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The History of Paris

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Paris is without a doubt considered one of Europe's most important cities, and its history illustrates clearly Paris' growth to what it means now on the international scene. While at your Paris hotel, take a look at this brief history of the City of Light and so amke sure to understand the beauty of Paris through its history.

Paris seen from the top of Sacre Coeur Basilica by Craig Booth

Prehistoric Era

The city of Paris is over two millennia old. It was founded on an island 375 kilometres away from the estuary on the Seine on the English Channel. In the prehistoric era, the Seine hollowed out a bowl in the earth, which the city now occupies. It is divided into the Right Bank and the Left Bank, which are terms designating location in relation to the Seine.

As a matter of fact, the present-day site of Paris was settled as far back as 5000 BC. Mammoth bones and the remains of reindeer and deer from that time were discovered in a mine at Beaugrenelle in 1886. Neolithic tombs have been excavated in the courtyards of the Louvre. Traces of a prehistoric workshop have been detected, as well.

The first permanent settlers were hunters and gatherers. The area enjoyed a mild climate throughout the year due to the flat topography, with the hills of Montmartre being an exception. The highest point in the city is at 129 metres above sea level. However, it was first and foremost the Seine that brought the first settlers. The river is navigable all year round, and forms a network of rivers with its tributaries, which allowed settlers to travel throughout a large region. Several canoes dating from around 4000 BC were discovered at Bercy in 1991. Eventually, the river transformed the area into a major trade junction.


By the Louvre by Chris Waits

The Ile de la Cité was a haven in the middle of the river. This is the biggest island and the historic core of Paris, where a fort was erected. What’s more, Celtic tribes arrived in the region, but the first important village was that of the Gauls around 250 BC. They constructed a bridge across the Seine. Paris was then called Lutetia, a town of the Gaulish Parisii tribe. It received its current name around 400 AD.

In 52 BC, Lutetia was conquered by Labienus, a lieutenant of the Roman Empire. For centuries, Gauls and Romans lived side by side, as the Romans were tolerant in terms of religion. Over time, Lutetia became a major Imperial trade centre. The Parisian amphitheatre and ancient public baths are the remnants of this Gallo-Roman city. Today, the city’s Medieval museum, Musée de Cluny, is located in the baths which are visible from the street.

Over the course of Roman rule, the Gauls acquired many of the Romans’ qualities, yet sustained a distinct identity. Under the Edict of Emperor Caracalla of 212 AD, all inhabitants of the Roman Empire became citizens. The differences between Romans and Gauls were neutralized with the advent of Christianity in the 3rd Century. However, afterwards insecurity reappeared in the Empire. Pagans threatened and later settled in the Roman Empire, which collapsed when Rome was sacked in 476 AD.

The Paris amphitheatre by NatalieHG

Medieval Paris

During the Middle Ages, Paris became the capital of France. As the decades went by, it even served as the capital of Europe. In the 5th Century, Attila the Hun threatened the city, causing much grievance. It was Genevieve, a Parisian of humble origin, who convinced the city’s inhabitants not to abandon Paris to the Huns, who eventually by-passed it. This is how she wound up being declared the patron saint of the city.

In 508, the Frankish king Clovis took control of the city. The area he conquered later became the kingdom of France. He settled in Paris, and was baptized in order to facilitate assimilation among his subjects. Clovis was the forerunner of the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled Paris until 751. They were succeeded by the Carolingians. As a matter of fact, all the rulers of this dynasty except for Charlemagne were buried at St. Denis from then on. All of the kings of France were buried there.

The Carolingians’ power was weakened, however, after the Viking and Hungarian invasions in the late 9th Century. Paris lay on the strategic route toward the wealthy abbeys of Burgundy, which made it a very attractive prospect. Hugh Capet became king of France in 987. His lineage, the Capetians, made Paris the royal seat. The Capetians came to power in 987 AD, and ruled until the middle of the 19th Century. The country was defended by a number of lords at the local level. The city became the centre of royal power, which helped the kings restore their authority over France.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the court moved from estate to estate. Gradually, a central administration began to develop in Paris. One of its elements was the Parisian royal treasury, established in the city by King Louis VII in 1146. Also, the archives of King Philippe-Auguste were stored in Paris. This king established the central tax administration in Paris, and the city began to attract lawyers, students, and officials.

