Origins Of Paris – The Ile De La Cite

PARIS is not, like Rome, London, Lyons, an inevitable city. It does not owe its distinctive place, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Melbourne, to natural position alone. Rather does it resemble Madrid or Berlin in being in great part of artificial administrative origin. It stands, no doubt, upon an important navigable river, the Seine ; but its position upon that river, though near the head of navigation, when judged by the standard of early times, is not exactly necessary or commanding. Rouen in mediæval days, Havre at the present moment, are the real ports of the Seine. The site of Paris is in itself nothing more than one among the many little groups of willow-clad alluvial islets which are frequent along the upper reaches of the river. The modern city owes its special development as a town, first to its Roman conquerors, then to its bridges, next to its mediæval counts, last of all to the series of special accidents by which those counts developed at last into kings of the nascent kingdom of France, and inheritors of the traditions of the Frankish sovereigns. It is thus in large part a royal residential town, depending mainly for prosperity upon its kings, its nobles, its courts of justice, its parliaments, its university, its clergy, and its official classes ; comparatively little, till quite recent times, upon the energy and industry of its individual citizens. We say, as a rule, that Paris is the capital of France ; it would be truer to say that France is the country which has grouped itself under the rulers of Paris.

The name itself points back to the antiquity of some human aggregation upon this particular spot. It is the name of a tribe, not that of their capital. The Parisii were a Celtic people of comparatively small importance, who occupied the banks of the Seine at the period of the Roman conquest. Their town or stronghold, Lutetia, called distinctively Lutetia Parisiorum (Lutetia of the Parisii), was situated, says Cæsar, “in an island of the River Sequana” — the same which is now called the Ile de la Cité. Two adjacent islands of the same alluvial type have long since coalesced to form the Ile St. Louis ; a fourth, the Ile Louviers, is at present enclosed in the mainland of the northern bank by the modern quays.

This stockaded island village of the Parisii was conquered by the Romans in B. C. 53. Under Roman rule, it remained at first an unimportant place, the really large towns of Gaul at that time being Arles, Nimes, Marseilles, Bordeaux, and Lyons. In the north, Treviri was the chief Roman settlement. To-ward the end of the Roman period, however, Paris seems to have increased in importance, and overflowed a little from the island to the south bank. The town owed its rapid rise, no doubt, to the two Roman bridges which here crossed the two branches of the Seine, probably on the same sites as the modern Petit-Pont and Pont Notre-Dame. The river formed its highway. Constantius Chlorus, who lived in Gaul from A. D. 292 to 306, is supposed to have built in the faubourg on the south side the palace of the Thermes, which now forms a part of the Museum of Cluny. Julian certainly inhabited that palace in 360. The town was known as Lutetia almost as long as the Roman power lasted ; but after the Frankish invasion (and even in late Roman times), the name of the tribe superseded that of the ancient for-tress : Lutetia became known as Paris, the stronghold of the Parisii, just in the same way as the Turones gave their name to Tours, the Ambiani to Amiens, and the Senones to Sens.

After the occupation of Gaul by Clovis (Hlodwig), Paris sank for a time to the position of a mere provincial town. The Merwing (or Merovingian) kings, the successors of Clovis, resided as a rule at Orleans or Soissons. The Frankish emperors and kings of the line of Charlemagne (the Karlings or Carlovingians) again held their court for the most part at Aix-la-Chapelle. The town by the Seine was so completely neglected under later sovereigns of the Karling line (who were practically Germans), that during the invasions of the North-men from 841 to 885 it was left entirely to its own resources. But its count, Eudes, defended it so bravely from the northern pirates, that he became the real founder of the French State, the first inaugurator of France as a separate country, distinct from the Empire. His provincial city grew into the kernel of a mediæval monarchy. From his time on, Paris emerges as the capital of a struggling kingdom, small in extent at first, but gradually growing till it attained the size which it now possesses. The Teutonic King of the Franks was reduced for a time to the rocky fortress of Laon ; the Count of Paris became Duke of the French, and then King of France in the modern acceptation.

As the kingdom grew (absorbing by degrees Flanders, Normandy, Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne, and Burgundy), the capital grew with it ; its limits at various times will be more fully described in succeeding pages. From first to last, however, Paris preserved its character as rather the official and administrative centre than the commercial emporium. Nevertheless, even under the Romans, its symbol was a ship. Its double debt to the river and the monarchy is well symbolised by its mediæval coat of arms, which consists of a vessel under full sail, surmounted by the fleur de lis of the French kings, and crested above by a mural crown.

So few remnants of Roman Paris exist at our day, that we will begin our survey with the Ile de la Cité, the nucleus of the mediæval town, leaving the scanty earlier relics to be noted later on in their proper places. But before we proceed to this detailed description, two other facts of prime importance in the history of old Paris must be briefly mentioned, because with-out them the character of the most ancient buildings in the city cannot be properly under-stood. These two facts — even if mythical, yet facts none the less – are the histories of the two great patron saints of the early burghers. It is not too much to say that to the mediæval Parisian, Paris appeared far less as the home of the kings or the capital of the kingdom than as the shrine of St. Denis and the city of Ste. Geneviève.

