Paris – The Ancient City

Old engravings picture the cathedral rising supreme between its cloisters on the one hand and the imposing mass of the Episcopal Palace on the other, while the ancient Parvis—the terrestrial paradise—an intimate narrow strip of clear space, was further hedged in by the massive structure of the original Hotel-Dieu, which occupied the strip of greenery on the right side of the Place du Parvis, now dedicated to the statue of Charlemagne, and, bridging the Seine, took root on both island and mainland. The cloisters were entered by the little Porte Rouge, which still exists, and growing close to the cathedral, forming a prolongation of its architecture, occupied all the space to the left; now marked by the Rue du Cloitre Notre Dame. From remotest times the bishops of Paris had for official residence a vast edifice standing between the cathedral and the southern arm of the Seine. High towers gave it the effect of a feudal castle, and extensive rooms served for great ecclesiastical assemblies. A small street or passage separated Notre-Dame from the Episcopal Palace.

All about Notre-Dame was grouped a conventual population—monks, priests, abbots, friars, canons, capuchins, choristers, beadles, nuns—belonging not only to the cathedral but attached to the numerous dependances and chapels. The Place du Parvis was a scene of continuous activity, of comings and goings, the atmosphere charged with the perfumes of censers, the air vibrant with the music of quaint chimes, or the hum of the great bourdons of Notre-Dame, all life seemingly drawing upon the big church as the source of animation, itself the pivotal point of this little universe.

The priests of the fifteen parochial churches clustered about the parent edifice were in those early times obliged to come to Notre-Dame daily to read the breviary, for, according to Sauval, be-fore the invention of printing the divine office for each day in manuscript was to be found chained to the first pillar each side of the nave for the convenience of the priests who had not means to own such expensive books.

Projecting back several centuries, one sees Paris as a small mediaeval city, having grown but little beyond Caesar’s Lutetia, its churches and houses crowded upon the island, or grouped close to the right and left banks of the river, the vast bulk of Notre-Dame emphasized and exaggerated by the dwarfish proportions of its environment. Such bridges as at this early date spanned the two arms of the river, joining the island to the main-land, were so covered with shops and houses as to conceal completely their identity as bridges; they appear to be merely continuations of the streets which they unite.

The Petit Pont was the first means of communication between the island of Paris and the mainland. It replaced one of the two older Roman bridges, and led to the then modern Rue Saint-Jacques, which followed the route of the old Roman road to Orleans. It was rebuilt of stones by the bishop Maurice de Sully, to make a firm passage to his cathedral and to the episcopal residence, but owing to the turbulence of the river at this point, where it rushed through a narrower channel, and also we are to suppose because of the famous rising of the Seine which to this day is a constant menace to the city, the bridge was over and over again carried away and rebuilt between 1206 and 1393, when a mere passerelle of wood furnished a foot-bridge for travellers. At about this date parliament found an ingenious means of rebuilding the Petit Pont without further drain upon the public treasury.

It seems that seven Jews, guilty of having tried to bring back to their faith a converted brother, were condemned: first, to be beaten with rods ” on three Saturdays in three different places “; second, to pay ten thousand livres parisis, of which nine thousand five hundred should be employed in the reconstruction of the Petit Pont; third, to be kept prisoner until the entire sum was paid; fourth, to be banished from the realm; fifth, to have all their goods confiscated—ce qui eut lieu (which was done) is the laconic terminating remark of this vicious document.

There exist in manuscript some old Latin verses by a prior of the Abbaye Saint-Victor, called Godefroy, written during the second half of the XIIth century, and entitled “De Parvi Pontanis,” which give some curious details concerning the Petit Pont at that time. Roughly translated the story which Godefroy relates is this: Some men built a bridge with their own hands and made a convenient passage over the water; each built himself thereon a house, and from this they were called Parvi Pon tins, dwellers on the bridge. The materials are as handsome as the architecture. The under part is formed of piles and cut stones, and this solid structure is supported upon columns as strong as bronze. The upper part is paved with stones and decorated with devices in gold and silver, and the route is furnished on both sides with walls high enough to prevent the inexperienced from falling off, but has also exedras (such as distinguish the present Pont-Neuf) from which people may see the water and sound its hidden depths. Some come hither to enjoy bathing, to refresh their limbs from the heat of summer. Here also is a school of venerable doctors, eminent in science as in their manners, who instruct the ignorant population. Happy people who have such masters! ” 0 beatus populus talium rectorum.”

