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18th Century French History History Royal History Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 2

In the first part of this guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial (the account of which you can read in full here) we looked at the course of events that took the royal family from being an essential, if awkward, part of a constitutional monarchy to being at first an obstacle to further change, then a magnet for popular hatred, then an irrelevance, and finally an enemy of the Revolution. Once you had entered the latter category, it was really only a matter of time before you were called for your appointment with Madame Guillotine.

By the time Marie Antoinette found herself in the prison of the Conciergerie in August 1793, she was without a doubt deep in the blackest period of her life. bet 22 The king’s death had been a great blow to her – she seems to have entertained some hope that he might be reprieved, hopes that were only finally dashed when she heard the sound of drums and great cheer echoing round the streets, and she knew he was dead. From this point on she would be known as the Widow Capet, and she dressed accordingly in widow’s weeds. Her daughter was later to write

She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death; sometimes she looked at us with a kind of compassion which was quite frightening.

Her physical health began to decline rapidly. By this time she was almost certainly suffering from tuberculosis, and the heavy bleeding that afflicted her may have been an early indicator of uterine cancer (as Antonia Fraser speculates). By this time most of the more legendary aspects of her personality had been stripped away – the airheaded gaiety, the extravagance, that often remarked upon glowing quality – leaving behind a cold, hard core of proud tenacity, a fierceness that had something in common with the popular depictions of her as a harpie, or a tigress. She never seems to have entirely abandoned hope, and her behaviour in the trial reveals some inward refusal to give even an inch of ground to her persecutors. Fraser argues that there were some grounds for hope. No queen in history had ever before been put on trial or executed, and there were precedents for royal women to be sent back to their native countries following the end of their marriages.

In Marie Antoinette’s case though, this seems highly unlikely to have ever been a real possibility, given her potency as a symbol of everything that the Revolution sought to expunge from the world, the strong belief in her active involvement in plots to destroy the Revolution (which would be a recurring theme in the trial) and her massive unpopularity with the increasingly vital sans-culottes. To his shame, even her nephew the Austrian Emperor showed little interest in the furtive negotiations which did take place over the possibility of exchanging the former queen for political prisoners. And it is known for certain that Marie Antoinette’s fate had been decided at a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety weeks before the trial began.

It’s crucial though to resist the tempatation to throw up your hands and bewail the trial as a travesty of justice, because it wasn’t. At least, no more than the other trials undertaken at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Indeed, the very ordinariness of Marie Antoinette’s trail was an important part of its symbolism. During the debate over the king’s death, Robespierre had said that she must be sent “before the courts, like all other persons charged with similar crimes”. Unlike her husband, her fate would not be debated before a full assembly of the nation’s elected representatives, and she would be given no opportunity to explain herself or reason with them. In short, there should be no indication that she mattered in any special way. This, for a former queen and daughter of Emperors, was punishment in itself.

In fact, my main tip before reading the trial is to turn your 21st century brain off, because it won’t help you here. لعبة الدومينو I’m no expect on the vagaries of the French legal system, but there are a few things it’s important to remember about Marie Antoinette’s trial in the legal context of the time (these courtesy of an obscure book called The Trials of Five Queens by R. Storry Deans).

  • French trials at the time (and to a lesser extent even now) were not litigious but inquisitional, meaning they didn’t consist of a prosecution formulating a charge against the accused which it was then required to prove. فريق أتلتيكو مدريد The trial was instead a more open-ended and general inquisition into the guilt and character of the accused.
  • Almost nothing in Marie Antoinette’s trial would be admissible as evidence in an English court today, and much of it not even at that time. However, procedures like the secret interrogation before the trial (when the court was not in session and no jury present) were standard procedure in eighteenth century France.
  • The distinction between thought and deed had not yet been firmly enshrined in law, so establishing that the accused had contemplated doing something, or even that they were the type of person who might contemplate it, was enough. Likewise, opinion, inference and hearsay were acceptable forms of evidence (and formed the bulk of Marie Antoinette’s trial, as concrete evidence is rarely provided).

