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Chronicles of Old Paris
Exploring the Historic City of Light
By John Baxter
Museyon, Inc. Copyright © 2012 John Baxter
All rights reserved.
LOSING YOUR HEAD
THE LONG WALK OF SAINT DENIS
On the front of Notre-Dame de Paris, to the left of the main door, stands the statue of a man holding his own severed head. A halo behind his neck indicates where the head used to sit. He is Saint Denis (pronounced Der-ny), the patron saint of France. His expression is as relaxed as one would expect from someone who, after decapitation, walked four miles holding his head while it delivered a sermon.
Evidence of this story is understandably flimsy. A Denys or Dionysius did arrive in Lutèce or Lutetia, the site that would become Paris, around the year 250. He had been sent from Rome by Pope Fabian on a mission to convert the pagans of what was then Gaul. Rome still ruled northern Europe, and Lutèce was an important outpost. Nervous about rival belief systems, the emperor Decius was determined to stamp out Christianity in the provinces. His local representative, governor Sisinnius Fesceninus, watched uneasily as Denis installed himself on the Île de Saint-Louis, near the present site of Notre Dame, declared himself bishop and began to offer masses.
A charismatic speaker, Denis soon had a large and lively congregation, which he encouraged to smash the shrines of Rome's official gods. Local priests demanded action from Sisinnius, who summoned Denis and his two lieutenants, Rusticus and Eleutherius, and ordered them to recant in the approved fashion: by making a sacrifice to the pagan deities. They refused, even after being elaborately tortured. Accounts claim they were scourged, racked, thrown to wild beasts and burned at the stake.
Sisinnius then ordered them beheaded before the temple to Mercury, on the highest point in the city. The soldiers charged with the task decided to save themselves the climb and kill Denis and his men at the foot of the hill, known forever after as Montmartre – the hill of the martyr. Denis, however, was as stubborn in death as in life. After the swordsman severed his head, it's said he picked it up and walked towards the summit of the hill, pausing only to wash the blood from his head at a spring. As he did so, the severed head preached a sermon on love and forgiveness. Still preaching, he strolled another four miles to the village of Catolacus. Arriving at the home of a parishioner, a wealthy woman named Catulla, he handed her his head and died at her feet. She buried him on the spot. Wheat and other plants sprouted miraculously from the grave – proof, claimed his followers, of his divine powers.
There are enough authentic details in this story to suggest it's based, however remotely, on fact. Some accounts suggest the swordsman missed his mark and sliced off only the top of his skull – by no means rare; executioners were notoriously inept. Such slipshod work may explain why he didn't die immediately, since not all such head wounds are immediately fatal. As for wheat growing on the grave, grasses and flowers often sprout from freshly dug earth as buried seeds germinate.
As Rome's influence waned and Christianity spread through the Frankish kingdom that replaced it, the former bishop became venerated throughout Christendom. His death was a popular subject for artists. Sculptors filled the vacant space above his neck with vines, signifying the plants that grew on his grave. Painters preferred to show him decapitated on the steps of a temple more lavish than anything found in a provincial backwater like Lutèce.
By the outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death in the 14th century, Saint Denis had became one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers – saints known for their influence in curing sickness. It was widely believed that a prayer to Denis would fix a headache, since he'd been beheaded. Because of his calm in the face of death, he was also credited with subduing the frenzy of rabies and even calming demonic possession.
In about 475, Saint Genevieve erected a church on the spot where Denis finally died at Catolacus. Over the next four centuries, it metamorphosed into a Gothic cathedral – Europe's first. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis became the traditional site for the coronation of France's queens and the burial place of royalty – an ironic development, since the town of Saint-Denis, which grew up around the basilica, developed into a center of left-wing political activity. In modern times, it has become a bastion of the Communist Party, an important element of the "red belt" around Paris.
In Paris, Catulla built a modest shrine on the site of Denis's decapitation. Dagobert I, king of the Franks from 628 to 637, turned it into an abbey, which incorporated a Sanctum Martyrium or Martyr's Chapel. Before interring the remains of Denis and his disciples in the crypt under the Sanctum Martyrium, Dagobert placed them in miniature silver coffins. It was the start of a troubled history for the bones; some time in the 12 century, the coffins disappeared. Soon, many churches claimed to possess Denis's skull, or the top of it, a relic they believed had miraculous powers.