The greater part of the little churches and chapels of the island were suppressed at the time of the Revolution, in 1791, and many were destroyed soon after. Some, however, lingered on serving various secular purposes until well after the middle of the XIXth century. Many ante-dated the cathedral of Maurice de Sully.

The priory of Saint-Eloy was perhaps the oldest religious establishment in the Cite. The celebrated minister and companion of Dagobert, Eloy, who was artist, goldsmith, treasurer, and even diplomat—Dagobert employed him for everything—and who finally became bishop of Noyon and was ultimately canonized, having obtained a large estate from Dagobert, opposite the Palais, founded thereon a monastery which took his name. This monastery its founder placed under the invocation of Saint-Martial, bishop of Limoges, but it was later protected also by Saint-Eloy and Sainte-Aure, its first abbess, who died there in the plague of 666 with one hundred and sixty of her nuns. In the monastic church Philippe de Villette, abbot of Saint-Denis, escaped from the massacre of the Burgundians by clinging to the altar, dressed in his pontifical robes, holding aloft the sacred Host.

The enclosure of the monastery, called the Ceinture de Saint-Eloy, followed the lines of the old Rues de la Barillerie, de la Calande, aux Feves, and de la Vieille Draperie, all extinguished by the modern official buildings opposite the Palais, to the right of the Rue de Lutece. Ceded in the XIIth century to the Abbaye Saint-Maurles-Fosses, this monastery, after many vicissitudes, fell into ruins, when Monseigneur de Gondi, the first archbishop of Paris, gave it, in 1626, to the Barnabites. The convents of the church rebuilt by this order stood until torn down to erect on their site the barracks of the city. The portail of the church was transported stone for stone and applied to the Eglise des Blancs-Manteaux.

Sainte-Croix was a chapel of obscure origin, supposed to have existed since the VIIth century as a hospital for the nuns of Saint-Eloy. It was suppressed and sold at the time of the Revolution.

Saint-Germain-le-Vieux was originally a chapel dedicated to Saint-Jean-Baptiste, built in the year 693, but several times enlarged. It took the name Saint-Germain after one of the Norman invasions, during which time the abbots of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, whose enclosure stood without the walls of the city, took refuge here, and upon re-turning to their abbey left to the church in mark of gratitude an arm, or a bone from an arm, of their patron saint. Some authorities say that the body of the saint reposed here for two years in safety while the Normans sacked the abbey; others that, in the Vlth century, Germain, bishop of Paris, himself resided here, which explains the choice of the church as an asylum in the IXth century, by the religious order bearing his name. Saint-Martial, the choir of Saint-Eloy, stood to the left of Saint-Germain-le-Vieux. The Prefecture de Police and other municipal buildings, the Quai du Marche-Neuf, and the wide Rue de Lutece have blotted out every trace of these and others of the old churches between the Palais of the early kings and the Rue de la Cite.

Opposite Saint-Germain-le-Vieux, and close by the Petit Pont, stood until 1772 the Gothic portals of the two chapels of the old Hotel-Dieu, a striking feature of the edifice, added by Louis XI, who was a great benefactor of the institution. The origin of the Hotel-Dieu is somewhat obscure, but it is supposed to have developed from a hospital founded in the year 660 by Saint-Landry, a bishop of Paris, and dedicated to Saint-Christophe. Philippe Auguste built the first structure which bore the name Hotel-Dieu and Saint-Louis augmented considerably the work of his predecessor. Philippe Auguste gave the name, Salle Saint-Denis, to the first ward, Queen Blanche of Castille added the Salle Saint-Thomas, and her son, Saint-Louis, gave the Salle Jaune with two attendant chapels along the banks of the river.

In 1217 the chapter forbade making doors to the Hotel-Dieu for fear thieves would take refuge there. This recalls a curious act passed by the Council of Orleans under King Clovis in the year 511, which shows the importance of the place occupied by the clergy in relation to the Francs converted to catholicism. The acts of this assembly throw too bright a light upon the times to which they refer to be passed over in silence. The first law passed by the council provided for the complete safety of any person taking refuge in any church or in the house of a bishop.

