors living quarters for merchant or artisan families, servants, and apprentices.
In the midst of these stands, pavilions, inns, and houses stood several monasteries,
each with its own cloister, refectory, school, and gardens. They varied in size and function,
but like the parish churches they were filled with chapels, windows, tapestries,
and altars given them by various guilds over the centuries. These chapels served as
meeting houses for guilds and for weddings and funerals of the members. Paid masses
on behalf of the living and deceased members of their company were said in the guilds’
own sanctuaries, often decorated with trowels, scissors, or some other instrument serving
as their emblem.
This commercial section was bounded on the west by an aristocratic quarter, beginning
with Saint-Eustache and the Hôtels de Soissons and Longueville. It extended on
the east as far as the Hôtel de Ville and the Place de la Grève before it. The Hôtel de
Ville was an unfinished palace in the French Renaissance style in 1600, but it served as
the meeting place for the bureau de ville—the elected officials of the bourgeois of Paris—
and for receiving members of the royal family and visiting dignitaries, such as ambassadors.
The registers of the elections and business and legal proceedings of the prévôt des
marchands and échevins were kept there, as were arms for the militia, the seals of Paris, and
its official weights and measures. The Place de la Grève was then much lower than the
present square and was frequently flooded by the Seine. In the minds of Parisians, La
Grève evoked the numerous public executions that took place there—decapitation for
the nobility, hanging for commoners, and burning for heretics and sorcerers. People
living on the square rented out their windows on days of public executions.
Except for the area bordering the quays, Paris beyond the Hôtel de Ville and the
Church of Saint-Jean-en-Grève was mainly aristocratic. The Marais, or parishes of
Saint-Gervais and Saint-Paul, was the most fashionable and wealthy part of the city.
Since the late Middle Ages, when the royal residences of Saint-Pol and the Tournelles
had attracted numerous aristocrats and clergymen to build in the area, the Marais had
been the most homogeneous and solidly aristocratic part of the city. After the demolition
of the old palace of Saint-Pol under Francis I and the sale of its land to a president
of the Parlement, who built the Hôtel de Carnavalet, numerous judges and new
aristocrats also bought and built in the area between the Hôtel de Ville and the Bastille.
But the princes still set the tone. Diane de France, and later Charles de Valois, built and
lived in what is now the Hôtel Lamoignon; the Guises had built a little to the northwest
of them; and later, Sully settled in the rue Saint-Antoine not far from the Duke
of Maine. The medieval Hôtel de Sens had served as a kind of headquarters for the
Leaguish plots. Most of the favorites of the last Valois king—d’O, Gondy, Vitry—had
installed themselves there, as had the Jesuits who built Saint-Louis. Gardens stretched
back to meet each other; the new streets were wide enough to let carriages pass.
Though the least medieval section of Paris in 1600, several monasteries, the Hôtel de
Sens, the Bastille, and the Temple still assured the inhabitants that they were in the old
city. The Temple was a walled-in, turreted, and crenellated fortress that served as a residence for aristocrats, artisans, and debtors seeking to avoid the police of Paris. Artisans
could work there free from the restrictions of a guild because the grand prieur
defended the independence of the Temple against both the city and the monarchy.
The city was still very sparse west of the Halles. From the north the walls built
by Charles V came down abruptly to the gates of Montmartre and Saint-Honoré, to
disappear under the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. Outside were fields and windmills,
just four or five narrow streets away from Saint-Eustache. This church, begun in
1532, rose high and spacious, reflecting the wealth and status of the merchants west
of the Halles, and of the courtiers who lived in the houses and inns near the Louvre.
Richelieu was baptized there in 1586, while his father was attending Henry III at
Long fashionable because of its proximity to the Louvre, the area became a European
center of art and culture in the late sixteenth century. Catherine de Médicis built a large
hôtel there, later called the Hôtel de Soissons (all that remains of it is the astrologer’s column
between the Bourse de Commerce and the Halles), and by this means attracted
numerous favorites to an otherwise mercantile and monotonous district of the city.
The rue Saint-Honoré, leading west from the Cemetery of the Innocents to the city
gates of Saint-Honoré, was lined with late medieval houses and inns, where courtiers
who had to follow the Court stayed when the king was in the Louvre. The Porte Saint-
Honoré, with its turrets, drawbridge, and guardians, still stood about where we today
find the little square between the antique shops of the Louvre and the Comédie
Française. The Hospice of the Quinze-Vingts, founded for the blind by Louis IX,
occupied a big piece of land along the street, reaching back to where the rue de Rivoli
now is. In addition to the blind, numerous artisans lived there in order to be under
the protection of the Hospice and thus escape the restrictions of the guilds. Judging
from the inscriptions on the tombs of the Quinze-Vingts, the neighborhood around
it must have housed some of the first families to move from commerce into the service
of the Crown. Referred to simultaneously as noble homme, merchant, and notary to
the king, those interred so near the Louvre must have been some of the first robe families
of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Several streets ran behind the hospital, between the Louvre and the walls, approximately
where Napoleon was to build the Arc du Carrousel.
