The history of Paris: Romans, Renaissance and Revolution
The City of Light wasn’t always so dazzling: its origins were muddy, and its development was punctuated by conflict in between periods of eminence. Historian and author Colin Jones guides us on a speedy canter through two millennia of Parisian history
History is written by the victors, it’s said. Certainly, much of what we know about the early story of Paris dates from the conquest of Gaul under Julius Caesar, who wrote about the capital of the Parisii tribe on an island in the Seine in 53 BC.
Paris’ beginnings and the importance of the river Seine
But we know from archaeological evidence – particularly dugout canoes discovered at Bercy, east of the city centre – that people were living in the area by at least 4000 BC.
That discovery highlights a key point about Paris – the importance of the river in the city’s early development and through the millennia.
The Seine is navigable from deep in the heart of France, past Paris and all the way north to the English Channel, and from there you can reach the the Atlantic. It provides an excellent route for trade and transport.
It’s also crucial to observe that there was a road running north-south in prehistoric times, roughly following the line of today’s Rue Saint-Denis north of the Seine, and the Rue Saint-Jacques on the southern bank.
Today, there are two islands in the middle of the Seine: the Île de la Cité on which Notre-Dame Cathedral stands and, just upstream, the Île Saint-Louis.
In past times, there were quite a few islands in what was a marshy, boggy area. The Romans called the settlement Lutetia, using a word that was probably Gaulish as well as Latin: lutum, meaning mud. But that muddiness and those islands meant that it could be traversed, and it became a crossroads.
Paris and the Romans
The Roman city was laid out on the Île de la Cité and in what’s now the Latin Quarter, the fifth arrondissement on the Left Bank, plus the two islands.
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For the first four or five centuries of its existence, it was a modest, provincial place within greater Gaul, the capital of which was Lyon. It was mainly a transport hub and, being set back a bit from the German frontier, something of a garrison town. At its peak, it may have been home to 8,000 or so people, but it was never a great Roman city.
After a period of decline following a series of attacks by Germanic peoples, including latterly the Franks, the Romans left in the late fifth century AD. Almost all Roman buildings were then lost; parts of the thermal baths remained, and became incorporated into the medieval monastery that now forms the core of the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages.
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Others were rediscovered in the 19th century, notably the amphitheatre now known as the Arènes de Lutèce. But for 1500 years of Paris's history, there were virtually no visible remains of the Roman city.
Paris becomes a capital city
In AD 508, not long after the Romans finally departed, the Frankish King Clovis named Paris as his capital. He established the dominance of the Franks, who ruled France throughout the Middle Ages. Despite this, Paris remained a small city for several more centuries until the dawn of the Frankish Capetian dynasty, founded by Hugh Capet in AD 987.
As the Capetian dynasty grew in importance – subjugating the Angevin and Plantagenet dynasties in western France, absorbing the Normans, and expanding its kingdom across most of southern France – so did Paris.
From the 12th and 13th centuries, the city became the intellectual hub of western Europe owing to the growth of the University of Paris.
Initially, teachers lectured to groups of young men in the streets; gradually learning became institutionalised. The Sorbonne was founded first, in 1253, followed by the other colleges of the university. Most of those were destroyed or used for other purposes after the French Revolution, but Paris remained a collegiate city.
The area of the Left Bank around the Sorbonne later became known as the Latin Quarter, from the idea that only Latin – the language of instruction – was spoken by the students here.
This district also became the centre of book production. Manuscripts were illuminated here; once printing presses were introduced in the 15th century, it became a hotbed of publishing. Even today, if you walk around the Latin Quarter you’ll see the headquarters of big publishing houses.
This added an extra dimension to the city: it was already a trading centre, a political centre, a religious centre – construction of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame had begun on the Île de la Cité in 1163 – and now it was an intellectual centre.
Paris and the Hundred Years’ War
The Capetians were a lucky dynasty. For generations they produced male heirs – but in 1328, their luck ran out. The resulting succession dispute sparked a grim period in Parisian history and French history more generally.
On one side were supporters of a collateral line of the Capetians, the Valois; on the other side, the English who, through marriage, also had a claim to the French throne. Less than ten years after the death of the last Capetian king, Charles IV, tussles between competing claimants sparked the Hundred Years’ War.
