Cover image for Paris in the Age of Absolutism: An Essay By Orest Ranum

Paris in the Age of Absolutism

An Essay

Orest Ranum


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Revised and Expanded Edition

Paris in the Age of Absolutism

An Essay

Orest Ranum

“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”


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By the eighteenth century Paris was one of the great wonders of Europe, renowned for its magnificent royal monuments and as a center for science, literature, and the arts. More so than any other European city, Paris reflected the spirit of an age—an age that reached its zenith with the reign of France's Sun King, Louis XIV. No book better captures that spirit than Orest Ranum's Paris in the Age of Absolutism, first published in 1968 and now reissued in a revised and expanded edition.

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




Illustration Credits


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

from Notre-Dame.

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 housefronts.

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

medieval city.

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