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Seven Ages of Paris

Seven Ages of Paris

4.4 5
by Alistair Horne

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In this luminous portrait of Paris, the celebrated historian gives us the history, culture, disasters, and triumphs of one of the world’s truly great cities. While Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

From the rise of Philippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV (who abandoned Paris for Versailles); Napoleon’s rise and fall;


In this luminous portrait of Paris, the celebrated historian gives us the history, culture, disasters, and triumphs of one of the world’s truly great cities. While Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

From the rise of Philippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV (who abandoned Paris for Versailles); Napoleon’s rise and fall; Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris (at the cost of much of the medieval city); the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation, and the postwar period dominated by de Gaulle--Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, and heroes and villains splendidly to life. With a keen eye for the telling anecdote and pivotal moment, he portrays an array of vivid incidents to show us how Paris endures through each age, is altered but always emerges more brilliant and beautiful than ever. The Seven Ages of Paris is a great historian’s tribute to a city he loves and has spent a lifetime learning to know.

"Knowledgeable and colorful, written with gusto and love.... [An] ambitious and skillful narrative that covers the history of Paris with considerable brio and fervor."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Knowledgeable and colorful, written with gusto and love. . . . [An] ambitious and skillful narrative that covers the history of Paris with considerable brio and fervor”—The Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Consistently bewitching. . . . [Horne] renders France unusually vivid by focusing on the one corner of it that millions of foreigners have toured or lived in or dreamed about.” --The New York Times Book Review

"Horne gives readers a wonderful sense of everyday life in Paris at every turn and displays a convincing understanding of the Parisian character." –San Francisco Chronicle

“A fluid, graceful, deliberate prose stylist. . . . Horne’s purpose is not to be encyclopedic but to paint a portrait, and this he does surpassingly well.” –The Washington Post Book World