It was during this conflict that the English crushed the French military machine at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, leading to the Treaty of Troyes five years later – in which it was agreed Henry V of England (or his heirs) would inherit the French throne on the death of Charles VI of France. And so it came to pass when, in 1431, Henry VI of England was crowned King of France. Paris was occupied by the English for 15 years from 1420, but they lost control of the city in 1435.
Paris had endured a tough time, with an economic depression and, in 1348, the Black Death, which wiped out perhaps half of the population. The city only really started reviving at the end of the 15th century, with the cultural flourishing of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance, the reformation and Paris
The Renaissance saw Paris expand, with many great buildings raised during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Louvre, originally built as a defensive fortress, was converted into a royal palace in 1546. The magnificent Renaissance Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) was built in the 16th century (and though it was burned down during the Paris Commune, the brief revolutionary government of 1871, it was rebuilt in the same style).
The Hôtel des Invalides was commissioned in 1670 to care for wounded soldiers. It wasn’t just buildings, but the streets themselves: both the Champs-Elysées and the great square now called the Place de la Concorde, originally the Place Louis XV, were both developed in the 18th century.
The Reformation divided France, leading to a series of internal conflicts that would become known as the French Wars of Religion. Paris – which was strongly Catholic – was particularly resistant to the accession of the Protestant King Henry IV in 1589 until his conversion to Catholicism in 1593. It was Henry IV who founded the French Bourbon dynasty, which lasted to the French Revolution and even beyond.
Paris and the Sun King
Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715 and became known as the Sun King, put Paris at the heart of his plans.
Louis thought of himself as the greatest ruler in western Europe – he wanted his capital to reflect his glory, to be seen as the new Rome. He instructed his first minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to plough money into building projects.
It was in his reign that the east front was added to the Louvre, and of course Louis’ opulent palace was built at Versailles, where he spent most of his time.
Paris also became one of the great consumerist centres – a place where fashion and luxury items were created and sold, attracting the elite of western Europe. Fashion houses sprang up along the Rue Saint-Honoré, producing new designs for each of two annual seasons, much as they do today.
Already a major intellectual centre, Paris became a focal point of the Enlightenment. New ideas were discussed in academies, in printing houses, at salons in private houses, and in coffee-houses.
You can still get an idea of this mental ferment at cafés such as the Procope, where Voltaire and many of the big names of the 18th-century intellectual world went to drink coffee and talk.
Paris in the age of revolutions
Many in Paris did not share a life of indulgence or intellect, and in 1789, ordinary people’s dissatisfaction at the ancien régime, the political system that had controlled France since the Middle Ages, boiled over into revolution.
On 14 July, insurgents stormed the Bastille, where political prisoners were held. Less than a month later, on 10 August, Louis XVI and his family were seized in the Tuileries Palace; he was executed by guillotine in 1793. The monarchy was ousted; the First Republic was founded.
The popular classes of Paris were fundamental to the uprising – the yeast of revolution, if you like. And this urge to rebel resurfaced again and again in the first half of the 19th century, with two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848.
So when Napoleon III’s prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, launched his sweeping redevelopment of Paris in 1854, driving his great boulevards through the old city, it was no accident that he demolished hundreds of tenements and other homes of poorer citizens, driving them out to the suburbs. The centre was reclaimed by the bourgeoisie.
The aggrandisement of Paris continued through the golden years of the Belle Époque, through the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century. The city witnessed a blossoming of art, fashion, theatre, music; the Folies Bergère opened, then the Moulin Rouge. It was a wonderful time – for the wealthy.
The World Wars come to Paris
In 1914, the money ran out – and the luck. Paris was nearly invaded during the First World War, and even after the armistice of 1918, the city remained poor, with little in the way of public building works.
France came out of the Second World War possibly even poorer than it did after the First World War, and though intellectually it remained strong – think of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their fellow existentialists working on the Left Bank in the late 1940s – it wasn’t till the 1950s and sixties that Paris really got its mojo back.
Today, Paris is again one of the most desirable destinations in the world. Over more than 20 centuries, and despite plenty of bumps in the road, the “city of mud” has comprehensively transformed into the “city of light”.
What to see: Paris in five places
For more than 2,000 years, Paris has attracted royals, revolutionaries and artists. Colin Jones picks out five sites that highlight the city’s rich heritage
1. Carrousel du Louvre
Most visitors to Paris make a beeline for the Louvre, and rightly so: the palace houses one of the world’s great art collections. But while you’re there, consider a stop at a site that came to light far more recently.
