Medieval Paris - Left Bank




From Notre-Dame, we will go up to the end of the Island ( see Ile de la Cité) and we will take the Pont-Neuf bridge towards the left bank.

Following Atget's steps, we will stop at the following :
*        Rue de Nevers
*        24, rue du Sommerard - Cluny Museum
*        23, rue Clovis
*        Rue Valette - Collège de Fortet
*        Rue de la Parcheminerie
*        29 et 31 rue Galande
*        Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church
*        Saint-Séverin Church
*        Rue de la Parcheminerie

Rue de Nevers

We have reached the far end of the island, gone onto the bridge Pont-Neuf, then under a big porch which leads to the old, dark and narrow rue of Nevers, which dates from 13th century.

Let's stop below the porch, and read the verse on the painted arch. This is an excerpt of a text written in 1638 by a young  French poet Claude le Petit who described Paris as "Ridiculous Paris". What it says is that the bridge Pont-Neuf was a resort of thieves; it is easy to picture them  at the view of the street. Don't you see them coming from this old street, armed with a cosh to scare and rob the lost passerby? In the 13th century, this street, with the houses behind the bars, was lining the Hôtel of Nesles (replaced later by the Hôtel of Nevers) and the Convent of Grands-Augustins. At the end of the street, the lower part of the wall of Philip Augustus can still be seen.

Let's now take rue Mazarine on the left, then rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie, Boulevard Saint-Germain and stop at Cluny Museum ...

Musée de Cluny - 24, rue du Sommerard

We are now walking in front of the Gallo-Roman Thermes de Cluny (Palace of Thermes),  built around the beginning of 3rd century, where we can still see today imposing ruins, like  the frigidarium. The palace then became residence of the Frankish kings. Later by 1330, it was bought by the Cluny abbot to become in the fifteenth century their residence until the French Revolution. In 1833, Alexandre de Sommerard, passionate about Middle Age and Renaissance took over a part of it as a place to house his collection. On his death, City of Paris bought altogether his collection, the hotel and thermes de Cluny and created the Museum.
All the medieval collection acquired by Sommerard is still in the Museum, while his Renaissance collection was relocated in the Museum of the Renaissance at Ecouen. Take the time to visit the Musée de Cluny where you can see notable works which were nearly lost like the porch of the chapel of the Virgin in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or the imposing heads of the kings of Juda statues from Notre-Dame cathedral which were rediscovered in 1977 by chance.
Musée de Cluny is also famous for the fifteenth century tapestry cycle : the Lady and the Unicorn depicting the five senses and love.
For my generation, the Lady playing gently a portative organ
will remind our French class and the cover of the French book

  • Musée de Cluny
    Atget - 1903
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Musée de Cluny
    Atget - 1903
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Door, Musée de Cluny
    Atget - 1898
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Tower Clovis - 23, rue de Clovis

Let's follow rue of la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, then rue Descartes to the Henri IV college.

This prestigious high school still retains some remains of the former Abbey of St Genevieve, rival of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés by wealth and size. From the abbey built in the 13th century, we can see today the monks dining hall (which has been transformed into the school chapel) and the Clovis tower which was the bell tower of the abbey church. When rue Clovis was created in 1807, the church was demolished, except the Clovis tower. The Sainte-Geneviève church was built during the 12th century after the destruction of a former church built par King Clovis in 510 where he was buried in 511, near the tomb of Sainte-Geneviève, patron saint of Paris.

  • Henri IV college
    23, rue Clovis
    Former Abbay Sainte Geneviève founded by Clovis in 511
    In 1900 by Atget
    (Musée du Carnavalet)

Former College of Fortet - 19/21, rue Valette

Jean Calvin tower,
former College of Fortet
21, rue Valette
Atget - 1913 Atget
(Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts)

College Sainte-Barbe, located rue Valette was founded in 1460 and therefore is now the oldest school in France.

Right in front,  College of Fortet was founded in 1397, from which remains a tower with a spiral staircase, named Calvin tower. As it were, Calvin, still a theology student attended this college. In 1533, as he was sharing the same ideas about the Protestant Reformation than his friend Nicolas Copp, named rector of the University of Paris, Calvin wrote a speech for the rector.  As the speech was quite upsetting, it kicked up a fuss and Cop  just escaped being arrested. As for Calvin, he escaped by night from his room in College of Fortet. It is told that he escaped through this tower and via the roofs of the neighboring houses. By a spooky coincidence, in 1585, the Holy League was founded at the College of Fortet where violent calls for fanaticism were fomented, precisely where Calvin initiated his breaking from the Catholic Church…

 There was no building around the tower when Atget took the front face photo. On Atget’s  photo, we can easily see the top piece of rectangular shape with the sloping roof. Nowadays, the yellow tower can only be seen from the flowery court-yard accessible from 19-21 rue Valette.  

29/31, rue Galande

Houses, hôtel des Pays réunis,
rue Galande
Atget - 1899

We have now left Montagne Sainte-Geneviève and reached Place Maubert through rue des Carmes. We have now arrived rue Galande through rue Lagrange.

JK. Huysmans who was a French novelist and contemporary of Atget described the street and the two medieval houses with their wooden roof brackets.  At 29, rue Galande was a stationery shop selling also panes of glass and at 31, it was a leather shop.   