After demolition of the donjon and the south entrance of the Louvre under Francis I,
one gained access to the Louvre from the east side, in the rue d’Autriche, which
descended from just east of where the Oratoire now stands, down between the palace
of the Petit Bourbon and the Louvre, to reach the quay of the Seine. This postern
entrance had been built by Charles V as a part of the flamboyant, even fanciful Gothic
residence into which he had transformed the old fortress of Philip Augustus. After
crossing the drawbridge over the moat and passing under the east wing, one entered a
courtyard crowded with people, carriages, and horses. The people had either come out
of curiosity or to beg, steal, or otherwise seek their fortune in the Louvre, for the courtyard
was open to anyone wishing to enter.
The Gothic walls of the "old" Louvre on the north and east sides of the courtyard
must have been in sharp contrast to those facing the Seine and the west. These latter
had been built in the last half of the sixteenth century in the Renaissance style. Instead
of conical roofs and gargoyles, there was a balanced play of classical columns, windows,
and statues carved after the manner of the ancients. These two wings were much as we
see them today, though without the more recent central pavilions—the western one
built under Louis XIII by Le Mercier and the southern one under Louis XIV by Le Vau.
Tourists from all over Europe marveled at the beauty of these wings, forming an L,
designed partly by Lescot and decorated, in the salle des cariatides, by Goujon. Judging
from the number of travel accounts that include descriptions of the rooms, it must have
been relatively easy to visit the interior and even the royal apartments. In both the old
and new parts, the rooms on the ground floor were very long and wide, with huge
painted beams and supporting cross beams painted with arabesques and monograms of
the last Valois kings. On the floor above, the ceilings were even more magnificent,
done in the Italian style of plaster and panels, covered with gold leaf and frescoes representingscenes from classical mythology. Only one of these ceilings has survived in its
original place, tastefully restored and made beautiful again by the birds of Braque.
Some of the older galleries, with their massive fireplaces and dark, smoked-up ceilings,
looked much like the interiors we can see today in the much-restored Hôtel de Cluny,
built a hundred years later. Tapestries covered the walls from floor to ceiling. The monumentalfireplaces and the small windows and doors, cut through here and there at random,were reminiscent of a fortress and gave these rooms a somber dignity outmoded
by the bright, sensual, regular style of the Renaissance wings.
On the south side of the Seine, opposite the Louvre and up a hundred yards from
the bank, stood the richest abbey in the Île de France. Founded by Childebert in about
543, Saint-Germain-des-Prés grew under the double aegis of the Benedictine order
and royal favor. The abbots were high-ranking feudal lords, usually of royal blood.
The Faubourg Saint-Germain, extending from the lands of the Luxembourg Palace
west to the Seine, where the Eiffel Tower now stands, was completely under the jurisdiction
of the abbey court. The monastery contained one of the largest prisons in Paris
and was the scene of many public hangings.
Standing almost alone beyond the walls in 1600, Saint-Germain still possessed all
the characteristics of a medieval stronghold. Surrounded by a wide ditch, high
crenellated walls, towers, drawbridges, and gates, the abbey remained as independent
of Paris physically as it was legally.
The abbey church housed numerous relics and a vast treasury of altar vessels and
manuscripts. Its three towers (only one survives) dominated the entire Left Bank below
the "mountain" of Sainte-Geneviève. Within the walls were chapels, a large and a small
cloister, a bakery, a refectory, storehouses, numerous gardens, stables, and a new palace
for the abbot constructed in about 1690 (now 3, rue de l’Abbaye). Saint-Germain-des-
Prés was vast, encompassing many city blocks. It collected revenues from the produce
grown by farmers on its lands and from the owners of hôtels, who paid an annual cens
even after they had bought the land from the abbey. Its erudition, aristocratic tone, and
venerability still made Saint-Germain-des-Prés a formidable ally or a dangerous adversary
for the monarchy.
In 1482, Louis XI restored the abbey’s rights—lost in 1176—to hold a fair near
the monastery. Beginning a fortnight after Easter and lasting for three weeks, but often
prolonged, the fair was one of the outstanding commercial and social events of the capital
throughout the Ancien Régime. The main pavilion was nearly two hundred feet wide.
Its stone walls and massive, high roof sheltered the principal stall-lined alleys, named
Normandy, Paris, Picardy, Chauldronnière, Mercière, and Lingerie for obvious reasons.
