The History of Paris - Part I

The Origins of Paris

The first human to lay eyes upon the Parisian basin must have found it beautiful. No matter where his viewpoint, be it from one of the hills enclosing the valley or from the banks of the then very wide river, the countryside presented what was most probably a breathtaking vista of greenery, bluffs and limpid water.

Perhaps it was its river islands centrepieces that made this scene so enticing. There were many along the river's arc through the valley; the largest was the ancestor to today's île de la Cité, which was in fact four then. This latter island's western tip was divided between two parallel islets, and just to the east from there, a narrow strait divided a long and thin strip of land from its island mainland to the north. The next largest island to the east would become today's Île Saint-Louis, and yet another island further upstream would become the "île Louviers". Still diminishing from its former torrential state, the Seine had a sluggish then, leaving its main artery near today's Arsenal to follow the Grands Boulevards until returning to its source near Chaillot.

The land to the north of the river was covered in a carpet of dense forest, the ancestor to today's bois de Boulogne, until a point above the centre of the abovementioned islands where it gave way to marshland s created because of the low lie of the land between the river arms. Roughly following the north bank from the southwest, the thick forest covering rose into a ridge to the east, exposing cliffs on its face towards us on its way, dipped into a valley then rose again before giving way to bare the rises of the hill that would be today's Montmartre. The eastern flank of this hill was covered in sparse woodland, as was the almost equally high hill just to its east and its flank extending gently towards the river to its southeast. The land to the south of river was a vast plain broken only by one round crest to the south-east of the islands, flooded often in its low-lying sandy western regions. The varied natural environments that were all of the above must have made an ideal home to a wide variety of wildlife.

The river may have been a marvellous highway for those travelling by boat, but it was but a barrier to those travelling by land. To cross the Seine, it would be only natural to do so where its straits were narrowest: across its central islands. For this many historians think that a meridian-aligned beaten path, the ancestor to today's rue St-Jacques and rue St-Martin, had existed even since prehistoric times.

Men began to hunt these lands from around 3900 BC, according to recent discovery of dugout canoes and weaponry in excavations near Bercy, but little is known about when they settled the valley for the first time. What is certain is that a Celtic tribe, the Senons, had made the lands to the south-east (near today's town of Sens) their home from around 1500 BC, and by 250 BC a sub-tribe of these, the Parisii, inhabited the lands that are today's Parisian basin. Their home was on the central island, defended by the natural rampart that was the Seine.

Roman Rule

The legions of Labenius, Lieutenant of Julius Caesar's westward campaigns, conquered the Parisian basin in 52 BC. The Parisii had burned their island village to the ground rather then leave it to the invader, and in all evidence it seems that the lands remained empty for almost half a century. When Romans eventually began to settle the area they referred to the village they built as the town of "Lutetia". This name would become the Gallicised "Lutèce" in later references.

As for the layout of the town, we have but archaeological evidence to go by today. In all evidence it was centred on the Left Bank's largest hill with it's largest building, the Forum or Palace, as its centre. Perhaps not coincidentally, this building's southeast corner stood at the corner of today's rue Saint-Jacques and the rue Soufflot, the highest point of the hill. This possible "zero point" for the town was also the point of departure for a route to the southeast that was Lutèce's direct connection to Italy through the town of Lyon; the trace of this road is preserved in today's rue Lhomond. By far the town's most important route was the adaptation to the route running north to cross the island, a route that formed the central axis for the town and a solidly paved route to the northerly Durocortorum (Reims) and Cenabum (Orléans) to the south. This road crossed to the Seine's north shore over two bridges, the "grand-pont" across the greater arm of the Seine to the north of the island, and the "petit pont" as its counterpart to the southern mainland. The latter bridge is still in its original location with its original name today. Another roadway with a still-detectable trace was the "via inferior," running parallel to the main roadway along today's boulevard Saint-Michel. Both parallel routes continue on the northern shore along today's rue Saint Denis and Saint Martin, so it is imaginable that at one point or another there were more at least wooden bridges crossing the Seine than those mentioned above.

At its apogee in the mid-1st century, the Left bank town seems to have covered a rough diamond whose opposite corners were at today's petit-pont and Denfert-Rochereau. The archaeological discoveries there were: still existing today, vast Roman baths at the corner of today's Boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel; to the south-west from there, a temple; to the east just outside of the town, an arena; lastly, forming the southern tip of the diamond, by the main road, a necropolis. Montmartre had two temples to Mars and Mercury as well as another Roman villa on its eastern flank.

