The following chapter is taken from
Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light
by long-time Paris Notes contributor, Mary McAuliffe
Available in bookstores or from Princeton Book Company www.ParisDisc.com
Cloth bound, 320 pages, $21.95
When Baron Haussmann remade the face of Paris,
he relegated much of the medieval city to the wrecking ball.
Yet despite his efforts, pockets of the past still remain, ready
for discovery. If you are willing to search, you can still find
them—including some of the oldest houses in Paris.
Actually, there are several contenders for the title, all of
them to be found on the Right Bank rather than the Left,
near the historic church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (4th)
and the former abbey church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs
(now part of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, 3rd). They
reflect the division, already well-established by the twelfth cen-
tury, between the university on the Left Bank, a burgeoning
8. T H E O L D E S T H O U S E IN PA R I S | 53
commercial district on the Right Bank, and the seat of gov-
ernment (the royal palace) on the Ile de la Cité.
Take the house of Nicolas Flamel. The name may mean
something to you, as he shows up rather prominently in the first
Harry Potter story, and Victor Hugo refers ominously to him in
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Flamel has gone down in history, or
in the shadows of history, as a dedicated alchemist who discov-
ered the Philosophers’ Stone and its secret of eternal life. Since
the Philosophers’ Stone was also capable of turning base metals
into gold, subsequent seekers have not been surprised to learn
that Flamel was a wealthy man.
In addition to any time he may have put in at his laboratory,
Flamel was a successful manuscript copyist and dealer as well as
a major community benefactor. In 1407 he built the sturdy
stone structure at what is now 51 Rue de Montmorency (3rd),
setting aside the top stories as a kind of homeless shelter, while
turning the ground floor into a money-making tavern (which
now houses a popular little restaurant, the Auberge Nicolas
Flamel). If you look carefully, you can make out some of the
original carvings on the façade, including angels, Flamel’s ini-
tials, and a Latin inscription invoking the inhabitants’ prayers.
Flamel, who only asked that his impoverished lodgers pray
for him and his wife, was also a generous benefactor to the
Church of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, whose tower still
remains at the corner of Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard de
Sébastopol (4th). In remembrance of his good works, two tiny
streets to the immediate north of the Tower of Saint-Jacques
were named for him and his wife, Pernelle. Rue Nicolas-Flamel
54 | Paris Discovered
and Rue Pernelle (4th) still exist, and the spot where they cross
provides a wonderful view of the dramatically lit tower by night.
The house of Nicolas Flamel is certainly the oldest stone
house in Paris, but the nearby half-timbered structure at 3 Rue
Volta (3rd), located in back of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, was
long considered the oldest house in Paris.
Saint-Martin-des-Champs, which faces the old Roman
road (now Rue Saint-Martin) from Paris to the sea, dates
from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with roots that go
back long before that. Like other abbey churches in the area,
a small village grew up around its protective walls, and 3 Rue
Volta may once have belonged to a leading dignitary of the
village of Saint-Martin. Despite its obvious age, this con-
tender’s title has recently been challenged: instead of dating
from around the year 1300, experts now say that the house
that presently occupies 3 Rue Volta may be a seventeenth-
century replacement for the original.
The last two rivals for the oldest-house prize thrust up their
half-timbered structures at 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron (4th),
behind the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, whose tower
foundations date from the thirteenth century, and whose his-
tory extends several centuries before that. As with 3 Rue Volta,
these houses line an ancient roadway of Roman origins, this one
connecting Paris to points east.
The tall gabled structures of 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron
date from the fourteenth century and give perhaps the best
feeling of what medieval Paris looked like. Although various
ordinances and age itself greatly altered their appearance
8. T H E O L D E S T H O U S E IN PA R I S | 55
over the centuries,
they have recently
been restored to their
former glory, with
that No. 11 is the
House at the Sign of
the Mower (reaper),
while No. 13 is the
House at the Sign of
the Sheep. At the cor-
ner, an old sign for the
adds to the atmos-
phere of this special
part of Paris.
11-13 Rue François-Miron
These are of course
small treasures, in a city that fairly bursts with riches of a larger
order. But for those who value the many layers of history upon
which present-day Paris is built, these remnants of the past are
a delight to discover.
Explorations in the City of Light
by Mary McAuliffe
Digging deep into Paris’ memories, historian McAuliffe has discovered patterns of
the past that have left tangible imprints on the city today A detailed orientation map and
illustrations outline McAuliffe’s explorations as she takes us through Paris old and new.
Journey from the top of Notre-Dame to the medieval aqueducts that still lie beneath its
streets; from the playground of the Impressionists to the barricades of Les Misérables; from
Abélard and Héloïse to Napoléon, and from the First Millennium to the first
Full of off-the-beaten path excursions and little known historical facts about prominent
locations, Paris Discovered intrigues and enlightens.
About the Author
Mary McAuliffe received her Ph.D. in history from the University
of Maryland and has taught at several universities, lectured at the
Smithsonian Institution, and published a book and articles on the
Cold War. She has traveled extensively in France, and for the past
seven years has been a regular contributor to Paris Notes.
McAuliffe currently lives in Manhattan, and has been exploring Paris with her husband for
more than fifteen years. In particular, she enjoys sleuthing out new aspects of the City of
Light, especially when her discoveries reveal unsuspected links between the many stories this
fascinating city has to tell.