One of the most difficult things about Marie Antoinette’s existence at this stage must have been the constant uncertainty. She was never given any forewarning of what was to happen to her, but was instead suddenly confronted with dramatic upheavals and forced to deal with them. In less than a year she had been imprisoned in the Tower, been separated from her husband and then her son, and finally moved to the Conciergerie – all suddenly, and completely against her will. Once at the Conciergerie she faced days of waiting, never knowing when her trial was to begin – or even, for certain, if she was to have a trial. Being reduced to a spectator in her own story, Marie Antoinette had started to default to an attitude of numb resignation. Then one night, two hours after she had gone to bed, she was woken roughly and summoned to another part of the prison. With no fanfare and without a second to prepare herself, Marie Antoinette’s trial, and the final fight of her life, had begun.

In the next part: The secret interrogation and the beginning of the trial.

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17th Century 18th Century Animals French History History Museums Royal History Uncategorized

Strange Meetings: The Royal Menagerie at Versailles – an Extract from Vintage Script Magazine

Royal Menagerie at Versailles

This month, you’ll find a piece I’ve written in Vintage Script, a new magazine dedicated to all things vintage, historical and retro. What’s most delightful about it is the range of different historical periods, as well as the different approaches taken to bringing them to life. In this month’s edition you’ll find stories on the history of tea time, flapper girls of the 1920s, Durham Cathedral and the truth behind the Scarlet Pimpernel. It really is well worth a read, so do please visit the web site and take a look.

Versailles Menagerie by D'Aveline

The Versailles Menagerie during Louis XIV’s reign, by D’Aveline.

In an attempt to whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my article on the history of the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the stuff I’ve cut out here is stupendous, so you really should get the magazine!

We take up the story from Louis XIV’s death. Before the Sun King, the French Royals had not had a permanent menagerie but instead contented themselves with a band of exotic or entertaining animals which followed them around their various royal residences. Louis XIV established two permanent menageries – one at Vincennes and one at Versailles, each with a different purpose and personality. The Vincennes menagerie was used for dramatic fights, such as the battle between a tiger and an elephant staged to amuse the Persian ambassador in 1682. The Versailles menagerie, on the other hand, was a model of order and rationality, where the far more fortunate animals were intended for peaceful display and, as all things at the palace, to augment the glory and prestige of the king. The conflict between these two very different styles of menagerie reflected the conflicts in Louis’ personality and style of leadership, but by the end of his reign the Versailles style had clearly won out, and the Vincennes zoo was closed.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746 (via Wikimedia Commons), with the location of the menagerie highlighted. Below, the former site of the menagerie today, from Google Maps.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=versailles&hl=en&ll=48.804772,2.09502&spn=0.013143,0.033023&t=h&z=16 width=598 height=400 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

In some magical way Versailles transformed itself to match the character of the king at its heart, so when the Sun King died and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XV, everything changed. Louis XV was more interested in hunting animals than observing them in his menagerie, and his taste for exotic wildlife restricted itself more or less to Madame de Pompadour and his seraglio of royal mistresses. Animal gifts kept coming from every corner of the ever-expanding French trading empire, but the king lacked both the funds and the inclination to give them much of a welcome. When an elephant arrived in 1772, it was forced to walk more than three hundred miles from the coast to Versailles.

One can imagine the elephant was quite miffed about the debacle (but must have created quite a stir in the towns and villages along the road) and things got no better once it arrived at Versailles. The pond dug for the exotic birds to wade in was full of silt. The wall enclosing the rhinoceros which arrived two years earlier was literally crumbling (not a good thing, as the rhino was no doubt angered by visitors who laughed at its absurdly wrinkled skin). Even the animals in the once beautiful paintings which lined the walls of the observation room were faded and peeling. The elephant stuck it out for as long as possible, but in 1782, broke free of its enclosure and rampaged round the grounds of Versailles. Next morning, a strange new elephant-shaped island was found floating in the Grand Canal.

Sadly, the elephant died too late to witness the last gasp of the royal menagerie. Louis XVI had ascended the throne in 1775, and found a financial and political situation as neglected as the menagerie. Unlike his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVI could not rely on winning charm to see him through – he had none. He was therefore much more attuned to symbolism, and strove constantly, in the face of an ever-deepening crisis, to project an image of undimmed power and royal prestige.

