The Heart of the Quartier Latin

Courtyard Hôtel de Cluny
In the courtyard of the Hôtel de Cluny.

Middle Ages On Top of Roman Baths in One Museum

Paris:- Wednesday, 4. June 1997:- A couple of weeks ago, on one of the nice days we've been having in Paris lately, I was taking a short-cut from the boulevard Saint-Michel, to the east towards the boulevard Saint-Germain, and I passed the entrance to the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny.

This is an attractive affair, and it is right on top of Roman baths, some ruins of which can be seen from the boulevard Saint-Michel, at the corner of the rue du Sommard. I was tempted to enter, but it was late and I had another destination.

I last paid a visit to the Roman ruins more than 15 years ago. It was a gloomy day and inside the baths it was even more gloomy as well as damp, and I wanted a hot rum more than anything. It was also unnerving; I wasn't used to being in anybody's 2,000-year old bathroom, and I had a spooky feeling like the ones I used to get in Munich when it was dark and damp.

Times move on; the weather has nicer days - and anybody who has been around the corner of the two old boulevards, knows the gothic Chapel that the disused Cluny métro station has reopened after what seemed like a decade of construction work in the area. Also, since my last visit to the Roman baths at Cluny, I think the RER line was put in - and the combination of all this may have affected the site.

A wall and the ceiling of the gothic chapel.

The other complication is that the site is three-in-one. There are the Gallo-Roman thermal baths, which contain (or contained) a 'stones' museum; and the Museum of the Middle Ages, which seems to be within the Hôtel of the Abbots of Cluny, and all of it is sort of on the ancient site of the baths.

The Middle Ages Museum's brochure reduces this history to a couple of paragraphs. Even if we accept that not much new has happened on the site since the Hôtel de Cluny was built, starting about 1485, the nearly 1,200 years that passed between the construction of the baths until then, should be worth more than half a paragraph.

The general idea is that the baths date to about 215, or, during the reign of Caracalla, which was from 212 to 217. The baths were probably built after the Arénes, and since a museum brochure page they were wrecked by the barbarians around 275-285, did not serve long. The Norsemen took another whack at them in 885. Then the Parisians starting building around them, and finally on top of them.

A brochure page, with 'La Dame à la Licorne' and the 'Histoire de Job' in stained glass.

The largest room, the 'frigidarium,' is 15 metres high and it was covered in a layer of dirt and vegetation two metres thick, and served for a time as sort of an elevated terrace for the Hôtel de Cluny. There are also supposed to be the 'caldarium' for steam baths and 'tepidarium' for tepid. I was in these today, but since they have - except for the 'frigidarium' - been filled other items, it is hard to tell where the Roman part leaves off and the late middle-ages hôtel starts.

On the ground floor, room eight is within the baths - the 'caldarium' I guess - but the room is used for displaying nine carved stones, found under the choir of Notre-Dame on 16. March 1711.

These stones are estimated to date from 14 to 37 AD - the reign of Tiberius - and are probably from a Roman religious pillar, because all of their gods are inscribed on it - Jupiter, Castor, Mars, etc. - plus five Gallo gods - Esus, Tarvos, Trigaranus, Cernunnos and Smertrios - the killer of serpents.

I have a reason for putting in these names; because I normally don't include this sort of detail. In visiting this combo-museum, you start from a modern Paris street, the place Paul Painlevé to be exact, and then enter a 15th century courtyard surrounded by an appropriate hôtel. In exploring the hôtel, the further you go into it, the further you go back in time - to the 'zero' century stones, for example.

Luckily, there is not much in the oldest part, because the collection in the middle ages part makes the place a sort of department store of the mediaeval.

None of this do I remember from my only other visit. Well, I remember the 'frigidarium' because it was cold and damp - but the mediaeval collection was a surprise.

At the entry I had to wait for a few minutes for the museum's press service fellow, and I looked over the guest book. Judging from comments from the past couple of weeks, the museum's items are in desperate need of being tagged in Italian and Spanish; and this makes sense because Ensignes those countries were very much 'centres of the world' in the 14-16th centuries.

While waiting, I also got the chance to 'feel' the museum's style of reception. It reminded me of my long-ago first visit to the Prado in Madrid; a world-class museum not yet aware of its major importance - 'come in, look around, stay as long as you want.' Naturally, you are supposed to check your bags, but Autel d'Or de Bâle mine was forgotten. For the press service, they want you to make a rendez-vous, but the good man saw me all the same, despite a looming appointment.

The 11th century 'Autel d'Or de Bâle.'

In other words, it is still a comfortable museum to visit. It is a good thing too, because the collection is stunning.

In our machine age of plastic and synthetic, when very few of us have ever made anything with our hands, it takes a bit of thinking to realize the importance of antique artifacts. To make things, our ancestors had to make tools; to make things our ancestors had to have time - and all too often life was short.

In this museum there are wood carvings, stained-glass windows, things made out of precious metals, stone sculptures and tapestries - some of them beautiful items dating from the 11th century. While our ancestors were being 'mediaeval' and having their wars, famines and plagues; they were the Frigidarium making these things. What, I want to know, has been made in the latter half of the 20th century, can match it?

'Frigidarium' or not, sunlight hits its floor.

Near the exit I come across some armor and weapons. These items, in comparison to much else in the museum, are somewhat crude. Looking at a 15th century sword, I think it looks... Used. The handle is worn, the modest gold decoration is almost rubbed off and the blade edge has dents in it. It is a heavy-duty sword, not one of the court-approved dress swords - somebody used it for hacking somebody who was probably wearing armor.

A nearby helmet looks as shinny as if it were made last week by a clever tin-smith, but it is 600-year-old steel. It is in such mint condition I assume the owner was befallen by some misfortune before he got a chance to meet the man who owned the used sword.

Most of the thousands of other items in the museum were made for decoration of some sort, and as such, there are many brilliant examples of the finest craftsmanship. It was kept at home, church or castle and didn't travel much, except in the form of gifts.

But the sword; I wonder where it had been.

Musée National du Moyen Age - Thermes de Cluny
6. Place Paul Painlevé, Paris 5. Métro, Cluny.

Entry charge: adults 30 francs, ages 18 to 25, 20 francs and children, free. Group visits; info tel.: 01 53 73 78 16. The museum has a book shop, just beyond the reception.

Use of tripods and flashes are forbidden due to the fragility of some colors, and therefore much in the museum is too dim to photograph. Some of the illustrations here are taken from museum brochures.


The idea for this feature was suggested by Metropole Paris reader Craig Tredeau, who wanted to know about some excavations at the site he saw there 'about five years ago.' I forgot to ask about this, but I came across a note saying the southern edge of the thermal baths has not yet been found, because it is somewhere under modern Paris.


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