The Historical Present
Shown: The ship of state tossed by waves and buffeted by Seine breezes, with the device Fluctuat Nec Mergitur (the unsinkable). This has been Paris’ coat of arms since the Middle Ages.
Why end this first part of the Paris time line with 1572? That’s the year of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a watershed in Paris history. See below for details, and a graphic illustration.
My personal Paris time-line starts in 1976. That’s when I spent a couple of weeks in a tiny mezzanine apartment perched above the original Shakespeare & Company in Rue de l’Odéon. The bookstore was run by Sylvia Beech (and her partner, Adrienne Monnier, whose French-language bookstore was across the street). There were moments when I wondered what all the fuss was about—Paris was an unholy mess in many ways, and the Parisians often struck me as less than cuddly. At other times I was enthralled and delighted, and secretly made plans to move here and write (but how to make a living?).
Ten years later, in 1986, I settled into my cozy garret in the 17th arrondissement and began the never-ending explorations that to this day keep me fascinated by Paris and its layered history—a past evident not only in book form.
The city’s streets, courtyards, parks and riverbanks are living volumes open to anyone who learns to read them. It helps to have a handful of key dates and a cast of characters in mind.
Surprisingly, given that Paris is the modern capital of one of the world’s richest, most industrialized nations, traces of the city’s 2,000-year history still crop up everywhere you turn: Paris lives in the historical present. Pick a period or a historical theme, hit the streets and you’ll find something solid to transport you down a time tunnel of your own making.
Paris Time Line Part One: Prehistory to 1572
8000-200 BC Mud huts and dug-outs moored in what’s now the Bercy neighborhood on the Seine: Paris’s neolithic, pre-Gallic beginnings go back 10,000 years.
300-52BC Les Gaulois—Astérix’s real-life ancestors—sweep in, subdue the fisher-folk, and expand from Bercy to l’Ile de la Cité. They call themselves “Parisii” tribespeople, build roads and bridges and boost the salt and tin trade.
52BC A bad year for les Gaulois: Julius Caesar takes over and ushers Gaul into the Roman-Mediterranean world. Later, the Romans build a large city on the Left Bank and fortify their island-stronghold. The murky Seine inspires the name “Lutetia Parisiorum”: in Latin lutum means mud. Later inhabitants soften Lutetia to “Lutece.”
1st to 3rd century The city covers much of the Left Bank’s “Latin Quarter”: administrative buildings, bathhouses, a forum and arena.
Late 3rd century “Barbarian” invasions, primarily Germanic, force the Romans to dismantle their monuments and reuse the stones to further fortify the Ile de la Cité.
250 St-Denis becomes Paris’ first bishop but is beheaded by a pagan mob.
292 Emperor Constantius makes Paris his capital in Gaul.
312 The edict of Constantine officially recognizes Christianity. Gaul resists.
360-362 Julian the Apostate is declared Emperor in Lutece and makes it his unofficial capital; he calls it “Paris” for the first time in recorded history, and tries to roll back Christianity. But he’s murdered while campaigning in the Middle East and fails to achieve his goal.
451 Attila the Hun and his hordes attack Gaul but don’t destroy Paris. The city’s “savior” is Geneviève, a Christian from Nanterre, later sainted.
461 The Franks, a Germanic tribe, surround Paris and try to starve out the population. Geneviève to the rescue again. She becomes the city’s patron saint, a job she holds until the reign of Louis XIII (when the Virgin Mary ousts her).
464 Despite Geneviève’s efforts, Childeric the Frank takes over: the Merovingian dynasty begins.
508 Clovis I, son of Childeric and King of the Franks, star Merovingian, trades in his pagan gods for Christ and makes Paris his capital. The Gallo-Roman-Frankish fusion is complete.
752 Upstart “mayor of the palace” Pepin the Short usurps Merovingian rule, founds the Carolingian dynasty (752-987) and sires Charlemagne (reigns 768-814).
