Medieval History Buff? Here's Where to Get Your Fix
In March 2015, construction workers unearthed a massive medieval graveyard beneath a supermarket in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement. This was big news for archaeologists, historians and the general public, as it brought the Paris of the Middle Ages back into startling view-- and sparked new conversations around the city's fascinating historical roots.
Read related: 10 Strange and Disturbing Facts About Paris
If you're interested in discovering these roots for yourself, you're in luck. While medieval open graves won’t be on display for the public anytime soon, there are still many fascinating places in Paris where you can get a taste of the city's rich medieval past.
How I Fell in Love With Medieval Paris
My first experience of life in Paris was during a study abroad program in my second year of University, where I opted to take all the History and Sociology courses I could fit into my schedule. Since our courses were near the Madeleine, I would spend many an afternoon walking aimlessly around the city centre and absorbing all the beauty this majestic city had to offer.
But while learning about the modern architectural transformation of Paris by the Baron Eugene Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century, I was struck by how much of the city had been whitewashed into the background of history. I became determined to seek out an older Paris, a lesser-known ancestor covered in layers of refurbishment and disguised to most tourists walking up and down its streets each day. Fast forward to today, and I am still seeking out the beauty of Paris’s pre-Haussmann history.
Scroll through to explore some of the most important medieval locations in Paris, which I encourage you to discover for yourself on your next visit to the city of light.
Site # 1: Palais du Louvre
As everyone knows, the Louvre Museum boasts many a famous painting along its numerous corridors, rooms and nooks. But the enormous palace housing the collections started its life with a far more utilitarian-- and strictly militaristic-- purpose.
A 12th-century defensive fortress was built in the area now known as the Louvre, which defended Paris’ medieval population from invading Northerners. The foundations of a tower and defensive walls can still be seen in the Lower Ground Floor in Room 7.
It’s very interesting to view these ramparts today and consider that even though they lie in the heart of the city, they were once on the periphery of a much smaller medieval Paris. It gives you a real sense of the scale of Paris 800 years ago.
Medieval Site #2: St Germain l'Auxerrois
This little-know site on the nearby Place du Louvre was once a small parish church on the outskirts of the city walls, serving only a handful of local parishioners. In the 11th century, King Robert the Pious founded a much larger church, which was expanded and renewed throughout the next four centuries. Following the Middle Ages, this once-grand church suffered from years of neglect, and alternately served as a saltpetre, police station and printing factory.
Getting There: 2 Place du Louvre, 1st arrondissement
Metro: Pont Neuf or Louvre-Rivoli
Read related feature: Visit St-Denis Basilica, A Pilgrimage Site and Royal Necropolis
Medieval Site #3: Sainte-Chapelle and La Conciergerie
King Louis IX constructed this remarkable chapel to house several relics from the crucifixion, including a nail and wood from the true cross and the grand prize of all relics, the crown of thorns. These are now housed at Notre Dame Cathedral, but their story is still visible everywhere in the chapel’s architecture.
The building itself is an excellent example of flamboyant Gothic architecture, and the stained glass windows are a masterpiece of medieval glasswork. Restoration on the windows was completed in May 2015, and you can now see them in all their colorful beauty. Interestingly enough, the windows took seven years to fully restore – the same period of time it took to erect the entire chapel in the 13th century!
Getting There and More Info on Visiting:
Also make sure to check out the Conciergerie, housed in the same large block near metro Cité. It houses a prison dating to medieval times, notorious for holding Queen Marie-Antoinette in a tiny cell before her execution by guillotine during the French Revolution.
Medieval Site #4: Notre Dame Cathedral, and its archaeological crypt
Avoiding the swarms of tourists thronging on and around Notre Dame can be difficult even on a rainy day, but that’s no reason to miss this essential attraction in Paris.
There’s a secret underground component to the cathedral that most people disregard as they clamber up the 387 steps to take a selfie with a gargoyle. Opposite the cathedral square is the entrance to the archaeological crypt, whose steps allow you to descend into another time. You can observe substantial slices of most of Paris’ 2,000 year history here, from the Roman settlement of Lutece, to medieval roads that were paved over by Haussmann.
Getting There and More Info for Your Visit:
Medieval Site #5: Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres
This Benedictine abbey was founded in the 6th century by Childebert, the son of King Clovis. It had a powerful position through its papal association, and dominated the whole area of the city with its influence. It was originally built to host a relic of the true cross, and subsequently enlarged in the 12th century to include an abbey and bell tower. What you see today however, including the bell tower dating to the 11th century, is a small part of what remains, as the Revolution saw the destruction of the abbey complex.
Getting There: 3, Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 6th arrondissement
Medieval Site # 7: Hotel de Cluny (Museum and Botanical Garden)
The Cluny Museum is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating museums in the world. You can literally step out of the noise and commotion of the city and into the tranquil space of this 15th century mansion in the heart of the city. The museum houses art from all around Europe, and its most prized possession is the famous "Lady and the Unicorn" tapestry series, which alone is well worth the entry fee.
The space originally housed the abbots of Cluny, and was built adjacent to an ancient Roman bathhouse. The mosaics and walls of a frigidarium, or cold plunge room, are visible when you enter the Cluny gardens, modeled on medieval botanic and medicinal principles. You can also see remains of the old Roman foundations outside.
Still More Medieval Sites and Places to Explore in the French Capital
Not yet sated on medieval history after seeing these sites? The locations featured here are among the most important medieval sites you can visit in Paris, but there are many more worth exploring. Among them are some of the following:
Place Dauphine, where the royal palace once stood and where the Templars were infamously burned at the stake. There’s the 13th century church of Saint Severin, which houses the oldest bells in Paris, and across the boulevard is Saint Julien-le-Pauvre, which was the site of the University of Paris’ School of Theology and Arts. Around the corner from this church is Rue Dante, where the famous Italian poet once lived.
Across the Seine is the Marais neighbourhood, famous for its winding streets where you can glimpse the old city walls of Phillip Auguste and other remnants of medieval Paris.
Read related: A Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Marais
Finally, make sure to take the metro line 13 just outside of Paris's northern boundary to visit the astounding Basilique de St-Denis. The burial place of dozens of French kings, queens, and other royals, it was also a medieval pilgrimage site once visited by Joan of Arc.
The more you look, the more you'll discover, and the best part of learning about Paris’s medieval history is that there is always the potential to see more. Who knows what archaeologists will find when they dig up the next supermarket?
About the Author:
Victoria Elizabeth is a New York expat living in London whose love for all things European has only grown since moving to the UK four years ago. Her passion for travel is matched only by her love of languages, history and all things food-related. When she’s not exploring a new destination with all her senses, she enjoys watching David Attenborough documentaries with Tyrion, her cat.
Victoria holds a B.A. in Medieval Studies from Skidmore College in NY, and an M.A. in Medieval History from the University of York in the UK. She has spent many a summer in Paris, and studied there with her university’s study abroad program. Although no longer an academic, Victoria continues to absorb and learn about European history as a perpetual passion.