Monday, October 2, 2017

The Streets of Paris in the Age of Louis XIV

From Undark:
The filth of Paris was inescapable. It attached itself ruthlessly to clothes, the sides of buildings, and the insides of nostrils. “Paris is always dirty,” a British visitor observed. “By perpetual motion dirt is beaten into such a thick black unctuous oil, that where it sticks, no art can wash it off. … Besides the stain this dirt leaves, it gives also so strong a scent, that it may be smelt many miles off.” Although King Louis XIV had set his sights on building Versailles, his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert pushed for new efforts to clean up the country’s capital. It was time, Colbert argued, to “purge the city of what was causing its disorders.”

In the fall of 1666, a group of 16 men streamed into the palatial home of Pierre Séguier, the royal chancellor, on the Rue de Grenelle for the first meeting of the committee. They gathered in the immense second-floor gallery, which boasted some of the most elaborate architectural detailing in Europe. One side of the meeting hall was lined with soaring windows topped with colorful midcentury frescoes in elegant plaster frames called gypseries. A long table covered with rich purple felt dominated the center of the room. Colbert sat at the head of the table, Séguier at the other end. Colbert’s uncle, the irascible Henri Pussort, was at the finance minister’s side. Thirteen other committee members, handpicked by Colbert and Séguier, filled the remaining seats at the table. The men quickly settled on the major areas of concern: gun violence, access to drinking water, price gouging on essential provisions (bread, meat, and of course, wine), brothels and prostitution, and prison conditions. But one problem took precedence over all else: the city’s notorious, stinking mud.

For centuries, royal edicts attempted to cajole residents to take better care of shared public thoroughfares. In 1563, Charles IX had ordered that “with no exception,” every property owner must tidy up in front of his own residence at precisely six o’clock every morning and again at three in the afternoon. Homeowners were to amass all “mud, trash, and other filth” against the wall of the building or in a basket until the trash collector arrived. The edict also forbade inhabitants to throw any household or human waste out the window and into the street. This, too, should be neatly swept toward the walls or kept in a basket. Citizens were alerted to the edicts by postings in public squares and announcements throughout the city by town criers. Violators would be fined. (Read more.)

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