Another monument uncovered under the foundations of Notre Dame told much of the land's Gallo-Roman integration and Lutèce’s commercial importance: a series of stone blocks engraved on all four of their vertical sides with images depicting Gallic and Roman gods, but most importantly engraved with a dedication from the "Boatmen of Paris" to Jupiter and the Emperor Tiberius) (17-37 AD). In effect, probably because of its location at the crossroads of a main roadway and river, trade and transport seems to have been Lutèce’s principal vocation even then.

Paris, Fortified City

All of the above architecture was open to the countryside, as Lutèce needed no walls then. This would change from 276 AD with the first of the raids westward-campaigning Germanic tribes.

By that time Lutèce was a much smaller city than it was during its 1st-century glory. It had shrunk to an area around its forum, its southerly necropolis was in a state of abandon, and its outskirts were in a state of uninhabited ruin; as later archaeological finds show, rubble from the uninhabited building of the Roman town would serve to build the city's first ramparts when its inhabitants were forced to flee for the protection of the river island.

It seems that the Gallic Romans took up permanent residence on the île de la Cité from then. They built a palace to its western end, a to Jupiter to its east, and its town in between, the whole surrounded around the island's rim by a solid wall built from blocks recuperated from Left Bank ruins. The bridges, burned in the retreat to the island, were rebuilt solidly and (it is thought) protected with mainland gatehouses.

In that era the Roman Empire was disintegrating under the burden of its own corruption and its war on two fronts with Germany and Persia. Lutèce had become little more than a garrison in 360. That year Rome ordered its ruling (Julian II) to abandon the town to the raiders and bring his troops (Gaul’s for the most part) to the Persian front: the general refused, an action for which his armies hailed him as their "true Auguste" and Emperor. From that year Lutèce was given its former Gaulish "Paris" appellation and declared (by Julian) to be the capital of the new "Western Roman Empire" – a unification of the "old" Roman empire with three major Gaulish territories. Paris' first role as a capital was short-lived, as after Julian’s assassination in 363 his successor would move the Western Empire's capital to Trèves.

It seems that the Roman garrisons were already gone when a new aggressor came to the capital in 451 in the horse-backed bandits of Attila the Hun. Far different from the Germanic tribes invading Gaul then, these warriors from the Mongol steppes, known for their rapidity and ferocity in combat, had arrived at Paris as part of a short-lived westward conquest. After sacking everything outside Paris' walls, the left for Orleans where their defeat by a temporary alliance of Visigoth and Gallo-Roman armies would force them back to their homelands.

Frankish Rule

Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410, the Occidental Roman Empire fell to the Franks 476, and the most of France was under the control of the latter by the end of the same century. The most dominant leader in the lands then was Hlodowig (dit "Clovis") King of the Franks, a tribe originating from the lands of today's Belgium. Particularly attached to Paris, upon the defeat of the last of his rivals in 508, he declared it as his capital.

One of the reasons that Clovis became accepted as a ruler was his adoption of the Roman Catholic faith, as most of the lands inhabitants were already indoctrinated to the same. Paris' île de la Cite had a chapel dedicated to the {{Saint-Etienne}} since 375, and upon his claiming of Paris, Clovis ordered the construction of another dedicated to the Saint-Pierre on the left bank hill near the ruins of the old Roman forum. Clovis never saw the completion of his church as he died in 511.

In following the Merovingian Frankish tradition, the realm of the father was divided equally between his gender upon his death, and Paris and its territories went to Childebert I (511-558), one Clovis' four sons. Though Paris lost importance because of the diminished lands it ruled, it gained elsewhere in its architecture: Childebert was a very pious man, and the king did much during his lifetime to increase the importance of Catholicism}} through his lands. It was he who would lay the foundations for two of Paris' most important religious institutions: in 528 he would build, next to Saint-Etienne where the Roman temple to Jupiter once stood, a great church dedicated to Notre-Dame; on the southern banks of the Seine below the Cité he built another dedicated to Saint Victor and the Sainte-Croix. Childebert would be buried there in the days following its consecration in 588, as would all of the other Merovingian Kings from then. This same church would later be elevated to abbey status and renamed "Saint-Germain-des-Près."

With the Merovingian dynasty began a period of intrigue that would last one thousand years. The Merovingian kings were happy to reap their gains from inherited territories without meddling in local affairs, and left the ruling of their lands to a sort of Lord called a "Palace Mayor". Through alliances, disputes and even inter-regional warfare, a few of these feudal Counts would eventually become more powerful than the king himself. One these lords, Pepin III ("le Bref" – 751-768), son of the powerful and famous Moor defeater Charles Martel, disposed of the then puppet king altogether to himself become king from 751. Thus ended the Merovingian dynasty and began the Carolingian.