During the major renovation project at the Louvre in the 1980s and 90s, when the glass pyramid was installed, a shopping mall was built beneath it – the Carrousel du Louvre. And it was during these excavations that workers discovered the foundations of the walls built by King Charles V in the 14th century, during the Hundred Years’ War with England, to bolster the existing fortifications.
The remnants, incorporated into the shopping centre, are massive, reminding us of the military aspect of this city, which needed to be defended from attack over many centuries. They also demonstrate just how small medieval Paris was – this bulwark marked the western boundary of the walled city.
2. Picpus Cemetery
In 1794, towards the end of the bloody period of the French Revolution known as ‘the Terror’, a plot of land seized from a convent was put to use as a cemetery. In early summer that year, the guillotine had been set up in the nearby Place de la Nation; dozens of people were being executed daily, and the bodies were piling up.
So the revolutionaries dug big pits at Picpus, into which they threw the bodies – and severed heads – of 1,306 victims of the guillotine executed between 14 June and 27 July.
The corpses were covered with lime and, at the end of that frantic period of guillotining, the pits were filled in. Then, from the late 19th century, aristocrats acquired the land, which became a private cemetery in which only descendants of those guillotined could be interred, including many elite French families.
A visit to Picpus provides an extraordinary snapshot not just of the revolution, but also of French political life over the centuries that followed. You might find a memorial to an aristocrat executed in June 1794, then one to his descendant killed in the First World War, or one who was deported and died in a Nazi concentration camp.
3. Arènes de Lutèce
Paris’s sizeable Roman arena, the Arènes de Lutèce, was lost for centuries, rediscovered during construction of a tram depot in the 1860s, then excavated and restored in the 1880s and 90s.
Only fragments of the actual structure remained, but the shape and extent was clear: a huge amphitheatre, more than 130 metres across, that could hold some 15,000 spectators for shows including animal fights and gladiatorial contests.
It was built from the late first century AD, about 150 years after the Romans completed their conquest of Gaul and began to recon- struct the city they named Lutetia, on and around the Île de la Cité in the river Seine.
Today, the arena and the thermal baths that are now part of the nearby Cluny Museum are the only major monuments surviving from the Roman era. Stroll through a little covered passageway between shops on the Rue Monge, and you’ll discover an oasis of calm.
4. Rue Saint-Honoré
This street, running parallel to the Seine north of the Louvre, was the birthplace of consumerist culture – the place where the idea of ‘fashion’ and haute couture was created.
It’s where Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Marie-Antoinette, opened her shop in 1773, and many of the big fashion houses are still found here. But it’s an ancient street, so you’ll also come across several monuments to older times.
For example, you’ll see a plaque commemorating Joan of Arc’s attempt to capture Paris during the siege of the city in September 1429, when she was wounded by a crossbow bolt.
A little farther down the road, just north of the Place de la Concorde, you’ll find a plaque recording where the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre lived between 1791 and 1794. So a stroll down the Rue Saint-Honoré reveals an interesting and reflective slice of Parisian life over the centuries.
5. Place Saint-Sulpice
In 1974, author Georges Perec wrote a short book – a pamphlet, really – titled Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris). It was an account of what he saw while sitting in a cafe on the Place Saint-Sulpice, a large square on the Left Bank near the Jardin du Luxembourg.
In many ways it’s very basic: people board a bus, a man walks past with a plastic bag, pigeons take off, there’s a bit of rain, and so on. But it reveals a sort of Paris without Paris – without the history, without the great sights and monuments, just letting the bustle be the spectacle.
Paris can feel very planned, thanks to Baron Haussmann’s ambitious rebuilding project of the mid-19th century that created so many wide, straight boulevards. But when you visit, you feel as if you’re making your own city.
Sitting in the Café de la Mairie on the Place Saint-Sulpice, imagining yourself as Georges Perec watching the city go by, is a wonderfully satisfying way to experience Paris. While there, admire the impressive church of Saint-Sulpice, the capital’s second-largest (after Notre-Dame), built over the course of more than a century from 1646. Its strikingly lofty interior features fonts made from the shells of a giant clam, and wonderful murals by Eugène Delacroix.
Colin Jones is emeritus professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, and visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Paris: Biography of a City (Allen Lane, 2004). He was talking to the journalist Paul Bloomfield, host of our podcast series History’s Greatest Cities. Listen to the companion podcast on Paris or explore the entire series
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