Publishers Weekly
London is male, New York sexually ambivalent, writes Horne. But "has any sensible person ever doubted that Paris is fundamentally a woman?" The renowned historian (The Fall of Paris, etc.) thus conceives of his history of the city of lights as "linked biographical essays, depicting seven ages... in the long, exciting life of a sexy and beautiful, but also turbulent, troublesome and sometimes excessively violent woman." Horne's admittedly idiosyncratic seven ages begin in the 13th century, when King Philippe Auguste made Paris the administrative and cultural center of France. The second age was that of the Protestant Henri of Navarre (later King Henri IV) who, after unsuccessfully besieging the city, converted to Catholicism because, he said, "Paris is worth a mass," and began "to clear away the cluttered medieval quartiers... and replace them with an orderly, classical elegance." The third era was that of King Louis XIV, a period of amazing cultural flowering, though the Sun King moved the seat of government away from Paris, to Versailles. Napoleon brought to Paris a postrevolutionary stability and grandeur, and began to construct a modern sewer system. Under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, during the city's fifth age, Paris was remade, but the era ended with the bloodletting of the Commune. Age six took the city from the belle epoque through the beginning of WWII, and the last from the occupation to 1969. Horne brings to this brilliant and entertaining account the same urban passion that Peter Ackroyd brought to his recent "biography" of London-and it is sure to delight Francophiles everywhere. 8 pages of color and 16 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Nov. 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Horne has written extensively about France's history, especially its wars, but this book is a story of Paris. Keeping primarily within the confines of political history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. He underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they turned a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing, centralizing state. Cardinal Richelieu comes across favorably, whereas Horne's assessment of King Louis xiv (who spent most of his time at Versailles rather than in Paris) is mixed. His distaste for the Revolution is such that he skips it — even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He prefers to emphasize the city's development under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. But the most moving part of the book is devoted to the years spanning 1870-1940 and 1940-69. The critical French victory at the battle of the Marne in September 1914, the humiliation of Paris in World War II, and above all the great saga of Charles de Gaulle inspire excellent pages. Some of Horne's judgments on modern France are assailable, but his epilogue on the cemetery of Pere Lachaise is a fitting end to this labor of love.
Library Journal
This highly readable narrative by celebrated journalist and historian Horne (The Fall of Paris; A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962) uses an admittedly idiosyncratic organizational scheme to trace the history of Paris through seven periods, beginning in the 12th century and ending with the death of Charles de Gaulle in 1969. His "ages" focus on medieval and Renaissance Paris; the era of King Henry IV; the 18th century and Louis XIV; revolutionary and Napoleonic Paris; the 19th century, culminating in the Bloody Week of the Commune; the Belle poque; and the age of war and occupation. While politics informs and guides his presentation, this is by no means a political history. Each section includes fascinating insights into the social and cultural life of the age, fashions in clothing, architectural developments, leading personalities, and lifestyles of rich and poor alike. With the verve of a master storyteller, Horne captures Parisians' "zest for living." While often depicting Paris itself as a beautiful woman, he does not neglect the famous female personalities of each era. This readable survey complements yet stands in sharp contrast to Patrice Higonnet's recent Paris: Capital of the World, which takes a more academic focus and eschews a chronological approach. Highly recommended for large public libraries.-Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fittingly illuminating history of la ville lumière and of the great men and women who have passed beneath the gates of the French capital. English historian and biographer Horne (A Bundle from Britain, 1994, etc.) obviously prefers Paris—which, in a well-worn turn, he conceives of as being "fundamentally a woman"—to his native "dear, sedate old London town," and this portrait bears all the marks of his affection for the cold, rainy, and notoriously snooty metropolis. Horne opens with a view of Paris as it was in its early days as the Roman colony of Lutetia, then confined to an island in the middle of the Seine, whose water, the emperor Julian wrote, "is pleasant to drink, for it is very pure and agreeable to the eye"; rough-and-tumble in Roman times, it was scarcely more civilized when the Merovingian king Clovis, having murdered most of his family—"they were not gentle or nice people," Horne writes understatedly, "these Frankish forebears of the modern-day Parisian"—founded his capital there fifteen hundred years ago. Few of the characters in Horne’s narrative qualify as gentle or nice, and his pages are full of bloody episodes that illustrate the city of light’s darker side: the slaughter of its Jews in the 14th century, and again in the 20th; the deaths of some 25,000 Parisians during the 1871 Commune, "larger by far . . . than the bloodletting of the Terror of 1793"; episodes of ethnic turmoil today. Still, Horne’s take on Paris past and present is as much celebratory as cautionary. Altogether, his approach is a tad on the old-fashioned side, preferring to highlight the mighty deeds of the noble and highborn to the daily life of the masses, fodder forgenerations of annalistes. That said, Horne does a commendable job of distilling an impressive amount of material in an eminently readable narrative that shows just how important Paris is to the history of the West, and indeed the world. A lively primer of Parisian history, just the right companion for travelers to the city seeking a deeper understanding of the view before them.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Age One

Philippe Auguste


Sunday at Bouvines

I only wish this pile of stones could be silver, gold or diamonds . . . the more precious the materials of this castle, the greater pleasure I will have in possessing it when it falls into my hands.



Some important battles in history have a surreptitious way of crystallizing what has gone before, as well as putting down a kind of marker for what is about to occur. They can also affect the pattern of events far beyond the battlefield itself.

It is perhaps what makes historians call them "decisive." Bouvines, fought on 27 July 1214, was one of those. It was won by France against a powerful coalition of foes headed by King John of England, on a Sunday. This in itself was unusual, for in those days of religious correctness knights and kings on the whole observed the sabbath as far as battle was concerned. Bouvines was, moreover, to set the future shape not only of France but of Britain, too-and it would be fundamental to the development of the capital city Paris was to become. Some fifteen kilometres equidistant from the present-day cities of Tournai (in Belgium) and France's Lille, Bouvines lies in soggy Flanders, site of the terrible battlefields where the destiny of France was to be played out exactly seven centuries later, 200 kilometres north-east of Paris.

When France's King Philippe Auguste arrived on the throne in 1180,* aged fifteen, he inherited a tiny state, a fraction the size of Plantagenet England and its European dependencies, land-locked and surrounded by powerful rivals. How then did he come to find himself fighting-and winning-such a key battle in so unpromising a corner of Europe?

