The spot once occupied by the Cordeliers is among the most interesting in Paris, and it is of some importance to sketch it history and to reconstruct its appearance at greater length than was possible in the text.
All the land from St. Germains des Pres up northwards along the hillside had belonged to that abbey since its foundation, when the first dynasty of Frankish kings had endowed the foundation with a great estate carved out of what had once been the Roman fiscal lands on the south bank. Bound the abbey itself a few houses had gathered, forming the “Faubourg” (or suburb) of “St. Germains”; but the greater part of the estate was open field and meadow. When Philip Augustus built his great wall round Paris it cut through the estate, leaving the Church and Abbey of St. Germains outside the city, but enclosing a small part of the fields within its boundary.
You may trace the line of the wall at this day by noting the street “Rue de Monsieur le Prince,” once called “Rue des Fossés Monsieur le Prince,” and running on the line of the outer ditch. The wall ran not twenty yards east of the modern street and exactly parallel to it. A portion of it may yet be seen in that neighbourhood, a great hollow round built into the wall of one of the houses, a cobbler’s shop in the Cour du Commerce; it is one (the last, I believe) of the half-towers which flanked Philip Augustus's wall.
In the beginning of the thirteenth century, very shortly after the death of St. Francis, the first preachers of the new Order which he had founded came to Paris. It was the moment when the University was climbing tip the hill, building its colleges, having possessed its charter for some years, and already a strong, organised, wealthy, and therefore conservative body. This order of preachers, wandering, intensely new, and founded by a mystic whose place in Christendom was not yet finally determined, were bound to come into collision with the spirit of the place. It must be remembered that the thirteenth century was not transitional, but, on the contrary, a time of settled order. For a century it had known the Roman law; it had everywhere the Gothic architecture; it had systemised and made legal the rough accidents of feudal custom; it was wealthy, proud, and successful. On it there falls one of those creations which are only possible in a time of energy, and yet which almost invariably quarrel with the period that has produced them. An Order devoted to simplicity, making of holy poverty the foundation of the inner life, specially created for the poor (whom the growing differentiation of society was beginning to debase), the early Franciscans were essentially revolutionary, because they built on the great foundations of all active and permanent reform—I mean the appetite for primitive conditions, and the determination to break through the net of complexity which the long growths of time weave about a conservative society.
The rich Abbey of St. Germains gave them asylum. It was proud to possess dependants, it was great enough to afford benevolent experiments, and it took pleasure in offending the University, which was an upstart in its eyes, and was beginning to show as a powerful rival in the affairs of the south side of Paris. The Franciscans, therefore—whom the populace already called the “Cordeliers” from the girdle of rope about their habit—were permitted to settle in that little corner of their estate which had been cut off by the building of the town wall, and they occupied a triangle of which the wall formed the south-western, a lane (afterwards called “Rue des Cordeliers”) the northern, and an irregular line bounding one of the University estates the south-eastern side.
This was in 1230. St. Louis was still a boy of fifteen. The little foundation was, for the University, nothing but an unwelcome neighbour whom it could not oust, and for the Abbey of St. Germains nothing but a guest. Their provisional tenure did not permit them a peal of bells nor a public cemetery.
St. Louis, however, grew into a manhood which, for all its piety, had a wonderful grasp of the society around it The saint who was never clerical, and the Capetian who in all things was rather for the spirit than the letter, became their principal support. The Papacy, having once (though reluctantly) recognised the Franciscan movement in the interview between Innocent III. and its founder, continued in the succeeding generation to protect it. From a distance, where the quarrels of the University affected it little, the Holy See decided more than one dispute in favour of the new-comers, and the Franciscans of Paris flourished exceedingly. By 1240 the full privileges of an independent foundation were granted. They have their public service, their cemetery, and their bells. St. Louis helps them to build a new chapel by giving them, in 1267, part of the great fine which he levied on Enguerrand de Coucy. They succeed at last in obtaining the recognition of the University; they are permitted to teach; they number among their lecturers Duns Scotus and St, Bonaventure; and they become one of the most famous of the colleges.
During the Middle Ages (apart from certain minor structures and a few private houses which had been permitted to rise on their land, and which were technically known as the “dépendences”), three principal groups of buildings marked the foundations. First, the monastery itself, a somewhat irregular mass, running (as a whole) north and south, and separated from the Rue des Cordeliers by a little court or garden. Secondly, running from the northern end of this convent, and forming, as it were, a letter L with the main building, was the chapel, lying, of course, east and west, and forming the southern side of the Rue des Cordeliers, upon which was the principal porch. Thirdly, running also east and west, but separated from the other buildings by a short space, was the hall.
This famous monument, the only part of the college that has been preserved, stood well back from the street, and in the middle of the convent grounds. It was on the eastern side of the monastery, and hence in the ground plan balanced (so to speak) the church, which lay to the west of that main building; this was so designed that its western end faced about the middle of the college.
I have called it a hall because its use exactly corresponded to that of our college halls in the English universities. I mean, it was at once a refectory and lecture-room. It was approached by a little lane running up through the grounds under the side of the convent, later hemmed in with houses.