Basilica of St Denis by Guillaume Baviere

Eventually, in the 12th Century Paris became the capital city. At the same time, the famous Louvre was built on the Ile de la Cité. Initially, it was used as a fort. The Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 13th Century. It housed Jesus’ crown of thorns, which the Emperor of Constantinople had given to Paris. What’s more, construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral commenced in 1163 and was completed in 1270. Thus, a unique religious and artistic complex grew from the heart of Paris. 

Significantly, Paris became the largest city in France during the Middle Ages. The administrative capital, however, had been Lyon under Roman rule. From the very beginning, Paris had developed on three sites: the Ile de la Cité, the right bank and the left bank. As it was necessary to connect them, five bridges had been built in Paris by 1420.

Paris actually developed near the port on the right bank of the Seine. Under Roman rule, the more important part of town had been on the left bank, however. The left bank was reestablished with the founding of the University of Paris in the 1200s. By 1500, the two banks had found a balance due to the Latin Quarter, so named because the students who studied Latin inhabited it.In the 13th Century Paris and Naples were the largest cities in Europe The capital of France suffered from a population decline due to the Plague in the 14th and 15th Centuries, but regained its number of citizens during the 16th Century.

The Sainte-Chapelle by Lauren Manning

Paris Renaissance

The Renaissance in Paris was a cultural revival during the 16th and 17th Centuries. It was spurred by the Italian Renaissance, discovered by the French kings while on expeditions to Italy. As a matter of fact, the French Renaissance was partly born in Paris. As is commonly known, the essence of this cultural movement was the rediscovery of Classical philosophy, ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and Classical architecture. Another major element was Humanism, the unwavering belief in the power of men to shape their fate and control their destiny.

King Francois I came back from Italy with a vision of the perfect city. He started making attempts to align the streets and paved the docks of the Seine. Most importantly, he brought about the onset of a new intellectual life, which flourished most notably on the left bank. After 1550, the Sorbonne district became the biggest centre of education in Europe. For example, Erasmus and Calvin studied in the rigorous college of Montaigu. What’s more, the Protestant Reformation set Parisians on the road to self-determination. Their horizons continued to widen as all of the European countries established connections amongst themselves. As a result, new perspectives opened up for Europeans.

La Sorbonne by Patrick Janicek

The birth of an elite culture was reflected in all 17th-Century European courts. Additionally, the routes to America and India were discovered during this period of history, formally putting an end to the Middle Ages. The treasures of the French kingdom were often displayed in Paris. The city’s importance grew, and power was concentrated there to a greater and greater extent. Eventually, this led the kings to distrust the city.

It’s worth mentioning that the Italian Renaissance artists brought new inspiration to architecture. Among the monuments built at this time were the rue Montorgueil, Hôtel de Ville, St. Germain l`Auxerrois Church, St. Jacques Tower and Pont Neuf, the first stone bridge across the Seine which King Henry IV opened in 1607. Furthermore, the old Louvre fort was torn down by Francois I, and the site was renovated. The Tuilleries Gardens were laid out, and eminent sculptors like Pierre Lescot established the renowned French Renaissance style. The Pont Neuf was designed by Lescot, and the sculptures of Jean Goujon graced the wing between the two courtyards of the Louvre. They actually foreshadowed the later French Classical style, restrained and precise.

Hôtel de Ville by edwin. 11

Religious conflict and urbanisation

Not everything went smoothly in Paris at this time. The city was marred by religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the 16th Century. Paris remained Catholic. The peak of intolerance came with the St. Bartholomew Massacre in 1572. Parisians remembered it for a long time afterwards. The conflict was resolved when the Protestant Henry of Navarre agreed to convert to Catholicism. He acceded to the throne as King Henry IV in 1598 issued an act of tolerance, the Edict of Nantes.