The first canon of this council is perhaps worth quoting in full. It reads: ” qu’il est de fendu de tirer par force, et de livrer les homicidcs, les add-Ores, et les voleurs qui se seront refugies dans les asiles des eglises ou dans la maison d’un eveque. Il est egalem cnt de f endu de remettre ces coupables entre les mains de quelque personne que se soit, si, au pi-eatable, elle n’a promis a l’eglise, en jurant sur les saints evangiles, que lcs coupables ne seront point punis de mort, de mutilation de mcmbres, ni d’aucun autre peine afflictive. Ces memes coupables nc seront, point remis entres les mains des plaignants avant transaction. Si quelqu’un, dans les circonstances cidessus enoncees, viole le. serment qu’il aurait fait a l’eglise it sera tenu pour excommunie; les clercs et les laques s’abstiendront d’aucune communication avec lui. Enfin, si quelque coupable, in-amide par le ref us que ferait sa partie de composer avec lui, se sauve de l’eglise ou it etait ref ugie, et disparait, la susdite partie ne pourra intenter aucune action contre les clercs de l’eglise, a raison de cette meme evasion.”

Now the canons of Notre-Dame owned one-half of the Hotel-Dieu and the Bishop of Paris the other, so that the hospital, by a slight stretch of the old law of Clovis, might have been considered the house of the bishop and consequently a place of refuge for malefactors. Be that as it may, the great doors of the Petit Pont were not built until the reign of Louis XI, as was witnessed by the pedestrian figure of this king in one of the gables.

In the reign of King Robert, about 1005, Renaud de Vendome, the presiding bishop of Paris, presented the canons with his half of the Hotel-Dieu and in 1099 Bishop Guillaume gave them also the Eglise Saint-Christophe, which seems to have stood facing the Parvis to the left of the hospital.

Though the revenues of the institution appear to have been large, its resources were so restricted that the inmates, sick and well, are described as sleeping together upon the insufficient beds. Accordingly, the good bishop Maurice de Sully, who was called the father of the poor, had passed a statute in the year 1168 providing that there-after the beds of each deceased bishop and canon of the chapter of Notre-Dame, with their furnishings, should become the property of the Hotel-Dieu.

Under Maurice de Sully the clergy still lived in a state of exemplary simplicity, their beds were simply fashioned and simply furnished and were considered quite suitable for hospital service; but as luxury crept into the surroundings of the administrators of the Hotel-Dieu, it was considered sufficient that each should leave, in place of his sumptuous couch, the sum. of one hundred livres, a substantial consideration for those days. This served until 1592, when the secular directors of the hospital brought to the attention of parliament the fact that the poor were losing heavily by this lax application of the original statute, and claimed that ” le del, les rideaux, le loudier, la courtepointe, autres accompagnements des Zits des Chanoines” (the canopy, curtains, draperies, coverings, and other accompaniments of the canons’ beds), whether of silk, silver, gold, or any other fabric or material which luxury had added to the austere customs of the century of Maurice de Sully, should be theirs. This demand was ac-corded and in consequence upon the death of Monsieur de Gondy, archbishop of Paris, his creditors were condemned to deliver to the Hotel-Dieu his bed and all the appurtenances thereof.

The famous Salle du Legat, whose noble renaissance gable, besides the Gothic portals of the chapels, made the chief beauty of the construction, stood near the Petit Pont, and was founded by Antoine de Prat, the ambassador of Pope Clement VII. Owing to the restrictions of space a large hall was built upon an arch spanning the river, described as a feat of engineering in its day. (Cette route est un des plus hardis Ouvrages de cette espece.) And this hall communicated with the wing of the building which stood upon the left bank of the Seine, and whose recent demolition opens up that glorious vista of the cathedral from Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. And it now be-comes clear how this little church became in times of stress the chapel for the Hotel-Dieu, and was thus saved from the vandalism of the Revolutionists.

Old writers describe the original little Place du Parvis Notre-Dame as embellished by a fountain in the centre and planted opposite the portal of the Hotel-Dieu (until 1748) a large statue in stone, supposed by several savants to have been Esculapius, the god of medicine, by others Erchinouald, a former mayor of the Palais, in the reign of Clovis II, and who according to Fauchet etoit a ff ectionne a l’endroit des Ecclefiastiques

Pretres. A tradition ran that he had not only aided Notre-Dame but that he had furnished Saint-Landry with the funds for the construction of the hospital. But the scholarly Abbe Lebeuf states with great simplicity the now accepted theory, that this statue was one of those detached from one of the porticoes of the old cathedral (Saint-Etienne) and that, though greatly disfigured by exposure to the elements, it represented Jesus Christ holding the book of the Gospel and grafted upon the ancient Law, personified by a figure of Aaron or David, serving as a base.

