On the Rue de Mouffetard

photo: bar le mouffetard

At he beginning of the marché part, a café named
for the street.

The Gauls, Rome and the Marché

Paris:- Saturday, 28. August 1999:- The Rue de Mouffetard is generally described as part of the Roman road from Italy; the one Roman legions used to come into Lutèce - long before there was a Place de l'Italie which was named in 1864 after the adjoining Avenue de l'Italie - also part of the long road - the old Route Nationale 7 - from Rome.

Mouffetard passes between the greater baths and the arena. If you want to follow it to its end, continue straight on to Rue Descartes, then take the Rue de la Montaigne Sainte-Geneviève and the Rue Galande to the Rue de la Petit-Pont - a part of the Orléans-Soissons road - and to the Seine where the Petit-Pont spans it.

As much I'd like to, I haven't got time to walk all the way from Italy today, so I start off from where I was last week - from Gobelins, which was once Mouffetard too.

I do not know if the Parisii, who settled on the Ile de la Cité in the 3rd century BC, were the first to have a path along the trace of Mouffetard, and therefore do not know if Julius Caesar's lieutenant, Labienus, used the route in 52 BC when the Romans arrived for the first time.

Unlike the normal Parisian welcome of today, the first Italian visitors were treated by the Parisii to a burnt-down settlement on the Ile de la Cité. This was only fair, because the Roman legions beat up the Gauls, led by Camulogenes, in order to take over Gaul.

There must have been some eventual accommodation because the Gauls generally resided on the Ile de la Cité, while the Romans situated their town on the left bank, centered on the Sainte-Geneviève 'mountain.' Mouffetard climbs the east flank of this.

Where Mouffetard now begins, at the intersection below the Saint-Médard church, is also the beginning of its street marché. For a Roman 'road,' Mouffetard is narrow, no more than six metres wide. With the marché boothsphoto: saint medard church and stands it is like a canyon, but cars are prohibited in it while the marché is operating.

This morning the crowd is really thick in spots. You are supposed to get here earlier than I have, but I feel the ambiance all the same. There is more space in front of the Saint-Médard church, which also has a little square and playground.

The Saint-Médard church, on lower Mouffetard.

According to legend, there has been a village here on what was the left bank of the creek called the Bièvre, since the 9th century. There were little farms and vineyards. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, wealthy people from Paris - 700 metres away - established country villas and estates.

Coming downhill, after the Porte Bordelles at the Rue Descartes, there was the estate of Jacques de Pacy in 1352, the residence of Cardinal Nicole in 1321, the one of the Bishop of Senlis, later that of the Bishop of Châlons, and the estate of Raymond du Temple, Charles V's architect; the Maison des Patriarches, and from 1388 to 1663, the 'Petit Séjour d'Orléans.'

By the 16th century, the estates were cut up, new roads were put through, cheap housing was created and finally the suburb of Saint-Médard was annexed to Paris in 1724.

The Saint-Médard church is located where the Pont aux Tripes crossed the Bièvre; and is thought to have been established in the 7th or 8th century.

Saint-Médard was the bishop of Saint-Quentin about 530, then bishop of Noyon and Tournai. He started the 'rose festival' in 545 at Salency. The original church, if it existed, was probably destroyed by the Normans and there is no trace of it.

Pope Alexander III, in Paris to consecrate the choir at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and place the first stone of Notre-Dame in 1163, mentioned the Saint-Médardphoto: rue mouffetard, saturday church as sort of an outpost of the Abbey of Saint-Geneviève. Actually all of this is very hazy, with little more than a mention of a recluse named Hermesende, paying rent to the abbey. The curés' names have been recorded only since 1330.

Saturday shoppers and strollers browsing the marché on Mouffetard.

The present church is a hodgepodge of construction carried out fitfully from the 15th century to the 20th. It has a cemetery, started in 1512, enlarged several times; some of which is under the present square beside the church.

The 1765 decree forbidding burying people within Paris' walls, was ignored at Saint-Médard, even when it was closed in 1793. In 1795 the police commissioner complained that the continued burials were 'prolonging the Ancien Régime.'

The 1727 burial of Deacon Pâris touched off a five-year period of public lunacy known as the 'Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard.' The origin was Jansenism, a heretical doctrine which emphasized predestination, denial of free will, and the idea that human nature is basically rotten.

Popes condemned Jansenism and a 'bull' was issued about it in 1713. However this too was ignored and some people fell into a 'epidemic of folly.'

Sects were formed and people submitted themselves to horrible atrocities until the police shut it all down on 27. January 1732 and the doorways to the cemetery were bricked up. The craze continued elsewhere in private, but when the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1762 the folly subsided.

If you look above the shop fronts, many of the buildings on Mouffetard retain traces on the popular quarter that it was when it was added to Paris in 1724. Some rare signs canphoto: hotel du carcassonne be seen - such as the Renard Barbé, the Trois Pucelles, the Rats Gouteux, the Poing d'Or, the Paradis Terrestre - if you look closely enough.

I looked for the stars and the romm rates, but this hotel has neither.

Maybe Saturday isn't a good day for looking for old signs and I should watch where I'm going instead. I look in some of the small passages going off to the sides and in some of the narrow side streets, some full of restaurants.

Above the marché, there are a lot of little restaurants and Greek-type fast-food places, as well as a few bars. Some are still closed for the season, of they are closed because it is early.

At the top of Mouffetard, the Place de la Contrescarpe opens out. It was formed in 1852 out of the intersection of the Rue Lacépède, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, Rue Blaineville and the Rue Descartes.

