Jan 2012
In this Issue:
Saint-Germain-des-Prés

The Advantage of Being on the River Seine
In the 6th century, it was the topography of the area that played a big role in the choice of location to build the abbey. Back then, the river Seine was quite a bit larger than it is today . . .
Life in the Abbey
The monks made everything they needed on the premises. They had working for them: farmers, framers, finish carpenters, masons, coopers, even winegrowers . . .
Burgus Sancti Germani

A papal bull in 1174 established that the inhabitants gathered around the abbey formed a recognized community. From that day on, the development and power of . . .

From the Fortress to the Noble Suburb
Despite the financial prosperity and intellectual influence enjoyed by the abbey of St-Germain, there were many setbacks over the centuries . . .
Anywhere but Never St-Germain!
St-Germain enjoyed ever-increasing prosperity and therefore never stopped attracting new residents since the construction of its abbey with the exception of a few particularly troubled and dangerous times in the history of France . . .
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France

onjour!
this month we would like to tell you the story of a mythical Parisian neighborhood. It is an area particularly valued for its distinctive atmosphere. Perhaps you've already heard of it, already admired its exclusive stores' windows, already entered one of its numerous art galleries or stopped for a drink at one of its famous cafés known for their pricey beverages? Perhaps you've simply strolled along its colorful and lively streets or discovered those charming little squares that resemble those found in many villages? Nonetheless, we do indeed hope to surprise you by going back in time to the origin of this neighborhood, to reveal what you might not suspect...that its real richness lies in its history. We hope that after reading this newsletter, you will look at the famous neighborhood of St-Germain-des-Prés in a whole new light.

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The Church of St-Germain-des-Prés
We start our newsletter with this magnificent structure that draws your eye right from the outset. The church of St-Germain stands in all its grace and beauty, at once elegant and majestic. It is not very imposing, just about 213 ft long by 69 ft wide, but it is nonetheless one of the largest
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France
  Saint-Germain Abbey
(Click photo to enlarge)
Romanesque structures in Paris, and its square clock tower built in 1014 is the oldest in France. Why does it appear so beautiful to us while it also seems to have just been dropped there, at the edge of a main thoroughfare, as if an architect had mixed up his urban design plans? Why does it inspire such solemnity, standing as it does right in the middle of such constant agitation? Maybe it's simply because it is the one who belongs there. The neighborhood's complete transformation over the centuries hasn't changed a thing; this church always made its presence felt, firmly anchored on a piece of land that it has owned from the beginning of time. If these walls could talk, they would tell us of all the destruction and all the suffering that they endured or witnessed since they were erected. This church is the emblem of St-Germain-des-Prés not just because it is so splendid but also and mainly because it is the very heart of this neighborhood. Without it, the St-Germain that we love so much would not exist.
Childebert

It was in 542 that Clovis' son, Childebert I, who had converted to Christianity, started building a basilica. He wished to house there the precious relics that he had brought back from his Spanish campaigns: the tunic of St Vincent, a deacon martyred in Saragossa, and a piece of gold work from Toledo in the shape of a cross enshrined with gems and said to contain a fragment of the real Cross. Of course, he would also make this richly decorated place his necropolis, as well as that of his descendants. Childebert died on the very day after its consecration in December of 558, but he had already entrusted the completion of the monastery to Germain, Bishop of Paris. It wasn't long before the pilgrims flocked to the basilica to pray in front of the precious relics in the hope of a miracle, and also to listen to Germain's sermons. His big heart and natural ability as a preacher were recognized far beyond Paris. The royal abbey was thriving, with large income endowments from the king and large amounts of land acquired through various donations. It housed so many treasures that the Normans looted it every time they invaded the area, eventually burning it to the ground in 855. It was rebuilt by the Benedictine monks in the early 1000s and continued to prosper for several centuries. But the decree eliminating religious orders that was issued in 1790 would deal the final blow and, sadly, lead to its dismantling.

Recipe for January 2012  
Traditional French Gingerbread
For Breakfast, Lunch, and even Party!
Preparation and baking time : 15 and 45 minutes Serving 8
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The Advantage of Being on the River Seine
  In the 6th century, it was the topography of the area that played a big role in the choice of location to build the abbey. Back then, the river Seine was quite a bit larger than it is today and the left bank was constantly flooded by rises in water levels. The abbey was therefore built on a wide raised meadow about 23 ft above the low-level water so that it could keep its feet dry.
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France
Walking by the Church
(Click photo to enlarge)

 
However, in the Middle Ages, the proximity of the Seine offered the monks many more advantages than drawbacks. Indeed, in addition to the taxes they collected on the waterway network, house construction, various trades, stores, and treasures, considerable income was also brought in by shipwrecks, abandoned boats, drifting cargo, and even drowning victims. Fishing was also very lucrative: the monks claimed ownership of the Seine from the Petit Pont (Little Bridge) to the commune of Sèvres, and along with it, the exclusive rights to the roach fish, carps, pikes and salmons all year round. When in the 12th century the church took the name of St-Germain, the suffix "on the prairies" was added. This term was chosen in reference to the large and humid flood plains formed due to their proximity to the Seine, and allowed the distinction between this specific huge abbey and those of St-Germain-le-Vieux (the Old) and St-Germain-l'Auxerrois (of Auxerre) established on the right bank.