Here not only were the voices of the great scholars heard and the subtleties of the fourteenth century, but also Etienne Marcel called the States General of 1357. From hence that Danton of the mediaeval invasion sent out his messengers to the Feudality. Here the District gathered for the elections of 1789; here the Club met in 1791 and urged the debate that finally produced the Republic of the next year. It was here also that the three watch-words of the Republic were devised; here Hérbert veiled the Declaration; and here the last few words of 1794 were spoken. Here the century, which owes more perhaps to that site than to any place in France, has collected a museum of surgery, where you may see anomalies preserved in spirits, skeletons hung on wires, and other objects, interesting rather than sublime.
As for the college and its estate, they continued for some three hundred years—that is, during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries—to increase in importance. It is a matter of common knowledge how soon the pure ideals of St. Francis had to compromise with the world. This Order, like all others, became wealthy, rooted, and traditional. The Cordeliers, as Paris grew, found themselves possessed of a most valuable plot, whose ground-value continually increased. They reserved the garden to the west, but for the rest—and especially around the buildings and along the lanes—houses were built. When the wall of Philip Augustus was first embedded by the growth of the city, and afterwards in part destroyed, the Cordeliers bought an extension to their estate, so that it stretched a little beyond the new street of “the Fossés,” which had been built on the site of the ditch. In 1580 their old thirteenth-century chapel (which must have been one of the best bits of early Gothic in Paris) was burnt down, and a larger one in the style of the time was put up by the piety of Henry IV, Throughout the seventeenth century the house seems to have suffered from a decay which continued throughout the succeeding hundred years, and culminated in the disasters of the Revolutionary period. They permitted the alienation of a strip to the west of their grounds, through, which the municipality drove in 1673 the new street which, in compliment to the Order, they called “Rue de l’Observance,” after the name of their rule.
With this exception no important change occurred to change the aspect of the quarter until the Revolutionary period with which we have to deal.
We are, after this general description, in a position to recognise the site of the Cordeliers in modern Paris. As you go down the Boulevard St, Germains, just before you reach the Boulevard St. Michel (going east), you see a street leading off at a slight angle to the right It is the Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, the college after which it is named facing both on this street and on the Boulevard. This street is merely the Rue des Cordeliers broadened and modernised. As you go a few yards up this street, you see on your left the great court of the college, and if you stand at its gate and look at the opposite side of the street, at the new buildings which are now the lecture-rooms and theatres of the Faculty, you are looking at the site of the old church, which has disappeared during this century. The street has been broadened by taking down the southern side, so that the church would actually have overlapped the modern street. Continuing, you pass on your right the open yard leading up to what was the hall of the Cordeliers, and is now the museum of surgery (the Musée Dupuytren), and a few yards farther brings you into the Boulevard St. Michel Following this very broad avenue for twenty yards at the most, you may note a new street, the “Rue Racine,” turning off to the right. This did not exist in Danton’s time, but it lies nearly on the line that separated the Cordeliers from the Collége d’Harcourt (at present the Lycée St. Louis). As a fact, the line was a trifle to the south of the Rue Racine, and of course more irregular. The Rue Racine in its turn leads you into that old street the “Rue de Monsieur le Prince.” If you turn again to the right and go down this some hundred yards, you are still following the boundary of the Cordeliers, till you reach the “Rue Antoine Dubois,” This is identical with the old “Rue de l’Observance,” spoken of above, and a few steps down this short street leads you to the starting-point in the “Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine.” Such a modern itinerary would describe as nearly as is now possible the circumference of the college and estate of the Cordeliers. The quadilateral comprised by these four streets, the Bue de l’Ecole de Médecine, the Hue Racine, the Hue M. de le Prince, and the Rue Antoine Dubois, is the site of the famous convent and its grounds.
To reproduce the quarter in 1788 we have to imagine the following changes: —The Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, very narrow, flanked for the greater part of its southern side with the church and old wall of the convent. It leads into a little narrow street called the “Rue de la Harpe,” which went right up the hill, and would correspond to a strip taken in the exact centre of the present Boulevard St. Michel. The first few buildings here, notably the Church of St. Come, were still on the Cordeliers’ estate. Just above them, however, began the grounds and buildings of the “Collége d’Harcourt.” As we have observed, the Rue Racine did not exist, nor anything corresponding to it. To follow the boundaries of the estate you would have had to let yourself in by a side-door, and then you might have followed a long, irregular wall which separated their land from the Collége d’Harcourt. This wall, after passing through a great garden, came out on the Rue Monsieur le Prince, and the rest of one’s circuit would be much what it is to-day.
Finally, to see the building as Danton saw it, you must imagine a half-deserted place, rich, but somewhat unfrequented, like certain old legal Inns that once stood in London, old walls appearing here and there from between houses of a century’s date; a mass of irregular buildings, of garden and of private house hopelessly intermingled; while up a narrow and dark passage stood the Hall, which was still the best preserved part of the college, and with which alone his name is associated.