Although they never knew it, the animals of the menagerie were a perfect instrument for this. The very fact that they were there at all spoke eloquently of the scope and scale of the king’s influence. Overcoming the difficulties of finding and catching such rare and beautiful creatures, overcoming the problems of long distance travel and communication, overcoming the self-interest of every captain and sailor along the way who might have sold his precious cargo, the king had commanded that animals be brought, and they had come. The strength of his will even seemed to overcome death itself: such animals were notoriously difficult to keep alive on long voyages. Exotic birds especially had an irksome habit of dropping down dead when cannon fired, or simply pining away. Whispers began to circulate that the most beautiful birds of all simply could not live without their liberty.

Louis sent out a shopping list to his representatives around the world. “An elephant; 2 zebras, male and female; mandrill and baboon monkeys; 6 guineafoul”. Perhaps Louis wished to tame the zebras and teach them to draw his carriage, as some of his more flamboyant contemporaries did. But Louis was never to receive an elephant and only got one of the zebras he asked for, though the menagerie did benefit from an influx of new inmates, including a lion, a panther, some hyenas, a tiger, some ostriches and several kinds of monkey.

The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey.

As it turned out, of course, even if Louis had managed to obtain a hundred zebras to draw his carriage, they couldn’t have saved him from the coming of the Revolution. Perhaps the animals noticed a glow of torchlight up at the palace on the night in October 1789 when a crowd of thousands arrived to remove the royal family and take them back to Paris (henceforth to be caged and regarded with the same mixture of awed and disgusted curiosity that the inhabitants of the menagerie had been).

The menagerie must have been a sad and dispiritingly quiet place for the next couple of years, as history was written elsewhere, and the fate of a dwindling bunch of pampered pets was of no importance. But, in a perverse way, the violence and inhumanity of the revolution was to foster a new concern for these animals. After a few years, with the Terror in full flow, the bourgeois leaders of the Revolution began to grow concerned that the populace was becoming too accustomed to blood, too wild. They needed to be brought back to the civilising influence of orderly society – and what better way to demonstrate its advantages than through the example of these wild animals. If even a lion, when it is well cared for by enlightened rulers, can be tamed and made gentle, then there’s hope for anyone. This attitude to animals was extraordinary: in 1794, the Paris Commune received complaints about ‘disgusting displays’ of animals in the Place de la Révolution, but none about the twenty guillotinings that took place in the same square every day.

At the last minute, the few remaining animals of the royal menagerie, which had been due to be killed and stuffed, were saved, and made a part of plans for a new state menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Following a ban on animal shows, the authorities had sent out agents to round up all wild animals being kept or sold in Paris for this purpose. The only problem was, there was nowhere to put them except the basement of the museum at the Jardins des Plantes.

The wrinkly rhinoceros died before it could make the journey (run through, according to legend, by a revolutionary’s sabre), but the lion from Versailles was taken to Paris in 1794, and found itself in a room full of the motliest collection of animals since the Ark. Here was a leopard, there a sea lion. Perched on a crate were three eagles, bleating in the corner were three sheep with various lurid deformities, and god-knows-where was what had been promised to be a sea lion when the harassed zookeeper agreed to take it on, but was discovered on arrival to be a polar bear. There were in total 32 mammals and 26 birds.

Gradually a permanent, if very basic, home for these forlorn creatures was put together, and, amid trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric that the animals would “no longer wear on their brows, as in the menageries built by the pomp of kings, the brand of slavery”, its doors were opened to the public. This new, state menagerie was intended to be a pacifying haven of contemplation and rational study. It didn’t quite work out that way. As soon as the doors opened, the citizens of Paris made a beeline for the old lion from Versailles. They pulled at his fur, and shouted abuse when he tried to sleep, and spat at him because, they said, he used to be a king too.

