The Latin Quarter Revisited

Discovering the 5 & 6th district

Romantic myths of Left Bank intelligentsia which date back seven centuries are brutally shattered on today’s busy bd St-Michel, the main artery of the Latin Quarter, where the 5th and 6th arrondissements meet.

The venerable Sorbonne, the quarter’s historic seat of intellectual life, is still there, but these days the forlorn chime of its chapel bell, which has punctuated the studies of generations of scholars, is drowned out by the din of passing traffic. Indeed most people who stream past the place de la Sorbonne seldom notice its beautiful 17th century chapel with its graceful dome.

The dramatic story of this Paris neighborhood begins with the Roman occupation of Gaul, when the growing population of the Ile de la Cité spilled over on to the Left Bank. Roman villas appeared on the slopes of Mount Leucotitius (now the Montagne Ste-Geneviève), where the air was purer, soon to be followed by more dwellings along the cardo (the north-south axis, now rue St-Jacques) that led to Orléans.

The Germanic invasions of the mid-third century pushed the local population back to the safety of the Ile de la Cité, not to return to the ravaged Left Bank until a century later. “Outsiders” of a new creed, the early Christians, were arriving from the south.  (A Christian cemetery has been discovered in the area around the junction of rue St-Jacques and bd de Port Royal.) Rome and its far-reaching influence was soon to crumble; in Paris the sweeping waves of the Goths and vandals of the early 5th century proved irresistible, and in 451 Attila the Hun was at the gates of the city with his 700,000 men. Once more, the terrified population was ready to flee the Left Bank, but the legendary Geneviève bolstered up their courage, prophesying that Paris would be spared. She eventually became the patron saint of Paris.  In the 13th century, the Latin Quarter became the center of learning not just of France but of the whole of Western Europe.

The University was established barely a decade after the completion of the Left Bank section of the city walls; the first official written reference to the Universitas Magistrorum et Scolarium Parisiensium dates from 1221. At the beginning it did not have a permanent home. While its headquarters shifted, the teaching took place in the open air, on Place Maubert, and mainly on rue du Fouarre located near by.

The teachers stood on wooden trestles, while the students brought along their own fodder to sit on (fouarre in old French), hence the name of the street which soon became synonymous with the University as a whole. Brawls, uproar and political and religious agitation were also daily occurrences in the rue du Fouarre, to such an extent that in 1358 the Regent and future Charles V had the street barred with chains on both sides.

Nonetheless, the Latin quarter was first and foremost a prestigious seat of knowledge. In order to attract newcomers, King Philippe-Auguste granted the Left Bank considerable autonomy.  With the presence of three powerful abbeys -Sainte Geneviève, Saint Victor and Saint Germain – Rome was bound to step in and take over.  Thus, the newly founded University, whose teaching then was strictly limited to theology, came under the direct tutelage of the Pope.

The greatest theologians and thinkers came to teach in the Latin Quarter and helped to make it the intellectual center of the world: the German Albert, on place Maubert (the name is possibly a contraction of Maître Albert); his Italian disciple Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most prominent medieval theologian; the Florentine Brunetto Latini; and the “master” Dante Alighieri….

Little by little, permanent colleges superseded the makeshift locations of earlier days, first providing accommodation and later teaching. One such college was founded in 1253 on the present rue du Sommerand, by Robert, the chaplain and confessor of Saint Louis. Born to a humble family in the village of Sorbon in the Ardennes, he became so great a scholar that the King had him dine at his table. The college became the seat of the faculty of theology and was known as La Sorbonne, after the native village of its founder.  Its expansion was so spectacular that it soon overshadowed the other institutions and many foreigners still mistake it for the entire University of Paris.

Over the centuries the number of chairs created at the nearby Collège de France increased from the initial three to over 40 today, but its principles have remained unchanged; it has always been  independent of the University of Paris and the lectures have always been, and still are, free of charge and open to the public. Since its beginning, its illustrious professors have included the historian Michelet; Champollion who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the mathematician and physicist Ampère; the historian and writer Renan; and the philosopher Bergson.

Like the rest of the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne suffered from the Hundred Years War and from the wars of religion in the latter half of the 16th century, and as a result, the withered institution had to be revivified. The enterprising Richelieu, a former student at the school and its dean at the time, undertook its renovation, laying the cornerstone of its chapel in 1625. His project, however, was purely architectural and little was done to reform the curriculum, which until the Revolution remained restricted to theology. No wonder its beautiful compound, the work of architect Lemercier and artist Le Brun, was given a rough time by the anti-clerical revolutionaries. Some of its marble was stolen, part of the chapel dome was left to crumble, and weeds invaded the courtyard.

In the early 19th century, the Sorbonne was used as living quarters by several dozen artists who had formerly lived in the Louvre. During the Restoration a new scheme for the renovation of the Sorbonne was put forth and was carried out step by step throughout the 19th century. The Sorbonne was reconstructed entirely and expanded, to include the faculties of science and of letters, as well as the school of librarians, the Ecole des Chartres, and Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

In 1968, a wind of revolt blew across the planet, from the Latin Quarter to Prague to Berkeley, California. There was no premeditated political motivation on the part of students in Paris when, during the month of May, they transformed the Latin Quarter into a battlefield. Rather it was a vague discontent with an amalgamation of capitalism, imperialism (including the Vietnam War, of course), budding consumerism and the rigidity of bourgeois values. “L’imagination au pouvoir” ( “let imagination rule”), one of their favorite slogans, was scribbled on Latin Quarter walls. Barricades were erected on all the main arteries in the area to fend off the forces of the riot police as cobblestones were dug out of ancient streets and hurled at them.

By the end of June of that year, the summer holidays had begun, always a period of hibernation in the Latin Quarter, and by the following autumn, the students’ riots had died out. But the State had drawn its “lessons” from them and proceeded to “dismantle” and decentralize the University. The better part of its student population, were exiled and scattered all over Paris, packed into ugly premises, often in seedy neighborhoods. To crown it all, these new rootless compounds were given numbers instead of names – Paris I, Paris II, Paris III…up to XIII, all in the name of modernity.

The participants in the événements of 1968 grew either into disillusioned bourgeois known as ex-soixante-huitards or into frustrated misfits referred to as soixante-huitards attardés.  Fortunately the excellent lycées Henri IV, Louis le Grand and Saint Louis, are still there, as is the Ecole Normale Supérieure on rue d’Ulm. But the University has suffered beyond repair and in many cases its students have become second-class citizens, superseded by the élite who have been creamed off by the grandes écoles.

The arrondissement, meanwhile, has been “cleaned up” and gentrified like many other parts of Paris. Former President Mitterrand lived on rue de Bièvre off the once seedy Place Maubert. The new resident bourgeoisie lives in discreet seclusion away from the beaten track of bd Saint-Michel, where a junk bazaar has replaced most of the bookshops that went the way of the students. Today the bd St-Michel stands for what the students of the spring of ’68 vaguely sensed, rejected – and desperately resisted – the inexorable triumph of the consumer age.

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: