History Carnival 101 for August 2011

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Oh dear. Based on the fantastic assortment of history blogging that was nominated for this August’s History Carnival, I’m afraid there’s not much hope of disproving the cliché that historians are pasty, fidgety creatures who’d much prefer to be huddled in a library or at a computer than out enjoying the summer sunshine. On the other hand, there’s considerable hope for proving that the summer sunshine is highly over-rated, and who needs to pack off to a beach anyway when we can be transported to the amazing worlds revealed by these extremely industrious history blogging goblins? More power to you, fellow creatures of the gloom!

In case you don’t know, the History Carnival is a monthly round-up of the best in history blogging, which has now been running for over a hundred installments. This month, my very first recommendation to you is to check out the Carnival’s web site, which, with its archive of every past Carnival, is a jumping off point to enough historical good stuff to fill a lifetime’s worth of summers.


– If, like me, you spend way too much of your time thinking about being in Paris but way too little actually being there, the first two blogs could be a much needed tonic. Parisian Fields is one of my very favourite blogs on the city for reasons that this post, a great piece of detective work based on a postcard the writers accidentally found, amply demonstrates. Small, seemingly trivial details are spun out bewitchingly into great tapestries that post by post tell the story of the city itself.

A postcard showing a now lost Parisian building – the subject of Parisian Field’s post A palace of commerce and a 1904 rendez-vous.

– While we’re talking about overlooked details, they don’t come much more overlooked than Stephen Sauvestre. Though Gustave Eiffel has gone down in history as the creator of the tower that bears his name, Sauvestre was responsible for adding the beauty and elegance to what had previously been a functional design, without which the Eiffel Tower simply would not be the Eiffel Tower. This terrific post on Invisible Paris examines some of Sauvestre’s other surviving buildings in Paris, which you would probably never connect with the architecture of the tower, but which are nonetheless strikingly individual buildings in a city often denigrated for its uniformity.

– More hidden treasures are unearthed at Madame Guillotine’s saucepot of a blog. Unusually, this post finds her not swishing around Versailles or fan-fluttering through Paris, but at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, London. This house is one of London’s most beguiling oddities: the creation of artist Dennis Severs who set out, as Madame Guillotine puts it, “to transform the house into a living time capsule of various different periods in the district’s history”, with the feeling that its occupants of different eras have simply stepped out of the full-of-life rooms moments before you step into them. I defy you not to want to visit this place after reading this post, and seeing the sumptuous photography.

18 Folgate Street, by Madame Guillotine.

While I’m on hidden London gems, this post from the Two Nerdy History girls on obscure survivors of the once magnificent Northumberland House is typical of their interesting and prodigious output (and they always come up with the historical goods on twitter).

– More insights into the physical world of people from the past come from another of my favourite blogs – Res Obscura. It’s a wonderfully written and insightful site, to be sure, but I’m a sucker for visual aids, and it’s jaw-droppingly fabulous to look at. This post on Renaissance dress is as devilishly handsome as history web sites come, and will no doubt leave a trail of plainer, more homely blogs heartbroken and sobbing in its wake. Damn it.

– Katrina Gulliver’s Notes From the Field blog was inspired in this post by the shoddy history often peddled by ‘On This Day in History’ sites to create some really rather lovely history, starting with the (surprisingly early) invention of the fax machine and blossoming into a wide-ranging meditation on communication in general in the past century.

– There are more goodies from our scientific history chums, including The Renaissance Mathematicus’ account of how the telescope got its name. The alternatives apparently included the far less catchy “a certain device, by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses…”. Meanwhile, at his blog, Christopher M. Cevasco takes a detailed look at one of the objects telescopes have been most keenly trained upon – Halley’s Comet. Among other things, this interesing series of posts reveals the miraculous effects the comet has had on people throughout history, from inspiring the foundation of the city of Debre Berhan to the wonderful myth (albeit probably false) that Pope Calixtus III was so angered by the comet that he excommunicated it.

– Meanwhile, at the Scientific American blog, Holly Tucker tells us why you wouldn’t want to be an elderly sheep in the vicinity of Medea, and reveals other telling moments and attitudes in the early history of blood transfusion.