The lion bore his torment for a short while, but in the famine-frosted winter of 1795, when there was no money for food and none to buy anyway, half the animals died, the lion probably among them. After this time, conditions at the menagerie slowly improved, and with the conquests of Napoleon, it was repopulated with inhabitants from new outposts of empire.

Today, there’s no trace of the menagerie beneath the impeccably manicured lawns of Versailles, but a piece of it survives. If you go to the Jardins des Plantes, past the small zoo which still survives and into the Natural History Museum, you’ll find a large glass case, containing a leathery rhinoceros, the first to ever be stuffed and preserved. Today people file by and study him quietly, as civilised and dispassionate as they were always meant to be, save perhaps for the occasional chuckle at his absurdly wrinkly skin. But this is an extraordinary survivor, called across the sea by the last pulse of royal power from France, witness to the end of an era, one of the last beings ever to truly live at Versailles, victim of the violence of the revolution – and yet, here he is. Through all the storms of history and politics, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, monarchies and republics, wars and peaces, the rhinoceros has stood safe in its glass case. Even today, the Versailles menagerie is drawing long-severed worlds into strange meetings.

Louis XV's Rhinoceros

Louis XV’s rhinoceros, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.


The rhinoceros was recently featured in an exhibition at Versailles, ‘Sciences and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles, which I’m bereft at having missed. This nice little video was made to coincide with the exhibition.

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18th Century Biography French History History Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 1

To coincide with the English account of Marie Antoinette’s trial I uploaded last time, today I begin a guide to reading what can be a confusing and obscure document, and understanding this fascinating event in context.

The background to the trial 

To some extent ever since the Royal Family had been forcibly removed from Versailles and taken to Paris in October 1789, and much more urgently since the failed attempt by the family to escape the city in June 1791, the fate of monarchy in France had been one of the Revolution’s more awkward unanswered questions. When the family was captured at Varennes during the botched escape and returned to Paris, the crowds that lined the streets to watch greeted them in total, uneasy silence – forbidden to make a sound either to cheer or harass the captives.

The return of the royal family to Paris after Varennes

The return of the Royal Family to Paris, after the disastrous flight to Varennes. By Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur, 1791.

Marie Antoinette in 1791

Marie Antoinette in 1791, painted by Alexandre Kucharski. Already a sombre-looking figure, legend has it her hair turned white overnight during the return from Varennes.

From this point on, the king was in reality no more than a figurehead in what was still technically a constitutional monarchy. Then on 10th August 1792, large crowds stormed the Tuileries Palace (then located next to the Louvre), and the Royal Family was forced to flee to the protection of the Legislative Assembly. The next day, Louis and Marie Antoinette sat in the Assembly and listened as the country was declared a republic and the position of king and queen ceased to exist. They would henceforth be known as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet (a title both objected to as being inaccurate, Louis being of the House of Bourbon not the extinct medieval dynasty of Capet).

The Assault on the Tuileries Palace

The assault on the Tuileries Palace, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1793.

Inevitability is such a tasty spice to season history with, though often it tends to overwhelm the subtlety and complexity of the other flavours always present. In this case though, it seems accurate to say that the fate of the former king and queen was sealed during that session of the Legislative Assembly. العاب طاولة محبوسة Stripped of their powers, their necessity to the state and their mystique, every plausible scenario had to end in their death. Alive, they simply posed an unacceptable threat to the stability of the Revolution, and they could never have been allowed into exile, where they could regroup with the existing counter-revolutionary forces.

Despite this, the decision to execute Louis was not an easy one to take, even with the disastrous Brunswick Manifesto, a statement by the invading Imperial and Prussian powers which threatened to wreak ‘an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction’ unless the royals were released unharmed. Louis’ trial was held before the full convention, and most observers agreed that he acquitted himself with affecting dignity, even if it was somewhat shabby and increasingly sad. The guilty verdict on “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety” was assured from the start, but the vote on the sentence was surprisingly close. 361 voted for immediate execution (plus a further 72 for a delayed execution), 288 against.

The Execution of Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI.