In 1793, the same anti-royalist revolutionaries who knocked the heads off the statues on the front of Notre Dame (convinced they were ancient kings) invaded Saint-Denis. Assuming that the crypt contained solely the remains of royalty, these rebels dragged out the bones and used the skulls as footballs, or for target practice, before dumping the skeletons into a mass grave. Today, nobody knows the whereabouts of Denis's bones – except perhaps the statue on the façade of Notre Dame. And for once, the talkative saint has nothing to say.
How he then made his way to the village of Saint-Denis — the former Catolacus, site of the cathedral that bears his name and a distance of at least four miles — remains another of the saint's mysteries. Modern pilgrims may prefer to take the Métro to the Basilique de Saint-Denis station, saving some energy for a visit to the spectacular cathedral and its magnificently sculpted royal tombs, including those of the executed Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.
Modern Paris preserves a number of connections to Saint Denis. On the left bank, in the Latin Quarter, behind the church of Saint-Julienle-Pauvre, a few slabs of stone survive from the ancient Roman road. The archaeology museum under the parvis in front of Notre Dame shows Paris as it looked during the saint's life. The flower market behind the Conciergerie occupies the place where Denis and his followers were imprisoned and tortured.
Opposite, on the right bank, rue Saint-Denis begins in the sex shop and red light district, of which the saint would no doubt have disapproved. It ends more imposingly in the arch of the Porte de Saint-Denis. Built in 1672 by architect François Blondel and sculptor Michel Anguier to celebrate the victories of Louis XIV, the arch marks the limits of the old city.
Denis's final hours began farther west, in the 18th arrondissement. From Métro Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the aptly-named rue des Martyrs climbs to rue Yvonne-Le-Tac, formerly rue Antoinette. The Métro station of Abbesses stands on the site where Denis was decapitated and a chapel at 9, rue Yvonne-le-Tac marks the spring where he paused to wash his head before continuing to the summit of Montmartre, now dominated by the domes of the Basilique du Sacré-Cur.CHAPTER 2
HÉLOÏSE AND ABÉLARD
At the beginning of the High Middle Ages, Europe's brightest intellectuals were already gravitating to Paris. Most headed for the schools that clustered in the tall, narrow houses around the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. The church still dominated culture and the arts, and the language of thought and learning was Latin. The district along the left bank of the Seine soon became known as the Latin Quarter.
Within this specialized world, Peter (or Pierre, or Petrus) Abélard (or Abaelardus, or Abailard) was a star. The son of a soldier from a village near Nantes, in Brittany, he turned his back on the military life and spent his teen years travelling France. He became one of the "peripatetics" – wandering students who travelled to remote monasteries, seeking out teachers, or sometimes individual books, since, in those days before printing, many classic texts existed only in a few examples, hand-copied by monks.
Around 1100, in his early twenties, Abélard came to Paris and joined the cathedral school of Notre Dame. Thin and wiry, clever and arrogant, Abélard was as sinuous as his rhetoric. His specialty was "disputation," or logic. He also wrote poetry and songs, which he performed for his classes.
He launched his reputation by publicly demolishing the theories of his teacher, William of Champeaux, which earned him a number of enemies. He soon had his own school, and, despite clashes with the church authorities, who accused him of heresy, scholars came from all over Europe to hear him speak. As his classes swelled, Abélard moved uphill from the Latin Quarter to Montagne Sainte-Geneviève.
Controversy just made Abélard more attractive – even to liberal churchmen like Canon Fulbert from Brittany, who sent his ward Héloïse to Paris to study with Abélard. "Her uncle's love for her was equalled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her," Abélard wrote in his Historia Calamitatum.
There's some doubt about the relationship between Héloïse and Fulbert. She may have been his niece, but it's also possible she was his illegitimate daughter, which would help explain his generosity and later hostility towards Abélard.
