Being In Paris Mediaeval

photo: hotel de sens

The 'mediaeval' Hôtel de Sens is in daily use as a library.

'It Floats Better Than It Sinks'

Paris:- Wednesday, 7. February 2001:- Now that Paris is fully launched into the fever of its municipal election campaign - joyously known locally as the 'Battle for Paris' - it seems safe enough to slip back to mediaeval times when affairs weren't quite so tidy as they are today.

To begin with, 'mediaeval times' were not the 'dark ages' - although these began in the early middle ages, which are considered to have started with the end of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD.

Before then, the un-Roman Sainte-Geneviève frightened Attila and his horrible Huns away in 451, making Paris safe enough for Clovis, a converted barbarian, to make it his capital in 508.

Since then it has been Paris' fate to have its ups and downs. When the mighty Charlemagne was running the show in the 8th century, he chose Aachen as France's headquarters, and this caused 'dark ages' to happen to Paris for many years, until Count Eludesphoto: narrow rue du prevot beat off the besieging Norman 'barbarians' in 888.

After this, the long and blank 'dark ages' history takes a big jump forward to the early 12th century, to the time of Abbot Sugar's cathedral building at Saint-Denis and the Louis' - numbers VI, 'The Fat' - and VII, 'a great two-time Crusader' - who had to wait until a third marriage which resulted in Philippe Auguste and his eventual wall around Paris.

The Rue du Prévôt is still sub-standard, even in mediaeval terms.

Unfortunately for Louis VII, Louis' first wife - Eleanor of Aquitaine - later married Henry Plantagenet, also known as 'II,' who became King of England in 1154, and this caused a lot of problems in France. But on the whole, this Louis had an eventful life and outwitted many enemies until turning over control to Philippe, also known as 'II' as well as 'Auguste.'

Around this time Paris had no municipal council. Instead it was run by the follows who controlled the Seine's waterfront, and their head guy was called the Prévôt des Marchands - which more or less gave the city its present-day ship logo and motto - 'Fluctuat nec mergitur' - which more or less means 'It floats better than it sinks.'

This was a golden age for Paris - especially for the merchants, because they were doing very well indeed - by controlling the city's import-export trade. But by the following century they felt menaced by the monarchy - which wanted the monopoly for itself - until Jean II 'The Good' got captured by the British at Poitiers in 1356.

Taking advantage of the situation, Etienne Marcel, the Prévôt des Marchands, attempted to resurrect local power by means of an insurrection, but was bumped off.

Charles V, trying not to totally alienate the merchants, managed to ease them out of their monopoly and install his own man, the Prévôt du Châtelet. This name came from his control of the horrible jail, once located at Châtelet.

This - over-control? - resulted in his successor, Charles VI 'The Mad,' having to put down violent anti-tax revolts in 1382. Then he had to come back with an army and capture Paris on Monday, 27. January 1383.

This annoyed the citizens so much that he had to back off in 1389, which eventually led in a civil war in 1412 - which also reintroduced municipal institutions again.

But the good burgers - the 'hansa' of merchants - also endorsed the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which benefitted Henry V of Britain. For doing this, Charles VII never forgave the Parisians.

When he recaptured Paris from the British in 1436 he kept iron-fisted control of it, and this continuedphoto: entry hotel de sens right up to the reign of François the First, which began in 1515.

The 'Hundred Years' War' came to an end around this time and so did mediaeval days. These were followed by the renaissance of the 'beautiful' 16th century, which ushered in the beginning of the 'Wars of Religion' for a change of name, for these were pretty much the same old feuds between the same old two main clans.

The entry to the Bibliothèque Forney, in the Hôtel de Sens.

You might be inclined to think all of this might be some fairy story, if it wasn't for the fact that Paris still has - besides some odd bits of Roman ruins - some mediaeval buildings, in very good shape - and in daily use.

How they survived revolts, fires, floods, plagues, wars, revolutions, empires, rebellions, republics, counter-revolutions, fraud, taxes and generations of property speculators is any historian's guess.

In 1407, in the middle of one of the countless civil wars, 'Fearless' Jean arranged for the assassination of his cousin, Louis, the Duke of Orléans. Then he became frightened of revenge and had a fortified tower built for himself, and installed himself on its top floor with lots of guards on the lower floors.

After 13 years of restorations, you can visit Fearless Jean's highrise hideout at 20. Rue Etienne Marcel - the same Etienne Marcel who was assassinated, who also has the nearby métro stop named after him.

There are also two surviving houses from this period. One is Nicolas Flamel's, built in 1407 - therefore built during a civil war - and it is a restaurant today so you can have lunch in it too. It's at 51. Rue de Montmorency. The other house was built later, at 13. Rue François-Miron, most likely during a civil war too.