– It’s not only sheep who find themselves in mortal danger on history blogs this month. Atlas Obscura (whose wonders I regularly boff on about on this blog), reveals its Guide to Perilous Places around the world, where it’s a miracle human beings have ever eked out an existence. Atlas Obscura aims to be a compendium of the world’s most wondrous, least known places. Everyone with an interest in history should get involved and add to its riches.

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, most definitely perilous, by colis via Flickr.

– Those less lucky souls who have found themselves in perilous positions and teetered all the way over the edge are the meat and veg of Executed Today, an expanding online directory of historical executions (and a never less than interesting addition to any history buff’s twitter feed). What prevents the site from being as morbid and one-note as you might expect its sharp sense of humour and the quality of the biographical sketches of the unfortunate victims. This post on Jan Hus, religious renegade and, more surprisingly, crafter of language, is typically excellent.

– The Past Imperfect blog on pieces together the fascinating and contested tale of David O’Keefe, the red-haired Irish chancer who came to be known as king of the eastern Pacific island of Yap. This story features shipwrecks, women scorned, bad Burt Lancaster films and sea cucumbers, and makes for a treat every bit as glorious as that ingredient list promises.

– One of the more left-field suggestions this month involved the newish web service, This site offers a way for people to compile narratives from different sources, including social media and photography feeds, and I think has some interesting potential, both as a way of recording current events, and as a means of capturing and conveying the thrill of historical discovery and thought processes – of tracking the flowering of an idea. Declan Fleming’s story about uncovering some great papers on safety in the 50s nicely demonstrates how this site can be used.

– I’m a firm believer in (and, I must admit, less firm adherent to) the importance of not getting too lost in your own historical niches, or becoming too fanboyish about your beloved period. It’s always a good idea to get a taste of something totally unfamiliar every now and again. Zenobia: Empress of the East, as this post on the unique Mani religion shows, is an admirably researched and presented blog about a whole area of history I not only knew nothing about, but had never actually heard of before this site was submitted. Anchora offers similar, extremely detailed insights into the history of the book, and in this instance how Renaissance readers used and annotated books. Go forth and expand your minds.

– And finally, I guiltily enjoyed the shameless presidential tittle-tattle in Winning Her Way to Fame’s piece on Grover Cleveland, the old dog. This post could (and perhaps should) have been titled ‘When Presidents Go Bad’. Come back Bill, all is forgiven.


Thanks to everyone who submitted nominations (and apologies to those whose work I couldn’t include), and to Sharon Howard for passing the hosting mantle on to me – it’s been a hoot!

If you’re interested in the sort of thing you can find here at Culture&Stuff, do check out my recent series on the many treasures of Lost Paris, and leave a comment or two. Oh, and I’m always keen to stay in touch with fellow history lovers on twitter.

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.


The History Carnival: Coming to Culture&Stuff

I’m pleased to announce that in August, I’ll be hosting the 101st edition of the History Carnival, a peripatetic showcase of the very best in history blogging.

Do please send in your nominations – anything will be considered as long as it’s historical, on the web, and pretty gosh-darned fascinating. اين يلعب رونالدو الان Whether you wrote it, or just stumbled across it, if you liked it I want to know about it. You have until the end of July to get your nominations in. باي بال عربي

To submit a post, either contact me directly or use the handy form on the History Carnival website, where you can also find out more about the whole shebang. Looking forward to perusing your entries! كاس امم اوروبا ٢٠٢١

Historical Places Lost Paris Paris Uncategorized

Lost Paris: The Arènes de Lutèce, the Surprising Roman Arena in a Sleepy Parisian Square

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This week’s Culture&Stuff post is a little different in that, well, it’s not on Culture&Stuff. Instead, you’ll find it over on Atlas Obscura, a wonderful site I’ve rhapsodised long and hard about before. It’s a compendium of the odd, the quirky and the lesser-known, a global encyclopedia of extraordinary places with extraordinary stories.

