Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Excerpt from Galignani’s New Paris Guide (1837).

“Formerly, privileged persons alone could keep eating-houses in Paris. In 1765 a cook freed the public from this restraint, and having prepared a room for refreshments, placed over the door the following parody of a passage in Scripture ;—” Venile ad me qui stomacho laboratis, ct ego restaurabo vos.”

This attempt was successful and afterwards, when the Revolution brought many strangers to Paris, and the domestic habits of the Parisians were altered, these establishments increased every year, and are now to be found in all parts of Paris. In the restaurants there is generally presented a bill of fare called la carte, with the price of every article, aad some of these bills contain upwards of 300 dishes.

Ladies frequent the restaurants, as well as the cafes. In these houses there are generally private rooms called cabinets particuliers, in which two friends or a parly may dine in private. Besides the principal and second-rate restaurateurs, where the dinner is a la carle, there are other houses where dinners are served for a fixed sum per head. At the best of these houses a plentiful dinner, including wine, may be had for two francs. In the vicinity of the Palais Royal, however, and indeed in most parts of Paris, a dinner may be had for 30, 25, and even 22 sous.

To give an idea how luxury and economy may be combined, it is only necessary to observe, that soup, 3 dishes at choice, a dessert, bread, and a portion of wine, may be had for 22 sous. There is also another class of cooks in Paris, called traiteurs, or petty restaurateurs, whose principal business is to send out dishes, or dinners ready dressed to order. A family residing in lodgings, or at an hotel, will find it the cheapest mode to make a hargain with the traiteur, to be supplied for a fixed period, with a certain number of dishes daily, at any hour agreed upon.

A person may also dine at some of these places, but it is not considered comme il faut. The restaurants are nearly as numerous and as splendidly adorned as the cafes. To the latter it is customary to retire immediately after dinner, to take a demi-tasse of coffee, and a petit verre de liqueur, instead of sitting over the bottle as in England. Coffee may, however, be had at the restaurants.”

Read Full Post »

Google Books offers some uncanny opportunities to discover rare historical texts on Paris, like the “Letters from Paris“, by Stephen Weston, published in 1791 in the core of the French Revolution.

Read Full Post »

Here is the excerpt of a tourist & historical book published in London in 1815, written by an English journalist willing to know more about the French capital.

[Voici l’extrait d’un ouvrage touristico-historique publié à Londres en 1815, et rédigé par un journaliste anglais soucieux de se confronter à la capitale française.]

“Paris possesses this sort of moral and historical interest in the greatest degree: but it is also rich in what is calculated to strike the eye by picturesque and grand effect; to satisfy the sensualist, by supplying various and artful enjoyment; to delight the gay, by dispensing a profusion of captivating pleasures; to gratify the tasteful, by a combination of skill, elegance, and feeling; to suggest reflection, and pleasingly employ research, by effigying the events of a far distant date, and picturing manners that have long been obsolete; to administer to the wants of the scholar, by supplying vast collected stores of all the materials of human knowledge; and, in fine, to afford a matchless treat to the student of mankind, by discovering and displaying to even common observation, all that can give a thorough insight into character and condition.

This last circumstance forms the most extraordinary peculiarity of Paris. Compared with the cities of most other countries, it is like a glass bee-hive compared with those that are made of straw. You see, without trouble, into all its hoards; — all its creatures perform all their operations, full in the face of all: what others consign to secrecy and silence, they throw open to day-light, and surround with the buzzing of fluttering swarms. Of the French, or, at least of the French of the capital, it may be said, that the essence of their existence is a consciousness of being observed. People, in general, permit this only to take its place with various motives and feelings that check each other, and produce a mixed conduct, — in which a person lives a little for his forefathers, a little for himself, a little for his family, a little for his friends, a little for the public, and a little for posterity.

But the Parisians, (for to them I confine my remarks, as they are the only specimen of the nation with which 1 am acquainted), live only for the bustle and notice of present society. Hence it is, that they have not a notion of retirement, even where they dress and sleep, but, at the expence of much convenience, receive company in their bed-rooms, which are furnished accordingly: — hence the cleverest individuals are not happy, unless they mingle with the silliest in coteries : hence Paris is full of literary societies, libraries, institutes, museums, &c.: hence every thing choice that it possesses is made a common exhibition of; and the multitude are invited to examine that which philosophers only can understand, and admire that, the beauties of which can be only appreciated by cultivated intellect, guided by refined taste.”

