Mini History of Paris
Micro-Mini History of Paris (Part I)
Chris Card Fuller
When you think of Parisian history, think Water, Walls, Stones and Bones.
If there is a city today called Paris, it’s thanks to the Seine River. A Celtic tribe known as the Parisi used the Seine as its main ‘avenue’ for fishing and trade. Considering that the rest of the lands we call France today were primarily dense forest or swamp, control of river trade was the key to maintaining power. Well into medieval times, those that ran the river trade called the shots in Paris.
In 52 BC the Romans arrived and decided to stay, calling this fortified Celtic outpost ‘Lutetia Parisiorum’, Lutetia meaning place surrounded by water. (The Romans were referring to Ile de la Cite which is considered the oldest part of Paris, an island locate in the middle of the Seine River).
The Romans couldn’t stay without building some roads, some baths and a stadium. (to see Roman vestiges, go first to the Arenes de Lutece, Cluny Museum in the Latin Quarter and finally Rue St. Jacques which used to be part of a major Roman thoroughfare).
For a short period of time (around 300 AD) Roman emperors made Paris their home.
A little trivia: Paris was originally the capital of Neustria one of the three partitions of the Frankish kingdom in 511 AD. The Merovingian king Clovis was the Frankish kingdom’s founder and Paris’s first Christian king. But like Charles VII, he may never have had a chance to become king if it hadn’t been for a woman. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris succeeded in deterring the intended attack by Attila the Hun on Paris in 451. She promised to defend the city through prayer. And Paris was spared.
France, as we know it, with Paris as its capital, didn’t start to take shape until Hugh Capet came to power. He was the first king of the Capetian line. He owned the Duchy of Francia (which included Paris and extended as far as Orleans). This Capetians ruled France until 1328 with bloodlines reappearing in royal office as late as 1848.
Flash forward in time now to the Middle Ages. Ile de la Cite is still the epicenter of city life – tradesmen, craftsmen, students, clergy come to Paris, crusaders pass through enroute to the Holy Lands. The first stones are laid out to begin the construction of Notre Dame in 1163 (wiping out any lingering pagan hints of past structures – be it Roman temples or druid holy spots.
In 1180, Philip Augustus builds a fortified wall around the city (of which some vestiges remain) all of which allows the city to expand to the Right and Left Banks. Already the Left Bank is a magnet for university students. (The Sorbonne is formed is founded later in 12 53). If you want to grasp the flavor of medieval Paris, you need to spend some time exploring the narrow alleys of the Latin Quarter, visit the Tour Jean Sans Peur on the Right Bank. The half-timbered houses and twisting streets of that Paris are mostly memories, but some do exist. If you want to know more about Paris’s history during your visit, here are three very good start off points:
The Louvre: The Louvre was actually constructed as a palace by Phillip Augustus (but he never actually lived there). The beauty of the Louvre is that it covers so many spans of French history. You can see the palaces middle age foundations and then look at its exterior to see the progressive additions by Francis I (Cour Carree) Lous XIV, (Colonnade), Napoleon (N-wing between the Louvre and the Tuileries), Napoleon III (new Louvre wings) an Mitterand (IM Pei’s pyramid).
For more of the city’s medieval history, go the the Musee Carnavalet in the Marais (23, rue de Sevigne) Metro: St. Paul
Musee du Cluny, 6 Place PaulPain-Leve (visible from Boulevard St. Michel) Roman baths including the vaulted frigidarium.
Musee de la tour Jean Sans Peur, Metro: Etienne Marcel (this is one of my favorites!)