Episode 15. The bloody barber of the rue des Marmousets

Hello and welcome back to Paname, a podcast rifles through Paris dirty secrets and then tells you all about them. In this episode I headed off to the ile de la Cité to discover more about a certain urban legend. Now growing up in London I was familiar with the story of Sweeny Todd the Bloody Barber of Fleet street who would cut more than your hair before despatching you off to his neighbour Mrs Lovatt to turn you into a pie. You might have seen the musical version by Tim Burton, and if you haven’t  I would not recommended it – horrible. So imagine my surprise when, on moving to Paris I discover that they have claimed this story as their own. Sweeny Pierre maybe?  I decided to investigate and see who really, if anyone, owns this story and if I can find out if there is any truth in it. Lets go.

Sweeney Todd is a Victorian invention, appearing first in a penny dreadful, which is a cheap book costing a penny usually about sensational stories, focusing on the exploits of detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities. Sweeney Todd or The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance as it was called, was first published in 1846, and was possibly based on a character from Dickens or inspired by elements from Martin Chuzz lewit which was published some time before. For example the rather guileless character of Tom Pinch is convinced that London is a dangerous place and that country visitors are often lured into unfamiliar quarters where they are quote ‘made meat pies of, or some horrible thing.’ Then in chapter 19 of Martin Chuzzlewit, the character of Poll Sweedlepipe is introduced. He was a barber and, it is noted, that he is next door to the celebrated mutton-pie shop. Sounds very familiar. Although maybe Dickens was just casting aspersions on the dubious quality of English meat pies.

The French version is called ‘L'Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets’ by Paul Féval and it appears a little later in 1865. Case closed I thought, the English version, weather it be Dickens or not came first. But it’s not that simple. Although the French story is very similar in some respects, the daemon barber, the gruesome pie-maker  Paul Féval assures us that it is in fact based on a French legend. And, to be fair the story does differ slightly from Sweeney Todd lets see how.

The French version is set in the late medieval Period in 1387, rather than Victorian times. The French story takes place on the Ile de la cite in today’s 4th arrt. Although both set in the heart of the city the populations were very different and so too were the consequences.Medieval Paris was nothing like modern day Paris.  The ile de la cite, sometimes called the cradle of Paris due to the fact that it has been occupied since pre-roman times, was radically different. This is mainly due to the work of Baron Haussmann who remodelled Paris in the late 1800s. He reduced the 500 odd streets that once jostled for space here to the mere 24 that you see today. In front of Notre Dame, particularly there used to be lots of small streets and houses, it was a densely packed, somewhat insalubrious neighbourhood, and when Haussmann cleared it lots of people said he did a disservice to the cathedral leaving it standing alone with nothing around it to give it a feeling of scale. Today it is useful there is all that space for the 14 million visitors that come annually but if you get a chance check out some of the 3d simulations of YouTube or watch the beginning of Disney’s Notre Dame to get an idea of what the ile de la cite looked like pre-Haussmann.   Haussmann had actually intended to clear the ile de la cite of all houses but his dismissal in 1870 spared the few we still have left with the oldest dating from around the 16th Centaury.

Many have criticised Haussmann for his aggressive remodelling of Paris, take a look at what is still called the Latin Quarter on the other side of the river for a feel of pre-Haussmann Paris. Small winding streets, narrow allies, mismatched houses. I personally am in two minds, I do see some of the good and necessity of widening streets and cleaning up the city but he does seem to have gone about it without much regard for history.

Now the Ile de la cité stretches from the back of Notre Dame over to the Pont Neuf, the very tip being the square du vert galant. But we are interested in the area just North of Notre Dame, so the left of the cathedral as you look at it as that is where the story takes place. In medieval Paris, and for hundreds of years, was a very particular area known as the cloisters of Notre Dame. In fact the street running along the cathedral is still called rue de la Cloitre de Notre Dame reminding us of its history.  A cloister is usually a completely enclosed area attached to a monastery where monks could pray and separated themselves from the rest of the world. This area was not exactly a cloister in that sense but was rather an area surrounded by walls with 4 entrances that would be closed at sunset and reopen in the morning and where within which the canons; high ranking, respected members of the church, lived and worked. The main entrance would have been at what is now 18 rue de Cloitre de Notre Dame, today you can see a small alley leading to a private residence. The cloisters stretched from the cathedral all the way to the Quai aux Fleurs – a relatively small area, which contained only 37 houses for the canons to live, gardens but also the highly reputable and powerful cathedral school, which pre-dated the Sorbonne and where great minds like Abelard would teach the future Popes, Bishops and Cardinals. The cloisters may have been the most significant and important religious area on the island, but the whole of the ile de la cite during the Middle Ages was dominated by the church. There were no fewer than 23 chapels all on this one island, although now all that remain are Notre Dame, Saint Chappelle and the vestiges of saint-Aignan where it is thought Abelard and Heloise got married.  As you can imagine the whole area was full of clergy, Canons, scholars and church seminary students. But if Haussmann removed old Paris it was the revolution that took care of the rest. The last vestiges of the cloisters were dismantled following the Revolution and the rue Cloitre de Notre Dame briefly renamed to the Cloitre de la raison. The Cloisters of Reason. To be fair it was not Haussmann who removed all of the chapels. Saint Jean-le-Rond was the Parish church of the cloister and was actually attached the wall of Notre Dame. It was dismantled in 1748 when the parishes were re-organised and the church, as well as its small cemetery was closed. A rather unusual remnant, which I presume came from here, can be found hidden in a private residence on the ile de la Cité. Some of the stones used to pave the courtyard are actually tombstones. And, if you look very closely, you might spot the faded gothic script.

