Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés

The porch tower of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (built 990-1014) sturdily buttressed to support the weight of its massive bells, is one of the oldest belltowers still standing in France.

The Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, just beyond the outskirts of early medieval Paris, was the burial place of Merovingian kings of Neustria. At that time, the Left Bank of Paris was prone to flooding from the Seine, so much of the land could not be built upon and the Abbey stood in the middle of fields, or prés in French, thereby explaining its appellation.

The Abbey was founded in the 6th century by the son of Clovis I, Childebert I (ruled 511–558). Under royal patronage the Abbey became one of the richest in France; it housed an important scriptorium in the eleventh century and remained a center of intellectual life in the French Catholic church until it was disbanded during the French Revolution. An explosion of saltpetre in storage levelled the Abbey and its cloisters, the statues in the portal were removed (illustration) and some destroyed, and in a fire in 1794 the library vanished in smoke. The abbey church remains as the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

In 542, while making war in Spain, Childebert raised his siege of Zaragoza when he heard that the inhabitants had placed themselves under the protection of the martyr Saint Vincent. In gratitude the bishop of Zaragoza presented him with the saint's stole. When Childebert returned to Paris, he caused a church to be erected to house the relic, dedicated to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent, placed where he could see it across the fields from the royal palace on the Île de la Cité.

The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the evening.

In 558, St. Vincent's church was completed and dedicated by Germain, Bishop of Paris on 23 December; on the very same day, Childebert died. Close by the church a monastery was erected. Its abbots had both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction over the suburbs of Saint-Germain (lasting till about the year 1670). The church was frequently plundered and set on fire by the Normans in the ninth century. It was rebuilt in 1014 and rededicated in 1163 by Pope Alexander III to Saint Germain of Paris, the canonized Bishop of Paris and Childeric's chief counsellor. The great wall of Paris subsequently built during the reign of Philip II of France did not encompass the abbey, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. This also had the effect of splitting the Abbey's holdings into two. A new refectory was built for the monastery by Peter of Montereau in around 1239 - he was later the architect of the Sainte-Chapelle.

The abbey church's west end tower was pierced by a portal, completed in the twelfth century, which collapsed in 1604 and was replaced in 1606 by the present classicising portal, by Marcel Le Roy.[1] Its choir, with its apsidal east end, provides an early example of flying buttresses.

Limestone sculpture of Childebert, from the former refectory portal (Louvre)

It gave its name to the quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés that developed around the abbey. This area is also part of the Latin Quarter, because the Abbey donated some of its lands along the Seine—the Pré aux Clercs ("fields of the scholars") for the erection of buildings to house the University of Paris, where Latin was the lingua franca among students who arrived from all over Europe and shared no other language.

Until the late 17th century, the Abbey owned most of the land in the Left Bank west of the current Boulevard Saint-Michel and had administrative autonomy in it, most clearly for the part outside the walls of Paris.

Louis-César de Bourbon, son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, was an abbot here.

In the 17th century the district of Saint-Germain was among the most desirable on the Left Bank. Marguerite de Valois pressured the abbot to donate abbey land to her, too. She built a palace on it, and set a fashionable tone for the area that lasted until the Saint-Honoré district north of the Champs-Élysées eclipsed it in the early eighteenth century. Her palace was located at the current numbers 2-10 rue de Seine. The gardens of the estate extended west to the current rue Bellechasse.[2]

The tomb of philosopher René Descartes is located in one of the church's side chapels.



Former configuration

At its apogee, the Abbey extended to the area now bordered to the north by the (current) rue Jacob, to the East by the rue de l'Echaudee, to the south by the south side of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the rue Gozlin, and to the west by the rue St.-Benoit.[3]

From 1275 to 1636, the pillory of the Abbey was located in the current Place d'Acadie, better known to Parisians as the Mabillon due to the eponymous Métro station located there. This square was therefore called the Place du Pilori and the current rue de Buci leading to it was called the rue du Pilori.[4]

The pillory was removed upon the rebuilding of the Abbey's prison in 1635 (a prison had stood there since the Middle Ages). It was located in what is now the Boulevard Saint-Germain, just west of the current Passage de la Petite Boucherie. In 1675 it was requisitioned for a military prison. The prison was known for its extremely poor condition, for example, in 1836, Benjamin Appert wrote :[5]

The cells are abominable and so humid that the soldiers incarcerated there, often for minor offences, must subsequently go to the Val-de-Grâce hospital to recover from their imprisonment.

The prison was the site of one of the September massacres of 1792 and was eventually destroyed to make way for the Boulevard Saint-Germain.[6]


  1. ^ Philippe Plagnieux, "Le portail du XIIe siècle de Saint-Germain-des-Prés à Paris: état de la question et nouvelles recherches" Gesta 28.1 (1989, pp. 21-29) p. 22
  2. ^ Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 203, Dominique Leborgne, Editions Parigramme, Paris 2005, ISBN 284096189X
  3. ^ Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, Dominique Leborgne, Editions Parigramme, Paris 2005, ISBN 284096189X
  4. ^ Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 125, Dominique Leborgne, Editions Parigramme, Paris 2005, ISBN 284096189X
  5. ^ Benjamin Appert, Bagnes, prisons et criminels, p. 205, Guilbert, 1836, vol. I
  6. ^ Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 62, Dominique Leborgne, Editions Parigramme, Paris 2005, ISBN 284096189X

Coordinates: 48°51′14″N 2°20′04″E / 48.85389°N 2.33444°E / 48.85389; 2.33444

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