Lost Paris: All the Fun of the Fairs

February in medieval Paris can’t have been much fun. When the sun went south for the winter, the city must have been a gloomy place, returning to its prehistoric origins as a swamp (the city’s Roman name, Lutetia, derives from lutum, Latin for mud, according to one persuasive theory) and life for your average Parisian must have been painted an unappealing shade of dull, dirty brown. So it was with great excitement that the people of Paris awaited the coming of the annual Saint-Germain fair – quite literally a burst of light in the darkness, and an intoxicating, sensual shot in the arm to see them through to the first days of spring.

The Foire Saint Germain fair in 1763

In this picture of the fair, a miniature painted by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe in 1763 now in the superb Wallace Collection, it’s the beautiful, warm light that draws you in to a world of wonders and theatrically illuminates the many spectacles of the experience. It’s one of those paintings you just want to jump into.

Together with religious festivals, the great fairs formed the foundations of the social life of the city in the medieval and early modern period, and, like the giddy thrill of a walk on the Pont Neuf (see my last post), almost everyone in Paris would at some stage have attended the fairs, the grandest rubbing shoulders (and quite possibly other body parts) with the humblest. There were two key annual fairs in Paris, the Saint-Germain (on the same site as the present covered market, off the Boulevard Saint-Germain), which first appears in the record in 1176, and the Saint-Laurent (roughly where the Gare de l’Est is today), its younger brother born in 1344. The Saint-Germain fair was traditionally open from 3rd February until Palm Sunday, and the Saint-Laurent from late July until the feast day of Saint Michel in September, though both were frequently extended. Though both fairs were popular, the Saint-Laurent was more well-behaved and respectable and less fun, and if you gave any Parisian the choice between the two they’d always plump for the Saint-Germain – and it’s this one I’ll be focusing on in this post.

View of the fair in the Merian (1615) and Turgot (1730s) maps of Paris.

Both fairs were started by monks in the middle ages less as entertainments than as a means of providing shelter and sustenance for pilgrims who came to honour the abbeys’ relics on particular days in the church calendar. Saint-Germain-des-Prés holds a particularly interesting place in the history of the city, existing as almost a separate entity from the rest of Paris up until the late 17th century. In the medieval period, the Abbey was outside the walls of the city, and owned a huge chunk of the land on the left bank, corresponding today to an area  from the Luxembourg Palace to the site of the Eiffel Tower. The abbots were powerful feudal lords, usually with royal blood, and like other abbeys in the city, Saint-Germain was outside the jurisdiction of the Parisian authorities. Not only that, but the entire abbey was surrounded by a great ditch and a thick, fortified wall, making it essentially its own little world where interesting and unusual activities flourished. The long arm of Parisian law did not stretch as far as Saint-Germain (which had its own courts, prison and gallows), so opportunistic criminals could seek refuge here and escape punishment if the monks proved amenable (and, one gets the impression, the monks of Saint-Germain could be extremely amenable if their palms were crossed with sufficient precious metals). The powerful and usually ultra-conservative guilds that controlled all arts and crafts in the city also had no influence in the abbey, which meant that the abbey benefited from the creative juices of talented foreign artists, who were forbidden to work in Paris proper by the guilds.

The  Saint-Germain fair was perhaps the most visible and wonderful manifestation of this strange jurisdictional bubble -a topsy-turvy world of indulgence, liberty and -yes – sin, which would have been frowned upon by Parisian society under normal circumstances, taking place not only in the shadow of one of the most holy churches in France, but in Lent no less! To understand what the fairs became once they moved away from merely serving the needs of pilgrims, it’s necessary to comprehend the curious doublethink that defined society in the early modern period, especially I think in Paris. This was a world at once still bound to religion and fearful of hell and damnation, and yet highly attuned to the fragility of life and the ever-present spectre of death, willing to mine every rare opportunity for every ounce of pleasure it would yield. It was also a very outward-looking society, fascinated by the new world opening up and the undreamt of wonders it contained, as well by rapid developments in the sciences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the horizons of knowledge and exploration seemed unlimited – anything, suddenly, was possible, and excitement over every new discovery created a feeling of liberation, rather than the weighty, nagging knowledge of everything we don’t and can’t know which can often bog down the popular perception of science today. Parisians were hungry for the new – to see it, taste it, show it off – and the Saint-Germain fair offered them the chance to do just this.