In fact the fair included all kinds of merchandise. Merchants rented stalls and built
stands in the nearby streets; the houses all around the fair also contained shops. The fair
was a very fashionable and also a very wild place to go. The Parisians showed off their
new clothes, while young noblemen would gallop through the fair on horseback, pushing
over carts and displays and picking up girls on the way. Saint-Germain’s fair was a
favorite haunt for pickpockets and merchants selling goods of poor quality. Prostitutes
gathered there in search of provincials and Parisians.
Near where the east wing of the Institute now stands rose the Tower of Nesle,
where the decaying wall of Philip Augustus ended at the Seine. Though not so high
or so strong, as Dallington observed, this still-unbroken southern wall was bordered
by a ditch. It stretched south from the Porte Saint-Bernard, just east of where the Tour
d’Argent restaurant stands today, encompassing the Sorbonne and the monastery of
Sainte-Geneviève and ending on the eastern side of the rue de Seine.
Until the twelfth century, little except monasteries nestled among the vineyards
and Roman ruins of the Left Bank. When Abélard fled the buildings of Notre-Dame
to escape the jurisdiction of the bishop who sought to drive him out, he settled there
near the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève. Crowds of students, excited by his brilliance and
radical way of teaching Aristotle, followed him and collected in the open air to hear
lectures. Colleges were founded which in 1200 became the University of Paris when
Philip Augustus granted it a charter. What had started as an exciting intellectual
experience became institutionalized into quarrelsome and competing colleges and faculties.
The ancestor of the modern university was the University of Paris.
The University’s independence from the Church, and the interest engendered by a
new and radical theology taught there, brought about a strong urge to donate money
for scholarships and colleges. The University grew rich and the Left Bank became an
international community of students and scholars. Parisians called it the Quartier
Latin because of the habit of writing and conversing in that language which prevailed
in the colleges, inns, and streets until the eighteenth century.
The character of the quarter changed little, though there were fewer students in
1600 than there had been in 1300, and the University was less independent and less
influential in secular affairs than it had been before the reign of Louis XI. The religious
quarrels and the civil war caused the Sorbonne to sink to a new low as an old-fashioned,
even reactionary institution of higher learning. The Collège de France, founded on humanistic
principles of the study of Greek and Latin literature, had also withered because of
the civil war. But at the same time, the new Jesuit Collège de Clermont, founded on a
similar classical discipline but with the underpinnings of rigid Catholic orthodoxy,
grew rapidly in numbers and prestige. Intellectual discipline prevailed there in lieu of
independence of thought or originality of argument; Clermont posed a threat to the
medieval schools, but not to their intellectual stature. Though slumbering and losing
students to Clermont, the Sorbonne had met Aquinas before.
The abbey of Sainte-Geneviève vied with Saint-Germain-des-Prés in size, age, and
wealth. The monks possessed the relics of the patron saint of Paris, who in the year 450
had convinced the Parisians that they had nothing to fear from Attila and the Huns,
who would bypass the city. Saint Geneviève had been right. Indeed, whenever a drought,
plague, or some other divinely ordained catastrophe descended on Paris, the inhabitants
would clamor and pray that the prévôt or the king make the customary offering
to the abbey, in order to have the relics carried in solemn procession, with monks and
representatives from the courts and guilds accompanying them, in hopes of warding
off disaster. The influence of these relics upon Parisians remained strong until the
eighteenth century, when rioting and speeches came to replace prayers and veneration
of Saint Geneviève. The procession would make its way to Notre-Dame while all the
bells of Paris tolled. Flowers would cover the streets, and tapestries would hang from
The abbey constituted a typically medieval ensemble of buildings serving every
function performed by the monks. The bell tower of its Gothic church, torn down in
the eighteenth century, still stands, as do some of the other buildings, now part of the
Lycée Henri IV. The parish church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont was constructed adja-
cent to it during the sixteenth century. Unfinished until the reign of Louis XIII, SaintÉtienne
was already remarkable for its Renaissance stained-glass windows, given by
parishioners who were part of the University, and for its jubé or rood screen, destined
to be the only surviving one in Paris.
North and east of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont a belt of colleges and elegant houses
built by judicial families made a half-circle from the Convent of the Cordeliers on the
west, which stood just inside the walls from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, to the commercial
and bourgeois section of the Place Maubert. Princes, abbots, and bishops had
settled there in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to be near the Court, and had
built fortresslike hôtels, of which Cluny is the only surviving integral example from
among the many of the same type. Though much restored, it still evokes the flamboyant
Gothic atmosphere of the hôtels and colleges of the Left Bank in 1600. Many
of these buildings, however, were either renovated or were cut up in the sixteenth century.
The Hôtel de Fécamp on the rue Hautefeuille, cut up and denuded of gardens
and walls, illustrates the fate of medieval houses and hôtels on the Left Bank. They
must have resembled some of the lanes in Oxford, except for the peppershaker towers
jutting out at the corners of the houses to set off and add dignity to aristocratic residences
such as Fécamp.
