The glittering medieval France that Henry V destroyed
Charles VI of France’s reign may have been marked by feuding, war, madness and death, but at the same time French civilisation was admired all over Christendom and Paris was the wonder of the world.
Guillebert de Metz’s “Description de la Ville de Paris au XVe siècle” described the city as he remembered it from his student days in King Charles V’s time, at the turn of the century.
Paris, he wrote, was divided into three sections.
In what he calls the High Town, on the left bank of the Seine, was the University, lying on the rising ground of the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve. The principal inhabitants there were students, in lodgings all around the university. The King had given new importance to the university because of the deep interest he took in learning himself, principally in philosophy and Latin, and his habit of inviting the professors, under their famous chancellor Jean Gerson, to come and talk to him. There were one or two great abbeys in that district too, like those of St Victor and St Germain-des-Pres, whose tower still dominates this part of the city.
And there was also at least one great ducal house, the Duke of Berry’s Hotel de Nesle, whose Tour de Nesle remained a landmark by the river.
The second area described by de Metz was the Cité – the island in the middle of the Seine river. It was in part the seat of ecclesiastical affairs because of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, with the houses of its canons clustering round it. But it was also the centre of government and administration, for the Parlement de Paris, the supreme court of justice, where the king sometimes sat in judgement, was housed in the hall of the old royal palace.
The king’s Council also met there. The Chambre des Comptes, which controlled financial matters, was lodged there too. Guillebert de Metz says that beside the palace there used to live a pewterer who kept some remarkable nightingales, which sang in winter. The old royal palace had been the main dwelling of the kings of France in the past and there were still apartments in it for the royal family and the 12 peers of the realm.
But Charles V had unhappy memories of a murder committed there before his eyes there in 1358, and chose not to spend much time at the palace. He preferred another palace which he himself had built. Charles V’s home of choice was in the third section of Paris, which Guillebert de Metz calls the Low Town, on the right bank of the river. The Hôtel St.-Pol, or St.-Paul, covered all the territory at the extreme eastern end of the district between modern Paris’ boulevard St.-Antoine and the river, with only the convent of the Célestines next door separating it from the open country. It wasn’t a new building but a collection of great houses, which the king had begun to buy in 1361 while he was still only regent. As he acquired more and more, he welded them all into one, with long galleries and cloisters joining their gardens and great courtyards together, until in the end the whole complex was so vast that it comprised sets of apartments not only for the king and queen and their children but for all the princes of the blood.
Great sums and much imagination and taste were lavished on the decorations, as one can guess from such descriptions as that of the queen’s chapel, which was painted in a bright shade of green known as vert gai in a design of flowers and fruit trees – cherries, pears, and plums – with children plucking fruit from the branches which soared up to the vaulted ceiling painted like a sky in blue and white. It was thus no wonder that the king, who, as he said had known many pleasures there, especially that of recovering his health after some of the illnesses from which he so frequently suffered, held the palace so dear that he decreed that it should remain an inalienable part of the domain of the crown in perpetuity.
Other big buildings in the Low Town included the hotel of the Duke of Anjou, the Hotel d’Artois which belonged to the Duke of Burgundy, and one spectacular turreted building at the western end of town, which belonged to the king’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Bourbon. There were great official buildings too – for instance, the Châtelet, which was the residence of one of the king’s principal officers, the Provost of Paris, and the assembly hall of the powerful burgesses. And in the 200 narrow streets in which these were set were the dwellings of the citizens of all classes.
A notable feature of these streets were the great chains that in times of war were slung across them to protect the citizens from invaders. But, by the time of Charles V, there was no need any more for such protection, for the Low Town was not only peaceful but busy and prosperous. With the king and so many princes living there, there was work for tradesmen and artisans. The king loved beautiful objects. Goldsmiths and silversmiths fashioned utensils for table and household. Some lived in the houses on the Grand-Pont where they money-changers were. Some jewellers lived there too and they were mostly employed by the King. He loved jewels for personal use, also, set with big cabochon stones, for gifts to important visitors. Jewellery was a way of storing surplus wealth when there were no banks. It could be melted down when money was needed to pay soldiers or ransoms. Other craftsmen included leather workers to make bindings for manuscripts, and jewelers making clasps of gold and silver.
The king commissioned tapestries. He employed stonemasons and stonecarvers and woodworkers, for he was building other royal palaces around Paris, including the great castle of Vincennes, St-Germain-en-Laye, and Beauté on the Marne. In Paris, the King rebuilt the Louvre, getting his master-mason, Raymond du Temple, to transform it outwardly from Philip Augustus’s old fortress into the fairytale castle depicted in the illuminated Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, with clusters of conical-roofed towers separated from the river only by a low crenellated wall.