The then King of England, Henry II, was an imposing, authoritarian ruler who, at least in the early stages of his reign, seemed to have everything going for him. His French father, the Plantagenet Duc d'Anjou, brought him the rich territories of Anjou and Normandy; and he acquired England through his marriage to the unhappy Matilda, heiress to William the Conqueror's son Henry I. Between Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, England had been reduced to anarchy and, by the time Henry Plantagenet came to the throne in 1154 at the age of twenty-one, was only too ready for the smack of strong rule. In short order, Henry found himself reigning unchallenged from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, his short-lived Angevin Empire looming over the diminutive plot that was Louis VII's France. With conspicuous cunning, Henry set about the encirclement of that plot by a network of alliances, and at times during his reign it looked as if the best the Capetians could expect would be to become vassals of the Angevin Empire controlled from Westminster and Rouen. Yet the murder in 1170 of Archbishop Thomas à Becket-apparently invoked if not actually ordered by the King-turned things upside down. The "turbulent priest" became an instant international martyr, and a saint. Henry could wear a horsehair shirt and have himself flogged in Avranches Cathedral by way of atonement, yet his image, and his power, would never quite recover from this particular bloodstain. Louis, France and Paris were saved.

Storing up trouble for himself and the Angevin Empire, the increasingly unpopular Henry now carried out a Lear-like break-up of his territories between his sons, Henry the Young (aged fifteen in 1170), Richard (the future Coeur de Lion, aged twelve) and Geoffrey (eleven). John, born only in 1167, was left out of the carve-up-thus to be known henceforth in France as "Jean-Sans-Terre." As Lear discovered, this was to prove folly in the extreme. Prince Henry, though already crowned in anticipation in 1170 and strategically married to the daughter of Louis VII, was treated by his father-in-law as if he were already king, but in fact was never to succeed-dying in 1183. In 1173, a general insurrection, the product of widespread popular discontent, broke out against Henry. With his customary vigour, however, over a period of two years he crushed one by one all the coalitions mounted against him.

Meanwhile in 1176 the worst flood of the Seine in memory swept away both bridges, carried off mills, houses and livestock on the crumbling banks, and came close to engulfing the whole city. Attempting a form of flood control untried in modern times, Louis and his entire court and every undrowned monk and priest, headed by the Bishop of Paris, went in procession to the edge of the swirling waters. Holding aloft a nail from the True Cross, the Bishop prayed: "In this song of the Holy Passion, may the waters return to their bed and this miserable people be protected!" The rain stopped, and the waters ebbed just in time.

The uprising of 1173 had demonstrated the fundamental Achilles' heel of Henry's empire-the divisiveness of his quarrelsome sons, greedy for territory and glory. Their future adversary Philippe, heir to the ageing Louis, saw it. Aged only nine, standing before Henry's seemingly unassailable fortress at Gisors, and showing his future mettle, he is said to have remarked to his entourage, "I only wish this pile of stones could be silver, gold or diamonds . . . the more precious the materials of this castle, the greater pleasure I will have in possessing it when it falls into my hands." He would have to wait the best part of a generation.

In 1180 Louis VII died, and Philippe Auguste succeeded him, aged only fifteen. As he grew into the job, Philippe earned a reputation for being rusé comme un renard (cunning as a fox). The only existing contemporary pen-portrait of him describes him as:

a handsome, strapping fellow, bald but with a cheerful face of ruddy complexion, and a temperament much inclined towards good-living, wine and women. He was generous to his friends, stingy towards those who displeased him, well versed in the art of stratagem, orthodox in belief, prudent and stubborn in his resolves. He made judgements with great speed and exactitude.

He was keen to seek the counsel of intelligent men of humble birth, notably Brother Guérin, Bishop of Senlis, and Barthélemy de Roye, and he restricted his advisers at court to a very small circle. He was to give the French monarchy (in the words of the historian André Maurois) "the three instruments of rule which it lacked: tractable officials, money and soldiers." He was also to be one of the first true lovers of the city of Paris.