A Visit to Paris in 1814, by John Scott

Read Full Post »

“Notre-Dame de Paris is the most satisfactory summary of hermetic science.” (Victor Hugo)

While Quasimodo was wandering around the heights of Notre-Dame, sharing his sufferings with the gargoyles, the archdeacon Claude Frollo was absorbed in the hermetic symbols of the front of the cathedral. And more particularly in one that no longer exists: the raven.

Victor Hugo describes Frollo « calculating the angle of vision of that raven which belongs to the left front, and which is looking at a mysterious point inside the church, where is concealed the philosopher’s stone ». Hugo adds that this « page of incantation written in stone » is the work of Guillaume of Paris. The latter is supposed to have concealed the stone (maybe Nicolas Flamel’s) in one of the pilars of the nave.

An other tradition, coming from Gobineau of Montluisant in the 17th century, tells about of stone raven in the arch of the central door; its eyes would face the place where are hidden “the sun beams that will turn into gold after one thousand years and diamand after three thousand.” The alchemist Fulcanelli, in his Mysteries of the cathedrals (1926), confirms this belief.

But several interrogations remain. First, who really was Guillaume of Paris? There was a bishop, Guillaume of Auvergne (theology teacher and bishop of Paris from 1228 to 1249), who would correspond to the name given by Hugo. But little is known of his alchemical or esoterical vocation, or his contribution to the building of the cathedral, except that he gave the south tower bell. The name of the bishop Guillaume Chartier pops up too, but doesn’t fit the dates of the building of Notre-Dame. (he died in 1472 whereas the cathedral was almost achieved at the end of the 13th century). Or may it be Guillaume, great inquisitor of Paris, whom Philippe IV missionned in the infamous date of October 13th, 1307 to arrest all the Templars of the kingdom of France?

Would the philosophers’ stone be a symbol of the mysterious treasure of the Templars, subject of all the greed and all the fictions throughout centuries?

Then, the raven itself no longer exists (provided it ever existed), like many other architectural pieces from the front of the cathedral. Hugo writes that it was located on the left portal, the portal of the Virgin, but where exactly? Must one consider the dove medaillon, allegory of Humility (in which Fulcanelli sees the raven of the alchemists), a symbol of the materia prima and of putrefaction? Or maybe one of the doves of the portal of the Virgin? “In this part of the hall was once sculpted the main hieroglyph of our practice: the raven. Major element of the hermetic blazon, the raven of Notre Dame has always had a strong attraction on the peat of the blowers, for an old legend said it was the one lair of a sacred treasure.” (Fulcanelli, op. cit.)

One tradition tells about the Wise Virgins inside the right arch of the central portal, under the Last Judgment scene; one of them, with an explicit gesture, is supposed to be pointing at the stone bird. But the details are indistinct and the texts remain a bit blurry between esoteric symbolism and architectural reality. Can one exclude a secular interpretation of the word “raven”, which indicates in architecture a projecting element of stone, wood or metal that supports a beam or a girder?

Notre Dame de Paris has long been a meeting point for alchemists who would gather under the portals of St Marcel, St Anne and the Last Judgment. Yet is it more than this “book of stone” which Hugo wrote about? Did its stones contain some unconceivable treasure? Had the father of Esmeralda made his heroine the embodiement of the “emerald of the wise” or the “philosophers’ mercury” of the old spagyric tradition?

Let Gerard de Nerval and his “Golden verses” have the final word:

Often a hidden god inhabits obscure being;
And like an eye, born, covered by its eyelids,
Pure spirit grows beneath the surface of stones!

Read Full Post »

Pendant que Quasimodo errait sur les hauteurs de Notre-Dame, partageant ses souffrances avec les gargouilles, l’archidiacre Claude Frollo, quant à lui, se gorgeait des symboles hermétiques contenus sur la façade de la cathédrale ou, plus précisément, d’un symbole aujourd’hui disparu : le corbeau.

