0003 - le clos du Laas

HISTORICAL SECTION 02 - The Rive Gauche of Philippe-Auguste – the central Latin Quarter, dit "l'Université".

If Paris' first inhabited region was the Île de la Cité, its second was here. After chasing the Celtic Senons from their island habitations, it seems that the Romans quickly outgrew it and established their permanent town to the southern shore of the Seine.

This roman village, called "Lutèce" by its founders, grew from its early 1st-century foundations until around the middle of the fourth. There may have already existed a roadway leading across the island to the north and south then, but to this the Romans would add to this in building roadways leading to their other colonial outposts through the lands. The central roadway, leading south from the petite Pont to follow the rue Saint-Jacques, was a road connecting to Cenabum (also "Genabum" – today Orléans) then Spain; from this main route, running roughly along today's rue Saint Séverin to turn south along the rue de La Harpe in a path parallel to the first was a secondary road known as the "via inferior" (lower road); lastly, branching off from the same point as the second to the east along today's rue Galande and rue Lagrange was another route that, following a path to the south still traceable through Paris's streets today, led to Rome through Lyon.

The roads described above made the pinnacle of the Roman village's main arteries, but its heart was further south to the tip of the historical quarter we are in now. This historical division was hard to make, as we are covering ground that was inhabited in two stages of Paris' development: Of the Roman first only the roadways remain today, but on this skeleton was built the second: that of the post-Norman invasions. As for the time in-between, it is hard to say that the Left Bank was settled; it is known that many of the stones from degraded Roman edifices were used to build much in the post-Roman period, but that is about all. Whether Lutèce was destroyed by the 5th-century Frankish invasions or simply fell to ruins is still a subject of much dispute.

In any case, if there was anything left on the Left bank in those years it is certain that it fell to the Normans. Most every edifice that couldn't be ransomed was destroyed. Building in the time afterward must have been difficult because of all the rubble and foundations that had to be removed before the ground could be built anew – it is most probably for this that Paris' inhabitants preferred, from that time onwards, to fill the Right Bank marshe sand build on virgin land.

With all of the above, the Rive Gauche would be slow to grow. Paris' post-11th century expansion as a capital and Notre-Dame's proximity did a little to help, but it was mostly Philippe-Auguste's creation of the University of Paris and the wall he built there that sparked a real growth.

In this historical section (02) we will be covering the second patch of land to be settled in the Parisian basin: the land just to the south of its Île de la Cité. Though the Roman town stretched much further south, I have limited this section to the inside of Paris' Philippe-Auguste ramparts – little remains of anything roman outside of this area, and these limitations will help for later clarity – as it will become clear as we progress through our walks.

Promenade 0003

Le Clos du Laas

The roadways described above were important in marking limits between the many fief and parish landholdings around Paris. This week's walk will cover the easternmost portion of a quite ancient landholding whose demarcation dated at least from the 5th century: "le Clos du Laas."

A "clos" is generally a walled enclosure, and in feudal times many of the properties through these lands were exactly that. "Laas", on the other hand, was a signification a little more particular: Latin "arx" (or French-Latin "ars"), meaning "citadel", when combined with the medieval French "the", which would be "li", would make "li arx" or "li ars".

This territory in particular had been attributed to the Abbey Saint-Germain upon its 6th-century creation. In 1179 its Abbott Hughes decided to split its easternmost region into plots available for construction; between the river and a roadway between Paris' north-south axis, these were arranged around a new "rue de Laas", or our rue de la Huchette of today. All of the above was added to the parish jurisdiction of the nearby Saint-Séverin church.

This quarter was the Rive Gauche's most animated in the between the 13th and 16th centuries. After growth to the south had made the heart of the Rive Gauche closer to the Sorbonne, this area entered a period of decline until it had become, in the early 19th century, a dark, sordid and dismal group of decrepit buildings destined for destruction. The overall age of this quarter did much to protect it from being rebuilt anew, although it took many a year to gather those willing to invest in it. Those dark years past, today it has been recuperated since by the tourist industry and, although it is rarely frequented by Parisians, is an animated quarter today.