I added the details of the Arènes de Lutèce, the reconstructed remains of a Roman arena, dating from Paris’s early origins as a Roman city known as Lutetia. And it’s still sitting bang smack in the middle of Paris and waiting for your visit. I chose to post it there rather than here because it seems a perfect match for the site’s mission to uncover lost treasures under our noses, and I for one think that this particular Parisian oddity is worthy of much more attention. Check out the listing (which, Atlas Obscura being a collaborative effort, may have been edited and added to by others by now) and see if you agree.

17th Century 18th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Paris Uncategorized

Lost Paris: The Pont Neuf, ‘the Eiffel tower of the Ancien Régime’

In the next three posts in the Lost Paris series, I’m going to be looking at the Pont Neuf, the fair held annually at Saint-Germain, and the Palais Royal. Though two of these three still exist, and are probably high on any visitor’s must-see list, what they are today is but a shadow of what they have been. In the 17th and 18th centuries these places were genuine melting pots, where people of all social ranks came together, and culture of all kinds collided and coalesced. This electrifying atmosphere defined what it was to be a Parisian in that era, and though it’s still possible to get a sense of the flavours and textures of this street life, it’s hard to really understand it because in our modern, fractured society – where the most popular culture is generally consumed in our own homes, or sitting in silence in the dark at a theatre or cinema – I can think of no real equivalent.

When it comes to the Pont Neuf, this coming together, both in a physical and social sense, was precisely the point. The bridge is heavily associated with Henri IV, though in fact its construction was begun by Henri III in 1578, then halted in 1588 in the turmoil of the Wars of Religion. When Henri IV eventually emerged as the victor of that war in 1598, one of his first priorities was to rebuild Paris and end the bitter division and crippling uncertainty that had festered during almost 40 years of intermittent conflict. The bridge, connecting the left and right banks of the Seine via the Île de la Cité, was necessary in a strictly practical sense because the existing Pont Notre-Dame was desperately overloaded. The new bridge would get Paris moving again, but just as importantly would also send a powerful symbolic message to the country and the world that the war was over and the new king was looking to the future. Legend has it that Henri IV visited the unfinished bridge during its construction, and impressed the workmen by effortlessly leaping the vast gaps between the pillars standing in the river. The sight must have been hugely reassuring to Parisians – following a string of at best ineffectual and at worst disastrously weak monarchs – and an enduring love affair between the people and Henri took root.

The brand new Pont Neuf in 1615, from the Plan de Merian.

The new bridge was unusual in several respects. At 28 metres wide it was not only the broadest bridge in Europe at the time, it was also far wider than any other Parisian street, and – luxury of luxuries in a city where most streets were narrow and many still unpaved – even had a pavement. Unlike other bridges in the city, the Pont Neuf was built without the clutter of residential housing, so it offered sweeping views over the Seine and towards the Louvre and Tuileries palaces. And, let’s face it, the Pont Neuf is a looker, posing coquettishly and making itself look beautiful in almost every picture you see of it. Very quickly the bridge came to be represent Paris to the world, featured in endless prints and paintings, and coming to be, in the words of Colin Jones, ‘the Eiffel tower of the Ancien Régime’.

The always seductive Pont Neuf in 1881. If this doesn’t make you sigh and murmur ‘Ah, Paris!’, you have a turnip instead of a heart. By Todor Atanassov via Wikimedia Commons.

But things happened on the Pont Neuf that you’ll never see at the Eiffel tower, because while people go to the tower to look out at all of Paris, all of Paris came to the bridge to look at itself. Floating there, in the amphitheatre of the Seine, the wide, open platform of the Pont Neuf was a stage where the most outrageous and wonderful street theatre was performed.