Victor Hugo décrit Frollo « calculant l’angle du regard de ce corbeau qui tient au portail de gauche et qui regarde dans l’église un point mystérieux où est certainement cachée la pierre philosophale ». Hugo ajoute que c’est à l’évêque Guillaume de Paris qu’on doit « cette page de grimoire écrite en pierre ». C’est lui qui aurait caché la pierre (peut-être celle de Nicolas Flamel) dans l’un des piliers de la nef.

Une autre tradition, rapportée au XVIIe siècle par Gobineau de Montluisant, parle d’un corbeau de pierre sur les voussures de la porte centrale qui aurait l’œil dirigé vers le lieu où sont cachés « les rayons de soleil qui se transformeront en or au bout de mille ans et diamant au bout de trois mille ans ». L’alchimiste Fulcanelli, dans le Mystères des cathédrales (1926), confirme ces croyances.

Mais plusieurs questions demeurent. Tout d’abord, qui fut ce Guillaume de Paris ? S’il y a bien eu un évêque correspondant à celui dont parle Hugo, Guillaume d’Auvergne (professeur de théologie et évêque de Paris de 1228 à 1249), on sait peu de choses sur sa quelconque vocation alchimique ou ésotérique et participation à la construction de la cathédrale si ce n’est qu’il offrit la cloche de la tour sud. On évoque également le nom de l’évêque Guillaume Chartier, mais il ne correspond en rien aux dates de la construction de Notre-Dame (il est mort en 1472 alors que la cathédrale était quasiment achevée à la fin du XIIIe siècle). Ou pourrait-il s’agir de Guillaume, grand Inquisiteur de Paris, à qui Philippe IV confia, en cette date fameuse du 13 octobre 1307, l’arrestation de tous les Templiers du royaume de France ?

La pierre philosophale serait-elle alors une sorte de symbole du mystérieux trésor des Templiers, objet de toutes les convoitises et de toutes les fictions au cours des siècles ?

Ensuite, quant au corbeau lui-même – si tant est qu’il ait jamais existé – il a aujourd’hui disparu (comme beaucoup d’autres éléments architecturaux) de la façade de la cathédrale. Hugo précise qu’il se trouvait sur le portail de gauche, le portail de la Vierge, mais à quel emplacement exact ? Faut-il considérer le médaillon à la colombe, allégorie de l’Humilité, dans lequel Fulcanelli voit le corbeau des alchimistes, symbole de la materia prima et de la putréfaction ? Ou encore l’une des colombes du portail de la Vierge ?
« C’est dans cette partie du porche que se trouvait sculptée autrefois l’hiéroglyphe majeur de notre pratique : le corbeau. Principale figure du blason hermétique, le corbeau de Notre-Dame avait, de tout temps, exercé une attraction très vive sur la tourbe des souffleurs : c’est qu’une vieille légende le désignait comme l’unique repère d’un dépôt sacré. » (Fulcanelli, op. cit.)

Une tradition invoque les Vierges Sages contenues dans le piédroit du portail central, sous la scène du Jugement dernier, dont l’une d’elles désignerait l’oiseau de pierre par sa position explicite. Mais les indications sont imprécises, et le discours se brouille souvent entre symbolisme ésotérique et réalité architecturale. Peut-on exclure une interprétation profane du mot corbeau, qui désigne en architecture un élément saillant de pierre, bois ou métal destiné à soutenir une poutre ou un linteau ?

On sait que Notre-Dame de Paris a longtemps été un lieu de rendez-vous des alchimistes qui se rencontraient sous les portails de St Marcel, de St Anne et du Jugement dernier. Mais est-elle plus que ce livre de pierre qu’évoquait Hugo ? Ses pierres renferment-t-elle quelque inimaginable trésor ? Le créateur d’Esmeralda avait-il compris que la cathédrale renfermait quelque inimaginable trésor, et fait de son héroïne l’incarnation de cette « émeraude des sages » ou « mercure philosophique » de la tradition spagirique ?

Laissons donc le dernier mot aux Vers dorés de Gérard de Nerval :

« Souvent dans l’être obscur habite un Dieu caché ;
Et comme un œil naissant couvert par ses paupières,
Un pur esprit s’accroît sous l’écorce de pierre. »

NB : cet article est paru originellement sur le webzine de Julie Cathédrale

Read Full Post »

Pont au doubleLe Pont-au-double est un petit pont de 45m de long qui relie l’Ile de la Cité.

