A Journey to Medieval Paris by Stew Ross

Hotel de Sens

Main entrance to the Hôtel de Sens built in the late 15th century. A centuries old fig tree once stood in front of the entrance. Queen Margot had it chopped down because it took her carriage too long to get around it.

On a warm summer day in 1965, a 10-year old boy, his parents, and their tour guide stood in front of the Place de la Concorde in Paris watching an endless swirl of cars and Vespa motor scooters. The guide was explaining the significance of the plaza to the events of the French Revolution when the boy asked, “So, where did they put the guillotine?”

The guide answered by pointing to the middle of the giant roundabout and the Egyptian Obelisk and in broken English said, “Somewhere out there.”

The boy came back with, “No, you don’t seem to understand. I want to know exactly where they put the guillotine.”

Over the next fifty years, that experience shaped my love of history and travel. In fact, I travel for history. I like to see original buildings, places, and sites that were significant to a historical event or time period. No replicas of log cabins for me. You can show me where it once stood (even though a Laundromat now occupies the site) and I’m good with that.

This experience resulted in a second career for me. After more than 30 years as a commercial banker, I embarked on a journey several years ago that satisfies my passion in many ways—I write walking tour books based on historical events. My first two books are entitled, Where Did They Put the Guillotine? A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Paris (1789–1794)–Volumes 1 & 2.

I happen to love Paris. So I’m staying in Paris for my first 5 books. My next adventure is to take you around Paris and show you the many sites remaining from the Middle Ages. You’d be surprised how many stops there are where you can see what’s left of Medieval Paris. Unfortunately, most of the remains are just remnants or “pieces” of old Paris. Only three personal residences remain fully intact from Medieval Paris and those were constructed in the Late Middle Ages (late 15th century).

By many comparisons (e.g., London), Paris was still a medieval city by the mid 1800s. While new building activity in Paris flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris did not shed its medieval cloak until Napoléon III (1808–1873) and his prefect, Baron Haussmann (1809–1891), came along in the mid-19th century and transformed Paris into a modern city (did you know parts of the city did not get running water until the early 1970s?). During a 12-year period, Haussmann and Napoléon III destroyed the old city to build what you see today: large boulevards converging into giant roundabouts, the “Haussmannian” buildings that line the grand boulevards, and the foundations of the modern rail transportation systems.

As you walk around Paris, you will see the ABCs (Another Beautiful Church) built during the Middle Ages—Notre Dame is the best example (completed in 1347). During the Middle Ages, more than 27 churches were located on the island in the middle of the Seine River known as Île de la Cité. Today, the only church remaining on the island is Notre Dame.

You can see several sections of the wall constructed between 1190 and 1210 by King Philippe II Augustus (1165–1223). Surrounding the city on both the Left and Right Banks, this stone and earthen wall protected the citizens (and the king) from outside attacks. Its gates were closed at night preventing people from leaving or getting into the city. Four towers were constructed on the edge of the river so a chain could be deployed across the water each night to prevent invader’s boats from attacking the city from the river. Those towers are no longer there, however, there are some great stories associated with a couple of them.

Phillipe's Wall

This is the best preserved section of Philippe’s wall. It is located on the Right Bank and you can see to the right, one of the towers known as Montgomery Tower. The Duke of Montgomery was imprisoned in this tower after accidentally killing King Henri II

On the Right Bank and snuggled up to Philippe’s wall is the Tour Jean Sans Peur or the Tower of John the Fearless. Built in 1409 by John, Duke of Burgundy (1371–1419), its purpose was to provide him protection from his enemies after he had the king’s brother, Louis, assassinated two years earlier. This provided the seed of the conflict between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs and the resultant civil war likely prolonged the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English. A visit to the tower will also provide you with an insight to medieval bathroom habits.

One of the three remaining intact personal residences was owned by Nicolas Flamel (1330–1418) and his wife. Built in 1407, the residence was originally used as a boarding house. Flamel was a legal consultant, owned a bookstore, and was considered a “scrivener” (someone who copied and illustrated manuscripts). After his death, stories began to float around that Flamel was an alchemist who had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone. In other words, he discovered the method of turning base metals into gold and silver. Chapter 13 of the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is named after Flamel. The story has Harry and the gang going on a quest to find out who Nicolas Flamel was. Today, you can go on a quest to find Flamel’s house. If you time your quest around lunchtime, you can stop and have lunch in his former house—it’s a restaurant today.

One thing I’ve learned in writing my books is that it’s the stories and the people associated with the buildings you visit that really matter. I try to research the more interesting stories so that, for example, when you stand in front of the medieval Hôtel de Sens, you can picture Queen Margot (King Henri IV’s first wife) sitting in the window and yelling out, “Kill him! Kill him!” as she watched her former lover being executed in front of her main entrance (he murdered her current lover).

I don’t run into too many people who say, “Gosh, I’m going to Paris in order to see some medieval sites.” If and when I do, I advise them to rent a car and go out into the countryside. You won’t be disappointed since there are so many small towns and villages to visit in France, the UK, and other European countries that have retained their medieval flavor. However, these were all satellites surrounding the hub of medieval activity in Paris.

Each of these stories are associated with stops in my new book, Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? A Walking Tour of Medieval Paris (987–1547).

About the Author

Palace de la Concorde

Raphaelle, Stew & Sandy (left to right) standing in the Place de la Concorde on exact spot where Marie Antoinette was executed.

Stew Ross is a retired commercial banker turned author and publisher. When he and his wife Sandy aren’t traveling and researching his next book, they enjoy spending time with their sweet Beagle Lucy at their home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Visit his website at www.stewross.com

Do we have a lot of stories? Of course we do. I’m looking forward to sharing these with you. Please continue to visit our newsletter and blog. Perhaps you’d like to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on the most recent newsletter and blog posts.

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Copyright © 2015 Stew Ross

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