The king’s death in January 1793 removed any legal, constitutional, or practical obstacle standing in the way of executing Marie Antoinette too. The sympathy that the king was still able to engender was not to be a factor in proceedings against the queen, who was widely and bitterly reviled by the population at large, and held to be actively working against the Revolution. For this reason, many of even the best biographies of Marie Antoinette tend to dismiss her trial simply as a sham, affording it a couple of pages, perhaps, but otherwise seeing it as a blip in her inexorable descent towards the guillotine. This fails to do the event justice, as though it quite clearly was a sham in the sense that the verdict was never in doubt, that doesn’t make it any less interesting, both as a penetrating insight into the character of Marie Antoinette in this final stage of her life, and into the attitudes of the revolutionary authorities who were to try her.

In the time between the execution of the king and the trial of Marie Antoinette, significant developments radically altered the atmosphere in Paris and gave an added sense of urgency to the Revolution. The Reign of Terror began, which saw rapid and violent strikes against the forces of counter-revolution both within and outside France, as well as seismic shifts in political power away from Danton and towards Robespierre. قوانين لعبة اونو The Vendée rose in revolt against the revolutionary government; a revolt which was so firmly suppressed that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lives were lost on both sides in the fighting. During the summer of 1793 Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon were all in conflict with the Convention, and the port of Toulon surrendered to the British. In July, Marat was assassinated.

The War in the Vendée

The fighting in the Vendée, a later (1853) painting by Jean Sorieul.

As summer turned to autumn, a kind of hysteria prevailed throughout France. The revolutionary authorities were almost entirely focused on securing control, and sealing off France from the chaos that surrounded it and threatened to eat it up from within. With so much confusion, the trial of Marie Antoinette suddenly seemed wonderfully controllable and powerfully symbolic – a chance for uncomplicated, visceral, unifying vengeance against a clear enemy of the revolution, and to sever one of the last remaining links to the ancien régime. العروض الترويجية

In August, Marie Antoinette was moved from her prison in the Temple Tower to the Conciergerie prison on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There she waited, never sure of what was happening, until on 13th October 1793 she was informed that her trial would commence in one day’s time.

Next time: The Trial Begins

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18th Century French History Historical Places Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: A Contemporary English Account to Read Online

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Marie Antoinette, it’s that unfortunate cake remark (which, of course, there’s no reason at all to believe she ever said). If there’s a second thing, it’s that she got her head chopped off. A lie and an ending – the foundations of our conceptions of the entire life of a woman. So much is left out of that dessicated biography – good and bad, edifying and embarassing, important and trivial. But frankly, even when you do begin to learn more, even when you read one of the excellent biographies (even the superlative one by historian heartthrob Antonia Frasier) she remains a pretty enigmatic woman, almost impossible to pin down. So much about her life and character seems so contradictory, and to vary so wildly in different accounts, that it’s very hard to emerge with any feeling of knowing her.

There are though a few pivotal events in her life where her character suddenly crystallises before your eyes, and she practically seems to walk into the room. Her trial is certainly the most powerful of these moments, but frustratingly it’s probably one of the least known elements of her life story. In all the hoopla of ‘Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off’, it’s easy to lose sight of basic questions like how that came to happen or precisely why. For this reason and many others the trial record makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the real Marie Antoinette, and more widely anyone interested in the Revolution as a whole. You might say I’m a bit of a fan – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a play about the trial a couple of years ago.

I’m going to write more about the trial in my next post, but for now I wanted to simply post this English account of the proceedings at the trial, published in 1793, the year after the trial, which I’ve scanned from an existing copy. I’m very excited to make this available, as I’ve been unable to find an English account freely available online, and it’s a document that deserves to be available to all.

http://cultureandstuff.com/Authentic_Trial_at_Large_of_Marie_Antoinette_via_Cultureandstuff.pdf

Click here to download the file as a PDF.

Although, as you’ll see, the preface and epilogue added to the record in this edition make the compiler’s sympathies for Marie Antoinette perfectly plain, the account of the trial itself tallies well with other published versions, and this one is most likely based on the accounts which appeared in English newspapers at the time. It is, as far as all my research shows, an authentic account of the proceedings. Also included are a brief  biographical sketch, the ‘secret interrogatories’ (questioning of Marie Antoinette that occurred in private before the trial itself), a description of her execution and events after the trial was closed, and a lamentation for the dead Queen.