A view of the fair in the 18th century, by Jollain.

Let’s visit the fair in the 17th century. By now, it covers a huge area and its centre is two huge pavilions, spanned by a roof  and sunk 6 to 8 feet into the earth. Simply entering these strange subterranean palaces could be a challenge, but thankfully there was generally such a crush of people cramming in alongside you that it would have been impossible to fall over. As your eyes adjust to the glow of lamplight, your nose begins to detect ripples of wonderful aromas. Almost everything you could dream of eating and drinking was available here – delicate pastries, pungently spiced breads, jams, waffles, fruit, confections, beer, hard cider, hippocras and eau-de-vie. If you can pick them out in the crowd, you might be able to buy a coffee from the two Armenians who worked the fairs from the early 1670s, or an exotic liquor infused from herbs and spices from Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the Sicilian who in 1686 will parlay his success at the fairs into his very own establishment that will one day be known as the the Café Procope.

If you’re not in need of a nap after all those treats,and fancy some shopping, you can buy anything and everything a chap can unfold (excuse my Bedknobs and Broomsticks reference) at the market. You can see some of them in the miniature above – glinting Venetian mirrors, paintings and sculptures, together with heady perfumes, moroccan leather, gloves and knives. The paintings were often created by the artists working under the protection of the abbey, free from the guilds of Paris. The only problem was, in order to get their paintings from the abbey to the fair, the artists had to cross streets that were under the jurisdiction of the Paris guilds, whose heavies could stop them and seize and destroy their work. This led to elaborate subterfuge and smuggling, and a constant battle between the artists and the guilds. You could also, increasingly in the 18th century, buy popular optical devices and mechanical automatons to experience the wonders of modern science for yourself, and impress your friends.

A finely balanced and at times symbiotic ecosystem existed at the fair in which every desire of the visitor could be catered to the very instant he became aware of it, and money flowed liquidly from hand to hand, circulating round the pavilions in great tides and whispering eddies. So if gambling tickles your fancy tonight, you can put a coin in someone’s pocket and try your luck at cards or dice, or on the spinning wheel. If you’re lucky enough to win (the games are often rigged), there’s always a thief on hand to cut the fabric of your pocket and relieve you of the burden. Flush with his success, the thief decides to stroll towards the cabarets. On the way he walks past the little theatres, each with their own balcony outside where the actors put on free shows as a sort of a trailer for what can be seen inside (which again can be seen in the miniature). Tight-rope walkers teeter on ropes overhead, and acrobats shock the unwary by leaping suddenly and dramatically into the air. The thief stops at an animal attraction – not, this time, the ‘scholarly’ deer who can guess people’s age, or the rats trained to do ballet, or the ‘white bear from the icy sea’ from Monsieur Ruggieri’s  menagerie – but a monkey playing the hurdy gurdy which caused a great sensation at the fair. The thief throws a coin into a tin and the monkey begins to play an allemande very elegantly, then someone throws a nut and the creature scampers away to get it, but the music keeps playing. The thief yells at the charlatan keeper of the monkey for duping him, and gives chase, knocking over the tin and scattering his takings. A group of well-to-do boys pounce on the coins and run off to see one of the puppeteers – some so good they’re rumoured to be magicians commanding the devil’s minions – and thus the stream of cash continues to flow around the fair.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about the fairs is the degree of sexual permissiveness to be found there – which is more commonly associated with later periods in Paris’s history, and we’d blush at even today. Prostitution mainly centred around the cabarets, where sexual encounters took place on a large scale, and openly in booths, or in rooms rented our in nearby houses. The cabarets were frequently in trouble with the police and commissaires charged with the impossible task of keeping order at the fairs, but they never succeeded in shutting them down.

And yet, with all the chicanery, fights and prostitution, the fairs remained a respectable place for all classes of society to go – even high-ranking ladies could be seen there, turning a blind eye to the insults thrown by commoners as they jostled in the crowd. At the fair, the line between fantasy and real life was wilfully blurred – rules were left at the walls of the abbey and theatre spilled out onto the streets.