In the many novels and films based on their story, Abélard is usually shown as a mature and dignified man in his mid-30s and Héloïse a beautiful but innocent 17. It's more likely Héloïse was about 25 and as appealing to Abélard for her intellect as for her passion and beauty. She was not only fluent in Latin, but had learned both Greek and Hebrew (neither of which Abélard spoke).
Until he met Héloïse, Abélard had avoided entanglements, but he found her irresistible. He convinced Fulbert he should move into their home as her tutor. Inevitably, the couple became lovers. "Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired," he wrote, "and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts."
If Fulbert didn't realise what was going on, it became abundantly clear when Héloïse fell pregnant. Even then, the situation was still retrievable. Even an illegitimate child could be glossed over, particularly if the couple married quickly, or the mother gave the baby away and entered a convent in expiation of her sin.
Abélard offered to give up teaching and marry Héloïse. Fulbert was ready to cooperate, to avoid a scandal. Both men were dumbfounded when she refused. She didn't want the responsibility of depriving the world of such a great teacher as Abélard. "What penalties," she said, "would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light?" Nor was she keen to become a nun and lock herself away for the rest of her life. In one of the most famous passages in the letters, she wrote: "God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."
Running away to the home of Abelard's sister, she gave birth to a son, christened Astrolabe – the name of a scientific instrument used by sailors for navigation. This was ironic, since the relationship had now lost its way completely. In hopes of placating the family, the couple married, but agreed to keep it secret. Fulbert, however, announced it in public, to save his reputation and that of his niece. Héloïse hid from the resulting scandal in a convent, and a furious Fulbert, thinking Abélard had forced her into becoming a nun, sent men to his house, where they castrated him.
Until then, the story of Héloïse and Abélard was just another tawdry sex scandal, but this brutal attack launched their legend. While he was recuperating, Abélard's enemies, who'd been waiting their chance, attacked ferociously. The church declared him a heretic and hounded him out of Paris. Héloïse, forced to become a nun, was confined to a convent at Argenteuil. Abélard became a monk and lived in a number of monasteries — including Saint-Denis — though none for long. In each, his contentious opinions angered colleagues, who sometimes physically attacked him. One community in the wildest part of Brittany threw him out, so he became a hermit, living in a hut of reeds chinked with mud. Even there, however, scholars sought him out, and he was eventually allowed to return to Paris and lecture.
He published Historia Calamitatum: The Story of My Misfortunes, an autobiography in the form of a long moan to a friend, detailing his unfortunate life. Héloïse, who had flourished as a nun and risen to become an abbess and head of her order, read it and wrote him a letter. After criticizing him for having abandoned her, she begged, "While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words — of which you have enough and to spare — some sweet semblance of yourself."
Initially, their letters were intimate and erotic. "Even during the celebration of mass," Héloïse confessed, "when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantoness instead of on our prayers." Gradually, however, the passion ebbed. What had been an outpouring of desire and emotion modified into a discussion of religious philosophy, as well as an exchange of ideas on how a convent and an order of nuns should be organized.
Nobody knows exactly how many letters they exchanged. The originals were kept at the Convent of the Paraclete, where Héloïse had become abbess, and remained there after her death in 1164. The poet Jean de Meun, author of The Romance of the Rose, discovered the letters in the 13th century and produced a translation that emphasised their passion but played down the less florid "Letters of Instruction." After that, the originals disappeared.
In 1974, another cache was found in Clairvaux Monastery, and a new translation restored some of the more practical language of the originals. By then, however, the world had made up its mind about Héloïse and Abélard. They became the classic illustration of love's ability to triumph over every barrier an unfeeling world can erect. As the poet Alphonse de Lamartine wrote: "One does not tell the story of Héloïse and Abelard; one sings it."
According to legend, the bones of Héloïse and Abélard lie together in the cemetery of Père Lachaise. Joséphine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon, was so touched by the story of the pair that she ordered their remains moved to the cemetery in the 19th century. A lavish Gothic stone vault marks their alleged grave. However the Oratory of the Paraclete at Nogent, where Héloïse was the abbess, claims the remains of both are still buried in its grounds and that the crypt at Père Lachaise is merely a monument.
Excerpted from Chronicles of Old Paris by John Baxter. Copyright © 2012 John Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
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