Universal tradition relates that St. Denis was the first preacher of Christianity in Paris. He is said to have suffered martyrdom there in the year 270. As the apostle and evangelist of the town, he was deeply venerated from the earliest times ; but later legend immensely increased his vogue and his sanctity. On the one hand, he was identified with Dionysius the Areopagite ; on the other hand, he was said to have walked after his decapitation, bearing his head in his hand, from his place of martyrdom on the hill of Montmartre (Mons Martyrum), near the site from which the brand-new church of the Sacré Coeur now overlooks the vastly greater modern city, to a spot two miles away, where a pious lady buried him. On this spot, a chapel is said to have been erected as early as A. D. 275 within five years of his martyrdom ; later, Ste. Genevieve, assisted by the people of Paris, raised a church over his remains on the same site. In the reign of King Dagobert, the sacred body was removed to the Abbey of St. Denis (see later), which became the last resting-place of the kings of France. It is probable that the legend of the saint having carried his head from Montmartre arose from a misunderstanding of images of the decapitated bishop, bearing his severed head in his hands as a symbol of the mode of his martyrdom ; but the tale was universally accepted as true in mediæval days, and is still so accepted by devout Parisians. Images of St. Denis, in episcopal robes, carrying his mitred head in his hands, may be looked for on all the ancient buildings of the city. St. Denis thus represents the earliest patron saint of Paris— the saint of the primitive Church and of the period of persecution.

The second patron saint of the city—the saint of the Frankish conquest — is locally and artistically even more important. Like Jeanne d’Arc, she touches the strong French sentiment of patriotism. Ste. Geneviève, a peasant girl of Nanterre (on the outskirts of Paris), was born in 421, during the stormy times of the barbarian irruptions. When she was seven years old, St. Germain, of Auxerre (of whom more will be said under the church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois), on his way to Britain, saw la pucellette Genevieve, and became aware by divine pre-monition, of her predestined glory. When she had grown to woman’s estate, and was a shepherdess at Nanterre, a barbarian leader (identified in the legend with Attila, King of the Huns) threatened to lay siege to the little city. But Geneviève, warned of God, addressed the people, begging them not to leave their homes, and assuring them of the miraculous protection of heaven. And indeed, as it turned out, the barbarians, without any obvious reason, changed their line of march, and avoided Paris. Again, when Childeric, the father of Clovis, invested the city, the people suffered greatly from sickness and famine. Then Geneviève took command of the boats which were sent up-stream to Troyes for succour, stilled by her prayers the frequent tempests, and brought the ships back laden with provisions. After the Franks had captured Paris, Ste. Geneviève carried on Roman traditions into the Frankish court ; she was instrumental in converting Clovis and his wife Clotilde ; and when she died, at eighty-nine, a natural death, she was buried by the side of her illustrious disciples. The history of her body will be given at length when we come to ex-amine her church on the South Side, commonly called the Panthéon ; but her image may frequently be recognised on early buildings by the figure of a devil at her side, endeavouring in vain (as was his wont) to extinguish her lighted taper — the taper, no doubt, of Roman Christianity, which she did not allow to be quenched by the Frankish invaders.

Round these two sacred personages the whole art and history of early Paris continually cluster. The beautiful figure of the simple peasant enthusiast, Ste. Geneviève, in particular, has largely coloured Parisian ideas and Parisian sympathies. Her shrine still at-tracts countless thousands of the faithful.

Having premised these facts, we are now in a position to commence our survey of the city. I strongly recommend the reader to visit the various objects of interest in the exact order here prescribed. Otherwise, he will not under-stand the various allusions to points already elucidated. But no necessary organic connection exists between the collections of the Louvre and the town in which they are housed. Therefore, they may be visited off and on at any time.

The Ile de la Cité, the oldest Paris, consisted in the Middle Ages of a labyrinth of narrow and tortuous lanes, now entirely replaced by large and stately modern official buildings. In Roman and Frankish times, it comprised the whole of the town, save a small suburb extending as far as the present Museum of Cluny, on the South Side. Among its sunless alleys, however, in later mediæval days, numerous churches raised their heads, of which Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle alone now re-main ; while others, dedicated to the oldest local saints, such as Ste. Geneviève-des-Ardents, St. Eloy, and St. Germain-le-Vieux, have been entirely destroyed. The west extremity of the island was formerly occupied by the old Royal Palace, parts of which still survive, included in the buildings of the modern Palais de Justice. On the east end stood the cathedral of Notre-Dame, with the episcopal palace in its rear ; while, close by, rose the earliest hospital in Europe, the Hôtel-Dieu, said to have been originally founded by Clovis, and now represented by a vastly larger modern building on a different site. As the burgesses began to shift their homes to the quarters north of the Seine, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Cité was gradually given over to the clergy. The kings also removed from the Palace of the Capets to their new residences on the North Bank (Bastile, Hôtel Saint-Paul, old castle of the Louvre), and gave up their island mansion to the Parlement or Supreme Court, since which time it has been commonly known as the Palais de Justice, and extensively modernised. At the present day, the Cité has become the head-quarters of Law, Police, and Religion, and is almost entirely occupied by huge official structures, which cover enormous areas, and largely conceal its primitive character. It still contains, however, the most precious mediaeval monuments of Paris.

At least two days should be devoted to the Ile de la Cité ; one to the Palace and the Sainte Chapelle, another to the Cathedral. Do not attempt to see them both together.