Behind the cathedral was the Terrain, a garden for the use of the canons of Notre-Dame, whose houses were enclosed within the cloisters by a chain of old walls. An old plan de tapisserie, preserved in the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale, shows Saint-Denis-du-Pas tucked in behind the cathedral and upon the border of the Terrain.

Sainte-Marine and Saint-Pierre-aux-Bceufs and Saint-Landry occupied sites on the north side of the cathedral. Saint-Landry, founded before the XIIth century, perpetuated the pious souvenir of the bishop who founded the Hotel-Dieu; it was built upon the bank of the river where according to tradition had been the oratory of this saint. From 1171 it was apportioned to the chapter of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. Rebuilt in the XVth century, it was suppressed by the Revolutionists, sold and demolished in 1792.

The ancient Rue du Chevet led under the choir of this church to the Rue Saint-Pierre-aux-Bceufs, on the eastern side of which was a church of that name, a name commemorated in the figures of two bulls in relief which ornamented the door of the church. This was the Capella-Sancti-Petride-Bobus, mentioned in the bull of Innocent II (1136). The church was that in which Herman de la Fosse, converted to Paganism by his classical studies, attacked the Host, in 1503, and pro-claimed the worship of Jupiter,. for which his tongue was branded with a hot iron, his hand cut off, and himself finally burned alive. After the execution, so runs the tale, as an expiatory procession was passing, two cows, being led to the butcher, knelt before the sacrament. The church was sold at the time of the Revolution, and de-graded to all sorts of secular use. It stood until 1837. Its famous door was applied to the western entrance of Saint-Severin.

Sainte-Marine, upon an impasse of the same name, was still upright, though unrecognizable, in 1866. One of the oldest churches of the island (it dated from the Xlth century), it served as parish for the personnel of the bishops’ palace and the court, and was the church in which the free unions of the people were solemnized by enforced marriage. Dubreul relates the well-known history of the straw ring with which the curate of Sainte-Marine performed these ceremonies, enjoining the couples to live in peace and amity to the honour of their parents and to save their souls from the consequences of their sin and offence.

Near the Pont-Neuf was Saint-Denis-de-la-Chartre, an old church built probably after the incursions of the Normans, upon the supposed site of the prison in which Saint-Denis was said to have been detained. From earliest times the cell of the martyr had been transformed into an oratory, and in the year 1015 a convent of secular canons was founded by the knight Ansolde and Rotrude, his wife, to the glory of Monsieur Saint Denis. The church was curious in that, according to antique usage, it had within its enclosure two distinct parishes, one in the nave and the other in the aisles. Suppressed and sold at the time of the Revolution, it was completely altered but stood until 1866.

At the end of the street—Rue de la Pelleteriewhich opened opposite Saint-Denis-de-la-Chartre, stood Saint-Barthelemy, after Notre-Dame the most important religious edifice of the city. At first a simple chapel, founded and endowed by the Merovingien kings, it became the Eglise Royale, the parish church of the Palais. Hugues Capet gave to it the relics of Saint-Magloire. At the time of the Revolution it was undergoing improvements and in its unfinished state was seized by the mob and disposed of as a theatre and dance hall. It stood opposite the Grand’ Salle of the Palais, and its remains were demolished to make way for the new Tribunal of Commerce. Philippe Auguste was baptised in the chapel of Saint-Michel, situated between the Rue de la Barillerie (Boulevard du Palais) and the court of the Sainte-Chapelle, upon which it had its entrance. It disappeared in the widening of the street.

A door from Sainte-Magdelene when the last vestiges of this old church were demolished was applied to the presbytery of Saint-Severin. Sainte-Magdelene was an ancient chapel of Saint-Nicolas, built in the reign of Louis VII, in 1140, on land formerly belonging to an old synagogue. Enlarged from time to time, the synagogue itself was transformed into a church by order of Philippe Auguste, and took the name Magdelene in 1461. From the XIIIth century the curate of this parish bore the title of Archipretre, which gave him certain supremacies over the other curates of the diocese, and the little church was also the seat of one of the old con-fraternities, called la grande Confrerie de Notre-Dame, aux Seigneurs, Pretres, & Bourgeois de Paris. At the time of its demolition, 1794, it embraced the parishes of Saint-Leu, Saint-Gilles, Saint-Christophe, and Sainte-Genevievedes-Ardents.

