Catherine de' Medici was one of the most influential woman at French court and declared the most powerful woman in sixteenth century Europe next to Elizabeth I of England. Many legends have risen after her death, and she is often being displayed as a black widow, a royal poisoner and a tyrant - the latter because people blame her for having initiated the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre. In Alexandre Dumas' novel 'La Reine Margot', Catherine plays the role of an intrigeous mother that skillfully gets rid of everyone that comes in her way.
As the wife of king Henry II, she was Queen of France for twelve years and Queen Mother and advisor to her three sons Francis II, Charles IX (who was only ten years old when he heired the crown, so Catherine ruled France as its regent during his minority) and Henry III. She was born a daughter of the rich and influential Medici clan from Florence. Her father, Lorenzo, was the prince to whom Machiavelli had written in his political treatise The Prince, and pope Clement VII was her uncle. At the age of 14, she was betrothed to marry Henry of Bourbon by an arrangement of Clement and Henry's father. During her husband's reign as king, Catherine lived a quiet life together with her maids that had moved to France with her. As queen mother and regent she gathered several Italian advisers around her. She obviously found an interest in her Italian roots, and rumors had it that she was interested in poisons, as the French believed that Italians were ruthless practicers of the black arts. It was believed until long after her death that she had kept poisons in the more than two hundred beautiful woodcut cabinets that stood in her room in Chateau de Blois.
Maybe you've heard of that mythical place called the Court of Miracles
Where the lame can walk and the blind can see...
So it is sung in the 1996 Disney classic ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, based on the brilliant 1831 novel by Parisian author Victor Hugo. In the book, the Court of Miracles is the home base for criminals, outcasts and gypsies, ruled by the King of Truands; Clopin Trouillefou. Although his character is fictional, the Court of Miracles did really exist. It was a lawless area of Paris located between the rue du Caire and the rue Réaumur (in the current second arrondissement), where beggars, migrants, prostitutes and criminals resided during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV.
The title ‘court of miracles’ may sound misplaced for a stinky, muddy area inhabited by thieves and beggars. Indeed, their tricks where the name giver for this district. Many Parisians had to beg for their survival, and those with a visible handicap gathered more alms than those without physical anomalies. Therefore, beggars became masters in faking handicaps, injuries and infections. Returning to the slum after a day of begging, they would throw their walking sticks in the corner and wash off their fake injuries. Miracles happened easy at that. The lame could walk and the blind could see...
As no one as can describe the miraculous beggar's nest better than master Hugo himself, I copy a citation from his book here:
“There was a sort of sham soldier, a "naquois," as the slang expression runs, who was whistling as he undid the bandages from his fictitious wound, and removing the numbness from his sound and vigorous knee, which had been swathed since morning in a thousand ligatures. On the other hand, there was a wretched fellow, preparing with celandine and beef's blood, his "leg of God," for the next day. Two tables further on, a palmer, with his pilgrim's costume complete, was practicing the lament of the Holy Queen, not forgetting the drone and the nasal drawl. Further on, a young scamp was taking a lesson in epilepsy from an old pretender, who was instructing him in the art of foaming at the mouth, by chewing a morsel of soap.”
From: Victor Hugo – Notre Dame de Paris
When the Parisian criminal situation got worse in the second half of the 17th century, the Paris authorities had to undertake something. Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, Lieutenant General of the Police of Paris, was assigned with the task of ensuring the safety in Paris and of curbing the growth of the Court of Miracles area. Reynie's methods laid the basis for police forces as we know them today. He reorganized the existing police forces, which he supervised directly. The policemen were now responsible for ensuring the safety in Paris. With more police supervising the streets, it should be harder for criminals to conduct their crimes.
As social care and health conditions improved during the Enlightenment period, the number of beggars and criminals was reduced and the Court of Miracles was slowly abandoned. The remains of the area were removed during the Haussmannization, and except for Victor Hugo's story, nothing of the wondrous slum is left for us today.
‘I want to be a second Augustus … because Augustus … made Rome a city of marble.’ - Louis Napoleon (1842)
Have you ever wondered why central Paris lacks the dark and narrow passage ways you'd expect in a city old as she is? Or have you thought about how it comes there aren't any medieval houses left to see in the city center? You find it hard as me to imagine the uprising, the pursuits and the barricades as described in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in the streets of Paris you know them today? Monsieur Haussmann is to thank - he completely changed the view of the city in less than twenty years.