Point du Depart: the Petit-Pont

From our spot in the centre of the Petit Pont we have a good view of the Rive Gauche riverfront. It is the land to the right of our bridge that concerns us today, but have a look to your left and the strange wood-and-plaster building rising rather haphazardly above the peaked roof of the house that fronts it: this building is a good representation of many others we will see today. Almost all Parisian structures between the 11th and 17th century followed this model with almost no change at all: A typical building then was built in stone on its ground floor, or "rez-de-Chausée", and on this would be built a framework of rough timber or "charpente". The outer walls would be formed by filling the framework with rough stone ("moellons") and mortar, and this in turn covered with plaster. This "half timber" look would remain the norm until, after a fire that had destroyed most of Paris in 1666, Louis XIV's decreed that all Paris' buildings be completely covered in plaster to lessen the chances of propagation of fire. Still, in poorer buildings this would only be done on the outer faces, and its wood is often still visible in its courtyard - as soon we will see.

Le Petit Châtelet

Before entering the maze of streets that is this quarter, let's stop for a second to the end of our bridge, on the land that once held one of Paris' earliest landmarks, le Petit-Châtelet.

Existing even since Roman times in the place where it stands today, it is thought that the Petit-Pont's mainland extremity, as was its "Grand-Pont" larger counterpart to the northern side of the Île de la Cité, had always been protected by some form of fortification or another. This type of bridge defence was common to Roman architecture, and it is most probable that later constructions serving the same purpose also followed the same model.

One of the earliest documentations about the Petite Châtelet is one that tells the story of one of the many 9th-century Viking attacks on Paris: In February of 886 precisely, floods had carried away the petite Pont to leave the petite Châtelet isolated, and its defenders were killed and the tower destroyed. Built in wood then, it is most probable that the Petite Châtelet was rebuilt in stone with the rest of the town's defences early in the next century.

We do know for certain that, after a flood in 1296 carried away most everything from along the riverbanks, the Petit Châtelet was rebuilt as a solid stone structure around 1369.

In this newer version, though it blocked what was then Paris' most travelled road, the Petite-Châtelet offered but a passage wide enough for one cart. It was obsolete as a means of defence even at the time of its reconstruction, because of the Philippe-Auguste city walls already in existence then; it served for little more than for a tollgate until, towards the end of the 14th century, its prisons (yet-unused) were annexed to those of the overcrowded Grande Châtelet. The role of a prison seemed to suit the Petit Châtelet quite well: of a dismal appearance, squat, square and unornamented, in addition to its aboveground prisons, its foundations held "oubliette" cells that, in addition to being constantly damp because of their closeness to the water, were almost closed to the circulation of air.

The Petite Châtelet was destroyed in 1782. If anything remains of its foundations, they would lie under today's Place du Petit-Pont – as there were no quays then, with the foundations of all riverfront properties dropping directly into the water here, they would be further back towards the centre of today's place du Petite-Pont.


La rue de la Chat Qui Pêche, la rue Xavier-Privas, la rue de la Huchette

All of the buildings to the right of our bridge date from the construction of the quai Saint-Michel from 1811. In crossing the street and progressing below them to our right, we come to a sort of mini-square with a lamp as its centrepiece: this is the mouth of one of Paris' narrowest streets, whose name is that of a former shop owner's sign: la rue de la Chat qui Pêche (the "Cat-who-fishes"). Further on to the same side is our entry to the heart of the former Clos du Laas, the rue Xavier-Privas.

This street's present name is only recent for, as we will soon see, it was called for the longest time the "rue Zacharie". This name in legend has many attributions, but the most plausible seems to be that of a former 13th-century building bearing the sign "maison Sacalie". The part of this street to the north of the rue Huchette changed names many times through the centuries, as, until the construction of the quay, it was practically a dead-end. Xavier-Privas was the pen name of the 19th-20th century poet Antoine-Paul Taravel who spent his last years in this quarter.

Once past the quite unremarkable first part of our alleyway onto the rue de la Huchette, we find one of the strangest buildings we'll see in this walk: quite typical of the haphazard destruction-construction history of this quarter, this one seems to have been wedged into the corner made by two already-existing buildings. Taking the rue de la Huchette to our right, you'll see that the building it is leaning against, number 21 rue de la Huchette dates from the Louis XVI period (1774-1791). Admire the ironwork in its windows; notice that the monogram in the centre of each seems to differ from apartment to apartment.

The rue de la Huchette, like the lower rue Xavier Privas and the rue Saint-Séverin we will see later, is something of a tourist-oriented "restaurant row" today. Perhaps ironically this is not so far from its 17th-century vocation: its name had changed then to "rue des Rôtisseurs" (practically "barbecue street") as it had become populated by meat-roasting merchants. In fact this street already had its "Huchette" appellation on a 1284 plan, this name being that of a "maison de la Huchette" that stood further towards the place du Petit-Pont.

Let's continue our way along the rue de la Huchette to its intersection with the rue de la Harpe.