After Pepin III's son, Charlemagne (771-814), controlled the totality of the Frankish domains (France, Germany and northern Italy) from 771, he chose Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) as his capital. He did reside at the île de la Cite Royal palaces upon his visits to Paris, and possibly stayed at the country manor his father was said to have had to the south of the city in the valley of the river Bièvre, but Paris was little more than a prosperous county capital then.

The Normans

Norsemen, from the lands around today's Denmark (we could call them Vikings for clarity's sake), fierce warriors and able seamen, began raiding the Frankish territories from the early 9th century. They travelled around France's northern coasts to penetrate inland through the continent's western estuaries, pillaging, burning and ransoming everything on the way. Arriving along the Seine from its mouth at Nimes, one hundred and twenty longboats assaulted the capital for the first time in 845.

Paris had only its old roman ramparts to defend it then. These were inhabitants fled for the surrounding countryside and monasteries while the Vikings burned and pillaged the city, but the latter would only leave after the King Charles II ("le Chauve" – 823-877) managed to buy their departure for 7000 pounds silver. The Norsemen returned to raid the capital once again the following year, and once again a year later, destroying all churches save the Abbey St-Germain that they held for a ransom. Successful in their bid, they returned yet again in 857, this time occupying the Rive Droite church Saint-Germain d'Auxerrois and transforming it into a fortress. They would return yet again in 861 and 869.

Paris finally had a means of defending itself from 870 when King Charles doted its island fortifications with ramparts and rebuilt the city's two bridges into a much stronger form. For reasons unknown, but probably to bring the river crossing closer to the island palace, the king rebuilt the Grand-Pont to the west of its former location (at today's pont de Notre-Dame) at the level of today's Pont au Change. The new tower guarding the grand-pont, the "grand-Châtelet", was much larger than its petit-pont counterpart even though it was the lesser used of the two city gates.

When the Norsemen returned again in 885, this time 700 boats strong, one couldn't imagine that they were pleased to find the way blocked below the ramparts of fortified Paris. Because the Count Eudes (or "Odo"), the then lord of the City of Paris and its dependencies, had refused the invaders both ransom and passage, they launched a massive assault on the city's northern bridges and tower. The city resisted several days of attacks, and remained confined within their ramparts for months during the siege that followed. The conflict ended in September the same year when King Charles III ("le Gros" – 884-888) finally paid them 700 pounds silver to leave. The Vikings would return in the years following for two more unsuccessful sieges, managing only to damage the Grand-Pont in 887.

Partly because of his success during the above conflicts, Count Odo – 888-898) became popular and powerful enough to be elected (in a temporary interruption to the Carolingian dynasty) King of the Western Franks from 888, and he would spend much of his reign battling the Norse invaders elsewhere in France. Yet when the Norsemen returned yet again to the capital in 911 during the reign of the Carolingian Charles III ("le Simple" – 898-922), the army-less regent could only ransom vast lands in northern France (known today as Normandy) in exchange for Paris' freedom an end to the raids.

Paris, Capetian Capital.

Another element in Count Odo's election was on the account of an edict that his predecessor had drawn in the year of his death. Instead of titles being granted by the crown, as was the custom until then, King Charles III had made them hereditary, which meant that each County became a dynasty unto itself. Paris was of no exception, and Count Odo and his inheritors would do all they could to add to their wealth, eventually becoming one of the Western Frankish territories' most powerful families. From here onwards the Carolingian dynasty would fade quietly through a succession of increasingly powerless kings to finally end with the death of Louis V ("le Fainéant" – 967-987) in 987. Instead of the next natural heritor in the Carolingian lineage, the Counts of the Western Frankish realm elected Hugh Capet (987-996), Count of Paris, son of the powerful Hugh the Great, descendant of the abovementioned Eudes, count of Paris and King of France.

Though king in title, Capet had little power outside of his lands (scattered between Paris and Orleans). Like his Count of Paris ancestors, he resided the royal residences to the western end of the île de la Cité. His son, Robert II ("le Pieux" - 996-1031) would rebuild them in a larger and luxurious form. The latter monarch passed a law in 1007 that perhaps definitely fixed Paris into its role as Capital of the Frankish realm: He removed the City's statute as an independent feudal State and attached it and its lands directly to those of the Crown.

Paris changed mostly in its palaces and fortifications through the reigns of the kings later in the Capetian rule: Louis VI ("le Gros" – 1108-1137) made additions to the île de la Cite palace and rebuilt Charles the Bald's mainland bridge-guarding gatehouses into "Châtelets". The grand-Châtelet still the larger of the two, but both had moats and a drawbridge to their sides away from the river.