The change of Paris's appearance started in the middle of the nineteenth century. Only being half as large as today, Paris already was a large capital, and it was heavily overcrowded. Life in the city was dangerous due to the small and dark passages - robbers could be lurking around every corner - and due to its unsanitary conditions. The Seine spread an awful stench because sewers were emptied into the river. There was no good-working water supply system, so that fresh drinking water was a rare good. The street plan had changed little since the Middle Ages, but the population had grown immensely. In the area that now roughly forms the first four arrondissements, the population density was one inhabitant on every three square meters. Diseases spread terribly fast in these conditions. In addition, traffic circulation was difficult because many streets were too narrow for carriages to move through them - an impossible state of being for the capital of one of the mightiest countries in Europe.
The French Revolution had brought lots of change to France. In July 1989, the state prison Bastille was assaulted and the feudal system was abolished. In 1792, King Louis XVI was deposed and France was turned into a Republic. The National Convention first met in September 1792. In January 1793, the former king was beheaded by means of the guillotine. After Louis XVI’s execution, a period of violence dawned: terror took reign over France.
In the spring of 1793, France found itself in an economic and political crisis. Poor laborers, called sans-culottes (for they did not wear the knee-breeches, culottes, that were common in the noble circles), blamed the Girondins for this crisis. The Girondins were a group of delegates in the National Convention that belonged to the upper middle class. Their name was derived from the department Gironde in the southwest of France, where many of the members came from. Their opponents in the Convention were the Montagnards, whose members were mostly Jacobins, a club of politically left-orientated anti-monarchists. People were frustrated that the social equality the revolutionaries had aimed for was not yet established. The Montagnards accused the Girondins of fighting for their own benefit only and not pursuing the goal of the revolution, and they even believed the Girondins would be willing to cooperate with royalists in order to remain their power.
The beginning of the 17th century still was a period of religious unrest in France. The Wars of Religion had come to an end with the Edict of Nantes, which was issued by King Henry IV in 1598, but the relationship between Catholics and Huguenots remained to be tense. But while people sought to find the right way to worship God, there were plenty who were curious for his antithesis. This curiosity could go so far that it lurked Parisians into the depths of the city - into the caverns of hell.
Their curiosity could be cured indeed. A charlatan, or maybe he was just a clever businessman, only known by the name César, offered people to have an encounter with the devil himself. In the south of Paris there were many quarries, and one of the entrances was placed in the Rue D'Enfer: Hell's road. When someone wished to see the devil, César would demand 40 to 50 gold coins (pistoles) and a promise of secrecy. The customer had to pledge not to utter any religous phrases nor to invoke God at any moment while being underground.
César took the visitor down while singing magic phrases and gesturing cerimoniously. Infernal sounds slowly reached the ears of the visitor and his guide. A red glow of burning thorches lighted the passage, and the sound of rattling chains drew closer. At this point, César asked if the visitor feared to go further. If the tourist answered yes, César would escort him to the surface, but of course keep his payment since he, as he argued, cured the visitor from his curiosity. If the visitor still wanted to continue, they would resume their descend. Césars exclamations grew more and more outrageous as they draw closer - until they entered a cavern, lighted by raging fire. Terrifying screams and grunts were produced by Césars accomplishes, who wildy rattled chains, howling frightfully. In the middle of the cave, a furious bull stood pounding and snorting furiously. The bull, was held by numerous chains were painted so they seemed to be red-hot. This bull, César said gravely, was Satan itself. The visitor, who was most likely to be petrified by fear, was then beaten half dead by Césars accomplicies, so that César had to carry a lifeless back onto the surface, and teached him that the wish to see the devil is dangerous temptation. Indeed, none of the visitors would ever come back a second time.
Although César required secrecy of his customers, his dark business was revealed one day. He was arrested and incarcerated in the Bastille prison. During his imprisonment, he would write about his business. Therefore it is possible that he maybe he did even kill his visitors to ensure that they would keep their mouths shut, and that he only passed down a weakened version of the events. Whatever might be the truth, the story goes that the devil himself came to visit César in his cell and enstrangled him on the 11th of March, 1615. Playing with the devil always is a dangerous game...