In the 18th century, the fairs, which had entertained Parisians for 600 years, began to decline, and this was hastened by a fire which destroyed the fair at Saint-Germain in 1762 – a blow from which it seems never to have recovered. Something of the spirit of the fairs was maintained, however, and found a new home at the Palais Royal – which I’ll be exploring in my next post.

Fire at Saint-Germain fair in 1762

The fire of 1762, from a roughly contemporary engraving

Another view of the fire, from a painting by Pierre-Antoine Demachy which recently sold at auction in Paris. Thanks to reader Marc Philippe for telling me about this.

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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.

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Did Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love Ever Really Reign at the Moulin Rouge?

Yesterday found me watching Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. This, I must confess, is not an entirely uncommon occurrence. In fact, were I to feed all my innermost preferences into some kind of film-making robot and send it off for a few months, it’d probably come back with something very like Moulin Rouge! in the can. Belle Époque Paris? Check. Musical (including Sound of Music references)? Check. Naively simple yet cheaply affecting love story? Check. Absurdly lavish set and costume? Double check. With a bottle of French wine and perhaps a good cheese board and an oozing saucisson, it’s an indulgent guilty pleasure – especially with the simply ravishing Blu-ray.

This time though, as I was watching it, I wondered whether there was any truth in the story and its intoxicating portrayal of the Moulin Rouge itself. Was there ever a group of explosively creative, Bohemian artists, animated by the chance to live out their four tenets – Truth, Beauty, Freedom and above all things Love – who found their home beneath the scarlet sails of the iconic windmill?

The short answer, I’m afraid, is no. The Moulin Rouge was driven by, above all things, commercial success, and if it a giant illuminated sign had hung over the place, it would not, as in the film, have read ‘L’amour’, but rather ‘Cancan’. Contrary to some legends, the dance was not invented at the Moulin Rouge. Cancan had existed since the 1830s (originating not in Montmartre but in Montparnasse), but in its life before the Moulin Rouge it was a far more respectable affair – a little rowdy perhaps, with just a soupçon of reckless abandon, but essentially just a high-kicking, high-spirited dance for couples in working class ballrooms, with little to no flashing of knickers. When the Moulin Rouge opened its doors 1889, it took this tamely ribald little jig, supercharged it, yanked it out of those tucked away ballrooms and put it on stage for all the world to see. The reason for this change was a practical one – the dancers of the early Moulin Rouge were courtesans, and so this dance (showing off their legs, undergarments and, as time went on, a lot more) served as an advertisement for their services. The film does a good job of re-choreographing the cancan for the modern age, recapturing a sense of how shockingly physical and dangerous the Moulin Rouge’s version of the dance must have seemed in the 1890s, in contrast to the ploddy, clichéd affair it can seem today.

The cancan quickly became a sensation, with certain sections of society flocking to the Moulin Rouge to enjoy it, and certain sections flocking equally breathlessly to be scandalised. One writer in the 1890s described

the old English ladies and the young misses wrapped up in warm furs even in the midst of summer and who always sit in the front row in order better to ascertain the immorality of the French dancers [and who] cover their faces when it is over and then utter their properly indignant ‘Shockings!’.

Once word of the cancan had spread it was all anyone wanted to see, and so though the cabaret has played host to a string of legendary performers, the film’s troupe of groundbreaking thespians would in reality have had little to do. As the initial shock of the cancan wore off, the dance became more crude and explicit, so while ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ abounded at the Cabaret, it was not exactly of the romantic type.

But what about Toulouse-Lautrec – the poster boy for Bohemia? Didn’t he have his own table there, where he’d be found night after night sketching? Well, yes he did. He was originally commissioned to create posters for the venue in 1891, and he went on to feature the cabaret in many of his paintings.

It strikes me that there’s a big difference between the tone and atmosphere of this famous poster, capturing so much of the Belle Époque joie de vivre we still associate with the place, and that of his other representations of the place.

