Paris at the time of Philippe Auguste

The wall
in writing

A text from
F. Benveniste (2006)

Philippe-Auguste's wall is more than a rampart. It's a structure that fires the imagination, bringing the ghosts of medieval wars, the noise of battle and the harshness of bygone days suddenly bursting into the midst of modern-day Paris. It's still there, all around us, there to be seen in various locations, for those of us who know where to look. It is totally interwoven into our daily lives and we often rub shoulders with it without realising it. But for those who understand and can appreciate the context, it can be an uplifting, hidden oasis; the everyday ordinary city takes on an historical dimension. We begin to appreciate that these well-travelled, half-consciously-travelled streets, are in fact the result of a long, full and rich history that bids us to ponder on the past, the present, and indeed the future.

Built between 1190 and 1220 during the reign of Philippe-Auguste, this fortified structure was the second and final wall (after the Gallo-Roman wall that surrounded the 'île de la cité') to have had primarily a defensive function. Indeed subsequent walls would appear to be either partly-built (the wall of Charles V and Louis XIII) or 'fiscal' walls (Louis XIV's toll wall) or lines of modern fortifications (The 'fortif' of Thiers erected after the Commune of Paris 1871).

Philippe-Auguste's wall itself is a 'true' medieval wall with a walkway, battlements, fortified gates and round towers at regular intervals. There were towers encircling the city at this time. The Paris of 1230 somewhat resembled modern-day Carcassonne. Running for 2800 metres on the right bank, 2600 metres on the left bank, 3 metres thick at the base, 9 metres high and with a 14 metre high tower every 70 metres, the ramparts were an imposing fortification. For the western defences of the city, Philippe-Auguste had the medieval Louvre built, giving birth to the building that we know today. This work was funded out of his own pocket (the wall itself having been financed by the city).

The structure of the ramparts would turn out to be a key reason for their survival. They were constructed as two sturdy thick carefully matched-up walls, with the space in-between the two walls filled with small stones, mortar and bits of leftover building material. Parisians appreciated the benefits of this 'sandwich' construction. It's been a common fate for a large number of historical structures in Paris to end up as a source of building materials. However, when some centuries later, the wall was regarded as less important, instead of being destroyed, new structures were built up against existing parts of the wall, so re-using it and making considerable economic savings for the builders. Thus imprisoned between homes along a good portion of its route, the wall was able to survive for many centuries. Some small sections were, of course, destroyed during later periods, but not all. There are various surviving parts of the structure, some of which have only come to light in more recent times. After the Second World War a very well preserved stretch of about 50 metres of the wall and two towers was discovered on the Right Bank at rue des Jardins St Paul.

Another interesting feature about this structure is that it was built on an earlier ground level within the city. Today's street level, near the Seine is about 7 metres above the level of the original city. Hence the wall has ended up buried. At Rue Mazarine you have to go into an underground car park to see it. A little further on, in the courtyard of Commerce St André there is a complete tower enclosed within a shop. It can be viewed through the shop window !

In other districts, it's not the wall that can be seen but more recent structures that mark out and preserve the route. So, on the rue du Louvre on the Right Bank, an odd-looking wall can be seen in the shape of part of a circle. It's the outline of one of the wall's towers. At Rue du faubourg St Honoré and rue St André des Arts, if you look closely at the entrances to the building, you notice that the buildings are at a sharp angle to the road. The houses that once were built up against the wall were themselves built at this sharp angle to the road. Somewhat resembling dominoes, all the buildings in the district have this simple layout.

In this way, piece by piece, site by site, existent or disappeared, Philippe-Auguste's wall evokes directly or indirectly an almost vanished Paris, which in spite of everything, we can still identify with, across the centuries. And the Paris of this time was at least as ambitious and innovative as the city now hosting the Eiffel Tower, Beaubourg (home of the distinctive 'Centre Georges Pompidou') and the 'peripherique' (the Paris ring road). This section of the site "Paris during the time of Philippe-Auguste" is dedicated to the wall. It is also dedicated to those who still know how to dream and to those web-surfers who appreciate that we are as much a product of our history as we are of the present time.