Paris Wanderlust: Medieval Paris, from Castles to Hostels

Medieval Paris, from Castles to Hostels

The royal palace complex and fortified wall

A bit of context: Paris wasn’t always the capital of the Frankish kingdom. But about a thousand years ago, the first kings of the Capetian dynasty made Paris the center of royal power and built a palace complex on Île de la Cité and a fortified wall around the city. The palace complex included the living quarters, the king’s chapel, the Great Hall, the Conciergerie, and the fortified Louvre Castle on the north side of the Seine (now destroyed).

All that has survived of these medieval edifices are Sainte Chapelle, three towers of the Conciergerie, and ruined segments of the Wall of Philippe Auguste.

Wall of Philippe-Auguste: from gladiator arena to fortified walls

From my earlier post on Les Arènes de Lutèce, it’s apparent that Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is mostly a reconstruction. One might well ask, what amphitheatre? Hardly any of the original stones remain. It’s nothing like the Gallo-Roman Arènes de Nîmes, whose still-standing form echoes the Colosseum of Rome. So what happened to the stones of Paris’ ancient amphitheatre?

Les Arènes de Lutèce

The short answer: many of the stones were carted off to build defensive walls around Paris — first, for reinforcement of a wall on Île de la Cité built by Gauls and Romans following barbarian invasions, and later, for the Wall of Philippe-Auguste (built 1190-1220). The wall, which was begun shortly after the start of Notre Dame, is one of the earliest medieval structures to survive (albeit in a ruined and sporadic state).

Finding these remnants of the wall is like a scavenger hunt.

near Rue Clovis (5e)

The fortified wall, which protected both the Right and Left Banks, proved inadequate during the Hundred Years War, so Charles V built an expanded city wall. A few remnants of the older Philippe Auguste Wall have survived as monuments that physically invoke Paris’ history.

Below, the ruins of Tour Montgomery, one of 77 towers of the Philippe-Auguste Wall:

Rue des Jardins St-Paul & Rue Charlemagne, in the Marais (4e)

On Rue du Louvre, part of a tower belonging to the wall lives on:

La Conciergerie towers

La Conciergerie with its three medieval turreted towers, from left to right: La tour de César, La tour d’Argent, and La tour Bonbec

The saint-king Louis IX built Sainte Chapelle in the 13th century to house Christian relics. Soon afterward, Philippe IV (reined 1284-1314) built the fortified facade along the Seine to protect the expanding castle complex. (The facades between the towers date from the 19th century.)

House of Nicolas Flamel

Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) was a scribe (pre-printing press), landlord, wealthy philanthropist, and reputed alchemist. He’s one of those extraordinarily malleable historical figures whose real and mythical lives are so far blended that — in the popular imagination, at least — they can no longer be disentangled. Which makes Flamel’s biography susceptible to appropriation.

The myth of Flamel-as-alchemist apparently arose in the 17th century, hundreds of years after Flamel’s death. But what was the motivation? To sell a book creating a legend? To popularize the tenets of alchemy? Regardless, the myth gave rise to 19th-century Flamel sightings at the opera (alchemy was believed to make its successful practitioner immortal as well as rich in gold). The myth of Flamel’s ties to alchemy was recently popularized in the Harry Potter series.

Thus the expression: “À chacun son Flamel” (To each his Flamel)

As to the house of Nicolas Flamel: Not only is it possibly the oldest residential structure in Paris (1407), but it also retains its original medieval appearance. It served as a hostel for the indigent, one of Flamel’s philanthropic endeavours.

The inscription above the doors and windows of the ground floor exhorts the auberge residents to pray for the “poor deceased sinners.” The columns feature angels. As far as I know, no alchemical encoding.

Tour Jean Sans-Peur (Fearless John’s Tower)

The fortress-tower of aristocratic Jean Sans-Peur (aka Duke of Burgundy, 1371-1419) is all that remains of a larger castle complex. The castle connected with the Wall of Philippe-Auguste, but that wall was no longer an active protection during the time of Jean Sans-Peur, having been replaced by the wall of Charles V.

Jean San-Peur’s tower was indeed a defensive structure featuring thick walls, lookouts, and a “safe room” on a top level in case of attack. It also had mâchicoulis — openings on the tower’s exterior upper levels, through which nasty things like boiling oil could be cast onto invaders attempting to storm the castle.

Jean the fearless warrior was paranoid — and Machiavellian. He became embroiled in palace intrigue at the court of his cousin Charles VI “le Fou.” Jean and other aristocrats jockeyed for position to grab power in case the mentally ill king and his son, the unhealthy dauphin, became incapacitated.