I’m biting my tongue to stop myself talking more about it, because it’s remarkable enough to speak for itself and that’s what I want it to do. But I’ll be back next week with more details on the story of the trial, its more extraordinary moments, and its cast of characters.

Categories
19th Century Lost Paris Medieval Paris Uncategorized

Lost Paris: Destruction and Renewal on the Île de la Cité

This Lost Paris series has ended up being a tad melancholy, which isn’t really what I intended. More than anything what seems to have come through in the stories of these forgotten places and faded flashes of light in the city’s history is a sense that when you visit Paris today, you’re experiencing the grey headachey morning after, not the wild party of the night before.

There’s a word for this, my friends: codswallop. Oh, granted there certainly did once exist a raucous, rich, collective popular culture in Paris which has simply died, and some truly marvellous places have been lost along the way. But the truth is that somewhere below the wild, beautiful music of life that reverberated around these places, the sorry, mournful base note of human misery played a constant drone. The Old Paris that it’s so easy to look back on with misty eyes was dirty and dehumanising; it shortened the lives of those who lived in it through the disease and violence that bred so effectively there. Housing conditions were commonly squalid, crime was sewn into the fabric of life, exploitation and prostitution were ever-present.

So it’s worth sobering up a little and reflecting on the more positive outcomes of the destruction of Old Paris, as well as the fact that without such total destruction, Paris would lack many of the quintessential features that make it so impossible not to fall in love with today.

The  Île de la Cité is a good example of just this process. It’s often described as one of the primary victims of the changes to Paris wrought by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann (Prefect of the Seine) in the 1860s and 1870s. Before this time, the Île de la Cité had been altogether different from the place we know today.

The Île de la Cité is the heart of Paris not only geographically – to this day all distances to and from Paris are measured from a spot just in front of Notre-Dame – but also historically, with many historians believing it was on this island that the tribe known as the Parisii first settled from around 250BC. As the city grew the island retained a sacred significance, which was only accentuated by the building of Saint-Étienne cathedral here in the 4th century, to be replaced by Notre-Dame in the 12th.

Despite the presence of these august houses of God, life on the Île de la Cité was anything but holy by the medieval period. It’s hard to imagine what the area must have really been like before the 19th century. Painters seem generally to have kept at a safe distance, where unpleasant or unpicturesque detail could be kept nicely blurred.

A View of the Île de la Cité in 1753, by N. and JB Raguenet, via Paris En Images

Another view by the same artists,  via Paris En Images.

Maps are also of limited use – the instinct of most map-makers has always been to tidy up mess, to create order where there was none. That said, our old friend the  Turgot map (a map no Parisian time traveller should be without), which shows Paris in the 1730s, conveys some sense of the crowded, higgledy-piggledy make-up of the island.

Detail of the Plan de Turgot. Are those bollards in front of Notre-Dame, or a polite row of pigeons? Via Atlas Historique de Paris.

We can see immediately in these images how different the architecture was to anything found in Paris today. If we want to go deeper and understand the feel of the place, accounts of contemporaries are perhaps the best tool, and those who knew the old Île de la Cité paint an evocative picture.

….Mud-coloured houses, broken by a few worm-eaten window frames, which almost touched at the eaves, so narrow were the streets. Black, filthy alleys led to steps even blacker and more filthy, and so steep that one could only climb them with the help of a rope attached to the damp wall by iron brackets…

Eugene Sue, from the novel Les mystères de Paris, published in 1843 (English translation at Project Gutenberg)

The island was characterised by the frequently awkward co-existence of religion and far less spiritual activity. Notre-Dame must have dominated this landscape and produced an even more powerfully awe-inspiring effect than it does today. Up until Haussmann’s renovations, the parvis of Notre-Dame (the square in front of the cathedral) was very small and filled with stalls selling religious trinkets and relics, meaning that the visitor would emerge from the labyrinth of streets surrounding the cathedral (themselves dotted with many other churches, destroyed in the Revolution) and find themself staring almost directly up at the immense towers. The space in front of the west door would often witness the spectacle of condemned men and women begging for God’s mercy, before being taken to the Place de Grève to be burned or broken on the wheel. This served as an unwholesome reminder that lurking in the not inconsiderable shadow of Notre-Dame was a notorious den of thieves, murderers and criminals of every other shade – a late 16th century visitor even described prostitution being conducted in the cathedral itself. Parts of the island were practically off limits to police, and many an unwary pilgrim must have wandered haplessly into trouble.