The Revolution did its work so well that scarcely a trace remains to recall the existence of the innumerable chapels and churches which formed the surroundings of the cathedral, making of the island a completely harmonious frame for the greater edifice. What we see now is not even the first generation of buildings which replace those of antiquity. The Prefecture de Police occupies the older Caserne de la Cite, or municipal barracks, rising sombre and forbidding on the west side of the Place du Parvis, facing the great facade. The modern Hotel-Dieu, on the south side of the same space, is even less agreeable to the eye. It replaces the Hopital des Enfants Trouves, whose erection cost the destruction of many picturesque churches.

What the Revolution had left standing of the old regime, the insurrection of 1831 stamped out thoroughly and finally. The Episcopal Palace which had withstood the former tragedy was ruined by the later disaster, and one of the most gorgeous of spectacles, the pompous entry of a bishop into the city, was forever done away with.

Under Roman dominion Paris was comprised in the fourth lyonnaise or division of imperial Gaul, whose centre was the metropolis of Sens. The first religious districts were determined by the old political boundaries, and thus the first Parisian prelates had only the title of bishop while the seat of the archbishop was at Sens. It was Louis XIII, who, in 1622, obtained from Pope Gregoire XV the establishment of an arch-bishopric at Paris.

The entry of a new bishop into the diocese of Paris was accompanied by magnificent ceremonies. A distinguished delegation consisting of aldermen and other officers of the city, headed by the provost of merchants, advanced without the walls of the city as far as the Abbaye Saint-Victor (the site now covered by the Halle aux Vins) to meet the incoming prelate. The bishop mounted a white horse and the cortege proceeded to the Eglise Sainte-Genevieve within the walls and here his procureur fiscal called in a loud voice for the vassals of the bishopric, whose duty it was to carry the prelate’s chair. Two of the kings of France, Philippe Auguste and Louis IX, owned certain lands by which they became vassals to the bishop under the law, were liable to officiate in this capacity, but were replaced by knights of their house. Four barons, preceded by the abbe and monks of Sainte-Genevieve, carried the bishop to the Rue Neuve Notre-Dame, before the Petite-Sainte-Genevieve—Sainte-Genevieve-des-Ardents—and here the abbe presented the prelate to the dean and canons of Notre-Dame and these conducted him to the cathedral.

At the threshold of the cathedral the incumbent took the oath of office, swearing upon the Gospels to conserve the privileges, exemptions, and immunities of the church of Paris, and upon possession followed a solemn mass, after which the bishop was conducted to his palace, where he gave a banquet to all those who had witnessed the ceremony.

Little by little it was all destroyed, the pomp and grandeur disappeared, and in the upheaval of 1831 the palace was sacked by a furious mob who made short work of it and its treasures. An eyewitness describes the work of destruction: ” All at once they tore out the grills and ramps of the stairways, undermined the walls, split the ceilings, threw out of the windows marbles, wood-carvings, mirrors, furniture. A troop of barbarians made a chain from the bibliotheque of the palace to the parapet of the quay, and precious books and manuscripts passed from hand to hand and were tossed into the river. This was accomplished amidst savage chants and howls, while a sacrilegious mob formed about the enclosure a grotesque procession clad in sacerdotal habits. Thus were the archbishops of Paris despoiled of their ancient dwelling.”

Before the destructions of the Revolution Paris possessed at least as many churches as does Rome to-day. The city, including its faubourgs and suburbs, counting chapters, parishes, abbeys, priories, monasteries, communities, chapels, and leper hospitals, contained over three hundred ecclesiastical establishments. The XVIIIth century commenced by the demolition of several churches in the Cite and the suppression of a number of con-vents, but under the radical measures of the Revolution churches and monasteries were alienated to the profit of the state or adapted to public service, while speculators parcelled off the land and cleared away the monuments of antiquity.

Today the number of religious institutions is reduced to considerably less than one-third the former number, and of these only about thirty churches antedate the XVIIIth century, while not more than a dozen can be considered as belonging to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.