An exhibit in one of the chambers tells of the sometimes violent psychotic breaks of Charles VI, as well as the hornet’s nest of ambitious courtiers hovering over his crown.

Who’s the Bigfoot? A guest at a royal wedding celebration, of course, recounting a weird and bloodcurdling tale. Charles VI and five of his knights dressed like wild men by gluing flax onto a linen body suit and then chaining themselves together. While the aristocratic savages were cavorting, the inebriated brother of Charles VI entered with a torch that somehow set the masquerading men ablaze. Four knights were killed in the inferno. Of the “savages,” only the king and one knight survived.

The wedding celebration earned the moniker “Le Bal des Ardents” (The Ball of the Burning Men) and inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Hop-Frog.” Following the macabre event, the mentally unstable king suffered breakdowns the rest of his life.

Perhaps Fearless John’s moniker should be “ruthless.” He contracted the murder of the king’s brother, the Duc d’Orléans, and rationalized the assassination by pointing to the decadence of the king’s court, epitomized by the grisly Bal des Ardents. Jean got away with the murder as “justifiable tyrannicide.”

Nasty piece of business, Jean Sans-Peur.

A “buffon de cour,” part of an exhibit on the medieval feast and costumes

After the assassination, Jean Sans-Peur completed the construction of his castle with tower in 1411, a symbolic gesture of political power and a signalling of his advancement toward his ultimate goal — kingship, and much bigger fortified towers.

Coats of arms, Jean Sans-Peur

Ultimately, Jean Sans-Peur’s intrepid reputation and stronghold castle could not protect him from his own machinations. Charles VI’s son, the dauphin, had him assassinated. All of this palace intrigue took place against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War as well as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War. Chaotic times.

The dauphin was eventually successful in his claim to the throne, and he was crowned Charles VII, King of France, aptly nicknamed “the Victorious.” In Jean Fouquet’s portrait of Charles VII, curtains open on the “very victorious” and very fashionable king:

Jean Fouquet (1420–1481), Charles VI “The very victorious king of France,” Louvre

As to the tower itself, built 1409-1411, a spiral staircase leads past a large, open chamber with vaulted ceiling, and up to the tower’s two upper chambers. The small, spartan rooms, one above the other, were likely for reading or holding audiences — or taking refuge against attacks by Armagnac knights.

The tower was largely a utilitarian defensive structure. Nonetheless, it contains a jewel of Flamboyant Gothic sculpting: the highly symbolic carving of leaves and branches at the top of the spiral staircase, like a living, organic vaulted ceiling.

The carved oak, hawthorne, and hops are plants associated with the Duke of Burgundy’s family.

The vegetation in its original painted state might make you forget that you’re standing in a claustrophobic spiral staircase, steps away from a safe room:

Jean Sans-Peur’s WC:

Hôtel de Sens: A palace for an archbishop

The Hôtel de Sens was a late medieval palace built 1474-1519 for the archbishops of Sens, a city about 75 miles southwest of Paris. In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, these archbishops of Sens held a higher rank than other archbishops in France, with accompanying authority and privileges.

One of those privileges was living in a baronial Paris residence in flamboyant Gothic style with gargoyles, pinnacles, and turrets of the sort that inspired Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century medieval restorations.

A cannonball from the fighting during the brief revolution of Trois Glorieuses is still embedded in the facade of the Hotel de Sens. The date is inscribed on the stone: July 28, 1830.

The formal garden of the Hôtel de Sens:

The City of Paris acquired and restored the former palace, which now houses the Forney Library, dedicated to the visual arts. I arrived at closing time, so I had to content myself with the exquisite staircase and balconies of the foyer:

Nos 11 & 13, Rue François Miron

Two of Paris’ rare medieval residences are next door to one another, at Nos 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron:

Medieval, that is, with several revisions along the way. Records date the two buildings from the early 16th century, but they could have been built as early as the 14th century. The two buildings were elevated from their original structures.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what architecture earns the label “original.” A general impression of antiquity or quaintness doesn’t mean much. From the first stone laid to the last plaster spread during renovations to the collapse into ruins, what constitutes “original” or “authentic”?

Next: What Medieval Streets?

Camille Martin

One response to “Paris Wanderlust: Medieval Paris, from Castles to Hostels

  1. Pingback: Paris Wanderlust: The Prettiest Church in Paris | Rogue Embryo

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