Paris reached a turning point in urbanization during the century that followed. During the reign of Henry IV, mass development occurred in the city. Bridges were constructed on a large scale, and other projects included the construction of the Botanical Gardens, the future Palais Royale, the hospitals of Val de Grace and Saint Louis, the Tuileries, the Louvre and the Marais district, with its many grand private residences. Many roads and churches were built, as well.

Under Louis XIV, the rate of development lagged. Although this ruler wanted to transform Paris into a new Rome, the idea only remained at the project stage. He actually visited Paris rarely – just 28 times in his life, often just to attend Mass. He established his royal estate at Versailles, which became the seat of power, although most of the nobles and royals continued to live in Paris.

In addition, Louis XIV destroyed the walls of Paris and completed the Louvre, Les Invalides and Place Vendôme. Also, large mansions in the Classical style were built in Marais. The next in line to the throne was Louis XI. He created the Place Louis XV (today the Place de la Concorde) and the Champs de Mars. The route corresponding to the Champs-Elysées today was traced in a relatively uninhabited zone.

The cupola of Les Invalides by Oh Paris

The French Revolution

Paris became an internationally important city during the French Revolution. This was actually a lengthy process, beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799. Rebellion exploded in the city on July 14, 1789, when a population which had been tormented by imprisonment at the king’s whim stormed his private, symbolic prison, the Bastille. This event spurred the Revolution, which had three stages.

Initially, the movement was controlled by the Upper Class, who wanted to reform the kingdom. The king was forced to accept a constitution. Utopian ideals led to a transfer of power from the monarchy to the people. Their representatives, the members of the Assembly, adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and voted for suppressing the influence of the clergy and abolishing feudalism.

At this time, the armies of many European monarchies intervened, invading France to suppress the revolt. After the massacre of suspected monarchists in 1795, a group of rebels rose to power. They ruled the country with an iron hand until 1796, when the monarchy was abolished. King Louis XVI, who had made an unsuccessful attempt to flee the country, was executed in 1793. Under false allegations of treason, the most obdurate of the revolutionaries ordered the moderates to be executed. All in all, the foreign armies were defeated. Eventually, the most radical of the revolutionaries were executed, as well.

It’s often claimed that Parisians make decisions based on local interests, disenfranchising much of the rest of France and gradually moving the entire country back towards authoritarian rule. That’s why the last period of the Revolution was that of the directories. The energy of the movement was depleted, and the new leaders wanted to avoid pressure from Paris over the Assembly. Moreover, paper money began to devaluate, and corruption in political circles was immense.

The end of the Revolution came in 1799, when General Napoleon Bonaparte gained power through a coup d’etat. Despite this turn of events, the question of whether the Revolution was successful can hardly be raised. It was a very important event in world history, inspiring other movements such as the establishment of the American Constitution and the adaptation of Habeas Corpus in Britain. There’s no doubt that the French Revolution opened a new chapter in the human quest for freedom and liberty, being one of the first instances of democracy in the world.

The splendor at the Versailles Palace, home of Louis XVI by Oh Paris

Napoleon

The Era of Napoleon is marked between 1799 and 1815. Its most notable aspect related to the transition from monumental urbanism to modern city planning. Napoleon’s projects included the construction of the Rue de Rivoli, the development of two stone bridges (pont d`Austerlitz and the pont d`Iéna) and two footbridges (pont St-Louis and pont des Arts), as well as planning the St. Martin and St. Denis canals and the docks at la Villette and the Arsenal. As a result, Napoleon modified the landscape to his taste. He had an affinity for majestic architecture, and thus laid out the Colonne Vendôme on the basis of the Colonne Trajane in Rome. He also began construction of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the courtyard of the Louvre, and of the Arc de Triomphe in the Champs-Elysées.