Lawyers and judges were next to settle on the Left Bank. From the fifteenth century,
merchants’ sons trained in the law began to assume not only the private judicial
obligations of the king’s vassals but also their duties in the Parlement and other royal
courts. These were the ancestors of the noblesse de robe, because they were no longer mere
merchants and bourgeois, nor were they yet gentilshommes. They built hôtels around the
parish churches of Saint-André-des-Arts and Saint-Séverin. Their residences reflected
their wealth, learning, and culture; and though somber when compared with noble
hôtels, they had the dignity of being designed in the latest Renaissance pastiche of the
ancients. Inside, fine libraries, works of art, silver, and furniture provided the owners
with a unique environment that was neither simply bourgeois nor an imitation of a
noble residence. The rues Hautefeuille and Saint-André-des-Arts were lined with residences
belonging to the Loyseau, de Thou, Joly, and similar families, which were really
dynasties of judges. The chapels encircling the now-demolished Church of Saint-
André-des-Arts abounded with their tombs, one of which—that of the de Thou
family—is now in the Louvre. Jacques-Auguste de Thou, with his robes of red marble
and his head of white, evokes the bust of a Roman senator, and certainly not by
accident. The Church of the Grands Augustins, a convent with buildings vast enough
to house the Estates General and the church assemblies, was also a favorite burial place
for robe families, who in addition frequently left it endowments. Saint-Séverin was a
favorite too, but it had aristocratic and bourgeois parishioners as well, owing to the
proximity of the Place Maubert and of the noble hôtels to the southeast.
The mixture of colleges and hôtels stretched eastward across the rues de la Harpe
and Saint-Jacques, to the Place Maubert. There was no social frontier between, say, the
rue Hautefeuille, where the judges lived, and the Place Maubert, but only a gradual
embourgeoisement. Approaching the Place, one found progressively more shops, artisans,
and butchers mixed in with the students and clerics, and fewer lawyers or royal officials,
especially beyond the Grands Augustins. Furetière (d. 1688) called the Place
Maubert the most bourgeois part of Paris. By this he meant that the families living
there still behaved, talked, dressed, and married like merchants. Few of their members
had adopted the high-blown courtly language so characteristic of social climbers
in either merchant or robe families. The families around the Place Maubert were rich,
and proud of it. Molière’s Madame Jourdain might well have come from their midst.
The frontier between courtly and bourgeois styles was most marked between the
wholesalers, who aped the latest fashions and language, and the retailers, who did not.
The wholesalers and minor royal officials were a more homogeneous group, taking
their cue from the aristocracy and the parlementaires. The retailers were something else,
at the summit, as it were, of the artisanal and commercial corporations, which were
beneath them in status and wealth. The Place Maubert remained more retail throughout
the seventeenth century than, say, the districts around Saint-Eustache and north
of the Halles.
The Place Maubert witnessed sporadic burnings of heretics in the sixteenth century.
Was the choice of this site for burning Protestants, among the bourgeois and the
students, accidental on the part of the monarchy, which in good medieval tradition
believed that punishments should be public so that the example of what happened to
heretics would be publicly known and felt? The stakes and ashes on the Place Maubert
impressed students and citizens tempted by Calvinism, but fear alone could not have
kept Paris from going Protestant. Fanatical preaching and sober thinking on the part
of clergy, judges, and merchants attached to the Crown and to Spain helped give the
emotional horror of public executions an intellectual basis.
The circle of abbeys surrounding the Left Bank began again at the Seine, just a few
streets east of the Place Maubert. Inside the walls rose the Cistercian college called
"the Bernardins," in honor of the founder of the order; and also Saint-Jean-de-Latran,
the residence of the Knights of Malta. Outside the walls, and in a location on the east
side of the city corresponding to Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the west, stood the abbey
of Saint-Victor, where the faculty of science building is now. Ever since the quarrels
leading to the collapse of the cathedral school and the founding of the University, the
Benedictines of Saint-Victor had been known for their erudition and teaching. Their
library was probably the richest in Paris. Rabelais dares to be ironic about the wisdom
purported to be in its books, when he has Pantagruel come to Paris to study the seven
liberal arts. The giant finds the food of boiled bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents
mediocre and the books of Saint-Victor one absurdity after another.
But apart from the new humanistic learning of some judges and theologians, a few
Renaissance buildings, and the aping of Romans (ancient and modern) at Court, Paris
and the Parisians in 1600 remained about what they had been two hundred years earlier.
In taste, buildings, and style of life, this was not by choice. Parisians having the
means willingly pulled down their Gothic residences or transformed them in an effort
to live in the Renaissance style. Indeed, nowhere can one find property owners anxious
to preserve the architectural achievements of their ancestors. Only a lack of funds
and of leadership during the sixteenth century had prevented the demise of the
Also of Interest
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