Self-portrait Au Moulin Rouge, 1892

In these images, joie de vivre seems to be to be utterly absent. There’s something at once stiflingly bourgeois and ghastly going on here. The deathly face in the image above isn’t at the height of ecstacy, it isn’t even under the spell of some chemical – it’s the reflection of a soul that yearns to be somewhere else.

Toulouse-Lautrec two women dancing
Au Moulin Rouge: Les deuxvalseuses, 1892

La danse au Moulin Rouge, 1890

In these two images there’s more of the office Christmas party than the freewheeling melting pot seen in the film. In Les deuxvalseuses two slightly tipsy but otherwise ordinary (not to say dull) women engage in a waltz of all things, the very opposite of the scandalising cancan. And in Le Danse, the drunk girl at the party lifts her skirts and dances with life and vigour (a figure identical to the one in the poster), but everyone else looks uncomfortable and bored. Top-hatted men circle the dance floor not joining in, not even enjoying the spectacle, but it seems tut-tutting, or discussing the weather. The woman in the pink dress is almost asleep. There’s an overwhelming brownness to the whole thing. It isn’t a place I’d want to be.

It would be wrong to project too much of what the Moulin Rouge is today onto what it was then – to imagine the top-hatted men as merely the equivalents of the coachloads of businessmen and bewildered tourists who turn up at the place today. For one thing, I’m sure it didn’t cost over a hundred Euros then. But there is a sense in these pictures of danger and adventurousness being dished up on demand for the mundane, who enjoyed their ‘Shockings!’, and the feeling that they were participating in the demimonde of Montmartre for the evening – almost as if they went on a Safari, gasped at the wildlife, and could then return to their humdrum lives.

This sense is only confirmed when you reflect that there were other clubs in the area that were more the Moulin Rouge of our imagination than the Moulin Rouge itself. In the 1870s the Nouvelle-Athènes club was a favourite haunt of Zola, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Huysmans and Degas. Le Chat Noir, which opened on the Boulevard Rochechouart in 1881 (and of course had its own poster by Toulouse-Lautrec) was started by the failed painter Rodolphe Salis, and its lifesource was the group of artists known as the ‘Hydropathes’ (because they were constantly thirsty). The Hydropathes provided the entertainment for the club, staging shadow plays or dramas, satires, songs, sketches, and insulting the audience as they entered. Le Chat Noir even had its own newspaper. Much closer, then, to Baz Luhrmann’s portrayal of the Moulin Rouge, in every respect other than the ardent right wing politics the Hydropathes were famous for. The Lapin Agile became popular with artists after 1903, with Picasso only the most luminous star to prop up its bar.

The Moulin Rouge of the film is then a distillation of the spirit of the Belle Époque (more potent even than absinthe). While it’s by no means an accurate depiction of the historical Moulin Rouge, it isn’t trying to be, and it succeeds admirably in simulating the giddy, heady thrill of a night out in turn-of-the-century Montmartre, minus some of the more sordid realities paying for sex and the surprise of finding a conservative polemic as the night’s entertainment. The hero Christian’s undying quest for L’Amour marks him out in the film, as it would have done in the Montmartre of 1900, where love was the only pleasure not readily available.  And there’s one last thing the film gets right – there really was a gigantic elephant in the gardens of the Moulin Rouge, which, as I discovered in this post from the Lost Paris series, is a bit of a theme in Parisian history.

 


The Elephant in the gardens of the Moulin Rouge, around 1900. The elephant was said to contain an opium den.

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Good Stuff: Things I’ve Enjoyed This Week

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Welcome to a brand new section on Culture&Stuff, where I share with you, my good and dear reader, some of the treats I’ve come across this week. Don’t be fooled by the graphic, these treats come in the form of things you can find on the internet and in book shops, not sweets. I never share my sweets.