If you have to be moralistic and are stringed by rules and regulations the whole year, it's only fair to be able let the beast out on one single day a year. At least that's how the clergy reasoned in the late Middle Ages. The day they picked for their debaucheries was New Year's Day, and they called it the Feast of Fools.
The Feast of Fools had its origins in Northern France and was not very widespread. It was a known festival in Britain and England, and was also celebrated in Germany in some cities at the Rhine. The festivities took place on or about January 1st; when a new year was about to begin. The new year was full of questions and uncertainties: will the soil be as fertile as needed, will the harvest be good, will we not lose our sons in battle? The religious festivities of Christmas, a period of fasting and stringent rituals, were just over, and people, not in the least the churchmen, were more than longing to let the beast out.
The nature of the feast was most probably a Christian adaption of the pagan Saturnalia; festivities in honor of the Roman God Saturn, during which social roles were reversed - masters turned to slaves and vice versa. The same inversion of social status was seen in the New Year's festivities of the Middle Ages. A boy from the lower-ranking clergy was elected to be bishop for a day. This Boy Bishop went by several names like "Abbot of Unreason" in France, "Lord of Misrule" in Britain, or "King of the Bean" in England. The latter name derives from the English tradition that the boy who would find the bean that had been hidden in a piece of cake, was to be the King during the festival.
Nicolas Flamel is one of the most famous alchemists that have ever lived, but it is not even proven that he was one. All we know of his alchemic doings, we know from a book that appeared in the 17th century. It is unclear whether he wrote his quest to the Philosopher's Stone himself, since there were never found further indications suggesting he has ever dealt with alchemy. His person has found interest ever since. Victor Hugo mentioned him in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he is referred to in best sellers like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Who was this man, actually?
Born in 1330 in Pontoise near Paris, Nicolas Flamel was a successful notary and bookseller. In his life, he has founded fourteen hospitals, built three chapels and generously donated to seven churches. His contemparies already must have wondered how a simple bookseller without any heritage could have earned so much money with his work, and this question kept people busy long after. There was no other logical explanation but that Flamel must have found other ways to gain his fortune. In the 17th century, a work called The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures was ascribed to Flamel. In the introduction of this work, Flamel sets out how he got hold of a very old, guilded book for the price of two guilders. The cover showed engravings of curious diagrams and characters. The pages were not of paper or parchment, but of the bark of young trees instead. The first leaf revealed the author of the book: Abraham the Jew; prince, priest, levite, astrologer and philosopher. That same page was filled with curses against every reader that is not a scrivener or a priest. As a notary, Flamel argued, he should be allowed to read the book without fear. Moreover, he had dreamed that an angel had handed him the book, and so he figured that he was destined to receive it. In the introduction of his Book of Hieroglyphic Figures, Flamel describes the mysterious book into its finest details:
"...a guilded Book, very old and large. It was not of Paper, nor of Parchment, as other Books be, but was only made of delicate rinds (as it seemed unto me) of tender young trees. The cover of it was of brass, well bound, all engraven with letters, or strange figures; and for my part I think they might well be Greek Characters, or some-such-like ancient language. Sure I am, I could not read them, and I know well they were not notes nor letters of the Latin nor of the Gaul for of them we understand a little. As for that which was within it, the leaves of bark or rind, were engraven, and with admirable diligence written, with a point of Iron, in fair and neat Latin letters, coloured. It contained thrice-seven leaves, for so were they counted in the top of the leaves, and always every seventh leaf was without any writing; but, instead thereof, upon the first seventh leaf, there was painted a Rod and Serpents swallowing it up."
L'Ossuaire Municipal in Paris holds the bones of about 6 million people. A small part of the 321 km long tunnel network has been a popular tourist attraction since 1874, but this subterranean museum was not exactly planned as being one. Rather, two threats for the city of Paris made it inevitable to create that what we know as the Catacombs of Paris today.
To explore the history of the catacombs, we have to travel way back to the first century, when Paris was occupied by the Romans and still called Lutetia. The Romans found there was limestone in the soil of the left bank of the river Seine, which is of perfect use for building walls. Up until the High Middle Ages, the limestone was acquired in open quarries outside the city walls. Then, in the 12th century, mining was replaced to underground workings. This had several advantages: deeper deposits could so be reached, and on surface level the soil could still be used for agriculture. When the city continued to grow in the 16th and 17th century, new underground quarries were developed and the old quarries were abandoned. Buildings, streets and neighborhoods of the expanding city were built over the quarries, that subsequently fell into oblivion.
