Introduced by Andrew Hussey
Roux handles with both precision and lyricism the primary sources that tell us about the medieval history of one the world’s great cities. This edition features an improved translation and an array of visual material.
Where some modern historians delight in imaginative retellings of the past, Simone Roux follows the strictest rigour in using only primary, textual sources for her authoritative account. Yet such is her skill that from censorship rolls or court records she draws stories that bring an entire city to life, and does so, as introducer Andrew Hussey writes, ‘with the eye of a poet and an archaeologist’. Roux begins with the physical city of Paris – surrounded by its walls, or the enceinte, first begun in 1190 and then enlarged several times in later years. From there she moves on to the city’s people: the hierarchies and the social, political and ecclesiastical figures that connected and divided them. And finally, Roux describes day-to-day life: how people lived and worked, what they ate and wore, their relationships and friendships. The details she elicits offer a fascinating, varied picture, from a street brawl where two neighbours beat one another with bread to an extravagant gown belonging to the Duke of Orleans, covered with the notes and lyrics of a love song stitched out in pearls.
‘One feels the city in constant motion, going from funeral to carnival ... applauding jongleurs and their monkeys, even watching the legal trials of beasts’
Illuminations from contemporary manuscripts depict Paris, dominated by the bulk of Notre-Dame. In details of these we see, amongst others, a money-changer, a picklock, a watchman, and a ferryman bringing a boatload of melons to the city. The book’s endpapers are printed with a 15th-century map, and we have also commissioned a new map to show the 13th-century city. With a newly commissioned index and improved translation, this Folio edition provides a key to Paris’s past.
The tradition of nostalgia for Paris emerged as a dominant cultural force in the mid-nineteenth century with the invention by poets and artists of the concept of ‘Le Vieux Paris’, in opposition to the fast-changing designer city of Haussmannisation. In part it was set in motion by the archaeologist Théodore Vacquer, one of the unsung heroes of the nineteenth century, who, as soon as a quartier or medieval street was ripped out, was uncovering and preserving the ‘Old Paris’ which lay beneath Haussmann’s pursuit of a glittering city of spectacle and commodity. This dialectical tension, between the past and the future, fascinated a whole generation of Parisan poets and artists, who began to fantasise about medieval Paris as the key to the city’s secret meanings (Victor Hugo’s Notre- Dame de Paris is only one of many nineteenth-century works of art in this vein).
It is perhaps best captured in Baudelaire’s poem Le Cygne, which puts in place an opposition between the old and new city as its key motif. In this poem Baudelaire describes a swan, a symbol of the old medieval city which contained the rural within it, stunned and lost as he encounters the new Paris of Haussmann; a condition suspended between the two realities as a kind of exile, ‘ridiculous and sublime’.
It is, however, the singular achievement of Simone Roux with this book to have restored the medieval as a living reality for us rather than as the object of nostalgia. It is all the more important that she has done so with the eye of a poet and an archaeologist.
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