Now that I have set the scene a little let us get back to our bloodthirsty story. Amongst all this theology, learning and religion, two enterprising storeowners set up shop. One, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, was a barber, the other a pastry maker. And, just like in Sweeney Todd, the barber would take advantage of the itinerate student population and cut their throat rather than their hair, before despatching them next door through a secret hatch to be turned into pies and fed to the unsuspecting customers.

There’s a couple of things to mention or at least bear in mind about these professions. Barbers in the Middle Ages were often surgeons, which terrifying as it sounds, meant that they did actually performed surgery they were known as ‘Barber Surgeons’. Needless to say their death toll was high. I suppose the thought was if they can cut hair then why not limbs. Doctors thought surgery beneath them and concentrated on the more academic sides of medicine leaving the dirty work to these poorly trained individuals. It was also usual to have your teeth pulled or blood let at the barbers, so it was somewhat of a gruesome metier and I’m sure many feared going to get their hair cut! It might also explain why if you did go to the barber and saw blood on the floor you would not be too suprised.

Bakers in medieval times were often itinerate, selling their wares on the move. Bread was an essential part of the medieval diet for Parisians which mas made up of 3 things: bread, meat which included fish and wine (to be honest that still sounds like most modern Parisian diets to me). Anyway  being able to afford a shop therefore we can presume that the pastry shop owner was quite the entrepreneur and doing pretty well for himself. Everyone enjoyed his delicious pastries but his top seller of course was his meat pie. Everyone in the cloister was fond of them, and it is rumoured, even the king himself was partial to one.

Anyway, all was going well for the dastardly pair until, inevitably they chose the wrong person to bake. A young German student, Alaric, came in to get a hair cut, leaving his faithful dog outside to wait for him. His dog did just that, and when his master did not return after a few hours he started barking and whining, and despite being shooed away by the furious barber he refused to leave. The dog waited outside the shop day and night and when Alaric’s friends saw his dog, which they knew never left his side, their suspicions were   roused. The friends alerted the police who would ultimately discover the grisly truth. The pair where condemned to death, hung from cages and burnt alive, their buildings destroyed and nothing was built in the space for over one hundred years.  

The ending is not dissimilar to that of Sweeney Todd in that they both come to a sticky end, however the French story does not end there. Sweeney Todd’s clients were just regular Londoners, but because of the unique nature of the area in which the French barber and baker were working a new moral dilemma is introduced. How are these poor priests able to reconcile what they have done? Cannibalism or the sin of anthropophagy is punishable by excommunication. So to atone for this terrible sin, and being so horrified with what they’ve  done  one some of the priests decided to make a pilgrimage to Avignon and beg forgiveness from the Pope. They left bare foot from the ile de la cite and headed off to cleanse their immortal souls.  However, they only made it to just outside the city walls at what is now Gobelins before giving up, presumably their feet hurt more than the fear of eternal damnation. They decided to abandon their arduous journey and to instead become mendicants in other words to make a living from begging.  This was going fine until later that year Jean de Meulan, the new Bishop of Paris, came to visit his property on the hills of Mouffetard. During his visit he was attacked by thieves and would have been killed if not for the aid of these beggar-priests who leapt to his aid. As a sign of his appreciation Jean de Meulan gave the priests absolution and allowed them to open markets on his property. So are these the very dubious origins of what is now the lovely market on rue Moueffetard, one of Paris oldest streets and oldest markets? There is even a tale that says that at the Church of Saint Médard, which is at the bottom of the rue Mouffetard you can be absolved of the sin of cannibalism – stemming probably from this very story. It is however, not true. Although there are plenty of strange goings on that did happened at Saint Médard, if you have not already done so go back and listen to episode 10 to find out more.

But is this story true? Did it really happen? I have not found any evidence to corroborate this story. However, that people found barbers scary is understandable and not such a giant leap to imagine that they might kill you, I mean they certainly did kill some people didn’t they. So too that they might doubt the origins of the meat in the pies - hygiene standards being what they were both in Paris and London. It does not seem much of a stretch therefore to put the two together and so maybe not a surprise that this story finds itself both here in Paris as well as in London. Maybe you know a similar story from where you are from. If so I would love to hear about it. Anyway, true or not true it is a good story. And, even though I am from London, I like the French version with the added consequences.

So what is left today? If you would like to find out more then I would suggest a wonder around the ile de la cite, rue des Marmousets was destroyed in the reorganisation of the island. Today the supposed location of the original barber shop and pastry maker can be found at 12 rue Chanoinesse. And although there are very few medieval structures left on the ile de la cite, only Notre dame, St Chapelle and the Conciergerie although you could maybe get a feel of what it might have been like all those years ago, especially as you walk down some of the narrow streets like rue des Chantres. Otherwise you should definitely head over to the Cluny museum which is chock a block with all things medieval or why not try a visit to the museum of the history of Medicine to see some of the terrifying implements those surgeons or even barbers were using and of course you can wander down Mouffetard – it should only take you 20 minutes to get there from the ile de la cite but I do advise against going barefoot.