Nowadays, only the gable roof at 29 has kept its decorative roof bracket. It can be wondered whether these venerable houses should not be receiving same attention than the ones rue François-Miron (see medieval tour right bank)...

The name of the hotel provided by Atget to his photo – Hotel des Pays Réunis - that can be translated Hotel of the associated countries, sounds intriguing. Which countries are they? I have not been able to find any precise explanation. At the end of the 19th century, there were many hotels owned by people from central France and their names were recalling regions like Auvergne and Aveyron. May be the hotel des Pays Réunis was owned by people coming both from Auvergne and Aveyron… This district around Place Maubert , which is the main backdrop for the French novel "The mysteries of Paris" written by Eugène Sue in the 19th century, was mainly a place for poor people: tramps, rag men, butt-pickers, dog shearers, pimps, beggars and burglars … Some hotels were providing clean rooms, but only to the ones who could afford it; others were just providing a bad mattress in a dirty place to be shared with other poor people. There were also dreadful drinking dens like Le Père Lunette, in the close rue des Anglais or like Château-Rouge, at 57 rue Galande.

Before going to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, let's stop at 42, rue Galande where there is a carved 14th-century stone bas-relief above the entrance of the cinema. This oldest street sign in Paris depicts the legend of the boatman, Saint Julian. He is shown in the boat with his wife, rowing Christ across the river and getting forgiveness for having unwittingly killed his own  parents. 


Eglise Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre
Atget - 1905

This church inside an enclosed garden is one of the most charming churches in Paris;  I remember when my mother was taking me in this small garden for a walk and showing me the oldest tree in Paris, a locust tree – a Robinia pseudoacacia – planted over 400 years ago. Suffering under its own weight, this old tree is supported by concrete clutches. Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre was built in the 12th century and replaced an older church, built in the 6th century destroyed by the Normans.

The last time I visited the place, the garden and the church were exceptionally closed for rat control; this reminds us of ancient times when rats infested Paris so much that a near street, la rue de l'hôtel-Colbert was called at that time the rats street …

When Atget took the photo of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in 1898 and 1899, the church was still closely nested in the buildings around. This is perfectly described by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French novelist, in his book published in 1898 : La Bièvre et Saint-Séverin. We can read that at that time, the church was located in a backyard where hens were ranging freely; old and filthy buildings were overhanging the small church guarded by an old man sitting outside between the gate and a water well. 

The church, begun around 1160 and achieved around 1240 is indeed one of the two city's oldest religious buildings – the other one is Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Its small size is due to a partial destruction done during the 18th century as the church, neglected, became  almost a ruin. The old Gothic facade, two of the original bays in the nave and the southern sides were demolished. The current northwestern facade was added in order to close the amputated church. The well initially in the destroyed bay of the nave ended up outside in the yard. On the left side of the new facade, we can see some remains of the old 13th century facade. I think that the special charm of the church is due precisely to its small size. The interior of the Greek Melchite church looks almost intimate and I remember when I was a child, I was fascinated by the exotic aspect of the iconostasis made of engraved wood and by the mystery coming from heavy red curtains masking the choir as per the Byzantine rite. 

To visit the church, often closed, I would recommend attending one of the concerts regularly organised.

  • Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre
    Atget - 1898
    (Getty Museum)

  • Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre
    Atget 1898

Eglise Saint-Séverin

The church was initially a chapel containing the tomb of Séverin of Paris, a devout hermit living during the 6th century. Destroyed by the Normans, it was rebuilt in 12th century and became later an important parish. It deserved to be visited. I feel the same emotion each time I see the pillars of the deambulatory which expand like a sublime palm garden under the soft light of the stained glass windows. This tree is rotating on its axis and when touching the vault is shattering and scattering into a petrified bunch of branches.

  • Rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin
    Atget - 1912
    (Médiathèque du Patrimoine)

Rue de la Parcheminerie

22, rue de la Parcheminerie
Atget - 1906

The streets around Saint-Séverin church are from the 13th century.

The name of the picturesque rue de la Parcheminerie (the parchment makers Street  - initially called the Writers street ), less known and less busy than the close rue de la Huchette, is pointing out that many scribes, illuminators and bookbinders were living and working in this area.
In the 18th century, there was a famous printing shop, rue Saint-Séverin, perpetuating the traditional book activities since Middle Age; In the late 1730, an incident took place, in which cats were massacred by printing apprentices obviously driven by an unexplained  collective rage. Were they overwrought by the cats howling all the night making it impossible to make a full night sleep when they had to wake up early? Or could they  be resentful at their poor treatment whilst their masters' cats were in better position and correctly fed? Or anticipating French Revolution, could this massacre be a popular rebellion from oppressed people against the upper-class? Since their masters were loving their cat, was not it a way to attack them by assaulting their pets?

In 1462, the hunt was not for a cat, and rather for the poet Francois Villon, involved as usual in a street quarrel and will be imprisoned and tortured. Could we imagine that he tried to escape Louis XI police through this door photographed by Atget?  

Instead of this old door, gone forever, today we can only find a modern entrance of a hotel which arch seems to maliciously replicating the  arch of the old door … in echo of the prescient sentence written by J. K. Huysmans who was anticipating the disappearance of all the old houses in Saint-Séverin district …

Year 2016 - Text and photos - Martine Combes