L’actuel pont en structure de fer forgé date de 1883, d’après l’emplacement originel du pont construit par François Ier en 1515 (date facile à mémoriser !).

Son nom nous donne l’occasion de rappeler un peu d’histoire des ponts de Paris. “Au double” signifie en effet qu’il fallait acquitter un double denier pour le traverser : jusqu’en 1848, la traversée des ponts était en effet payante ! Les péages étaient situés latéralement, généralement au milieu du pont.

Cette pratique vient du Moyen Age et de la puissante corporation des Nautes (les marchands qui contrôlent le commerce fluvial sur la Seine, et qui ont donné à Paris le symbole du bateau). Les ponts étaient des axes essentiels de la circulation des personnes et des marchandises, et les Nautes eurent la bonne idée de taxer leur passage. Par la suite, sur le modèle des autoroutes aujourd’hui, l’Etat a accordé à des compagnies privées des concessions sur les ponts (généralement de quelques dizaines d’années), en échange de financements pour leur (re)construction et l’aménagement des zones alentour.

Certaines catégories de la population étaient toutefois exemptées de ces taxes : les ecclésiastiques se rendant à Notre-Dame, les écoliers…

Gérard de Nerval, dans “Mémoire d’un parisien”, livre ce témoignage au moment des Trois Glorieuses de 1830 : “Après quelques coups de feu le poste de la place St Michel se rendit à nous. J’arrivais en remontant la rue Saint-Michel (…) J’allais déjeuner avec deux amis qui eux-mêmes se préparaient au combat. Le pont des Arts était désert et je le passai pour la première fois gratis. On se battait sur le Pont Neuf (…)”.

Read Full Post »

“Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards”

The history of Paris can be observed through the evolution of its frontiers. Yesterday the early Gaul, in search of protection against invaders, settled in the Ile de la Cité which frontiers were naturally drawn by the Seine river. Today the boulevard périphérique, a ring road completed in 1973 with a traffic exceeding one million vehicles a day cuts Paris intra muros from its suburbs.

The function of the walls that surrounded Paris has evolved over time. They were initially designed to protect the city from external agressions. Louis XIV, who left Paris for Versailles, replaced Charles V walls with boulevards in 1670.

In 1784 a new barrier appeared: the wall of the Farmers-General. Unlike its predecessors, it was was not designed to protect Paris from invaders but to collect taxes. It was very unpopular and a song went on “le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant“. It was destroyed during the Revolution but restored by Napoleon.

The gates that punctuated the barriers have always attracted various traffickers of more or less legal goods, smugglers, prostitutes and all sorts of shady businessmen. The French picturesque expression dubbing prostitutes “vénus de barrières” conjures up these forgotten times. Today one may still observe working girls on the boulevards des Maréchaux, or elegant transvestites hailing cars around the périph’.

It is striking to see how the Parisians often assimilate their own identity with the limits of their city and insist on their difference with the “banlieusards“.

The natural trend of the city has been to expand and to assimilate new districts. Victor Hugo wrote amazing pages that suggest how this natural and irresistible process took place as if the city was possessed by some sort of inexhaustible vitality.

Peu à peu, le flot des maisons, toujours poussé du cœur de la ville au dehors, déborde, ronge, use et efface cette enceinte. Philippe-Auguste lui fait une nouvelle digue. Il emprisonne Paris dans une chaîne circulaire de grosses tours, hautes et solides. Pendant plus d’un siècle, les maisons se pressent, s’accumulent et haussent leur niveau dans ce bassin comme l’eau dans un réservoir. Elles commencent à devenir profondes, elles mettent étages sur étages, elles montent les unes sur les autres, elles jaillissent en hauteur comme toute sève comprimée, et c’est à qui passera la tête par-dessus ses voisines pour avoir un peu d’air. La rue de plus en plus se creuse et se rétrécit ; toute place se comble et disparaît. Les maisons enfin sautent par-dessus le mur de Philippe-Auguste, et s’éparpillent joyeusement dans la plaine, sans ordre et tout de travers, comme des échappées.

Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards, overflows, devours, wears away, and effaces this wall. Philip Augustus makes a new dike for it. He imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For the period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile story upon story; they mount upon each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbors, for the sake of getting a little air. The street glows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philip Augustus, and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order, and all askew, like runaways.

Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1831
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Read Full Post »