Walking towards the bridge in the 17th century, you would probably have heard it before you saw it. The characteristic sound of the Pont Neuf was a cacophony of cries (known as the cris de Paris) from the many vendors who plied their trade there, selling a bewildering array of products. Your ears might be assailed by offers of cakes, oysters, oranges (regarded as a naughty, sensual pleasure at the time), coffee, dogs, face powder, wooden legs, glass eyes or false teeth. Then there were the singers – usually dressed in some outlandish costume – who sang about everything from celebrities to murders and hangings. The more close to the knuckle stuff – the songs about the kings and his mistresses – couldn’t be sung openly on the bridge, but if you tipped the singer a wink he might furtively open up his coat and sell you a handwritten copy. Singers who overstepped the mark were threatened with the galleys or imprisonment (and some performers, such as the comedian Gros Guillaume, did indeed end their days in jail) but, just like today, such controversy was great for business. One singer, who was forced to flee the country to escape arrest, later estimated that the scandal had been worth 30,000 livres in sales of his music. Some of the songs were written by the beggars, who clustered around the foot of the Henry IV statue, and made it their business to know everything that went on in the city. Tantalisingly, some songs about nobles and famous courtiers even contained salacious details that only insiders would know – suggesting that other nobles and courtiers were writing songs for performance at the bridge, to spread bitchy gossip or do down their rivals.

Then there were the charlatans. Some offered phoenix fat or vials of the soil of Bethlehem, but most were quacks peddling some kind of miraculous medicine. In order to promote their wares, the charlatans offered elaborate shows for free to passers-by, a forerunner of the infomercial, in which they would engage in knockabout routines and comedy, dances, monkey acts, acrobatics and music, interspersed with ad breaks where they directly plugged their products. Generally one member of their entourage would be blacked up and dressed in some exotic costume, from the far-off mysterious land whence the potion was said to originate. One sold bottled water from the Seine which promised to extend a person’s life to the age of 150. Though this would surely be the first recorded incident of Seine water prolonging life in the 17th century, it pales in comparison to the secrets for sale from another mountebank, who offered 5,000 years of life and training in how to become invisble.

Two of the most famous of these salespeople were Taborin and Mondor, who operated in the 1620s. Their sketches always involved Taborin playing the part of a dull dimwit to Mondor’s educated cleverclogs, peppered with frequent plugs for their own medical elixir. The pair became such a part of popular culture that they were said to have inspired Molière’s 1671 farce Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Perhaps the most grisly, if morbidly fascinating, act to watch would have been the tooth-pullers. Le Grand Thomas, another of the bridge’s most legendary figures in the 1710s and 20s, was a giant of a man who performed death-defying feats of dentistry near the statue of Henri IV. He yanked out problem teeth with such gusto that he was sometimes said to lift patients several feet off the ground. Being a charitable man, he sometimes did this for free, and even arranged great feasts for the poor on the bridge. His fame spread far and wide, and he was even granted an audience with the king at Versailles.


It wasn’t all fun and games at the bridge. As well as the ever-present prostitutes, the Pont Neuf was frequented by thieves and pickpockets, and was known as an excellent spot for a murder, as the deed could be done in a flash and the perpetrator could then escape quickly under the low parapets. And it certainly wasn’t a place for a stroll after a few drinks, as press gangs were liable to nab any drunkard they found.

Although often described today as the oldest bridge in Paris, there isn’t in fact a single stone remaining from the original construction. The gargoyles that currently adorn the bridge are from the 1850s, and the statue of Henri IV that currently resides on the bridge is a replica – the original was melted down in the Revolution (though one of the horse’s feet survived and can be seen in the Musee Carnavalet).

The installation of the new statue of Henri IV in 1818.

More importantly, the atmosphere that once fizzed around the bridge is irrecoverably lost. The bridge began a slow decline in the 1770s when stalls were banned and replaced with tidier, safer little shops.

One of the new, more respectable boutiques on the Pont Neuf in 1848, after an engraving by AP Marshall. Nobody looks like they’re having fun here, do they? Even these places were removed in the 1850s.

The cries that once seemed to be the very soundtrack of Parisian life have now been replaced by the drone of cars and the snaps of camera shutters. The Pont Neuf has reverted to being like any other bridge; not so much a destination as a means of getting from one side of the river to the other. Benjamin Franklin said he never understood Parisians until he had been to the Pont Neuf, and Louis-Sébastien Mercier said that the Pont Neuf was ‘to the city what the heart is the body’.  Though there are in the Paris of today far better places to buy medicines or have some dentistry done, there’s nowhere quite like the Pont Neuf, where all Paris came together, and the very best and very worst of everything the city could be found form in the symphony of cries, song, laughter and screams that drifted from the bridge over the ancient Seine.