Medieval Studies Paris
Sarah-Grace Heller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0200


While Paris has been continuously inhabited since Celtic tribes settled on its islands in the Seine, developing into the Roman market hub called Lutetia, it was during the Middle Ages that Paris became a political, intellectual, and artistic capital. Christianity arrived with the city’s first bishop, Denis, martyred in 250 CE. Another of the city’s patrons, Saint Geneviève, repulsed the Huns with prayers in 451, calming the nervous merchants. The first Christian king of the Franks, Clovis, established his capital in Paris around 508. Many of the city’s great churches and abbeys date to this Merovingian period. The Vikings exploited the Seine waterway to besiege the city in 885–886. Count Eudes of Paris held them off, gaining prestige that would eventually lead his Capetian descendants to kingship in the 10th century. The Capetians favored Paris as a capital more than the Carolingians did, although Orleans and Burgundy were close rivals. Evidence for reconstruction and new building appears in the mid-11th century, gaining momentum in the 12th century with the Romanesque-style rebuilding of Saint-Germain-des-Près. The famous experiments in Gothic architecture began with bishop Maurice de Sully’s Notre Dame building campaign in 1160. By the early 1100s Paris was an educational center. Whereas cathedral schools at Orleans and Chartres had attracted students with Latin grammar instruction, Paris took the ascendant with William of Champeaux’s teaching of Scholastic biblical exegesis at Saint-Victor and Abelard’s promotion of dialectic (logic). By 1200, Paris was the center for the study of the liberal arts and philosophy, with some 3,000–4,000 students. Pope Innocent III recognized the growing “university” in 1208. Philip II undertook ambitious construction of city walls, including the Louvre, and in the mid-13th century Louis IX multiplied the religious and charitable institutions. Guild records collected in 1268 by Etienne Boileau reveal a vibrant city producing and exchanging specialized products. Population estimates for the late 13th century approach 200,000: Paris was the largest city in the West (compare London at around 80,000 inhabitants, or 120,000 for Florence). Despite the demographic difficulties of the later Middle Ages, such as the plague and the Hundred Years’ War, by 1356 the population was straining against the walls, expanded by provost Etienne Marcel. The Anglo-Burgundian alliance occupied the city from 1420 to 1436 following their catastrophic defeat of French forces. Merchant tensions increased in the late Middle Ages, and the royal presence became rarer, but the city’s reputation for luxury goods and intellectual activity remained strong.

General Overviews

There was an initiative on the part of the Paris municipal council to publish a “New History of Paris” beginning in the 1970s, with publication continuing into the 1990s. For the medieval period, Boussard 1976, Cazelles 1994, and Favier 1974 set a standard for looking closely at narrower slices of the medieval millennium. They are excellent bibliographic introductions and follow a similar three-part structure. Favier 1997 is a general history of Paris that gives more attention to the medieval period than many counterparts, and it also offers a bibliographic overview. Baldwin 2010 and Roux 2009 offer more-discursive thematic cultural histories, grounded in extensive scholarship. Overviews aimed at a popular readership often focus on sensational moments, such as Horne 2002, included here as one such example, with its emphasis on the burning of the Templars. For those who seek a more visual introduction to the medieval city, Lorentz and Sandron 2006 chronicles Paris’s expansion and key sites through maps, medieval images, and pre-Haussmann 19th-century photographs. Duby, et al. 2009 neglects all but the late Middle Ages, but for that subperiod it is rather gorgeous.

  • Baldwin, John W. Paris, 1200. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    A narrow slice of Paris’s chronology, 1190–1210. Chapters study merchant anxieties such as credit, currencies, trade regulations, poverty, and prostitution; women; the challenges of record keeping and governing facing Philip II’s itinerant court; the church; schools; and festivities, music, and poetry. Includes illustrations, map, notes, and a thorough index.

  • Boussard, Jacques. Nouvelle histoire de Paris: De la fin du siège de 885–886 à la mort de Philippe Auguste. Paris: Hachette, 1976.

    One of few histories of Paris published since the third quarter of the 20th century that is devoted to the 9th through 12th centuries. For the later Carolingian period, church institutions furnish most sources: they assumed much of the governance as imperial structures receded. Studies the urban renaissance in the city’s three sectors (Cité, Left and Right Banks), followed by religious and intellectual life and the growth of outlying villages.

  • Cazelles, Raymond. Nouvelle histoire de Paris: De la fin du règne de Philippe Auguste à la mort de Charles V, 1223–1380. 2d ed. Paris: Diffusion Hachette, 1994.

    Cazelles assessed the city’s population through demographic growth then contraction in the 13th–14th centuries. Discusses who held power in Paris (king, municipality, church, and university), then the “spirit of the age,” treating the arts, the city as intellectual and governing capital, and the prestige of Parisian products. Selective bibliography, maps, and images.

  • Duby, Georges, Guy Lobrichon, Geneviève Brunel, et al., eds. The History of Paris in Painting. New York: Abbeville, 2009.

    Oversized volume featuring a chapter on “The Fortified City: Paris in the 14th and 15th Centuries.” Images by the Limbourg brothers and Jean Fouquet are reproduced on a generous scale, revealing fine details often lost in digital reproductions, such as textile patterns and altar reliefs. Splendid if limited introduction to the city.

  • Favier, Jean. Nouvelle histoire de Paris. Vol. 3, Paris au XVe siècle, 1380–1500. Paris: Hachette, 1974.

    During the period 1380–1500, Paris was overwhelmed by civil war, economic ruin, and depopulation, and rulers and merchants struggled to supply material needs. Appendixes list city officers, trade guilds of 1467, and key dates. Essential bibliography. Indexes of proper names and sites and monuments, but no subject or theme index.

  • Favier, Jean. Paris: Deux mille ans d’histoire. Paris: Fayard, 1997.

    A monumental thematic history. The medieval period features chapters on “What Is a Parisian?,” city expansion, and spatial organization (taxation, justice, and parishes), as well as on Paris as the capital in terms of centralization, celebrations, clerical life, literature, art, business, and daily life. Includes a 30-page outline of medieval Parisian history. Excellent index and bibliography.

  • Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris. New York: Knopf, 2002.

    Aimed at a broad readership, this book begins with two chapters on the medieval period, presenting Philip Augustus and the Louvre, and then on the ravages of the Hundred Years’ War. Slant is popularizing and dramatic; for example, lingering over the “Templars’ curse” to present the reign of Philip IV, rather in the spirit of Maurice Druon’s Rois maudits series.

  • Lorentz, Philippe, and Dany Sandron. Atlas de Paris au Moyen Âge: Espace urbain, habitat, société, religion, lieux de pouvoir. Paris: Parigramme, 2006.

    A richly illustrated introduction to medieval Paris, taking a cartographic approach. Treats the Seine’s importance for city growth and addresses urban expansion, spiritual life, and administrative structures. Photos show fragmentary medieval vestiges such as the early Louvre, Conciergerie, and refectory of the Cordeliers. Respectable bibliography and index.

  • Roux, Simone. Paris in the Middle Ages. Translated by Jo Ann McNamara. Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

    “Paints” an image of street-level Paris, 13th–15th centuries. Describes the city and its inhabitants then, in Part 2 (“A Kaleidoscope of Hierarchies”), examines political, religious, and artisanal social ladders, networks, and binding affiliations; also brief views of public and private spaces, lodging, food, and dress. Sensitivity to the limits of the sources. Index is quite brief.

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