The place has been renovated to provide less of a camping spot for clochards, who used to be observed from the terraces of several cafés. La Chope seems to be the best situated to get the most sunlight for the longest period.

'La Mouffe' as a district starts a block further north, at the Rue Thouin. This is not exact, but from around Thouin there are a lot of restaurants, up to the place, and then from the place all the way down Mouffetard.

I knew a fellow who lived in the Rue Rollin and we used to sit in La Chope until we decided where to eat. The fellow had lived around there a long time, so he had no particular local favorites, and always wanted to go further west in the Quartier Latin.

The few times I tried La Mouffe' at night it was always with a crowd of six to a dozen. With this many, some of the smaller restaurants were hard to get into, to get a table together. It was rowdy in the restaurants and in the narrow street - like a year-round carnival.

For the sake of old times, I go into the Rue Rollin. It is narrow, in some places only five metres wide, and 183 metres long. It was called Chemin du Moulin-à-Vent and Puits-de-Fer in 1539, then Rue des Morfondus. From 1672 to 1867 it was the Rue Neuve-Saint-Etienne-du-Mont when it wasn't Rue Neuve-Saint-Etienne-Saint-Marcel in 1816. Since 1867 it has been Rue Rollin.

Ten years afterwards, it lost the part that is now the Rue de Navarre, on account of being cut by the Rue Monge, and the stairs at its end were added because of the sharp drop.

Pascal did not die in the building at number two on 19. August 1662, because his brother-in-law did not rent it until six weeks later. Charles Rollin did live at number eight, where he died destitute at 80 in 1745, on account of defending the Jansenites a protesting against the Papal 'Bull.' In retirement, he wrote an unfinished Roman History.

Descartes lived in number 14 one of the three times that he lived in France; in 1644, 1647 and 1648. After 20 years spent in Holland, he was invited to Sweden where he feared the climate would do him in - and it did, in 1650. After six years his corpse was returned to France where it did a tour of burial places before ending up inside Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1819.

The fellow I knew lived in number 19, which contains traces of the Hôtel des Morfondus, built in 1620, in the courtyard. The stairways were narrow and the ceilings low.

At the bottom of Rue Rollin, I cross Monge and go around the Rue de Navarre to the entry of the Arènes de Lutèce, which are roughly dated to around 200 AD. The arena wasn't used for more than about 80 years, until the 'barbarians' arrived.

Everybody on the left bank sought refuge on the Ile de la Cité. They were so frightened, they demolished the arena for its cut stone and barricaded the island with it. What was left over, went for construction of the Saint-Etienne church in 375 and every other time a bit of stone was needed, the arena became less and more of a junkpile.

Some Roman Notions

I started out today with the idea of trying to think of what it may have been like to be with a company of Romans as they marched into Paris up the Rue de Mouffetard, coming from Lyon.

Since it is handy, I have taken a look around the history section of a big book store on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Except for an illustrated album showing what Roman Paris may have looked like, all I can find are: 'Romans arrive in 52 BC,' followed by one or a few paragraphs. I should be at Paris' Bibliothèque Historique instead.

But this is out of the way today, so I piece together the following from what I have on hand:

Julius Caesar was furiously empire-building in 52 BC when the Romans arrived after punching out the Gauls at Alésia near Lyon. Later in this long campaign, Caesar armies pushed the Germans back across the Rhein - and crossed the river too, to 'teach the tribes there a lesson.'

Roman Paris continued unmolested for 324 years until the first 'barbarians' arrived in 276 AD to burn it down. This was in the time of Aurelian and Rome regained control of Gaul, until 407-409 when Vandals invaded Gaul with the intention of staying.

The Romans in Paris, although far from home, added their usual municipal features such as a forum, a palace, a theatre and three baths - fed by a 15 kilometre-long aqueduct run in from Rungis.

The ancient Orléans-Soissons road became today's Rue Saint-Jacques. Even in Roman times it was made one-way on accountphoto: entry to mouffetard of traffic and the to-be Boulevard Saint-Michel was made one-way, going uphill, heading south to Orléans. These one-ways are reversed today. The main Roman east-west streets were the Rue de Cujas and the Rue des Ecoles.

Just before the Place de la Contrescarpe, with Mouffetard beginningon the right.

The Cluny baths, were possibly built by the powerful Parisian sailors' corporation about 215, during reign of Caracalla. What wasn't wrecked in 276, was finished off by the Normans in 885. Julian, born in 331, was proclaimed Emperor of Rome in Paris in 355 and later, in Rome. The last emperor of Rome was Valentinian III, who ruled until 455.

Sainte-Geneviève, Paris' patron saint, was born in Nanterre in 423. Her father was an influential Roman named Sévère, and her mother was a Greek, named Gérontia. When she was seven, she was blessed by Saint-Germain and Saint-Loup, who were visiting her parents. Soon orphaned, she grew up on the Ile de la Cité with relatives.

In 450 when Attila the Hun was on his way to sack Paris and the Parisians wanted to cut and run, Sainte-Geneviève said the Huns wouldn't attack - and in fact the Huns passed south of the city and were beat up at Chalons-sur-Marne by Aétius and Mérovée. Two years later, Attila was talked out of sacking Rome, but the Vandals were not put off in 455.

Thirty years later when Paris was besieged by the Franks - possibly led by Clovis - and there was famine in the city. Sainte-Geneviève managed to slip in 11 barges full of food. In addition to this, she regularly performed ordinary miracles, and died at 89, a year after Clovis. Since then, when Paris is in trouble, Sainte-Geneviève is called upon to save the day.

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