The 800 Year-Old Road to Montmartre

Almost Right Near Where Molière Might be Buried

Paris:- Friday, 8. November 1996:- Some time ago I was looking for some fact in one of my historical books and I couldn't figure out why I was unable to find it. I was using a modern map, without too many house numbers, as a guide and I couldn't match the text to the street names - until I discovered I was looking at two different streets. I was reading about the rue Montmartre and looking for something else.

When I crossed from Les Halles today, I made sure I was in the rue Montmartre, where it starts at rue Rambuteau. Mr. Fox, Metropole's no-functionar movie reviewer was with me as we ambled north - in the general direction of the street's growth since 1200, when it was a path to the abbey of Montmartre.

rue Montmartre shop

The street was in the city, as far as number 30, where Philippe Auguste's wall was pierced by the Porte Montmartre. As time went by this porte was pushed north - to number 82 in 1380 and to number 156 in 1635. The third 'porte' was demolished in 1700-01 and replaced by an iron grill. With each demolition the street got longer, until it reached its 939 metres of today.

Back at Les Halles, Philippe Auguste was short of ready cash and in return for a loan in 1213 from Jean Alais - the chief of the players of mysteries - authorized him to receive a tax on fish sold in the market. This made Alais so much money that he had a chapel built, called Sainte Agnès, after a 13 year-old Christian from Palermo martyred in 262 in Rome. This chapel was the cradle of the present Saint-Eustache, built in stages over 105 years, pillaged in 1793, damaged by fire in 1844, repaired by Baltard, wrecked again in 1870 and fixed up in 1929. Eustache himself, was martyred in 130, under the emperor Adrian.

I didn't notice the remains of Sainte Agnès crypt today as Mr. Fox and I shuffled past the butcher shops, that are left-overs from Les Halles. There are some other interesting shops here and a small bar; I have seen very crowded when it is warmer. At the corner of the rue Etienne Marcel there are the shops that sell the tools of the kitchen - the heavy-duty kinds, used in professional kitchens, or for decor.

As we go along we are passing these three old portes - all of them demolished now, so there is not much to report about them. Between Etienne Marcel and the rue d'Aboukir, named after Napoléon's victory in Egypt in July 1799, and naturally not after his defeats there in August 1798 and March 1801 - the streets to the right; the rue Mandar, rue Bachaumont and rue Léopold Bellan, are part of the vast sector of Montorgueil - rue St. Denis, between Etienne Marcel and rue Réaumur, that is being given over to pedestrians, or restricted traffic at least.

rue Montmartre cafe noir

The Café Noir where we stop for a café is not actually in the rue Montmartre, but at the corner of a side street - although its name might be taken from the Café du Negre which used to be at number 11 bis.

Beyond rue d'Aboukir, we are in the area of the newspapers and pass Le Figaro building. From numbers 140 to 144 on the opposite side, behind the buildings, there used to be the cemetery Saint-Joseph, which belonged to the parish of Saint-Eustache.

It was only 510 square metres, and it was estimated in 1763 that 40,000 were buried in it. The inspection, that turned up this figure also declared that it was infected and it was closed in 1781.

Molière, who died in 1673 at 51, was buried in this cemetery. As an actor, he had been ex-communicated, but his widow, Armande Béjart, assisted by the curé d'Auteuil, convinced Louis XIV to intercede with the archbishop of Paris - and Molière was allowed burial, on condition that it be simple, without pomp and after hours.

Things didn't work out like that and there was a regular procession with lighted candles and he was buried at the foot of the cross there. There was a big crowd and 1200 livres were distributed to the poor, at the rate of five sols a head.

Armande Béjart ordered a big slab of stone placed in the centre of the cemetery on top of Molière's body, but it was wrecked at couple of years later when the widow allowed a big fire to be lit on it in order to warm the poor of the quarter. This caused the tomb to crack in two in 1732, according to Titon du Tillet - who added that a member of the original burial party claimed that Molière was not, in fact, in this tomb, but further away.

136 rue Montmartre building

The Saint-Eustache parish had other cemeteries and La Fountaine had been buried in their cemetery des Innocents in 1675. For some reason, in 1730 the abbot d'Olivet, writing a history of the Academie Française, claimed that La Fountaine was buried in the same place as Molière. This became a general belief and during the Révolution the decision was made to dig up Molière and La Fountaine in the Saint-Joseph cemetery. They recovered bones and placed them in a chapel.

When the chapel was demolished in 1800, the remains of the two were carefully transferred to the Musée des Monuments, until it was suppressed and they were moved again with all proper ceremony to be honored with a Mass on 6. March 1817 at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, after which they were transferred to Père-Lachaise, where you can see their cenotaphs today.

In reality, they dug in the wrong place for Molière at Saint-Joseph, and La Fountaine was never buried there. When the Molière fountain was erected in 1844 in the rue Richelieu, the idea was to move his bones yet again to this new location, but by then there was a certain doubt about their authenticity and the idea was dropped.

As for Saint-Joseph itself, it was converted into a food market, open daily. It was restored in 1843 and demolished in 1882, replaced by a building which housed the Paul Dupont printing plant. Several newspapers were printed here, including Le Aurore, Le Radical, L'Univers, La Presse and Le Jockey.

At number 146, rue Montmartre, in the café A la Chope du Croissant, the politician Jean Jaures, 55, was assassinated on 31. July 1914. The popular newspaper, Les Voyages, has its offices upstairs. Newspaper people from the rue Croissant also used to frequent the brasserie Coq d'Or, at number 149, which only disappeared in 1957.

One of Paris first department stores, Magazins de la Ville de Paris, founded in 1841, was on the corner of the rue d'Uzés, and was characterized by a huge hall. On the other side of the street, the passages that form part of the Panoramas are still here. These turn around the rear of the justly famous Théâtre des Variétés, first opened in 1807 on the boulevard Montmartre, where 'La Belle Hélène' premiered in 1864 - and more recently, Georges Feydeau 'La Puce à l'Oreille,' opened with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead.

This brings us to the boulevard Montmartre, which as usual is vibrating with activity. Mr. Fox remembers the May Day parade we came here to see two years ago. The old path to Montmartre continues, but from here on it changes its name to rue du Faubourg Montmartre - so it is another story, with a different set of dates - as the expansion of Paris moves ever outwards.

The walk took far less time than I thought it would - less than it took to write this. What with every interesting thing demolished, about all that's left to see are the facades of some of the buildings - and some of them are quite elaborate, and you don't see them everywhere. I must find out the reason for this, some other day.

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