Caught Dead and Unburied
Paris history is so deep that it wasn’t until very recently digging a little deeper below the Monoprix at the corner of boulevard de Sebastopol and rue Réaumur did archeologists discover over 200 bodies buried in a communal grave…laid out in neat rows, just like only the French would do…in perfect order. Eight graves were found, and in one, 150 individuals were buried in layers, each placed with great care — head to toe to fit together like a puzzle to maximize the space. Would we expect less?
Under the well-trafficked supermarket was a former cemetery of the medieval Hôpital de la Trinité, that believe it or not, functioned for five centuries — from the 12th to the 17th. It was believed the bodies had been moved to the Catacombs 200 years ago, but we guess not! Even the archeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) were surprised to find so many bones, thinking that if so many had died, there must have been a plague or famine that put them there. Among the bones was a bit of pottery dating later — interesting, no? DNA and carbon testing is planned to determine more about the bodies, and then they will find a new and final resting place, once the city decides where…but no doubt, it will not be under the Monoprix this time around!
The Monoprix was once the head office of Félix Potin, a French retailer and businessman of the mid 19th-century who began his career at the young age of 24 in the year 1844. The architect, Paul Auscher (1866–1932), designed several buildings for Félix Potin including this particular building with its distinctive turret bearing Félix Potin’s name. He obviously didn’t dig deep enough during construction to discover the skeletons. If he had, he might have never built it there.
Not far away at what is now known as Place Joachim-du-Bellay, there once existed a medieval cemetery called the “Cimetière des Innocents” — the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, often used for mass graves. By the late 1700’s, it was overflowing (one pit could hold 1,500 bodies) to the point where the bodies needed to be exhumed and carefully placed in the subterranean quarries we now know as the Catacombs (1786). Being next to the Paris central market of Les Halles, its presence doesn’t sound too ‘appetizing,’ but this little detail might interest you: “Many bodies had incompletely decomposed and had turned into fat (margaric acid). During the exhumation, this fat was collected and subsequently turned into candles and soap.” (Wikipedia.org) (I had no idea human fat could be so useful.)
Once the bodies were moved out, an herb and vegetable market moved in. The fountain that had been in the cemetery since 1549 was moved to the center of the new market, now known at the “Fountain of Innocents” and still stands on the place Joachim-du-Bellay today.
A friend who lives on rue Vieille du Temple over what was once the “Passage des Singes” told me this past weekend that her “Guardienne” (building caretaker) claims to have seen the shadows of the Guillemites monks who once settled there in the 13th-century in the courtyard where the passage once existed. It would not be surprising if a cemetery is under the lovely shrubbery leaving their souls to rise from the dead and haunt the residents.
Paris history is so profound, particularly in Le Marais where the centuries-old buildings can still tell of such tales, that we are forever haunted by those who came before us, even if their skeletons are long gone and buried…and their bodies turned into candles and soap.
A la prochaine,
Respond to Adrian
P.S. Parler Paris Après Midi March 10, 2015: Don’t miss Heather Stimmler-Hall, author and tour guide presenting “How Parisian Women Do It: Feminism and Femininity in the City of Light” at Parler Paris Après Midi. Meet us from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. upstairs at Café de la Mairie (formerly La Pierre du Marais), on the corner of rue des Archives and rue de Bretagne, 3rd arrondissement. Métro Lines 9, 3 et 11, stations Temple, République or Arts et Métiers. Costs nothing except whatever you drink!
P.P.S. For those of you in the New York City area, who would like to know more about investing in France, I will be available for private consultations on March 13th through 18th. Consultations are typically two hours, and I will be offering my usual euro fee at the same rate, but in U.S. dollars. Email me personally to make your appointment: [email protected]