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Life in the Abbey
 
  The monks made everything they needed on the premises. They had working for them: farmers, framers, finish carpenters, masons, coopers, even winegrowers (the well exposed sides of the Ste-Geneviève
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France
Square Clock Tower
(Click photo to enlarge)
mountain lent themselves to wine growing) and bakers to make bread, as residents were forced to come have their bread baked there or they would be fined. Farmers and craftsmen therefore gathered around the monastery that offered them financial protection while providing them with a market, a dovecote, a mill, a press, and a hospital. Monks also watched over morals as they were the ones who dispensed high and low justice and ran the prison as well. They split their time between prayer and study, copying and illustrating the ancient texts with illuminations. This is how a very flourishing source of culture and spirituality developed during the 13th century in particular. Its intellectual influence persisted over five centuries, probably an early sign that this neighborhood would be taken over by the Parisian and foreign elite in the 20th century. On the eve of the French Revolution, the library held close to 50,000 volumes and 7,000 manuscripts. Almost all of these precious documents went up in smoke in 1794.
 
 
     
 
 
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Burgus Sancti Germani
 
  A papal bull in 1174 established that the inhabitants gathered around the abbey formed a recognized community. From that day on, the development and power of the "Burgus Sancti
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France
Life by the Church
(Click photo to enlarge)
Germani" (the suburb of St-Germain) just kept growing. Feeling empowered by the protection and financial security that the abbey provided them, the residents felt solidarity with each other as they were aware of belonging to a privileged "caste" in some sense. The town lived by the rhythm of its own monastic life, completely independent of the existing centralized royal policies. At the end of the 13th century, St-Germain wasn't part of Paris but its own separate suburb. This system worked until 1674 when Louis XIV abolished any sort of special justice. From then on, and until the French Revolution, the bourgeois living outside the abbey enclosure had to answer to the Paris provost.
 
 
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  From the Fortress to the Noble Suburb  
  Despite the financial prosperity and intellectual influence enjoyed by the abbey of St-Germain, there were many setbacks over the centuries in a France often at war. The need for defense became a pressing matter, and the king ordered the abbey that had remained in the outskirts of Paris to protect itself. Since it had not been included within the surrounding walls that Charles V had built around Paris starting in 1368, the abbey surrounded itself with high crenellated ramparts flanked by three large corner towers, two turrets and five guerites, all lined by a deep moat filled with Seine water. In 1637, as the victorious campaigns of Louis XIV eliminated any danger to the capital city, the ramparts were destroyed and the moat was filled in. Streets appeared there in 1640 and houses were built on the edge, contributing to a complete transformation of this area. In January 1702, the Sun King ruled that the new Paris would be divided into 20 neighborhoods and that the 20th would be that of the abbey and suburb of St-Germain-des-Prés, from then on attached to the city. St-Germain then saw another strong demographic growth when the courtiers wanting to get closer to the king who lived in Versailles abandoned the Marais in favor of this new Parisian neighborhood, where they built themselves sumptuous residences.
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  Anywhere but Never St-Germain!  
  St-Germain enjoyed ever-increasing prosperity and therefore never stopped attracting new residents since the construction of its abbey, with the exception of a few particularly troubled and dangerous times in the history of France. However, there was one person who
Saint Germain des Prés, Paris, France
Beautiful Church of Saint-Germain
(Click photo to enlarge)
did everything in her power to never live there, Catherine de Medici. One day, as the queen was questioning her astrologer Ruggieri about her death, his answer was simply: St-Germain! From that day on, Catherine de Medici, hoping to evade the evil influence of the stars, did all she could to stay clear of any place that carried that name in any form whatsoever. This is why she gave up her palace at the Tuileries which happened to be in the parish of St-Germain l'Auxerrois. She also gave up her palace in the St-Maur abbey located near St-Germain-des-Prés and never set foot again in the castle of St-Germain-en-Laye. But in December 1588, while she was staying at the castle of Blois, she fell gravely ill. A priest was called to administer the Last Rites and, out of breath, she asked for his name. He answered, "My name is Julien de St-Germain". Catherine de Médicis died ten days later!
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  An Invitation to travel...  
  It is on this somewhat sad and strange note that we end this newsletter. Nonetheless, it remains that this neighborhood is beautiful, as no doubt those of my readers who know it can attest. Just the same, I invite you to go back there when you return to France, or to discover St-Germain if it is your first visit to Paris. I have no doubt that you will contemplate this magnificent church with new eyes. Do take the time to imagine this rich abbey standing there in the middle of a vast meadow, then this huge fortress that, in the 14th century, occupied an area stretching between what is today the Boulevard St-Germain, the Rue St-Benoît, the Rue Jacob, and the Rue de l'Échaudé. While you stroll along the Rue du Four, imagine the residents coming to have their bread baked to avoid getting fined, or if you stroll along the Rue de la Boucherie, imagine all the much regulated butcher blocks. And along the banks of the Seine, can you not just see all those roach fish, pikes and salmons springing out of the water or weaving in and out of the current? You will then find yourself far removed from the cliché of St-Germain-des-Prés as it is known. May I suggest we continue our atypical visit to St-Germain in our next newsletter, when we'll once more step back in time and, I hope, I will surprise you again!  
 
Best regards,

Sylvie@FranceMonthly.com

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