The ruler was visibly driven by his desire to make Paris a Roman-style capital of Europe. This project was eventually shelved, but he had already begun to tear down the ancient city and improve the traffic network. He remained suspicious of Paris, as he could never forget the Revolution. However, he governed from Paris and was pronounced Emperor at Notre-Dame. The wars were fought far away from Paris, so fortunately the city stayed calm throughout this period of the Empire.

 

Arc de Triomphe by Son of Groucho

Second Empire

The Second French Empire was established in 1851, and fell in 1870. Napoleon III appointed a civic planner named Haussmann prefect in 1853. This great architect planned a traffic network, a service network, and entry points into the city. This approach was adopted in all of the major French cities thereafter. The Second Empire was not without its critics – among them some of the greatest writers of the day, such as Emile Zola, who commented that Paris appeared as if it had been cut up with an axe. Liberals and Republicans largely condemned the Empire for this reason.

The concept of the city changed, however, in the 19th Century. Previously, Paris had been considered a Medieval town, a society organised within a wall, with a seat of power and its representatives. In 1795, twelve arrondissement units were established; the equivalent of districts. During that same century, the suburbs were added.

Paris was also greatly affected by the Industrial Revolution, which actually brought about major changes in the cityscape. Like all major European cities, it attracted a wealth of immigrants in search of jobs, and the boundaries grew to encompass surrounding areas, where small towns had begun to spring up. The use of railways allowed Paris to exert its influence over a vast region of France. This is how the metropolis was born.

However, the urbanization era was not without its downsides. The immigrants were poor and settled in shabby areas of the city. Their lives were difficult, often void of joy and hope. Their images were reflected in Hugo’s Les Misérables and the novels of Balzac, among other works of the day. The themes of these works involved a pathological fear of the slums, the inner suburbs, a misunderstanding of the causes of impoverishment, and an overall moral decline.

The Colonne Vendôme by Daniel Lobo

Gradually, urbanization became synonymous with city planning and regulation. An international exhibit on this subject took place in Paris in 1867, drawing 200,000 visitors. A famous name during this period was the above-mentioned Georges-Eugene Haussmann. The history of Paris’ landscape is thus divided into ‘pre-Haussmann’ and ‘post-Haussmann’. He cut wide boulevards which corresponded to a whole new sense of logic. They were broad and straight, in order to facilitate traffic and speed. By contrast, Medieval roads were narrow and inconvenient. What’s more, Haussmann envisioned a network of large squares and crossroads around the centre, a sewer system, many parks, gardens and other innovations. He succeeded in implementing most of his projects.

After the fall of the Empire in 1815, the monarchy was reinstated and retained absolute power until 1848. A municipal commission was appointed to examine the city centre in 1839. Its members reached the conclusion that the centre was past its time. The concept of a ‘sick city’ was gaining support. What’s more, there was a major imbalance between the Left Bank and the Right Bank. At this time, traffic circulation was given priority. Like all big cities of the period, Paris suffered from lacking a pattern of urban itineraries.

Interestingly enough, almost 200 streets were constructed between 1815 and 1853. The most significant was the rue Rambuteau, the first one located in the complexly laid-out city centre. A system of mass expropriation replaced the traditional approach of waiting for a building to fall completely into disuse before forcing the owners to consider the alignment of the road. Another notable project accomplished during the 19th Century was the completion of the Arc de Triomphe in honour of the victories of Napoleon and the French Revolution.
 

Rue Rambuteau by Carles Tomás Martí

The Third Republic

The Third Republic spanned the period from 1871 to 1940. It was established in 1870, after the horrible defeat of France by the Prussian army supported by the North German Confederation. Until the beginning of 1871, Paris was occupied by the German army. In Paris, it was widely considered that the Treaty of Frankfurt, which had been signed between the Assembly and Germany to end the Franco-Prussian War, was in fact treachery. A riot broke out in the spring of 1871, which gave birth to the Paris Commune – a local authority exercising power until May 28, 1871. It began as a Republican revolt, but later its true face emerged: pure anarchism. It was brutally put down, and the last rebels were killed in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Haussmann’s legacy was recognised and continued in the city. The Place de l’Opera and the route from Boulevard Saint-Germain and Henri IV Blvd. were completed in the late 19th Century. Impressively, 37 squares were completed between 1870 and 1911. However, it turned out that Haussmann’s plan had had quite a few gaps. He had disregarded industry and failed to establish special zones. Moreover, the rich were concentrated in the west of Paris, and the poor were more evident to the east. This division was sharpening.