La rue de la Harpe

The rue de la Harpe was one of the Rive Gauche's major arteries until the construction of the boulevard Saint-Michel in 1855. Beginning at the corner of the rue Saint-Séverin, It stretched much further south from its miniscule length of today; in fact, along with the "rue d'Enfer" further south (today the boulevard Denfert-Rocherereau), it was Paris' second-oldest roadway, as in Roman times the whole length was known as the "Via Inferior" (or "the lesser (or "lower") road"). The Petite Pont being the Rive Gauche's only connection to the Île de la Cité until well into the 14th century, the via Inferior turned to roughly follow the rue Saint-Séverin to meet the main roadway, today's rue Saint-Jacques, just below it. As for the reason it has its "Harpe" appellation of today, this can be traced back to a 13th century plan showing it named as the "vicus Reginaldi dicti le Harpeur" (or "street of Reginald, also known as 'the harpist'") – probably the name of a storefront sign.

A second bridge crossed the river at today's Pont Saint-Michel from 1378, which would by why the more recent portion of the rue de la Harpe above the rue Saint-Séverin is angled towards it. In fact this upper portion was called the "rue de la Vieille Boucherie" until its 1851 unification to the little remaining from the original rue de la Harpe after the Boulevard Saint-Michel's construction.

Before 1855 the rue de la Huchette and rue Saint-Séverin emptied into the rue de la Harpe and went no further; In the massive reconstructions of those times, these streets would be continued westwards until the boulevard, and everything along their path destroyed. It is for this that the only buildings of any age are to its eastern side, or to the left of our southward course.

The rue de la Harpe is interesting at its intersection with the rue Saint-Séverin – let's take a walk around the place, and as there are few buildings of interest in this section of the rue de la Harpe, take a jog over for a look at #34 rue Saint-Séverin. This is one of my favourite courtyards on this promenade; with its noble staircase and mask-topped archways… the greenery adds a very nice touch. A very kind lady living there showed me around, and we chatted while I took my pictures – it seems that this building has two levels of basement (a trait quite typical to buildings dating before the 18th century) but the neighbouring restaurant wasn't as near as obliging. There wasn't much to see anyways, she told me, because the restaurant had filled every centimetre it could with all its equipment and stores.

Continuing along the rue de la Harpe, most of these buildings date from this street's widening in the late 18th century – that is until we arrive at the level of numbers 35 and 37. We will have a closer look at the former, as it is the more interesting: Beyond its quite remarkable blue door and facade (classé "Monument Historique") we'll find a charming courtyard, and to its right an ornate stairway dating from around 1730. This property had the particularity of marking a right angle to open into the rue de la Parcheminerie which we will visit very soon: After advancing through a passageway joining this courtyard to another beyond, and entering a door leading to a stairway to the floors above, we can see a strange little doorway, today blocked with plaster, that at one time opened into the property beyond. We will see the other side later on, but it is too bad that we cannot see it through this way… the stairway here is interesting though, with doors added at all angles… let's take a quick look up then exit this property to continue our way along the rue de la Harpe.

We pass the mouth of the rue de la Parcheminerie, but let's continue on a bit before doubling back to it – at #45 we'll find a building from the late 18th century whose "monumental" door has also been listed on the "protected items" list of Monuments Historiques.


La rue de la Parcheminerie, la rue Boutebrie

Making our way back north to turn right into the rue de la Parcheminerie. This street, opened from the 13th century, was at first called "rue des Écrivans" as at one time one could hire one of the many scribes that would sell their services here. This name had become "rue des Parchemeniers" by the late 14th century, suggesting the presence of those selling parchment – which wouldn't be surprising when one thinks of the nearby Paris Université. Today's "Parcheminerie" is but a derivation of the latter name.

The rather unremarkable facades to the left of this street are ancient – number 30 dates from the 16th century. Further ahead, just past where the street widens we can see a charming building to our right at number 29: dating from the mid-18th century, its facade and roof are protected under the Monument Historique classification. Coincidentally its ground floor is occupied by a bookstore run by someone I have known since my very first years here in Paris – someone from the same country as I. I'll let the picture tell you the rest.

If you care to look to the opposite side of the street you will see the second facade of the building at 35 rue de la Harpe – it seems to have been rebuilt quite a few times in the centuries since its construction, and looks in need of renovations around its balconies. It still offers an interesting perspective, and you can see the remnants to the right of its facade of what looks to have been a supporting wall for another building that once stood next to it.

