Paris’ central 2nd district

Whereas today the 2nd arrondissement holds a central position on the map of  Paris, in olden times it lay on the northern periphery of the city, an intermediary territory  between the capital and the outside world, lying initially outside the city walls and  incorporated by successive stages into the growing city.

which mark its present northern boundary were laid out by Louis XIV in 1676 who, fortified by his recent victories,  replaced Charles V’s city walls by a tree-lined promenade,  making Paris an open city for the first time in its history.   Bustling traffic had been going in and out of the capital, since Roman days, by way of rue Saint-Denis, on the eastern edge of the arrondissement.  The road led to the villages of Saint-Denis and Pontoise, and on to Rouen. Saint Geneviève, the  patron of Paris, gave it a further boost in the 5th century by promoting it as a pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint-Denis, hence its name rue de Monsieur Saint-Denis.

From the 8th century on it became  the royal highway, through which the kings and queens of France entered solemnly “the good city of Paris” on their way to the cathedral of Notre Dame – notably after their coronation at Reims – a tradition maintained for over a thousand years, right up to the coronation of Charles X on 27 September 1827. Such occasions were celebrated by lavish festivities against the backdrop of triumpahnt arches, of rich silks draping the house fronts and of fountains flowing with milk and wine. The royal procesion with its sumptuous canopy, the colourful attire of its participants provided a splendid spectacle which thrilled the crowds. Royal funerals also went past rue Saint-Denis, departing from Notre-Dame and headig north to the burial site of the basilica of Saint-Denis.

Much closer to us, it was also selected for the celebrations of 30 June 1878 of the young Third Republic, as depicted in Monet’s painting Rue Saint-Denis, bursting with a riot of tricolours. The bourgeois Republic avoided celebrating Bastille Day so as not to arouse revolutionary feelings only seven years after the civil war of the Commune, and proclaimed a national holiday to coincide with the Universal Exhibition, which was bound to draw large crowds. Being the main thoroughfare of the capital, rue Saint-Denis attracted religious institutions, hostels and inns, where kings, pilgrims and other travellers found hospitalitty, notably in the Hôpital Saint-Jacques for the benefit of pilgrims heading for Compostela, and the Hôpital de la Trinité which offered shelter to latecomers who found the city gates locked after nightfall. Even those travelling to their deaths found solace here on their way to the gallows of Montfaucon (in the 10th arrondissement).

The tumbril carrying them from the prison of the Grand-Châtelet (on the site of today’s Théâtre du Châtelet, roughly) would pause to allow them to kiss the wooden cross of the convent of the Filles-Dieu (nos 223-239). The convent’s inmates, reformed prostitutes, would welcome them to a share of holy water, three morsels of bread and a glass of wine, and could even save their necks by consenting to marry them. It is said that one prisoner, who was offered rescue by a generous yet hideously ugly ‘daughter of God’, urged the hangman to proceed with his task and put him out of even worse misery. This may be the origin of the expression passer la corde au cou – “to put someone’s head in the noose”, or to trap a man into marriage.

Because of its geographical postion, the 2nd arrondissement drew in the most destitute segments of society, particularly between the 15th and 17th centuries, when the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Plague had left one sixth of the population homeless and starving. Deserting the desolate coutryside they made their way into the capital and huddled within its walls. They were hardly likely to be disturbed in this tangle of narrow streets and blind alleys, a cesspool reeking with the stench of the open sewer, a perilous no-man’s-land a long way from the city, as some street names testify -rue du Temps Perdu (‘vanished times’, now Saint-Joseph) and rue du Bout du Monde (‘world’s end’, now Léopold Bellan), for example.

The newcomers became the terror of the town, organised into fearsome bands with their own language and laws. By day they spilled out into the streets of Paris, metamorphosed into ‘blind’ or ‘maimed’ beggars who preyed upon passers-by. By night they vanished into the neighbourhood’s dead-end alleys, where they laid aside their crutches and ‘miraculously’ recovered their eyesight and missing limbs. Thus these alleys came to be known as ‘Cours des Miracles’, the most notorious one being situated on rue Neuve-Saint-Sauveur (roughly the site of today’s rue du Nil, rue des Forges and rue de Damiette), and ran conveniently along the city walls, the gaps of which provided exists in case of emergency.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo brought worldwide notoriety to the Cour des Miracles of rue Neuve-Saint-Sauveur, “a gutter of vice and beggary, of vagrancy that spills over into the streets of the capital […] immense changing-room of all the actors of this comedy that robbery, prostitution and murder play on the cobbled streets of Paris.” Prostitution tended to operate in the south-eastern section of the arrondissement, attracted to the abundant reservoir of clientele provided by Les Halles,  where it left the mark of its trade by way of expressive street names: rue Tire-Boudin (‘sausage-jack’, now Marie-Stuart), rue Gratte-Cul (‘bum-scraper’, now Gaston Dussoubs)…

Attempts to do away with prostitution were made once in a while, but these were usually half-hearted and ineffectual and largely depended on the inclinations of the individual monarch. Thus, at the time of Louis XV, who was by no means averse to the pleasures of the flesh, the neighbourhood flourished into a breeding-ground of courtesans for the upper classes. It was in Madame Gourdan’s glamorous establishment on rue de la Comtesse d’Artois (now Montorgueil), that the notorious pimp Jean du Barry discovered Jeanne Bécu, Mademoiselle Lange by her trade name, soon to be married off and become the King’s mistress as the new Comtesse du Barry, the last of France’s royal favourites, to the outrage of the court.

By then, the ‘Cour des Miracles’ was no more –  its rabble had  made the streets of Paris so unsafe that in 1667 Louis XIV ordered his police lieutenant Nicolas de La Reynie to clean it up. This was no easy task, for its occupants put up a heroic resistance. Once defeated, many ended up in the galleys of the king’s growing fleet; this was one way of tackling the problem of homelessness which afflicted one tenth of the population of Paris, or 40,000 souls. It was also a way of providing breeding mates for the newly acquired territory of Louisiana and help its demographic growth.

Thirza Valloisis the author of  Around and About Paris, Volume I, II, III published by Iliad Books (UK)  and  Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK).  To find out more and order Thirza Vallois’s books, visit her website: //