  • ‘A palace of commerce and a 1904 rendez-vous’ on Parisian Fields. The owners of this blog stumbled across a sepia postcard in a market with the enigmatic message – Sunday night – received letter this morning. [I] count on you [to come] on Wednesday. Love to all, Jean – scrawled on the front. The card is postmarked 1904, and features a glorious Parisian building that they didn’t recognise. Most of us would have emitted a vaguely perplexed ‘Hmm’, stuck the postcard on the wall and forgotten about it. That isn’t Parisian Fields’ style though, and this bewitching post uses the postcard as a starting point of a miniature detective story, piecing together the history of the deluxe building. Sadly the identity of Jean, whom he is counting on to come and for what purpose must forever be lost to romantic speculation of the most achingly hopeless sort. This blog has a magnificent eye for telling Parisian detail, and benefits (unlike this blog – would it were not so!) from frequent, actual visits to Paris.
  • The blog Titillating Tidbits About the Life and Times of  Marie Antoinette has this piquant introduction to the deeply intriguing life of Chevalier Saint Georges, intimate of Marie Antoinette “deadly swordsman, skilled equestrian, gifted musician, and unmatched lover”, whose achievements were made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was born in Guadeloupe, the offspring of an illicit encounter between a French slave owner and a 16-year-old slave.
  • I also just finished reading The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, an epic, poetically beautiful novel that creates a thoroughly convincing, living, breathing, sweating version of 18th-century Nagasaki. The dialogue especially feels authentic and alive, without that stiff, museumy ‘period’ feeling so often created in historical novels. By turns an ethereal love story and a rollicking adventure, this is a book that rewards patience and tolerance of some stylistic quirks to deliver one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve read in a long time. Plus, the English hardback version is so beautiful, it’s worth having just as an adornment to your shelf.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, which is high praise indeed for this handsome volume. It’s even nicer in real life, with lovely shiny bits.

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Lost Paris: The Cimetière des Innocents

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There are lost parts of Paris that grab at your heartstrings. You yearn to rediscover them, to experience what it would have been like be there for a stolen evening. There are parts of lost Paris that should never have been allowed to die, whose absence, whether anyone still feels it or not, is a hole in the fabric of the city. And then there are parts of lost Paris that are much better off staying lost.

Deep in the latter category is the Cimetière des Innocents, that bulging, festering sore that could be seen blighting the face of Paris in the 1730s Turgot map. I often think that the best, if least pleasant, way to understand the history of Paris would be through smell. The precise arrangement and intensity of its patchwork of odours, both wondrous and (more frequently) stomach-churning, would tell you more or less everything you needed to know about the story of the city at any particular moment. But even in this history, even at a stage when one visitor in the eighteenth century described entering Paris as like being ‘sucked into a fetid sewer’, the nasal historian would pick out one stench above all others – the Cimetière des Innocents.

The Turgot map of Paris in the 1870s had a tendency to whitewash the streets of the city, but allowed itself rare and tellng flecks of filth for the Innocents (marked ‘Cimetière’ in the centre of this extract).

Paris’s oldest, largest and most infamous cemetery was found right in the heart of the city, near the bustling Les Halles markets so central to Parisian life. It accepted its first denizens in the 12th century, beginning life as a nice enough graveyard, with individual, orderly burials marked in the proper way. As Paris grew so did the demands on its principal place of burial, which, though the largest in the city, covered an area of just 130 metres by 65. When space ran out, mass burials began to be conducted – up to 1,500 dead could be buried in one pit, before it was closed and a new one dug. One gets the image of the dead of Paris being swept continually under this threadbare carpet, squashed down as best as could be managed, but increasingly given away by ominous bulges, the whole cemetery in my imagination looking like some nightmarish, flotsam-flecked sea frozen at the height of a tempest. But still this ground was expected to swallow more and more bodies. Things reached a grisly nadir in the days of the Terror, when bodies were simply dumped around the edges of the place.

 

The cemtery in 1783 – via Grande Boucherie.

Piles of uninterred body parts are never good for the reputation of a neighbourhood, and that of the Innocents was particularly fearsome. Charnel houses grew up all around the cemetery and worked tirelessly in a vain attempt to clear more space. This did nothing to help the smell, which was as if all the bad smells of the world had gathered in one place to throw a stench party. It was said you could catch a disease simply by walking past the cemetery, provided that is you survived your walk in the first place, unlike the poor shoemaker who fell into one of the burial pits one night in 1776 and was found dead the next day. The Innocents became even more unsavoury by night, when it was taken over by thieves, whores, necromancers and enterprising grave-robbers who sold fresh bodies to medical students. Scratch the simile about the frozen sea – this was more like the bit at the end of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, when you plunge into the debauched, unholy graveyard party.