Moving forward we see the Saint-Séverin church to our left, but before we head there we'll perhaps take a peek down the rue Boutebrie to our right – Though unremarkable in its facade, #8 hides a supposedly magnificent staircase dating from the 16th century, also Monument Historique. I have yet to see it, but once I do you'll see it here. Just next-door at #3 is a narrow building dating from the same period – notice its peaked roof. As for the name of this street, it is a derivation of that of a count "Erembourg de Brie" who had a demure here.

Heading back towards the north you'll see a park to our side of the Saint-Séverin church – the square André Lefèvre – from where we can get a good look at the rear of what was once its "charniers". This term will have its explication to the other side of the church…


La rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin - Église Saint-Séverin

Since the early 6th century stood an oratory dedicated to the Saint-Martin on these grounds, attended by a priest named Séverin (dit-"le solitaire"). This monk would become the teacher of what should have been a rightful heir to the Frankish throne: In 524, one of Clovis four sons ruling the Frankish kingdom killed his just deceased brother's three children to lay claim to his lands. One of these, Chlodovald, managed to escape and sought refuge in a nearby monastery. Renouncing the throne by entering the orders, Chlodovald would become a disciple of Séverin the Solitary. Séverin would be sainted (and this while he was still living) and his student would later become the Saint-Cloud. This at least is what the legend says; you find it here for the French history it contains. The part about the kings is most certainly true.

Of any oratory standing here little remained after the 9th-century Norman raids. The ruins would be rebuilt into a chapel and baptised to Séverin towards the middle of the 10th century. Saint-Séverin became its own parish from 1210, a time around when it was rebuilt into a church.

Now that we're on the rue des Prêtres-Saint-Séverin, if you would care to look to the gate just to the right of the church you will see a small square that was once the church cemetery. The archways to see to its rear and right side the remains of the "charniers" whose rear you saw earlier – From as early as the 13th century, when Paris' population began to outgrow its cemeteries, parish churches began the practice of digging up the bones of mostly-decomposed bodies to pile them in aboveground houses, thus freeing the ground for new burials. Saint-Séverin was no exception – in fact the arches we see today are visible only because they have been recently returned to their original form: In the early 18th century they were covered under a rather bleak structure that added an extra floor above them. This restoration took place at the same time as the construction of the adjacscent presbytery sometime in the late 19th century.

Let's continue onward to visit the Saint-Séverin church itself. The ornate doorway you see before you wasn't always the church's principle entry, as this was once on the rue Saint-Séverin under its bell tower: The wall where we stand held only an unadorned secondary doorway until the decorative archway you see before you was brought here in 1837. The sculpted arch and columns belonged to a church dating from the same period as Saint-Séverin that stood in today's place du Parvis Notre-Dame, the church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Bœufs. Its destruction was one of the first that would ravage the Île de la Cité from the early to late 19th century (see promenades 0001 & 0002).

Moving to the side of the church under its bell-tower and its "old" principal door, you can see a remnant of its former importance in the almost unrecognizable lions you see to the lower each side of it – these once served to support a pedestal that would carry the archpriest's throne whey he gave justice, as from the 11th century the Saint-Séverin church, freed from its dependence on the Abbey Saint-Germain des Pres, became the centre of its own parish.

The original 13th-century church subsists through the ground floor of the bell tower and a few of its central bays. Built in the more sober gothic style typical to those times, much of these renovations disappeared under the next enlargements that took place from the late 15th century; the construction of its right wing and chapels, built in the more flamboyant style, began in a ceremonial first stone lain on the 12th of May 1489.

Though dedicated to the Saint-Séverin, the church seemed to have retained the memory of its origins as a Saint-Martin oratory. Passing pilgrims would nail horseshoes to its door to bring luck and safety – as Saint-Martin was the patron saint of travellers. Saint-Séverin was important as a church to the University quarter – its bell would sound the curfew each night.

If you would like to enter and have a look around you may – I'll leave you as your own guide for the time being. Just note that you shouldn't be alarmed at the state of many of the paintings and murals you see inside – though they look precious and ancient, most of them are mid-19th century reproductions of earlier works.

Once you are done inside we will continue onwards to finish our promenade along the portions of the rues Saint-Séverin, Xavier-Privas and Huchette that we haven't visited yet.


La rue Saint-Séverin

In all honesty I must say that I am disappointed in the face that presents this quarter today. It is extremely difficult to see anything of interest behind the garish colours of "theme" restaurants and tourist trap souvenir shops that line these streets – much of the places indicated in what I have read about this quarter are gone today. Still, with the above writ in mind and a lot of foot and eye work, one can still find a few places indicated, and even make a few discoveries as I think I have.