Paris became the official Capital of Francia (in preference to Orléans) from 1112, and it is namely from then that Paris began its transformation into a capital worthy of that name. It still has today a monument resulting from this change in importance: the largest ecclesiastical structure existing there then was a “Great Church” standing to the eastern end of the île de la Cité; deemed architecturally insufficient for a Capital city, it was rebuilt into Notre-Dame cathedral from 1163.

Rive Droite Growth

Paris almost doubled in population from the early to middle 12th century. Growth was such that its inhabitants were obliged to migrate from the fortified island to the mainland; yet this time, instead of its former Roman Left Bank city Centre, Paris grew towards the north.

This may have been because of the state of the Rive Gauche then. Lutèce’s outskirts had already begun to fall to ruin in the 4th century decline of Gallo-Roman rule, it was totally abandoned before the progression of German invaders, and laid to waste by almost a century of Viking raids. There stood little there outside of the abbey Saint-Genevieve, the Abbey Saint-Germain des Prés, a chapel dedicated to Saint-Victor and an oratory dedicated to Saint-Séverin. Although the most central of these, the Saint-Séverin oratory, formed the centre of a small agglomeration, there were few constructions of any stature there and much of the land below the island remained uncultivated. This may have been because of the barrier the stone ruins posed to any new building there: before any new structure could be built, old stone and foundations would either have to be reused or removed. Perhaps it is for this that Paris’ then residents preferred to use the Rive Gauche ruins as a quarry and build to the virgin land to the north of the island.

Paris’ butchers are thought to have been the first artisans to make the move to the Rive Droite, as the slaughtering of cattle was best done away from any population centre. Their slaughterhouse was to the north of the Grand-Châtelet below the St-Merri church, and they sold their meat from stands lined along its outer walls. Fishmongers and those dealing in poultry soon came to join them, as well as tanners and those selling meat by-products. In short, the land to the north of the Châtelet, a land called “Les Champeaux” (“the little fields”) then, became a new centre of commerce.

Growth was enough that towards the late 10th or early 11th century the whole was valued enough to merit fortifications: these were (it is thought) a wooden wall and stone gates running roughly along today’s rue Saint-Honoré and rue de la Verrerie to turn towards the river along the rue de l’Amiral Coligny and rue du pont Louis-Philippe. Only evidence about the easternmost extremity of this wall has been uncovered; it is plausible that it would surround the then churches of Saint-Germain-le-Rond (Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois) Saint-Merri and Saint-Gervais. These churches were within stone Cloître walls of their own, and it is possible that this wall was but a connection between them.

An accelerator for Rive Droite growth was most certainly the opening of a port there. The city’s increasing population meant an increase in fluvial traffic; by the early 12th century the load on its then-unique port Saint-Landry became too much to bear. In 1141 Louis VII (“Le Jeune” – 1137 – 1180) sold to Paris’ merchant guild a stretch of Rive Droite riverbank to the east of its bridges: This land, called simply “la Grêve” (“the riverbank”), is today’s place de l’Hotel de Ville. This place was behind the creation of the Les Champeaux marketplace; rather than go through all the trouble of carting produce to the island from the new port, Paris’ merchants preferred to sell their wares on the land nearby. It is around then that another agglomeration of houses appeared towards the top of the hillock at today’s place Saint-Gervais around the primitive church of the same name.

Save for the land mentioned above, the rest of the Rive Droite was but wood and marshland then. Everything to the west of Paris’ main road northwards from the island (today’s rue St.-Denis) was still covered by the very ancient and dense forest of Rouvray. The land to the north until Montmartre and to the east until around today’s Bastille was low, flat, and prone to flooding; it seems that the land around the Seine’s second arm was wet even then. In any case, this would change with the development of the Saint-Opportune monastery further to the north along the same road, as they began to raise the lie of the land around their monastery with landfill from 1154. With the nearby market and growing populations in mind, the monks were quick to see the financial interest in attracting agriculture and settlement to their lands nearby. Other monasteries still further north, namely Saint-Laurent and Saint-Martin, would follow suit in later years. Eventually the whole of the Parisian basin’s Rive Droite would be dry save for a sluggish rivulet running the length of the Seine’s old second arm – and this, in those times, in addition to the Seine, could be considered as Paris’ first sewer although it was not yet used as such then.

It was around then early 11th century that Rive Droite growth would begin to eclipse that of the Île de la Cité. The eastern extremity of Paris’ island would soon be filled with the Notre-Dame Cathedral, its archbishopric palace, its Hotel-Dieu hospital and Canonical residences: With its opposite extremity filled by the Royal Palaces that would expand through the centuries to fill everything to the west of today’s boulevard du Palais, the only land remaining for the island’s development would be a shrinking strip down its centre. From here onwards, Paris centre moved northwards.

– The Paris of Philippe-Auguste