La Cours des Miracles

Hello and welcome back to Paname, the podcast that sneaks up stealthily to spy on Paris. Today the grotty underbelly known as the Cour de Miracles or courtyard of miracles as made famous by Victor Hugo in his hefty tome ‘Notre Dame de Paris’

Disney clip.

Now this may sound rather wonderful but the courtyard of miracles was about as miraculous as finding the ball under the right cup by one of the many crooks who swindle tourists by Sacre Coeur. At the Cour des Miracles thieves, prostitutes, beggars and outlaws would meet at the end of their working day and, as if by miracle, the blind could suddenly see, the deaf hear, the maimed regained use of their limbs.  Each night they would throw down their crutches and wash off fake wounds, stop twitching or shaking or whatever ruse they were using to beg by day and so it was given this nickname – the Cour des Miracles and it stuck.

Now although we talk about the ‘Cour des Miracles’ there were in fact several in 17th Paris, but it was at rue Neuve-Saint Saveur, more or less modern day rue du Nil, rue des Forges and rue de Damiette, where the largest and most dangerous was found. It was also this one that was Victor Hugo made famous, he describes it as:

“A gutter of vice and beggary, of vagrancy that spills over into the streets of the capital… an immense changing room of all the actors of this comedy that robbery, prostitution and murder play on the cobbled streets of Paris”

So the Cour des Miracles was essentially a slum neighbourhood, huddled up against the 14th centaury walls of Charels V and reached by a network of complicated, narrow paths and alleys. The inhabitants were known as ‘argotiers’ due to an ‘argot’ or secret slang they spoke. It was believed to be an organised and intriguing criminal underworld where everyone had their role to play and there were many roles to learn, for example you could be a; hubains – and claim you had been healed by Saint Hubert of rabies; or a coquillards would display seashells and claim to have just finished a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compstela in Spain; a sabouleux was a fake epileptic; a piètre was a fake amputee; francs-mitoux were fake lepers and so it went on.

Here master criminals would teach newcomers the slang and techniques of how to pickpockets, rob, steal, murder and pretend to have any number of a long list of ailments or mutilations. It was a sort of world in reverse with its own rules, laws and even its own king known as the Roi de Thunes, who would apparently hold a cat-o-nine tale and dead dog on a pike.

Henri Sauval, a 17th Centaury historian described it as “a great cul-de-sac which was stinking, muddy, irregular and unpaved." And claimed that  “no one had faith or law and baptism, marriage and the sacraments were unknown.”  This is hardly surprising when you think the conditions in which people were living. Henri Sauval gives a terrible depiction of an overcrowded and filthy place:

“A mud filled house, half buried and falling from age and rot, not four square fathoms (which is about 53 square meters or 576 square feet) which nevertheless sheltered more than fifty households, loaded down with an infinite number of children legitimate, illegitimate or stolen.” He goes on to describe it as being “filled with the evil poor”

The 17th centaury was a time, for many, of great unemployment, overcrowding and poverty.  In Paris and these desperate times force people into desperate means. Between the 15th and the 17th centaury a mix of the Hundred years war and the Black plague left on sixth of the population of France homeless and starving. Many made their way to Paris in the hope of finding work or a better life only to end up living in the slums surrounding the city. Paris was overcrowded, filthy and dangerous. High unemployment meant people were faced with little or no choice but to turn to crime.  Old street names, some rather poetic such as the ‘rue du Bout de Mond’ ‘Worlds End’  now rue Léopold Bellan  or ‘rue du Temps Perdu’  the street of lost or wasted time’ now rue Saint Joseph give us an insight perhaps into the feelings of the residents. Just on a side note rue Saint Joseph is more famous for being the birth place of Zola, and although a working class neighbourhood at his birth it was far from the den of criminals that it was in the 17th centaury as the cour de miracles had been completely destroyed.

The threat, or perceived threat of this organised criminal headquarters had became so bad that in 1667 the king, Louis XIV, charged Nicolas Reynie with the task of dispersing this troublesome population. Although they put up a good fight they were ultimately unsuccessful. Many were imprisoned, sentenced to death or sent to serve in the royal galleys.  On hearing about the destruction of this neighbourhood the residents were thrilled and to this day the neighbourhood is called ‘Bonne Nouvelles’ good news.

The buildings were destroyed to make way for a fish market; the fishmongers however, a superstitious lot, refused to move in and so it became the home to ironmongers instead. It was however Haussmann’s reorganisation of the city in the 19th centaury that would completely eliminate the last traces of the Cour des Miracles. So what is left, if anything of the cour des miracles and this dangerous neighbourhood? Lets go for a walk and see.

Today this neighbourhood is no longer a slum on the outskirts of the city but rather the very central 2nd arrondisement. The walls were destroyed by Loius XVI but you can still walk along the Grands Boulevards and down the rue d’Aboukir if you would like to trace their path. Let’s us walk down rue Saint Denis, this is an old Roman Road, and important street as it lead to the cathedral of St Denis  and was used from the 8th centaury by the kings on their return to Paris from coronation in Reims. Royal funerals would also take this route on the way to St Denis Cathedral. Being a main thoroughfare it attracted pilgrims, inns, hospitals and prostitutes.  Its proximity to Les Halles market meant they had plenty of clients and today Saint Denis is still synonymous with prostitution. Streets were given such suggestive names such as the rue Gratte-Cul or ass-scratch street or the rue ‘Tire-Boudin’ sausage tug street, not a reference to a butchers as I’m sure you have worked out. But this was before the names of streets were changed and sanitised; this however deserves another full episode all to itself.

From rue Saint Denis we can walk through the through one Paris oldest covered passages – the passage du Caire. It dates from 1798 and was inspired by the great souk of the Egyptian capital following Napoleons campaign in Egypt – it’s a lovely passage with glass roof but rather simple and modest inside and although one of the longest of the passages it is also the most narrow.  It opens onto the pretty Place du Caire where the entrance to the passage is decorated with hieroglyphs and three serene looking heads of the goddess Hathor. From here you can trace the old path of the Cour de Miracles along the rue des Forges, rue de Damiette and down the rue du Nil. Today full of trendy cafes, restaurants and a surprising but lovely wall full of plants  – no longer stinking alleys and dead end paths. Lets walk briefly along the rue d’Aboukir, the old walls of the city and carry on down the bustling market street of Monterguil, past rue Tiquetonne, where the 12th Centaury walls of Philip August once marked the edge of the city and towards what used to be the heart of Paris, the market place les Halles and today is a shopping centre with a rather curious roof.

There are no more traces of the Cour des Miracles, no buildings, no city walls, little crime but Let us nonetheless keep walking towards the rue ‘rue de la Grande Truanderie’  just next the the ‘rue de la Petit Trunaderie’ where I will leave you today. Although there is some dispute as to the origins of some believe it come from a word to mean tax – as people were taxed on brining goods into Paris but others belive that  that it come from the slang term  ‘truand’ which  is a crook, criminal or beggar and truanderie is therefore criminal activity – a small but pleasant reminder of Paris dark past, in a neighbourhood that was once full of evocative street names, terrible crimes and miracles.

Thanks again for listening, if you enjoy the podcast do tell a friend, or write a review as it helps others find the podcast. As always I welcome your thoughts and feedback. Thanks for now. Bye.