But not for long. The Parisians again became aware of the existence of these underground galleries when houses and streets started to collapse in the late 18th century. These collapses were the result of the cave-in of the roofs of the 30 meter deep subterranean galleries, resulting in a chain reaction within the different layers of soil. The crumbling worked its way upwards and resulted in a collapse of the buildings on street level.
The most catastrophic collapse of this kind occurred in 1774 in the Rue D'Enfer, which ironically means 'Hell's street'. Indeed, the cavity which measured 30 meter in length as well as in depth reminded of a gaping entrance to hell. Pavements, buildings, even carriages and horses were swallowed by the gap. The limestone from the houses' walls returned to where it had come from.
Since the mining galleries where everywhere beneath the city, Paris was threatened to be go under completely...
Paris, 18th of August 1572. Numerous noblemen gathered in the Louvre to celebrate the marriage of the King Charles IX's sister Marguerite and the Protestant Henry III of Navarre. Many of the wedding guests had mixed feelings about this arrangement. True, a peace treaty had been signed two years before, which had put an end to the third war of religion between Catholics and Protestants. That paper peace, however, hadn't changed the deeply established malicious feelings of conservative Catholics against the Huguenots. The Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici, had planned the marriage in order to consolidate the Huguenot friendly politics that found its origins with the peace in 1570. At the same time, with introducing Henry into her family, she would be able to exert her influence on him and on the higher officials of the Huguenot movement, and created a union that supported the crown. Many Protestants followed Calvin, who had declared that royalty misused the so-called Divine power, and therefore many Protestants were a direct opponent to the king. One of the wedding guests was Gaspard de Coligny was also invited to the wedding. The Admiral of France had become the military and political leader and had grown to be a danger for the crown. The Duke of Guise, one of the strongest opponents of the Huguenots, had a personal aversion against Coligny since he believed him to have ordered the assassination of his father Francis.
In spite of the tense atmosphere among the different religious fractions, the wedding festivities were celebrated grandly and lasted three days. But only a day after the ending of the celebrations, on August 22, De Coligny was shot at with an arquebus by a citizen named Maurevert. The attempted assassination failed, however, as the Huguenot leader was only wounded at the elbow and lost a finger, and those injuries were way too marginal to actually kill him. Maurevert escaped and it ever remained unclear whether he was hired by someone - and if so, by whom - or if he acted at his own initiative. Catherine de' Medici could have ordered his death because of his growing power over Protestant Parisians, but most likely Maurevert was hired by the Guise family, as the shot was fired from a house that was owned by the Guises.
The story of Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia is fascinating. In the country of France during the ancien régime, a time long before the freedom of press, a group of philosophers, scientists and other kinds of bohemians congregated in the literary cafes of Paris. Their goal: to write a dictionary that would make all the world’s knowledge accessible for everyone. And as if it wasn’t tricky enough to undermine the clergy’s monopoly on knowledge, Diderot and company aimed to describe all the arts and crafts in their work, and they were not planning to spend lots of words on the biographies of noblemen. To say this was a revolutionary and dangerous goal would be an understatement.
Originally, it was only planned to translate the English Cyclopaedia by Ephraim Chambers into French. Diderot was involved as one of the translators, but after two editors successively had stepped out of the project, Diderot took over the role as the main editor in 1747. His colleague and friend Jean le Rond d’Alembert, a mathematician, was hired to be the second editor. Since Chambers’s Cyclopaedia was published in 1728, the information in it had to be checked and, in certain cases, updated. For this reason, and also because Diderot made the description of the crafts the main theme of the dictionary, it soon grew to be a completely new project instead of a mere translation of an existing work.
Writing an encyclopedia is a massive task even today, so just imagine what it must have been like in the 18th century. The manuscripts of all 72.998 articles and every image in the 11 volumes of illustrations had to be written and drawn by hand. And although over 1,000 people were involved in writing, printing and binding, it took 26 years before the Encyclopédie was finished. But the workload was not the only hurdle the encyclopedists had to deal with. The governmental censorship was another problem which could not be underestimated. In the 18th century, every publication had to be licensed by the royal censor office. Having a license, however, did not mean that you were free to write anything you wanted. All books were proofread by the censors, and if they violated the king’s taste, the license could be withdrawn, the book could be banned and the author could be hanged.