On the Roman Road to Where?

If They All Go to Issy, Then What?

Paris:- Wednesday, 4. December 1996:- Although it is the day after 'black Tuesday' it is not the reason for my blues. I have seen an old map somewhere, probably here, and I have thought, if the rue Vaugirard on the Left Bank is old and goes to Issy, then the natural extension of the rue Saint-André-des-Arts is the rue de Buci, which turns into the rue du Four and it runs into the rue de Sèvres and then rue Lecourbe - like Vaugirard they are really all one long street, but with many names.

The 'so what' of it is that these two, almost parallel old routes, both run in the direction of Versailles. If I had the right sort of references, the reason for the two going to the same place, might be summed up in a sentence of two - but I'll have to look them all up.

Starting today at Mabillion, under grey skies, on the rue de Four and heading southwest, I scan the upper floors for signs of age and there is not much to see. At street level, Latin Quarter after all, within spitting distance of St. Germain-des-Prés, all is chic to merely semi-chic, but it is not a bad walk all the same - especially if I lower my eyes from around the rooftops.

I can now say with certainty that the rue de Four seems to have... No age. My guess is correct, that it constitutes part of the route to both Issy and Sèvres - but why? Possibly because one of them was the trace of the Roman road from Paris to Dreux.


The Roman network of roads in France was quite thick, but Paris itself is indicated as no big centre or crossroads - it was a river crossing for the main road from Troyes to the coast, near Le Havre, although the Michelin Guide claims it was on a big road from Orléans to Soissons. Further south, Orléans was on another main road and was a fair-sized population centre, but to its northwest there was another larger centre - possibly Chartres, or even Dreux, and there are traces from there to the coast. From the south, it would have been a shorter way to go than via Paris.

After three hours of looking for references, to try and discover the destination of the route, of which the rue du Four was a part, I can only say it might have gone to Dreux. It didn't go to Versailles, because it didn't exist in Roman times except possibly as an insignificant village.

In the mid-sixth century the rue du Four is reported as a 'flowered path,' from the Cité, used by Queen Ultrogothe to visit the tomb of her husband, King Childebert (511-558) who was buried in the Saint-Germain le-Doré (des Prés) church.

This is positive news. Although, strictly speaking, the rue du Four seems more to bypass the church by the south - there was no boulevard Saint-Germain then - and certainly no arrow-straight leftover Roman highways, as indicated in the Michelin Guide's little sketch of Roman Paris - highways that should have been very evident in the sixth century; unless the 'barbarians' ripped them completely out.

At any rate, much later in the 13th century the rue du Four was called 'Vicus Furni' and it had several French names after that, but because of the communal ovens operated by the Saint-Germain abbey at the corner of the present rue de Rennes, it remained rue du Four - 'oven' - even though this compulsory community bakery was suppressed in 1470.

The road was still not paved in 1551 when the governor of Paris forced the abbey to pay to do it, on account of the mud and dust caused by its considerable traffic.

The rue de Sèvres begins at the intersection of the Croix-Rouge, where the rue du Four ends. In 1335, it was by the 'Maladrerie' which one could go straight to Sèvres; and only in the 18th century did the name became Sèvres, a corruption of Sève. Assuming one stayed on the left bank, Issy would be reached before Sèvres - so the road was to Issy as well.

It contained the Convent of the Prémontrés-Réformés, originally an Augustinian order founded in 1120 at Prémontré, between Laon and Soissons. With a little help, the order was able to buy a bit of land from the Saint-Germain abbey - which seemed to 'own' just about everything in the 6th arrondissement for a long time - and the first stone of their new monastery and church was placed by Anne of Austria on 13. October 1662.

A bit further along, on the other side of the street, l'Abbaye-aux-Bois was installed, again by the Saint-Germain abbey, on 20. October 1640. The original order dated from 1207 and was located in Noyon. After wars, destruction by fire, and a lot of confusion, another first stone was laid on 8. June 1718 for a 'royal' abbey, for grand abbesses and wealthy daughters. It was suppressed in 1790 and used as a prison until it was sold and then bought by - again - Augustinians in 1807, who opened a school for poor young ladies, a pension for more fortunate young ladies and a retirement home for upper-class ladies needing to 'retire' from society, including Mme Récamier, who resided here from 1818 to 1849, and ran a salon with members such as Chateaubriand, Delacroix, Ampère, Balzac and Hugo, among others. This convent was demolished in 1906.