Third Republic authorities had assumed that Haussmann’s plan was perfect, which is why they failed to follow up and improve upon it. As a result, France was behind the times in the late 19th Century. The first plan for Paris was decided upon in 1939, while in New York City it had been established back in 1916. The metro was the only crucial innovation of the Third Republic. A railway was constructed in the 1860s.

Place d l'Opera by couscouschocolat

Paris during the World Wars

Paris became an international metropolis during the 20th Century. Mobilisation was called in 1914, and Parisians were very enthusiastic about it. They saw it as a way to avenge their defeat in 1870. The Germans arrived at the Marne, and on September 2nd the government moved its seat from Paris to Bordeaux. During World War I, Paris was the supply depot for 4.5 million fighters. Over the four years of the war, the city was bombed innumerable times, and around 900 people died. What’s more, the cannon named Big Bertha sent 303 shells down on Paris, killing or wounding over 1,000 people.

A large celebration took place on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1918, which marked the official end of World War I. Later, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was placed under the Arc de Triomphe. Since then, Parisians attend a ceremony at the tomb on November 11th, held annually in remembrance of the many soldiers who died in the war.

It’s worth mentioning that between 1918 and 1939, efforts were made to resolve some of the urban problems. The fortifications, deemed useless, were replaced by des Maréchaux Blvd., the first route encircling Paris. An attempt was made to build cheap housing for moderate rent in Paris and the inner suburbs between 1927 and 1934.

Sadly, in 1940 the Germans entered Paris. Marshal Petain asked for a cease-fire on June 17th. The Germans remained in Paris until 1944. Resistance was organised speedily, but as Paris was under close surveillance, the movement ran into many obstacles. However, the various resistance groups finally united in Paris in 1943. German troops quickly made their presence felt, rendering city development practically non-existent.

Paris was freed in August of 1944. The outcome of the final battle was decided by the armored division of General Leclerc. He gave a great speech at the Hôtel de Ville in the wake of the battle. Hitler ordered Commander Dietrich Von Choltitz to raze Paris, but the latter refused. Paris was exceptionally lucky in this sense.

Paris during the Second World War by Charles Overstreet

Paris Today

Paris was in a state of stagnation at the end of World War II. Mass reconstruction of low-cost housing commenced in 1954. The Master Plan for the general organisation and planning of the city and greater area was adopted in 1960. This provided for the construction of the main itineraries, establishment of business and administrative centres as well as the designation of special industrial zones.

Under the Schema Directive, routes for high-speed traffic were established. Paris was endowed with motorway connections, international airports, an excellent hotel infrastructure and other facilities worthy of a truly modern city. In addition, authorities developed a plan to build a huge executive centre at La Defense in 1958. The Montparnasse Tower, which was the first glass structure, opened in 1973. It remains the only large building in the inner city to this day.

Minister André Malraux declared the area of Marais to be a preserved site in order to prevent its destruction. Many other sites in Paris were declared monuments, and those in favour of modernization were very unhappy about the general unwillingness to change the cityscape. This motivated President George Pompidou to create an ultra-modern arts centre in the inner city. This was called the Beaubourg, a splendid block of glass and metal. At that time, it was considered scandalous, but today it is one of the most popular attractions in Paris. What’s more, many of the old Parisian buildings were turned into museums, such as the famous Musee d’Orsay, which opened at the end of 1986, and the Louvre Pyramid was built in 1989. At present, city authorities are planning a new complex consisting of a university building, a Renault museum and a foundation for contemporary art.

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