France was soon at war again. By the facts of life of the twelfth century, this signified skirmishes interrupted by frequent truces, but without any grand battle-until Bouvines in 1214. By the fifth year of his reign, through a combination of skilful campaigning in Picardy and the dowry of his first queen, Isabelle of Hainault, the young Philippe had managed to expand his kingdom substantially northwards and southwards, including the key city of Amiens. Almost immediately, he found himself at war with the mighty Henry. It seemed like David taking on Goliath, but Philippe was cunning in his strategy of isolating the old King by forming alliances with his sons, first Geoffrey, then Richard (Prince Henry having died barely three years after his father-in-law Louis)-and also with Barbarossa, the German Emperor.

Henry, stricken by rheumatism and a painful fistula, was already old beyond his years. At the beginning of 1188, Philippe, having split the Angevin Empire and doubled his forces through his alliance with Richard, was poised to move into Henry's Normandy. Then suddenly news came from the Middle East that the Saracen, Saladin, had taken Jerusalem and was threatening Antioch. The Pope, Clement III, commanded the Christian kings to cease fighting each other and embark on a fresh crusade (the Third). But before they could set out, Henry had died, on 7 July 1189, in the chapel of his French château of Chinon, to be buried in his Abbey of Fontevrault. On the 20th, Richard was crowned duke of Normandy in Rouen, and king of England in London on 3 September. He and Philippe Auguste then departed, as allies and close friends, for the Holy Land.

Despite the romanticized portrait of him given in British Victorian history books, Richard Coeur de Lion was something of a brute. He was arrogant and quarrelsome, with a habit of sowing hatred and rancour around him. At home (which he rashly left in the treacherous and incompetent hands of his brother, Jean-Sans-Terre) he was accepted as a neglectful, popular absentee ruler, as befitting the repute of a knight errant. In contrast, Philippe left his kingdom well organized and in good hands, as set down in a famous document, the Testament of 1190. Among other things, this provided for the construction of a continuous fortified wall or enceinte girdling Paris, making her impregnable to any enemy assailant for the first time in her history. It was just as well, because he and his friend Richard (their intimacy had evidently extended, in the innocent way of the Middle Ages, to sharing a bed in Paris) were soon to become the most bitter enemies. Reaching Genoa together, the two leaders first fell out over the number of ships each was to provide for crossing the Mediterranean. In Sicily there were English charges of bad faith against Philippe, accused of conniving in the destruction of Richard's army. Finally arriving in the Holy Land, the two kings managed to tip the balance in the terrible Siege of Acre, already under attack for two years. But by the time of its capitulation in July 1191, intrigues plus the stresses of a grim campaign had seriously undermined the Anglo-French entente. To the enduring fury of Richard, Philippe now decided to break off from the Third Crusade and head for home. The Count of Flanders had died during the Siege, and Philippe had his eyes on the Count's possessions in Artois and Vermandois.

Richard, on the other hand, in the story so well known to generations of English schoolchildren, during his journey home fell foul of the German Emperor Henry VI, who kept him locked up for many long months in the Danube fortress of Dürrenstein, pending payment of ransom. Unfounded rumours ran round Paris that Richard had tried to poison Philippe at Acre, and even to have him assassinated in his own capital on his return. Rashly, and acting in deplorably bad faith with Richard's evil brother John, Philippe endeavoured to bribe the Emperor with a substantial sum to continue to keep Richard under lock and key. The Emperor Henry thoughtfully revealed all to Richard, who finally reached London in March 1194. Immediately he launched a fresh war against his former friend. It was to last five years, with a continuity and intensity rare in the twelfth century.

Much of the English King's fighting on French soil was carried out by a particularly brutal mercenary, Mercadier, who moved with utmost speed and ruthlessness from one province to another. No quarter was given, with both sides issuing orders to blind or drown prisoners-of-war. Predictably, John switched sides as soon as his brother set foot in Normandy and surrendered Evreux, having first massacred all his French allies there. On 3 July 1194, Philippe Auguste suffered his most humiliating defeat, at Fréteval in the Vendôme, losing his baggage train, his treasury and the national archives. To bottle Philippe up in Paris and to prevent him ever again threatening Normandy, Richard constructed an unassailable fortress at Château Gaillard on a key bend in the Seine, still a most imposing castle commanding the approaches to Paris. Defeat followed defeat for Philippe. Swayed by Richard's superior diplomatic skill, the Emperor Henry also joined in against Philippe, announcing his intention of annexing the right bank of the Rhône.

