Middle Ages in Paris

In the 4th century, the city formerly known as Lutetia had been abandoned by the Romans and started to lose its Roman name, becoming, instead, Paris, the city of the Parisii Gauls who had inhabited it before the Roman invasion. In its early days, the city was mainly concentrated on the Ile de la Cité, which was surrounded by ramparts. It was a religious and administrative center, not to mention the medieval seat of royal power.

Paris Becomes the Capital

During the High Middle Ages, Paris seemed to home to saints and miracles around every corner. From Saint Denis, martyred at the top of Montmartre, who carried his head to his own final resting place, to Saint Genevieve, who warded off an attack by the huns through the power of prayer, saints were drawn to Paris. It was for this reason that Clovis, the first Christian Frankish king, made the city his capital in 508. Childebert founded the abbey of Saint-Germain des Prés soon after.

It didn’t take long before the Merovingian kings began quibbling over power. Wars and treason were constant realities, and it wasn’t until the 10th century, when Hugues Capet became the leader of the kingdom, that the city of Paris began to truly develop.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, students took over the left bank of the Seine river, especially the Saint Genevieve Mountain, which began to be called the Latin Quarter, due to students propensity for speaking Latin in the area where they studied. The medieval city developed on the right bank, as newcomers moved in from the periphery.

King Philippe Auguste built the Louvre chateau at the end of the 12th century, where an old fortified Frankish camp had once stood. He also had a stone wall built around the city. The Louvre was not a royal residence at this point, but a fortress, a military building. You can still see the foundations of this fortress in the crypt below today’s museum.

Charles the 5th was the first king who started construction to beautify the building that would later become the royal palace, work that King François the 1st would continue and improve upon tenfold. Charles the 5th expanded Philippe Auguste’s outer wall on the right bank, in order to protect the growing city, which was quickly expanding and incorporating outer towns and villages nearby.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Paris was home to between 200 and 300,000 inhabitants, making it the most populated city in all of Europe. At this point in time, the distinction between the commercial right bank, home to the les Halles market, and the intellectual left bank began to develop. In the middle, the seat of power – both political and religious – was home to Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and the Cité palace. During the Hundred Years War, the kings of France began to move away from Paris, though François the 1st would come back in 1528 to make Paris capital once again.

Medieval Architecture

One beautiful example of medieval architecture is the collège des Bernardins, which was founded in 1224 and expanded in the 14th century. The Jean-sans-Peur tower was built at the beginning of the 15th century and is the only still-visible example of this form of architecture. Of the Palais de la Cité, which was the royal residence and seat of power from the 10th to the 14th century before being renovated by Philippe le Bel, all that remains is today’s Conciergerie. The Conciergerie later became a State prison, when Charles the 5th abandoned it as his royal palace in favor of the Louvre.

The flamboyant gothic style is evident in the hotel de Sens (4th arrondissement), a magnificent 14th century private residence that now houses a library, as well as in the hotel de Cluny, built in the 14th century as a home for the priests of Cluny. Today, the hotel de Cluny houses the national medieval museum.

You can see some pieces of Philippe Auguste’s wall in the first six arrondissements of Paris. On rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul (4th arrondissement), you’ll find the longest part still standing, about 60 meters long. As for the settlement, the oldest remaining house can be found at 51, rue de Montmorency, a residence that was built in 1407 and supposedly belonged to Nicolas Flamel. Numbers 11 and 13, rue François Miron are home to two beautiful half-timbered houses, which were built at the beginning of the 16th century and are well worth a look.

As for religious architecture, you’ve obviously already thought of Notre Dame cathedral. Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 and was finished two centuries later, although the façade was renovated extensively in the 19th century. Also on the Ile de la Cité, you can see Sainte-Chappelle, which was built by Saint Louis in the 13th century, intended as a home for the relics of the Passion brought back from the Crusades. Be sure to visit Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre and Saint-Séverin as well; these two medieval churches can be found in the Latin Quarter.

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