There is an entry in the form of a pedestrian alley, to a 'Square Chaise Récamier,' between two fancy shops - but although I have been in the alley, I did not know there was a square behind it.

I cross the big intersection and head straight on - towards the rue du Bac - remembering that I have been here before - last year? - looking for Christmas windows? - and I keep going into what is a street that gets more dismal with every step. When I retrace, I find I am off course in the rue Babylone. In 1675 this street 'lost itself' in the plain of Grenelle, and of course it was also called Chemin de la Maladrerie, in 1448. Two years before 'getting lost,' it got its present name from the Bishop of Babylon, on account of the seminary of the Foreign Missions, founded here in 1663 - into which I had already poked my nose, wondering if there was a story here - before I turned the corner into Babylone, thinking it to be the rue de Sèvres. I should have known better.

From Montparnasse, to go to Meudon in a car - past Issy - I used to turn into the rue de Sèvres at the Duroc corner and this lead straight to rue Lecourbe, and more or less, straight to where I was going. One night, after missing the last train from Montparnasse, I even walked this whole way - which is a way of saying if it was the shortest way 2000 years ago it is still true today.

On the site of what is now the square Boucicaut the city of Paris in 1497 installed a hospital for lepers, called the Maladrerie Saint-Germain, but it was suppressed in 1544 and replaced by the Hospital des Petits-Maisons, which seemed to have been a charity hospital for people in poor circumstances. It had accommodation for 400 people, of age 60 or more - at a time when life expectancy was probably no higher than 35 years. After being increasingly enlarged, the whole thing was knocked down in 1868 and the institution was moved to Issy.

There was a cemetery on the northern side of the rue de Sèvres at the rue du Bac from 1689 to 1747, and at its entrance the first modest beginning of the department store Bon Marché, started in 1852.

Window 2

Mr. Videau, the owner, took his unemployed friend, Aristide Boucicaut as a partner and Boucicaut took over the small operation in 1863. He started the 'free entry' system, the 'fixed price' system, the exchange-goods system, the multiple department idea, and the low-profit high-turnover system.

He gave his employees Sundays off and introduced profit-sharing. The shop expanded and a new building was constructed by Boileau, starting in 1869. By 1888 the ever-expanding Bon Marché filled its entire plot and its metal frame construction was done by Eiffel. In 1912 the store crossed both the rues Bac and Babylon; jumping from 30 square metres to 25,000 in 60 years.

I walk around all sides of the store looking for Christmas windows, and on the rue de Sèvres side there are eight windows with animations and platforms for the kids to stand on to see better.

The Bon Marché is not well-known to me as it is sort of off my usual path. There are two buildings on the rue de Sèvres, divided by the rue du Bac. There is a third building behind, on the corner of the rue du Bac and the rue de Babylone and the Bon Marché's name is on it, but all the other signs say 'Conran,' which I believe somebody told me is the name of the owner of the 'Habitat' chain.

The rest of the rue de Sèvres contained the community of the Filles de Saint-Thomas-de-Villeneuve, L'Hospice des Incurables, and the one-time bird palace and later Convent des Oiseaux - demolished in 1911. The Children's Hospital and the Hospital Neckar, also a hospital for children, are still in this street.

Bon Marche

Beyond the boulevard Pasteur, the rue de Sèvres becomes rue Lecourbe, but is it still the same Roman trace, running to Meudon and Sèvres, always past Issy.

To round things off, I go into the rue Saint Placide, which has a lot of discount shops, to check on the toy shop 'Train Bleu' over by the rue de Rennes - but it is closed and gone. Not gone, is the eternal construction of the underground parking garage that has had this street torn up for years.

The Romans, with their lousy politics but good administrations, probably parked their chariots out at Issy when they were around these parts.

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