Here are 10 amazing facts about the history of Paris that you possibly don’t already know, unless you’re a resident or a history buff!
1. Despite the Gaullist connotations of the city, it was once occupied and transformed by the Romans, and was regarded as an extension of the ancient Roman Empire! Traces of this aspect of Paris’s history can still be seen in various places, most notably at the Thermes de Cluny ancient baths, and the Arènes de Lutèce amphitheatre in the Latin Quarter. The Romans had a huge impact on Parisian life, and used the amphitheatre to host gladiator matches, animal fights, chariot racing, and other public performances! It was saved from destruction following a campaign spearheaded by Victor Hugo in the 19th century.
2. The city of Paris was besieged by Viking invaders no less than 3 times, the last of which in 885-6 saw the fed-up Parisians fight tooth and nail to defend their city for months against the Norsemen. They were eventually paid off by the King, Charles the Fat and sent down the river to Burgundy. Image the fearsome sight of Viking longboats making their way down the Seine! However, the people were furious at the King selling them out, and refused to lower their barricades to let the Vikings pass. Subsequently they had to drag their boats over the land around the city! This wouldn’t be the only time the Parisians defended their city in such a manner.
3. The renowned Sorbonne University is the second oldest academic institution in the whole world, emerging in the 1150’s just behind Italy’s Bologna University before being officially chartered around the year 1200. Originally specialising in Theology and Philosophy before branching out to include Law, Medicine and the Arts, all lessons were taught in Latin and produced many standards that are still used today, such as doctoral degrees! It was also the site of the 1968 student uprisings, which led to riots and anti-Vietnam war protests in America and other parts of the world.
4. One of Paris’s most beloved and popular kings, Henri IV AKA ‘Vert Gallant’, was initially not so loved. Being a Protestant in a Catholic and predominantly anti-Protestant country, his claim to the throne was widely rejected. This led Henri to lay siege to his own city in 1590, in which he attempted to starve the Parisians into submission! Due to various distractions and wars, the stand-off lasted for 3 years until Henri, stating that Paris was “worth a Mass”, converted to Catholicism and was jubilantly received by the populace. An attractive man and a good king, he attracted many admirers even though he reputedly did not often wash and smelled of goats (!), surviving until his tragic assassination in 1610 by a religious fanatic. His statue now sits on the bridge he had built at the tip of Île de la Cité, the Pont Neuf.
5. Napoleon is a revered military leader synonymous with military coups, great victories and defeats, and for expanding the French Empire to its greatest heights after the French Revolution. Little known are all of the amazing social and legal reforms that he introduced. These include many legal rights, property and divorce laws that are still in effect today under the Civil, or Napoleonic Code, and a secular and public education system that has gone on to influence those used today. He even introduced the metric system of measurements! Not bad for a little man from Corsica.
6. Paris is often regarded as one of the oldest and most easily identifiable cities in the Western world with it’s famous landmarks, tall uniformed housing and wide boulevards. However, this view of the city was only developed in the 1850s onwards as part of a regeneration plan by Baron Haussmann to rid the city of its dank Medieval slums! Even the striking Tour Eiffel was constructed as late as 1889. Obviously a good deal of Paris is older and even ancient; at the opposite end of the modern scale, the city’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral is over 1,000 years old!
7. During yet another siege upon the city by the Prussian army under General Bismarck in 1870, Paris found itself cut off from both its seat of government, situated at Tours, and the outside world. Ever defiant and courageous, the resourceful Parisian citizens developed a means of communication that, to this day, almost beggars belief in its sheer ingenuity and display of brazen daring: hot air balloons! The Balloons of Paris, as they came to be known, flew out of the city from the top of the hill in Montmartre and right over the heads of the gaping Prussians surrounding the city defences. 65 balloons left Paris during the siege, and carried 164 passengers, 5 dogs, and 11 tonnes of despatches, including 2.5 million letters. Because the balloons could not return, they also took in their cargo 381 carrier pigeons to relay communications back to the city. Only 2 balloonists unfortunately died, and the Parisian post office succeeded in generated a revenue of 20,000 francs; not bad statistics for a city under siege! (Alistair Horne, 2003: pp. 290-291) The balloons signalled to the world that Paris was fighting on, and most importantly, inspired its inhabitants to continue living in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
8. Tourists and residents alike take great joy in strolling in the Tuileries gardens that lead up to the world-famous Louvre museum. But did you know that a very grand royal palace once stood in front of this famous building, making it an almost perfect square? It was burned and completely gutted by fire when set alight by Communards during a popular uprising in 1871, and was subsequently razed to the ground! All that remains of the Tuileries Palace is the mini Arc du Carrousel gateway, built during the reign of Napoleon. Now, thousands of visitors every day pass over the spot, unaware of the lost grandeur that once occupied the space.
9. Britain’s infamous evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk in World War 2 via little fishing boats is well-cemented in history books as an admirable and brave feat in the face of otherwise certain death and defeat. It is a little-known fact that France has it’s own equally amazing civilian intervention against defeat story, from the First World War. During the Battle of the Marne in September of 1914, French and British troops escaped defeat after back-up troops were drafted in….by Paris’s city taxis! 600 of the little red Renault cabs, popular transportation across the city at the time, rushed troops to the front to help reinforce the line, making several trips back and forth between Paris and the Ourcq battlefield. Needless to say, the little ‘Taxis of the Marne’ saved the day and helped secure an Allied victory!
10. Paris as we know it today could have looked very different indeed, had Hitler had his own way. First visiting at the beginning of the Nazi Occupation of the city on his one and only viewing, Hitler had his own private tour of key monuments, and displayed an intimately detailed knowledge of buildings such as the Opera, having been fascinated with it for years and even memorising its blueprints! Despite remarks during his tour of Paris that ‘maybe I’ll protect it; maybe I won’t. It’s up to me,’ Hitler’s original intention seemed to have been to preserve the glorious city, and use it to remodel and measure German cities against. As the war drew to a close, however, and his defeat became a certainty, the Fuhrer sent commands to the occupying command, General von Choltitz, to destroy Paris. Luckily for the city and it’s people, Choltitz ignored the orders, and instead finished his lunch whilst awaiting arrest by liberating Allied troops!
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