I suggest that we stay close enough to the Saint-Séverin to finish covering the street bearing its name. First turning to our right to continue under the church's gargoyles, perhaps you would like a last look up at the same's tower and facade.

The first thing of interest is a strange building dating from the Louis XVI period, and just beyond a doorway that looks very ancient indeed – it may date from as early as the late 17th century. It is a pity that the studded wooden door that it held is now gone – in its place is a shop selling tourist-targeted items. I found it worth the while to visit after the store opened, as it seems that it was once but an alley between two buildings leading to another behind. What's more, in the hallway of the building just beyond at number 6, I found a very ancient grill blocking what once would have been a window into this alleyway.

Even more interesting was an alley further on, but to find it one must be very very tall or well-informed. Just beyond the restaurant that makes number 10 of our street, have a look up – you'll see, above what looks to be but a normal code-guarded door had you been looking straight in front of you, that it is but blocking a gap between the buildings to each side of it. Take a step to the left of this door and have a look above it to the right – engraved into the stone on each side of the corner is a street name: ours, and to the alley-side, we can see that this was once the "cul de sac Sallembriere" ("dead-end Sallembriere"). I believe its name comes from that of a former building owner. If you would like to go in you can – the view outward towards the church is interesting.

This visited, let's return to the part of the rue Saint-Séverin that lies to the west of the church. Have a look up at the building at #14 – there you will see a bas-relief of a swan wrapped around a crucifix – this served as a logo for a store formerly occupying the facade below it, a boutique called "la Cygne de la Croix" – a stereonym play-on-words that translated would mean "the sign of the cross".

Turning back towards the mouth of the rue Xavier-Privas, we get a good perspective of the building that makes its corner with ours – and if you look up as we approach it you will see engraved upon it this street's old name, the "rue Zacharie".


La rue Xavier-Privas, la rue de la Huchette (suite, fin)

There is little left to note along the length of the rue Xavier-Privas, other than most of the buildings it contains date from the 17th century. Turning to the right onto the rue de la Huchette, have a look up at the street name above – below the modern blue sign there, you can just make out where it was engraved into the stone there.

To the same side of the rue de la Huchette at #15 we see a very narrow building that is worth a look. Number fourteen opposite it still faintly bears, in an oval above its street-level facade, a "Y" logo representing a former needle-maker of renown. Almost invisible today, I raised the contrast of the photo I took of it to give you a better look. This logo, like the building that holds it, dates from the late 18th century, but its company existed already in the 16th century.

It seems that there are renovations going on in the courtyard of #13 so I had a look in – not much to see there, though the stairway was worth remarking. I did take a snap of a wall they were working on to show you what the inner construction of a house of this quarter looks like – many seem to be built in stone, but most are of the wood, stone and plaster style that I described much earlier in our promenade.

Probably the best example of this lies just next door. After a glimpse down the alley from where we entered this quarter, let us make our way down the long stone-lined hallway that makes 13 rue de la Huchette – there I found quite a big surprise.

This building seems to date from at least the late 17th-century in at least its ground floor. There is a well to the right of the courtyard, but it seems to go no further down than the basement. More interesting is the stairway to its far left corner: Only half embedded into the building behind it, its massive balustrades seem very ancient indeed, yet I have found nothing about it in any documents anywhere. It looks as though it was recently restored, so perhaps it was until now ignored…

Climbing the staircase was a bit of fun – what looks to be the kitchen of some apartments have barred windows opening directly into the stairwell. Up at the top we have a good look at the roof, the first we've seen until now… the roofs of any buildings protected as a "monument historique" we've seen until now probably resemble this one as it is in slate and not the usual Parisian post-19th century zinc.

Making our way back down towards the entryway, I look up to see the massive balustrade of yet another stairway – but this I had missed on the way in. I had at first thought that it perhaps belonged to building next door, but in continuing back towards the hallway we see the way up to our left. This stair is strange as well, wrapping around its small square column of air too narrow for even a basketball to pass.

After a look through the barred doorway that blocks the basement stairs, and a hello to a cat that apparantly lives there, we make our way back onto the street again. Just across from us is the last building of note on this promenade: built around 1729, it once housed a merchant selling under the sign of "l'Hure d'Or". I read that there should be a medallion logo on its facade, but today it is nowhere to be seen. Looking up though, the gargoyle-esque masks topping the windows are interesting…

We have reached the end of this promenade, but the next is not so far away. We will be visiting the next fief over, the "Clos Mauvoisin" that, taking the overflow from the Notre-Dame University, would form the base for what would become the quite distinct Université de Paris…