The Corpse Walk: Paris, 1660

[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]

Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection.  In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves.  The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.

Saints-Innocents, ca 1550 (public domain)

But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies.  Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.

Charnier at Saints-Innocents with view of danse macabre.  (public domain)

Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers.  The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.

An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification.  An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”

Le Grand Chatelet (Gallica/BNF)


The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,”  urban animals.  But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables.  Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons.  Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection.  Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive.  And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function.  These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.

Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents.  The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row.  In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood.  Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice.  Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen.  The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.

From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

L0023829 L'hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view
L’hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité.  Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.


Modiano and the Weight of History

I picked up my first novel by Patrick Modiano in a bookstore in Strasbourg last fall.  He had just won the Nobel Prize and it was obvious that the bookstore had scrambled to find copies of his books: there were new paperbacks with moody photographs on the covers and red paper straps that read “Prix Nobel de Littérature,”  but there were also the old buff-colored Gallimard editions from the 1980s and 90s.  I chose two, mainly for their titles, since I knew nothing about the author: Fleurs de ruine (1991) modiano fleurs de ruineand Rue des boutiques obscures (1978). Like their titles, the novels are written in a style I can only call “existential noir.”  Dark and atmospheric, they remind me of the plain declarative style of Simenon but also the films of Jean-Pierre Melville like Bob le flambeur (1956), although they are not as plot-driven.  I was not surprised to learn that Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for that devastating laconic masterpiece Lacombe Lucien (1974) with Louis Malle.  Some of the novels have now been translated into English, but so far I’ve read them in French.

This summer I bought another Modiano, Dora Bruder (1997), which some have referred to as non-fiction but which is generally billed as a novel.  Like Modiano’s other works, it is a mixture of history, autobiography, and fiction, all of it so intermingled that it is difficult to pull out what is “real” and what is fictional.  In all of the novels I have read, there is a male narrator who appears to be about Modiano’s age (he was born in 1945).  The setting is Paris, and even though I feel I know Paris pretty well, I find it helpful to read with my old maroon-covered Plan de Paris par Arrondissementlec47-01a to figure out where I am.  I did this with Eric Hazan’s passionate history The Invention of Paris too.  And anyway I like maps.Modiano Dora Bruder

My Plan de Paris, purchased in the 1990s, is now out of date, a reminder that cities are constantly changing.  Modiano is above all a historian of Paris, and his novels obsessively return to particular places – the 18th arrondissement in Dora Bruder, the Cité Universitaire in Fleurs du ruine – and note what building has been torn down, what café used to be on that corner, what restaurant he once ate in.  He walks the streets to retrace his own past and that of his characters, exploring memory and forgetting, particularly the memory of World War II, which took place before his birth but which haunts his work.  In Dora Bruder he wrote, “Il faut longtemps pour que resurgisse à la lumière ce qui a été effacé”: “it takes a long time for that which has been erased to reappear to the light.”  But it does reappear: “it takes a little patience.”  In all of these novels he pursues the work of the pre-internet historian (in more recent works he apparently does use the internet), tracking down obscure registers, newspaper clippings, human memories.  The protagonist in Rue des boutiques obscures has lost his own memory and spends the novel trying to find out who he is, and was.  Providentially, he works for a private detective, and mines the office collections of old city directories.  In a very Modiano move, there are lists of addresses and particularly of old phone numbers with their weirdly evocative three-letter prefixes.

Many of his novels begin with an old story in a newspaper.  Fleurs de ruine begins with a story about a murder in the Latin quarter in the 1930s.  Dora Bruder begins with a newspaper notice from December 1941 about a runaway girl, aged 15.  The girl, we soon learn, was Jewish, and we are not entirely surprised to learn, about halfway through the book, that she and her father ended up about six months later in Auschwitz.  But the point of the story is Modiano’s research into Dora’s life and how it intersects with the broader history of France in the 1940s (and the hidden history of collaboration) and how it intersects with his own history and his troubled relationship with his Jewish father.  Like Dora’s father, Modiano’s was swept up in one of the regular rafles or round-ups of Jews but he managed to escape.  Ernest Bruder was not as fortunate.