By the end of 1198, it looked as if France would be sliced up once again and become a fiefdom of either Richard or the Emperor. Once again, intervention from afar saved the day. After news had come from Spain that the Moors were threatening a new invasion, the new Pope, Innocent III, applied irresistible pressure to the combatants to reach a truce. The results were extremely tough on Philippe, obliging him to forfeit all of Normandy save the citadel of Gisors-on which as a nine-year-old he had first set eyes-and with it he in effect lost all the fruits of his campaigning over the previous ten years. Had he died at this point, he would have been remembered with scorn as a historical nobody, and it seemed it would be only a matter of time before Richard renewed the war, with a final drive on Paris.

Then the two sides' fortunes were abruptly reversed. While besieging a rebel fortress in Limousin with the dread Mercadier on 26 March 1199, Richard was wounded in the left shoulder by a bolt from a crossbow. Gangrene set in, and the warrior-king soon died. All the defenders of the besieged city were hanged, but-just before he died-Richard with a last chivalrous gesture requested that his assailant be spared and given a sum of money. The moment he was dead, however, Mercadier had the sharpshooter flayed alive and impaled. "King Richard is dead, and a thousand years have passed since there died a man whose loss was so great," sang the troubadours. In Paris, Philippe Auguste no doubt heaved a sigh of relief. Now there would be only weak, evil and hated Jean-Sans-Terre to deal with.


All through Capetian France's struggles against the Plantagenets, Louis VII and his son had to contend with a powerful, and often unpredictable, player on the sidelines. Stalin's sneering question to Churchill during the Second World War-"How many divisions has the Pope?"-would have been answered in the twelfth century with "a great many." At the wave of the papal crucifix, or with the despatch of a legate, each pope could summon up armies and nations to bring pressure to bear on miscreant rulers. In the Middle Ages, thoughts of death and eternal damnation were uppermost in all people's minds. Upon the spiritual state of grace at the moment of death depended happiness, or misery, for the whole of eternity. Though by the later Middle Ages views on the afterlife had lost some of their certainty, in the twelfth century notions of Purgatory were little considered; it was a straight choice between the Bosom of Abraham and the Cauldron of Hell. Such was the dread of eternal damnation, such the dread of excommunication or an "interdict" upon a whole nation, that the mere threat could reverse policies or even overturn thrones. Perhaps never again would the power and influence of the Pope be greater.

Meet the Author

Alistair Horne is the author of eighteen previous books, including A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954—1962The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916How Far from Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805—1815 and the official biography of British prime minister Harold Macmillan. He is a fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and lives in Oxfordshire. He was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in 1993 and received a knighthood in 2003 for his work on French history.

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Seven Ages of Paris 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Undoubtedly the best book on Paris that I have read. Unlike many historical reviews, this author has made the history of Paris read like a fictional page-turner. You know what is coming next but none-the-less you are still unable to put it down. A must read for both those of casual interest about a wonderful city as well as the serious student looking for a change of pace.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this lively and informative book, Alistair Horne assembles a wonderful history of one of the world's finest cities. From its early Roman days as Lutetia to the Marxist revolts at the Sorbonne, this book covers Parisian history in a very concise form. Written with an engaging linguistic style and comprehensive in its details, 'Seven Ages of Paris' is great for both the living-room historian and the exhausted graduate student. Regardless of your experience with Parisian history, this book is a prerequisite for any visit to Paris--it will inform you of the infinite details that make the City of Lights as fascinating as it is. Although one of this book's strengths is its comprehensivity, it is also one of its weaknesses. Because Mr. Horne is attempting to cover many centuries of some of the world's densest history in a few hundred pages, many details are lacking. The entirety of the French Revolution, for example, is covered in about four pages. Because this book is about Paris and not about the whole of France, there are also problems with the details of the goings-on in the country outside of the city. The Napoleanic wars, for example, are not very well-developed. Although it is understandable that Mr. Horne is limiting his content to Parisian history, the less-informed reader may feel poorly-informed about the parallel events in greater France and Europe. All in all, this is a fantastic and exciting read. I would, however, wait for the cheaper paperback edition befor buying.
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