Also dragging down the neighbourhood was the infamous Hôtel-Dieu, a hoary old hospital, in the loosest sense of how we comprehend the word, that had been in existence since the 7th century. Both sanitation and beds were always in short supply at the Hôtel-Dieu. Startlingly, in the 17th century around a third of all Parisians met their ends in the hospital, and by the time of the Revolution 3 or 4 people were often crammed into one bed.

The old Hôtel-Dieu, from the priceless series of photographs taken by Charles Marville before Haussmann’s work began.

No doubt the Île de la Cité possessed certain piquant charms, and must have been, one way or another, among the livelier parts of the city. Baron Haussmann himself was said to have been frequently found poking around its alleyways in his student days. But Haussmann never allowed sentimentality to stand in the way of a good wrecking ball, even wiping the street where he was born off the map. And the Île de la Cité was precisely the sort of place Napoleon III and his attack dog Haussmann were so keen to erase from the story of Paris. It was dangerous, dirty, uncontrollable and, worst of all, it was a clot in the arteries of the city, preventing the free movement they believed was so central to making Paris the city of the future.

The view from the towers of Notre-Dame, before Haussmann.

I’ll be looking more closely at the motivations of Napoleon III and Haussmann more closely in some future posts, here I’m more concerned with the effects of their changes. The Hôtel-Dieu was demolished and moved to a new building across the river. The parvis of Notre-Dame was cleared and expanded, creating the huge open square we see today. In general, as was the case with much of Haussmann’s schemes, the decluttering of the island opened up a multitude of spectacular views of the cathedral, which became more of a focal point of the centre of Paris than it had been before. So much residential housing was destroyed that the island’s population dropped dramatically. In a delicious and certainly intentional piece of irony, the rat’s nest of crooked, impenetrable and crime-ridden streets were replaced with the city’s central police station.

The Quai des Orfevres and Pont Saint-Michel, before and after Hausmann, again by Marville, via Le Figaro.

From this time forward, the Île de la Cité ceased to be a place to live and became part tourist mecca and part throughfare – a means by which Parisians could quickly traverse the Seine. Many histories of Paris ruefully describe the island of today as an empty, barren place with no life of its own. Sitting at a distance, leafing through a book, it’s easy to agree with them, and to mourn the loss of the ancient soul of Paris.

But when I think back to the times I’ve spent on and around the Île de la Cité, I can’t remember feeling sad or empty. Perhaps there is a slightly chilly, formal feel to the place, but it’s still more beautiful than most cities in the world could ever dream of being. There’s still the magnificence of Notre-Dame itself, standing out so resplendantly in every view across the river, buttresses flying in formation, towers standing firm and defiant. There are still the ancient ruins tucked away in the crypt underneath the parvis – one of the least known highlights of Paris tucked inconspicuously directly beneath one of the best. There’s still the quintessiantially Parisian experience of strolling through the pretty flower market near the Cité metro, the Conciergerie prison, whose most famous inhabitant was Marie Antoinette, the breathtaking elegance of Saint-Sulpice (last remnant of the Capetian palace that once stood on the island).

So somehow, through repeatedly and savagely destroying itself, Paris has reinforced its identity. The idea of Paris has been created through a long series of conscious decisions and many rewrites, creating the commercialised, packaged and glossy product that is Paris today, but never entirely able to wipe out the layers of history that run through the city like lines in a tree trunk. Its mutilations and mistakes are what make it what it is – a fascinating, complex place that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s easy (and fun) to long for Lost Paris, Old Paris – the Paris that never was and always will be – but Found Paris, always waiting to be discovered and understood, is far more satisfying.