Concentric circles

Most cities are messy-looking entities, sending tentacles out into the surrounding areas, sprawling like inkblots or oozing along coastlines. The City of Paris is as neatly packaged as an egg within the Periphérique motorway, which follows the line of a former city wall.

Within the city are further circles, indicating previous walls. Paris has been a walled city for much of its history; the walls defined the city, even if they did not always protect it.

This map from a 1950s-era Michelin guide shows the successive walls that have circled the city, from Roman times to the 19th century.

Wall No. 1, dating from Roman times, circled the Ile de la Cité, which was essentially a fortified island in the river. There was more to the city than the island, most of it located on the Left Bank, but the island was the Roman citadel. (For a wonderful overview of Roman Paris, click here.)

Wall No. 2 was built by Philippe-Auguste between 1180 and 1225. You can still see part of this wall in the Marais (4th arrondissement), parallel to the rue St-Paul. It’s next to a sports ground and across from the Village St-Paul.

Wall No. 3, built by Charles V in the late 14th century, enlarged the city on the Right Bank. You can see part of the base of the wall in the complex underneath the Louvre (enter the Carrousel du Louvre from the rue de Rivoli). The ornate Porte St-Denis and Porte St-Martin, two triumphal arches at either end of the Boulevard St-Denis, stand where two of the gates of this wall once stood, but they are later replacements of the original gates, constructed in the 17th century.

Wall No. 3 also left some odd little hills here and there, the garbage dumps of previous centuries. In the Middle Ages, city dwellers tended to fling unwanted stuff off the walls into the ditch outside; when the walls came down, these hummocks of rubbish remained.

Wall No. 4, built by Louis XIII in the 1630s, added even more Right Bank territory – essentially, all of what now constitutes the 1st to the 4th arrondissements. This wall earned the nickname “mur des fossés jaunes” (wall of the yellow ditches), because it was made of yellowish limestone. It was torn down after about 50 years, because the authorities believed that Paris was safe from invasion.

Where this wall had once stood, a series of broad avenues or boulevards were created. The word boulevard comes from the term for “bulwark,” and originally, boulevards were broad promenades associated with existing or demolished city walls. Well before the days of Haussmann, Paris already had many wide, tree-lined promenades, built on the site of former walls.

Another term defined by Paris’s walls is faubourg. The faubourgs (faux-bourgs, false burghs, or sub-urbs) were the areas outside the walls, named for the nearest city gate. So the Faubourg St-Germain was the area beyond the St-Germain gate, the Faubourg St-Honoré beyond the St-Honoré gate, and so on. Today, the map of Paris retains the names of eight faubourgs: St-Honoré (8th), Montmartre (9th), Poissonnière (9th/10th), St-Denis (10th), St-Martin (10th), du Temple (10th/11th), St-Antoine (11th/12th), and St-Jacques (14th). These areas are outside the very centre of Paris, but well within the modern city boundaries.

Wall No. 5 represented a huge expansion, and added most of what are now the 8th to the 11th arrondissements on the Right Bank, as well as parts of the 12th to the 16th to the east, south, and west. (The former faubourgs were included in this wall.) This was the wall of the Fermiers-Généraux (“tax farmers” or tax collectors), built between 1784 and 1791. All goods moving in and out of the city were taxed as they crossed this wall.

The wall was still being built at the time the Revolution broke out in 1789. Anger about the taxes and customs duties no doubt contributed to Revolutionary sentiments.

A few of the customs booths at the former city gates of this wall have survived. These include a rotunda at the Parc Monceau (on the border between the 8th and 17th arrondissements), and another at La Villette/Place du Stalingrad (10th/19th), two columns in the Place de la Nation (11th/12th), and two buildings at the Place Denfert-Rochereau (14th). These tollbooths were designed by different architects in different (but all fairly grand) styles. Here is the one in the Parc Monceau:

The Fermiers-Généraux walls have left other, more modern traces. If you superimposed the map of the Metro on the line of Wall number 5, you’d see that Metro lines 2 and 6 follow the outline of this wall. Again, wide boulevards have replaced the former fortifications.

Wall No. 6, the last of the series, was the Enceinte de Thiers, the useless fortifications built in the 1840s that failed to protect the city when it was under attack in the 19th and 20th centuries. The wall took in many former villages that had sprung up around the city, which were annexed to Paris in 1860. The Enceinte de Thiers was dismantled following the First World War.

The space just beyond the Enceinte, consisting of a ditch and a wide slope traditionally left just outside fortifications (to allow an open space for firing guns and cannons from the wall) was known as the Zone. It filled with slums in the late 19th century; Eugene Atget took many photographs of the Zone. The Zone was eventually cleared away and the Periphérique highway was constructed on part of the remaining space between 1958 and 1973.

Today, the Periphérique represents a wall between the largely privileged space inside the city and the suburbs or banlieues, many of them containing grim housing projects where low-income families and immigrants live. Suburbs to the north and east of the city, starting with Clichy-sous-Bois, were the site of riots in 2005. The ring road has proved to be an effective physical and psychological barrier between the inside and the out, and nobody knows how to bridge it.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Norman Ball


About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris walls and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Concentric circles

  1. Jack Share says:

    What a wonderful post and blog! My research led me here. I’ll be back for more. Best regards, Doctor Jack from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s