Medieval Remnants on the Streets of Paris

Trip Start Sep 15, 2005
Trip End Mar 05, 2014

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What I did
Walking the City

Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One of the things I love about Paris is the juxtaposition of Haussmanian/Modern/ and even Medieval architecture, on streets that were originally laid out in Roman times. From early Roman maps of Lutetia, to the maps from the 12-15thth centuries, one can recognize the layouts of the Ile de la Cite, Ile Saint Louis, and even the bourgeoning Faubourgs (at one time, the villages or bourgs that were just outside the city walls) that continue today. Meandering the narrow streets in the Latin Quarter, on the islands, and in the Marais, one often happens on remnants that harken back to those early days. We can easily refer back to medieval art to see the hallmarks of this city. It always amazes me that in Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Book of Hours painted in the early 1400s, the Conciergerie, the Louvre, and the Chateau de Vincennesare so recognizable. Wandering in the Carnavalet, Paris' historical museum of the city, one finds engraving after engraving, map after map, and painting after painting portraying a Paris of yesteryear that portray parts of Paris that still define the city.

Last Sunday I spent an afternoon with friends from home, showing them some of the sites of the Marais. I'd started our tour in the Village Saint Paul and pointed out the Hotel de Sens, one of the oldest buildings in the Marais, built between 1405 and 1507. We also came across a wall—now the back end of a school playground, which is the largest extant section of the outer walls of the city constructed in the 12th century by Phillipe-Auguste.

In search of other medieval remnants in the city, I spent today wandering north of Notre Dame (itself one of the most recognizable Medieval structures in the city.)

I wandered into Eglise Saint Lue-Saint Gilles, a medieval church not often visited by foreigners, with a lovely tower and a great clock from the 1800s looking curiously out of place on its facade.

I found the Tour of Jean sans Peur (Fearless John), a medieval tower somehow spared destruction off of a Hausmanian swath of boulevards. In 1407, Jean sans Peur, the Duke of Bourgogne assassinated his cousin,

the Duke  of Orleans, starting a civil war between the Armagnacs and Bourguignons. He fled to his home in Paris for safety, which was built on the the city's ramparts, adding the tower in 1409. Those ramparts, visible in the cellar, are among the few original medieval vestiges that remain in Paris besides the wall we'd seen Sunday in the Village Saint Paul and the ramparts one walks past in the basement of the Louvre if entering from Pei’s Pyramid.

The Tower was hosting an exhibition of the 'Bed in the Middle Ages’ a bit of an odd subject which piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately there was but one piece of furniture in the exhibit -- a recreated medieval bed. The exhibit would have been so much richer had real furniture of the era
been included, and even some examples of tapestries and linens or perhaps some of the wonderful medieval drawings and paintings that had been instead copied onto the informational banners. There was lots of information, but all I culled from it was that sleeping arrangements haven't evolved all that much: In medieval times, beds were off the ground, often with canopies enclosing them to keep out drafts, pillows kept the head up, doctors recommended six-eight hours of sleep, and people were encouraged not to go to bed immediately after eating. There was a panel discussing medieval bed linens, and also how they dealt with lice in the bed. They also had panels discussing the conjugal bed, the sick bed, and the death bed.

What I found much more intriguing was walking up the winding staircase and exploring the rooms in the tower, the markings the builders had chiseled into the stonework, the beautifully carved ceiling of vegetables and leaves by the Duke's bedroom, and the winding staircase that mimicked that of Charles V in the Louvre. Fascinating that one had to climb up four or five stories of the tower
just to reach his bedroom--but Jean sans Peur had his townhouse purposely built as a watch tower so he could fend off the enemies he'd created. Despite parts of the building being sold off over several centuries, it being used as a theatre in the 1500s (which became the nascent Comedie Francaise), a cabaret, and housing for a tinker and his workers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the tower remained in use until the City of Paris bought it 1868. After having a useful life for 400 years, it fell to ruin and wasn't opened to the public again until 1999.

My medieval walk continued  in the Marais and at 3 rue Volta I found the timber house house listed by some sites, but also disputed by others as the oldest house in Paris. The building now houses a Chinese restaurant and a hair salon smack in the middle of Paris’ newest Chinatown. I digress, but wandering through the backstreets of the area are the shops that  have sprung up to service the Chinese wholesalers that now dominate the western corner of the Marais. With their doors open today, the cacophony coming from the fish markets, hair salons and grocers was surprising-it sounded like everyone was yelling at each other in the cramped and tiny shops.


More impressive to me was another house at 51 rue Montmorency claiming to be the oldest surviving one in Paris. There is at least no question that it is the oldest stone house. Originally built by Nicolas Flamel (yes you Harry Potter fans might recognize the name), the stone walls are carved and chiseled with archaic writing and symbols,and the ground floor is still a restaurant, above which today are well-maintained apartments. Ironically, he apartments were originally built as charitable lodgings and a saying carved into the stone lintel exhorts the dwellers to say their paternosters and their ave marias daily after stepping foot inside its doors.The ground floor's history as some kind of inn or tavern dates to the Middle Ages, and the current eatery is called after the building's original owner. It looks charming, so perhaps we'll plan a meal at Nicolas Flamel. 

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