October 3, 2017 Surprises: Place de l’Estrapade
Paris is full of surprises, often where they’re least expected. The other day, Nancy and I set off to revisit the haunts of our first shared visit to Paris in 2013, rue Soufflot, which runs from the Pantheon down a broad avenue to the Jardin du Luxembourg. We decided to walk from our present neighborhood, rue des Feuillantines, down rue d’Ulm, at the end of which the Pantheon is clearly visible. Short and straight, piece of cake, we’ll be there in a jiffy. We walked along, enjoying a beautiful afternoon, and then were tempted on a detour, as so easily happens while walking along minding one’s business in Paris. To the left, we could see a small square, with a little park in the middle, and thought we’d explore. We emerged onto Place de l’Estrapade, and sat on a bench in the leafy square, just enjoying the peacefulness of the place. A couple of other folks were also lazing on benches, including a homeless fellow who had set up quite a little home for himself in one corner. It was clear that he had settled there for several weeks. He had cardboard boxes festooned with found objects that were clearly treasures—including several deformed coat hangers attached to a large flat box in which a television screen had originally lived. In a way, it was an interesting, potentially decorative composition. We could see behind and around the boxes a stash of bottles, some partially full. While we were there, he took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. He leaned back and enjoyed the relaxation of the smoke as he inhaled deeply. Why not? Comfort seems a basic human right, and I felt glad to witness his moment of rest and ease.
A woman passed pushing her baby in a stroller. A couple sat together, relishing being peaceful together. Early autumn leaves drifted lazily to the pavement. We enjoyed a few moments of relaxation ourselves.
We looked around the Place. A store window filled with Arabic books occupied one façade, and an empty café terrace sat next to the bookstore. A group of middle aged men stood in the kind of circle that remains after a group of friends have shaken hands with each other – the obligatory greeting gesture. Two exquisitely groomed men in luxuriously tailored suits passed by. They were also wearing dark ties and impeccably pressed white shirts, and each of them was carrying a slim and elegant leather portfolio. We were a short block from the Law School. They had to be lawyers.
Then our eye was drawn to a boulangerie patisserie at the other end of the Place. Hmmm…. We crossed over to look, and soon found ourselves sitting on the inviting terrace set up in front, enjoying bottled lemonade and baked “gourmandises.” It was a delightful late afternoon pause on a short walk – totally unexpected.
The mood of the Place was friendly and very laid back. I wondered about its name. It didn’t sound like the name of a family or a hero – the source of many street names. French street names always refer back to something or someone. Like buildings, they bear unspoken witness to centuries of events and experiences that have taken place on the same spot.
And some past history is rather gruesome, especially here where so many ages have left their mark. A bit of research let me know that l’Estrapade was an early form of torture which involved hanging someone up by his wrists. Apparently this small Place was the location of the apparatus for that peculiar and gruesome punishment, which was reserved for Protestants, until King Louis XIII specifically outlawed it in the 1600s. I’m sure none of today’s buildings dates from any earlier than the 1800s. How strange that the name for this really awful form of torture should remain attached for 500 years to this specific square of ground in today’s 5th Arondissement in Paris! The word itself has not been in common usage since the practice was outlawed. Virtually no one today could tell you the meaning of this 21st century Parisian street name.
In the same burst of online research, I also, quite by coincidence learned more about the order of Benedictine – Cistercian – nuns for whom our street, rue des Feuillantines, is named. They too have been a mystery shrouded in historical mists. I knew the street was named for a convent of nuns that had occupied this location. I also knew the order had disappeared after the French Revolution. Apparently the convent building, however, remained for a considerable while. A protégée of Emperor Louis Napoleon was recorded as having lived there in the 1850s, and apparently the famous French writer Victor Hugo spent a good part of his childhood living there, because his mother was the building’s concierge. But who were the Feuillantines that gave their name to the convent and the street?
Apparently, they were an order of cloistered Cistercian nuns, followers of an equivalent order of Cistercian brothers, both from the southwest of France, Toulouse. They were “reformed” (fundamentalist) Cistercians who believed that the purpose of life was to do penance. French Royalty invited them to send groups to settle in Paris, and they did. Again, the surprise of excessive purposeful suffering appears. The daily life of both Feuillants (men) and Feuillantines (women) consisted in inflicting physical discomfort to the maximum amount possible – sleeping on bare boards, eating in silence while on their knees on cold stone, administering daily self-inflicted flagellations. Such self punishment was considered the height of virtue at the time, and the royals who invited these monastics to Paris must have assumed that they were surrounding themselves with saintliness by inviting the orders to settle nearby, and by supporting them financially and politically.
Not too surprisingly, both orders had dwindled to tiny numbers by the 1700s, although the kings continued to endow massive gifts on them – one of the royal excesses that brought about the French Revolution, and the final dissolution of the orders themselves.
This was another bizarre episode in Parisian history that somehow got preserved in a street name. And the Feuillantine convent exists no longer, having been replaced by the enormous lycee (secondary school) that is still here, and that was built as a part of Haussmann’s massive redesigning of Paris and its amenities in all arondissements.
I guess if I knew the source of all place and street names in Paris, I would be more than usually knowledgeable about Parisian history!!