A charnel house near the cemetery, with the Danse Macabre painted on its walls – via Grande Boucherie.

The situation came to a head in the 1770s, when the common grave of the poor of Paris began to subside, and bodies exploded into the cellars of nearby houses. In 1780 there was a fatal outbreak of disease in the nearby rue de la Lingerie, which scientific thinking of the time ascribed to ‘bad air’. After a long period of heavy rain in the spring of 1780 (when this frozen sea of nightmares unfroze), a line was drawn at last – the Cimetière des Innocents would never bury another soul. The church complained bitterly, peeved at losing the lucrative burial fees, but finally Louis XVI had succeeded in closing the cemetery – one of the greatest things he ever did for Parisians.

So where, you may wonder, are the bodies now? In that uncanny way Paris has, it turned hundreds of years of death and decay into a thriving tourist attraction – the Catacombs. The peace of those resting in the Innocents, if they ever had any, was interrupted when exhumations began in 1786. In an unusually saucy detail, the Wikipedia entry for the cemetery notes that

“Many bodies had incompletely decomposed and had turned into fat (margaric acid). During the exhumation, this fat was collected and subsequently turned into candles and soap”.

Go Wikipedia! The new home for those bodies that escaped a new life in a bathtub was to be Denfert-Rocherau, an abandoned quarry that had provided the stone to build the city in its early days, and whose tunnels had been rediscovered at the end of the 18th century. Not only did this warren offer ample space to house the remains, the tunnels were also rumoured to harbour revolutionaries and insurrectionists, so blocking them with piles of bones served a useful political purpose. Andrew Hussey, in his Paris – The Secret History, highlights the peculiarity of the scenes that ensued in the two years of the exhumation.

The early years of the nineteenth century, the so-called ‘century of light’, were marked by the night-time manoeuvres of corpse-carriers, shifting the bones of the dead from one end of the city to another, trailed by a retinue of priests intoning prayers for the dead.

Master of early photography Nadar made pioneering use of artificial light to capture some of the most evocative images of the catacombs ever taken.

With the closing of the Innocents and all other cemeteries within the city limits, the dead of Paris would now be buried away from the centre, in the then peripheral new cemeteries of Montparnasse, Montmartre and Pére-Lachaise. Facing the reality of death was now no longer an everyday part of of Parisian life – it was pushed out of sight, and in the catacombs arranged in neat, orderly patterns. If you had a mind to one idle Saturday afternoon, you could pay the price of admission and visit the underworld of the catacombs, but if not it need never trouble you. But though death in Paris was now out of sight, the events of the restless 19th century conspired to make sure it was never very far out of mind, and even the new Père Lachaise Cemetery, designed to be the very antithesis of the Innocents, would acquire its own bloody history when 147 Communards were shot there on 28th May 1871.

Next time you’re wandering around Paris and you find yourself complaining about how dreadfully sordid, how unsettlingly like a rat’s nest the Les Halles shopping centre and metro hub is, spare a moment to remember what was here a few centuries ago, in all its grim detail. Just don’t do it during lunch.

Traces Today

The only remaining physical link to the cemetery is the Fontaine des Innocents, in the place Joachim-du-Bellay in the Les Halles district. The fountain, built in the 16th century for the entry into the city of Henri II, once stood against the wall of the cemetery. The fountain itself is worth a visit – it tends to get overlooked, located as it is in one of central Paris’ least attractive enclaves, but up close is a really rather beautiful little survivor of the Renaissance.

Les Halles


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The Fontaine des Innocents by Kmlz on Wikimedia Commons.



The fountain, in its original form, abutting the walls of the cemetery. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones Superb, detailed and comprehensive history of the city, from before it was even Paris to modern times.
  • Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey A more social take on the history of Paris, with plenty of saucy detail.
  • Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne Wide-ranging and reliable account, especially good on the 19th century.

 

  • The image used at the top of this article is by Joshua Veitch-Michaelis onWikimedia Commons.

 

 

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