Paris, Secret Gardens, Hidden Places, and Stories of the City of Light
By Mary McAuliffe
Paris, as Victor Hugo once observed, was born on the island of the Ile de la Cité—a small slice of land that he likened to the shape of a cradle, gently rocked by the River Seine. Others, especially those among Paris’s powerful medieval guild of water merchants, were more inclined to regard the Ile de la Cité as boat shaped. These folks, who slapped a hefty fee on all incoming goods arriving in Paris by water, held boats in high regard and placed one at the center of the city’s coat of arms, where it remains to this day.
Whichever shape you choose, Paris had its beginnings here more than two millennia ago. In this spot—a hill-ringed basin lying at the Seine’s confluence with the Oise and the Marne—a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii established themselves around 250 B.C., fishing, boating, and generally prospering in this watery locale. Two centuries later, their settlement caught the attention of the Romans, who understood the area’s strategic importance and relentlessly pushed in, incorporating it into the Roman Empire under the name of Lutetia.
Paris’s Gallo-Roman years now began, with the Romans building bridges (at the sites of the present Petit Pont and the Pont Notre-Dame) that connected the island with Right and Left Banks and erecting a temple and administrative buildings on the Ile de la Cité. During these years, the conquered Celts mingled with their Roman conquerors, and many even became Roman citizens. The result was a culture that we now call “Gallo-Roman,” a term that acknowledges Roman influence on Gaul’s conquered people, including those of Lutetia, who became Romanized without entirely losing their Celtic ways.
Unlike the Celts, though, the Romans did not live on the flood-prone island, nor on the soggy marshes of the Seine’s banks. Instead, they set up a small metropolis in their usual style, including a forum, public baths, and an amphitheater on the Left Bank hill now known as Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. To boost their water supply, they built an impressive aqueduct bringing in spring water from the south.
Barbarians on the march attacked the Left Bank settlement several times in the third and fourth centuries, at about the same time as the arrival of St. Denis, the town’s first Christian bishop, who added a new element to the mix. Although St. Denis’ mission to Lutetia ended in martyrdom, he succeeded in creating a foothold for Christianity. And as the Empire crumbled and Roman influence waned, Christianity played an ever-growing role in keeping Lutetia (now called Paris, after the Celtic Parisii) from going under. By the sixth century, following the conversion of Clovis I, King of the Franks, forerunners of some of Paris’s most famous churches and abbeys were beginning to appear. Following the Roman precedent of establishing official buildings at the western end of the Ile de la Cité and religious structures to the east, Parisian Christians erected their churches at the eastern end of the island and a royal palace to the west.
By the late ninth century, when Paris had once again begun to prosper, the sails of Viking dragon ships now appeared on the Seine, striking terror as they came. The entire population of Paris retreated to the walled Cité as its men fought the Viking besiegers. After plundering the town and receiving a large ransom, the Vikings moved on, but a century of political disruption and chaos followed.
It took time, but by the twelfth century, Paris had revived and even begun to thrive. And it is from this time that the city of Paris really began.