Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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NOVEMBER 3, 2011 4:35PM

Getting Medieval in the Marais

Rate: 15 Flag

Last Thursday, I went to an exhibit at the Bibliothèque Forney, a public library at the southern edge of Paris's Marais neighborhood.  While the exhibit, called Gaz à tous les étages, didn't allow photos (I have got to make a fake press pass and see where that will get me...), I couldn't resist taking a few of the library itself.


The Bibliothèque from the back, with its beautiful French garden. 


The Bibliothèque Forney is housed in the Hôtel de Sens, a medieval building that dates from 1475-1519. Although a lot of it has been restored, it's one of only two examples of grand-scale residential/civil architecture from the Middle Ages in Paris.  The other, the Hôtel de Cluny in the Latin Quarter, which today houses the wonderful Musée du Môyen Age (the Museum of the Middle Ages), originally had the same purpose: to house visiting priests and other church officials from the regions in the "Hôtel" 's names. 

In the early 17th century, the Hôtel de Sens became the residence of Marguerite de Valois (known as "La Reine Margot"), who had been forced into marriage with King Henri IV. Margot's life was full of drama, bloodshed, and depravity. A biography on her makes for some intriguing reading.  I've heard that while at the Hôtel de Sens, apparently two of her pages fell in love with her, and one of them killed the other in a jealous rage.  The murderer was decapitated as punishment.  Margot moved away not long after. 

The building looks like a lovely, whimsical castle. It's hard to imagine such a violent event happening here.   

There is one sign of violence, though: on the facade facing the rue du Figuier, you can see a canonball and an inscription that reads"28 juillet 1830" -- the date that the cannonball was shot into the building during the July Revolution. It's not easy to spot if you're not looking for it; I only saw it this time because I'd read about it on the aptly named blog, Invisible Paris.


The front of the building, with the library's main entrance, on the rue du Figuier.  If you look at the flat stone of the facade just below the roof of the turret on the left, you can see a small dark-colored mark. That's the cannonball. 

 bf2 det

Detail of the cannonball and inscription.  You can see a clearer picture of it here.


I love the view from inside the Hôtel de Sens' courtyard, which anyone can enter.




After the exhibit, I had to meet a friend near the Centre Pompidou, and I decided to walk there. On the way, I wanted to pay a visit to two buildings that give a unique glimpse of medieval Paris:



Numbers 11 and 13 rue François Miron are located a few streets away from the back of the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall).  Dating to the 14th or 15th century, they aren't the only apartment buildings in the city that were constructed in medieval times, but they are the only ones that have had their plaster removed to reveal their original wooden beams.  This is how most of the residences in Paris looked in the Middle Ages. 

Why don't they look like this today?   In 1607, a law was passed that all exposed beams had to be covered in plaster, to prevent fires from spreading quickly.  One of the ways you can tell if an apartment building was constructed in the Middle Ages is if it has a sloping façade and/or sides.  This is the effect of other hidden wooden beams - the ones making up the building's skeleton - warping with the centuries.





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Thanks for this tour de France! I really enjoyed the photo of the garden.
Alysa, spectacular architecture! Numbers 11 and 13 rue François Miron are amazing survivors of a much earlier time and as they say "imagine what they have seen during their lifetime!" Thanks for the wonderful photo essay on this!
I love these walks back in time! I always imagine the people that walked the streets before me and wonder what went through their minds.
This is fantastic--like a virtual walking tour. Walking through Paris kind of feels like walking into a Gothic cathedral--like it's designed to elicit contradictory experiences by making you feel both humble and awed by the scope of human creation. But those two medieval buildings are particularly visually compelling in the way they evoke a sense of Paris in the Middle Ages. So fascinating. Thanks for another fantastic post!
Just imagine the pictures you could have shared if you made yourself a fake press pass! :o) Thank you for this lovely tour and explanation. I find it amazing that buildings have actually survived centuries to tell stories of their times.
Lonely Planet says your bibliotheque is ranked
#202 of 1467 things to do in Paris.
It even has its own facebook page!
What the hell is INSIDE it, Alysa?
I mean, I love Parisian architecture as much as the next
Joe Six-Pack,
but I simply gotta know what's inside.
I am always delighted to be taken on one of your tours of Paris, Alysa.
Out on a limb - Thank YOU for stopping by to read. I thought the garden was lovely, too. Sorry it wasn't a sunny day - it probably would have looked even better.

designanator - I'm so glad you enjoyed this! Yeah, those two buildings amaze me every time I pass them. If you only look at them, you can feel instantly transported to medieval Paris. It's a really cool effect.

Harry's - I totally know what you mean - I like to imagine that, too.

Sally - I'm glad you liked this stroll, and I like what you said about Paris being like a Gothic cathedral. A very interesting comparaison!

Fusun - I know, right? I remember Bluestocking Babe (I miss her!) made a fake press pass for an event in Washington once. I just need to get motivated, because I've been to two exhibits recently that I would have loved to have shared pictures of - and I wasn't allowed to!

James - Great to see you here. I guess you're occupying the library, as we speak? Er, not THIS library, I mean your local one. As for this one, it probably looks very similar to the one you're probably sitting in now - apart from the small exhibition space, it houses books, especially books on fashion and the fine arts. The interior definitely gives an old-fashioned vibe; you know you're in a stone building - but the shelves and copy machines and such are very much from our modern times. Hope that isn't disappointing....

Sarah - Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Such beautiful photos! It is a shame they covered the beams...
Makes me want to go straight back to France. I understand wanting to minimize fire danger, but ....I can't help but be sorry at the loss of all those wonderful, half-timbered buildings.
As if I needed more reasons to visit the Marais. I haven't been inside either building. Definitely on the to-do list.
Alysa, this was such an interesting post. I always marvel at the lengthy history compared to what we have in America. Fascinating about the plastering over of all the wood facades. Great photos and history lesson. R
Wow!! Gorgeous pics and interesting trivia about something I had never seen/heard of before! The cannonball is amazing...
I have been trying to get on here for over a day.
It just took me 6 minutes to rate. I think I am gone again.
This was spectacular ma cher. You know how I love this.
Another delightful tour. Thanks!
Living in a "new" city (if you don't count the long-dead Native Americans who left burial temple mounds behind but no other structures), I'm always in awe of truly old architecture. You get such a sense of how people lived.
Thank you for the post and pictures