THERE are four thousand streets in Paris, and if you knew what their names meant, who the men were for whom they were named, you would know the history, not only of the town, but of France, the French, and of much besides.
Four thousand streets in Paris, and over two hundred of them (if you count squares, passages, and courts) are named for saints. There are more saints than generals, poets, and Napoleonic marshals put together. During the revolutionary period the “saint” was scratched off the name. Then the rue St Denis was called rue Denis. St Denis they say he was Irish came to Paris about 250 A.D. He was sent by the Bishop of Carthage to convert the Parisians. He was beheaded, says tradition, about 272. But, besides the Abbey of St Denis, founded in the 7th century where the town and cathedral of that name are, he has as a monument the street, rue St Denis. For hundreds of years this was the street for all the processions, royal and religious; today it has fallen from its great estate but deserves a leisurely walk on your part.
St Martin’s street was named for the patron saint of France, a warrior saint who fought under the Roman, Julian, in the 3rd century and who shared his cloak with a beggar, cutting it neatly with his sword as he sat astride his horse.
St Marcel, who has a boulevard, was the first bishop of Paris. St Cloud was the monastic son of Clodovicus, or Clovis the king; his mother, Clotilde, was named a saint and has her square near the Panthéon. St Germain gave his name to an Abbey, of which the church, St Germain-des-Prés, was the chapel. The boulevard which commemorates him is still synonymous with “old families of Paris,” for they had their mansions there in the time of the Revolution and in the time of Balzac, and a few are still there.
The rue des Saints Pères (Holy Fathers) was named for a monastery. The rue Ste Anne was once the rue du Sang (the street of Blood), and a dangerous thoroughfare after dark. St Geneviève has her street, and her magnificent story is painted around the inner wall of the Panthéon.
Strangely enough St Anthony’s street (rue St Antoine) has been a place of temptations not those of his tradition but of popular discontent. And yet the street has such a record of hard work that it would seem it had tried hard to follow his advice : never to be idle.
St Bernard, St Victor, St Catherine, and St Cecilia, have all been honored. St George is near the boulevards; St Fiacre, saint of the cab-drivers, has a small street; St André marks a monkish shoemakers’ shop; St Yves was the patron of lawyers, and St Honoré of the bakers.
You will find them all, the two hundred saints, if it is only in the directory, which is always good reading on a rainy day and almost as instructive as a dictionary. It is called a Bottin, after the man who first got one out.
But there are other names to amuse or amaze you: the Passage du Désir (of Desire) which has the gloom of a Buddhistic sermon; the Passage des Soupirs (of sighs) must have a story, too. And the Green Road (rue de Chemin Vert) leads to the cemetery of Père-Lachaise!
There was an Englishman and his daughter who walked all the four thousand streets. It took them ten years.