Paris has long recognized its defenders during the liberation in August 1944: plaques all over the city mark those who died. pont au change It has been slower to acknowledge the occupation.  But in the early 2000s, plaques began to appear on schools in neighborhoods that had large Jewish populations, including the 10th and the 18th, where Dora – who was a real person – lived.

Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement
Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement

Historical erasure, one can hope, is never complete.  It just takes patience to undo.  When I took the RER train out to Charles de Gaulle airport on this trip, I thought of Dora Bruder as the train passed through the drab northern suburb of Drancy, where thousands of Jews were detained on their way to concentration camps.

Animal Paris, part 1: Fagotin and his kin

This is the first post in a occasional series on animals in (mostly) early modern Paris.

29 April 2015

Last week, a US judge apparently ruled that two research chimpanzees are “legal persons” and have standing to pursue a court case against their captivity.  As the work of historian Alan Ross is revealing, non-human primates have long been human companions.  In early modern Europe, monkeys were popular pets among royalty and the aristocracy.  The French king Charles VI in the late fifteenth century kept a pet monkey, and over a century later Queen Marie de’Medici, mother of Louis XIV, kept a “sapajou” or capuchin monkey (a South American species) and a “guenon,” one of the many species of cercopithecus, an Old World monkey.  This seems to have been a popular pairing, immortalized in 1676 in this Sapajous et guenonsillustration from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. The setting is the terrace of a chateau, with a formal, geometrical parterre in the background. If this was not the actual palace of Versailles, the image was certainly meant to evoke it, and one historian has identified Charles Perrault’s labyrinth in the background.  Among all of the animals depicted in this volume, the monkeys are the only ones shown under restraint, with a ball and chains. The chains are delicate, and the monkeys appear to be playing with the single small ball, its form echoed in the fruit another monkey holds.

Apart from serving as pets – the royal minister Mazarin also had a pet monkey, who sported the Cardinal’s specially made perfume – performing monkeys and apes were frequently seen at fairs and other spectacles.   This image from 1630 shows monkeys clowning around a sleeping man — the phrase in French is “faire des singeries,” to monkey around.

Le songe de Guillot,  1630
Le songe de Guillot, 1630

The ape Fagotin, who may have been a chimpanzee, had a large following in midcentury Paris. There were at least two of that name. The first flourished in the 1640s in the marionette show of a certain Brioché. According to one source, Brioché was the stage name of father and son puppeteers Pierre and François Datelin; according to another, it was a Gallified version of an Italian name, Briocci.  The nineteenth-century chronicler of marionettes, Charles Magnin, even claims that Briocci had some connection to his countryman Mazarin (born Mazzarino).  The sources agree that there was a father and a son, and that they gave their performances at the base of the Pont Neuf near the statue of Henri IV and also at the popular fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. Foire_saint-laurent

Fagotin, who is described as “fat as a pâté of Amiens and big as a small man,” wore an old hat with a large plume and was fully dressed.   The description comes from a little 1655 pamphlet that describes how the playwright and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55), mistaking Fagotin for a man, ran him through with his sword, much to the dismay of Brioché.  This event may have taken place in 1654.

Later in the 1650s, a second Fagotin was known as a rope-dancer or tight-rope walker. “Fagotin” became a standard name for a performing monkey; a poet in 1664 described “Les fagotins et les guenons” at the Foire Saint-Germain.  Fagotin also made appearances in works by Molière and La Fontaine.  In La Fontaine’s fable “Le cour du lion,” Fagotin and his marionettes even entertain the king.



Hold that Tiger?

19 November 2014, Berlin


When I was in France last weekend the big news was the sighting of a tiger outside Paris.  A blurry picture of the beast itself  circulated widely, and pictures of its footprints seemed to indicate, at the least, some kind of big wild feline.  Some 200 police and a helicopter were mobilized to search for it.


Joggers were warned to keep away from a local forest. However, by Friday night, the tiger was beginning to shrink; a vet declared on national TV that the cat was not big enough to be a tiger, or even a lynx.  “It might be a very large house cat,” she said, although she estimated it weighed 50 kilos, which would be a very large house cat indeed.  By the end of the weekend, the search was called off, and the “superstar of social media” was revealed to be “nothing but a big cat.”