The Hôtel de Sens was built in 1475 for the archbishop, Tristan de Salazar, as the Paris residence of the archbishops of Sens - as no archbishop worth his salt was without a respectable Paris townhouse.

In fact, the rest of France - the nominal homes of these archbishops - was unfit for fancy townhouses. The dumpy places they came from were simply not suitable for real estate speculation, while Paris was - and is.

The Hôtel de Sens is also known today as the Bilbiothèque Forney, and it houses the city's important posterphoto: cluny stairway collection. Like some other libraries around Paris, it is truly mediaeval inside too. It is open to all to look it over, or to obtain a library card on presentation of suitable ID.

No complete mansions of the nobility from this period remain, but there is a fragment - a whole twin-towered front door - of the Hôtel de Clisson, built between 1372 and 1375, at 55. Rue des Archives. Olivier de Clisson was one of Charles VI's better-off constables.

A stairway in the Musée National du Moyen Age.

The best-known of these remaining mediaeval 'hôtels' is probably the building that belonged to the abbots of Cluny, built almost on top of the thermal baths the Romans left behind - the 'Thermes de Julien' - near the corner of the boulevards of Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain.

While the 'dark ages' were happening, Parisians did without bathing and therefore had no need of Rome's fancier frills. While some of Rome's big streets were retained - the 'Paris crossroads' - some other mediaeval streets were no wider than a man, and served as both garbage dumps and sewers.

As early as 1222, a municipal order fixed the minimum width of streets at about six metres. All the same, you can stroll down the Rue de Prévôt today from the métro at Saint-Paul, and note that it is only from 1.8 to three metres wide.

From the 13th century until 1877 it was called 'Percée.' Then it was renamed for Charles V's prévôt, Hughes Aubriot, who laid the Bastille's first stone on Sunday, 22. April 1370.

Hughes Aubriot also had a hôtel here, which protected Charles V's hôtel Saint-Pol on one side, and the Bastille protected it on the other. In 1397 it became the property of the duke, Louis d'Orléans, and it was called 'Porc-Epic,' because of a pig on the duke's blazon.

This animal, the 'porc,' should also be mentioned, because pigs freely shared the streets with the rats. The city ordered residents to clean up their own bits of street in 1348, and another order made in 1318 called for exactly three street lights for the whole city - and one of these was sort of a lighthouse for riverboats.

With this information on hand, if you are touring some of Paris' remaining mediaeval streets - because there are more of these than remaining buildings - try to remember that you need to imagine the original odors - sewerage and garbage - and animals - pigs and rats - and darkness, if it happens to be night.

Meanwhile, back to the Roman baths. Pierre de Chalus, abbot of Cluny - an important mediaeval religious establishment just northwest of Mâcon - bought the property in 1334. Whatever he had built on it was replaced by the present building - in the 'flamboyant gothic' style - in 1485, by abbot Jacques d'Amboise.

It was sold as a nationally-owned property during the Revolution, and rented to the collector Alexandre du Sommard who turned it into a museum. The city of Paris reclaimed the 'hôtel' in 1842 and bought Sommard's collection, and founded the museum it is today - the national museum of the Middle Ages, with Julian's Roman baths attached, as a bonus.

By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with upcoming municipal elections. Just this - the present city administration decided that its mediaeval museum needed a mediaeval garden, so it added one with some fanfare to the Cluny museum last September.

This has replaced a perfectly ordinary Paris mini-park, probably used since 1842 by generations of Parisians, who were content with the way it was - with its view on the busy corner of the two important Latin Quarter - 'Roman' - boulevards.

Officially, all that remains of the original park are the chestnut and the plane trees - which the city also notes didn't exist in mediaeval times.

So far, the resulting, and as yet unfinished, mediaeval abbey's truck garden doesn't look like much - do you knowphoto: courtyard, cluny museum what the mediaeval ancestor of the carrot looks like? - are you excited by mediaeval herbs used for medicinal purposes? The upshot is, some residents would like their old park back.

Part of the Hôtel de Cluny's courtyard.

But they might be premature. Coming up - in spring I guess - are two new subsections - the celestial garden and the garden of love. The first is supposed to allied to the followers of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and it is enclosed - 'hortus conclusus' - for serenity and serious contemplation.

The other garden is more literary and less spiritual, with a sensuous mediaeval flavor, of scents - and it will also be enclosed, but for more romantic reasons.

The overall beauty of this mediaeval garden is not immediately apparent in the middle of winter and this may be partly on account of it only being opened to the public last September, at what may have been the end of the growing season.

With spring coming and tens of thousands of students in the neighborhood, Paris new mediaeval garden may well find its true fans, and not only among history students. By April, the city will have a new municipal council too.

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