800 Pope Leo III in Rome crowns Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. Christianity in France is here to stay. And Paris never looks back.
885-886 Norman pirates besiege Paris; their devastating raids continue for decades, leading city authorities to build the first medieval city walls (on the Right Bank).
987 Hugues Capet (reigns 987-996), creator of the Capetian dynasty (987-1328), becomes King of France in Senlis, Paris’ main rival.
1108 Building work begins on Notre-Dame de Paris.
1120 Saint-Denis cathedral is expanded and rebuilt in the new Gothic style. Ecclesiastical architecture will never be the same.
1100-1200s River trade is a mainstay and the city’s symbol becomes (and still is) a ship with the motto “fluctuat nec mergitur” (“It floats without being submerged,” and sounds better in Latin).
1180 Emperor Philippe Auguste (Philip Augustus) begins building a royal fortress, the Louvre.
1190-1210 Philippe Auguste girds Paris with walls. The city’s spider-web shape is established forever (not even Napoléon III and Haussmann can destroy it).
1200-1285 University of Paris (1200) and Sorbonne (1257) established. The Left Bank’s scholarly vocation is assured ad aeternum. Sainte Chapelle built, Saint-Denis further embellished.
1285-1314 Philippe IV the Fair, a handsome scoundrel, builds the Conciergerie to imprison and torture his foes, wipes out the Templars and massacres Jews.
1328 The Valois dynasty (1328-1589) gets off to a rough start with King Philippe VI (reigns 1328-1350), a war-monger with eyes focused on the English.
1358 Uprising of Étienne Marcel, mayor of Paris and provost of merchants: the trend-setting first of many popular Paris revolts.
1364 Charles V (reigns 1364-1380) is dubbed ‘the wise’, restores law and order to Paris and unwisely builds the Bastille and city walls marking les Grands Boulevards and l’Arsenal, later the quintessential symbols of oppression.
1420 Henry V of England invades France and takes over Paris. The city remains in English hands until 1436, when Charles VII retakes it.
1429 Joan of Arc tries but fails to free Paris. Where is Sainte Geneviève?
1431 Paris still in calloused, beery English hands. Henry VI of England is crowned king in Notre-Dame. Joan of Arc is roasted by English occupiers in Rouen. Perfidious Albion rules the roost.
1436 The English get the boot from Paris, but don’t evacuate Calais until 1453.
1461 Crafty Louis XI (reigns 1461-1483) wields the scepter with an autocratic hand. Paris booms. The first medical school opens. The postal system is created (and still operates, despite efforts to destroy it by Rightwing governments).
1470 German printer Ulrich Gering creates Paris’ first printing press, at the Sorbonne. Bouquins, Parisian argot for “books,” become synonymous with the Left Bank.
1515 King François I (reigns 1515-1547) begins rebuilding the Louvre and filling it with artworks. He is Leonardo da Vinci’s patron: the Italian Renaissance at last begins to pull France out of the Middle Ages. Townhouses line Paris’ growing number of Renaissance streets.
1547 Henri II takes the reins (reigns 1547-1559) but his queen, the Florentine Catherine de’ Médicis (aka Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici) is a backseat driver. She builds the Tuileries Palace.
1559 Henri II is accidentally killed while jousting with Montgomery at Place Royale, now Place des Vosges, centerpiece of the Marais. “Thanks to Montgomery’s lance the Place des Vosges was created,” notes Victor Hugo three centuries later.
1559-1589 Catherine de’ Médicis demolishes the Tournelles palace on Place Royale and oversees the start of the Wars of Religion. Her sons, kings François II, Charles IX and Henri III prosecute the war.
1572 One of Paris’ bloodiest events ever is the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when 3,000 Huguenots are butchered. Turmoil continues until the end of the Valois dynasty in 1589.
Watch this page. The march of time will continue soon, starting with the Bourbons and Henri IV, builder of the Place des Vosges.