Around and About Paris: Montmartre

The blissful vine has been part of Montmartre since times immemorial, as the following story alludes to and brings to light. You will find the full story of Montmartre in Around and About Paris, Volume III, in the chapter on the 18th arrondissement. Around and About Paris by Thirza Vallois is published by Iliad Books, UK. For more information and Thirza’s appearance schedule, please visit her  website .The 18th arrondissement has been a place of pilgrimage since the dawn of time. Hilltops and summits always aroused the imagination of people, who believed them to be the abode of divinities. The ancient Celts are believed to have attributed mystical powers to the hill of Montmartre and to have erected ritual megaliths on the sacred hill, under the guidance of the Druids. This was also a place of worship for the Romans who built here temples for the gods Mars, Mercury and perhaps Jupiter. But it was above all the martyrdom of a Christian, Saint Denis, that put Montmartre on the map as a sacred place of pilgrimage (martyrium was a cemetery for persecuted Christians, hence Montmartre and rue des Martyrs).The story of Saint Denis picking up his head after it had been cut off struck a chord wherever it circulated throughout medieval Europe, transmitted by troubadours and minstrels who sang in courts and castles. The story went that Saint Denis came to preach the gospel in Lutetia with his two companions Rustique and Eleuthère. The three men were arrested on the site of 25 rue Henri Barbusse, next to the Val-de-Grâce in the 5th arrondissement. This was the first of the seven stations of their martyrdom, during which they covered the area of the city from south to north. They were to have been put to death at the temple of Mercury at the top of Montmartre, but the soldiers, tired of climbing the steep slope, beheaded them halfway up the hill, on the site of the present 9 rue Yvonne-le-Tac. And there, lo and behold, the holy man picked up his head, continued to ascend the hill till he came to a fountain on the site of what is now the Impasse Girardon, where he stopped to wash his blood-stained head, and then carried on north for another ‘good league’ (roughly 4 miles). Only then did he collapse, expiring at the feet of the pious widow Catulla, who buried him on the site. No sooner was this done than corn grew on the grave, concealing it from those who would profane it, but not from Saint Geneviève, the patron of Paris, who had no difficulty in locating it two centuries later. Around the year 475 she set up an oratory on the grave, which became the nucleus of the famous Basilica of Saint Denis. So much for historical accuracy! According to other traditions, the bones of Saint Denis were found on the above-mentioned site of his execution. The remains of Christians were indeed concentrated in a quarry here, but whether Saint Denis was one of them cannot be verified. A chapel was erected over the quarry, probably around the 9th century, although the first mention of sanctum martyrium appeared only in 1096. The identity of the Saint and the era when he lived (probably in the 3rd century) have given rise to similar confusion. In Hilduin’s Chronicles of Saint Denis the name is spelt Dionysii, which suggests that the original Denis may have been non other than Dionysus, the god of wine, a plausible assumption in an area renowned for its wine. Could the names of the three evangelists, Denis, Rustique and Eleuthère, have been derived from a dedication on his temple – Dionyso rustico eleuthero (‘Dionysus, rustic and free’)? Or maybe Dionysus had simply lost his head from too much heavy drinking? In which case he would have plunged his head into the fountain to wash away his sin, or more prosaically, to recover from a hangover. The purifying quality of those waters was common belief at the time, as is attested by the saying: Jeune fille qui a bu l’eau de Saint Denys, sera fidèle a son mari (‘A damsel who has drunk from the water of Saint Denys, will be faithful to her husband’). Be that as it may, the chapel on rue Yvonne-le-Tac became a place of pilgrimages, the earliest of which dates from 1096. Among the innumerable pilgrims was Charles VI of France who came here twice, in 1391 and 1392, hoping to find a cure for his madness.In 1133 an additional shrine was provided for pilgrims when Adelaide of Savoy, wife of Louis VI and sister of Pope Calixtus II, founded the women’s abbey on top of the hill. Pilgrims came to Montmartre not just from France but also from all over Europe, among them Pope Alexander III, the Italian Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas à Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury. On 18 November 1169 Louis VII of France invited Beckett and King Henry II of England to the Abbey of Montmartre in an unsuccessful effort to reconcile the two men. There were also magnificent processions between the Basilica of Saint Denis and Montmartre every seven years, which were perpetuated from the time of Dagobert I, in the 7th century, until the Revolution. Most important of all, it was at the chapel on rue Yvonne-le-Tac that on 15 August 1534 the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola and his companions founded the Jesuit Order. In 1611, while repairs were being conducted after the destruction caused by the Wars of Religion, a flight of old steps leading to a vault were discovered. The words MAR CLEMIN DIO, engraved in the rock, gave rise to feverish excitement. Nobody questioned the authenticity of the inscription, which had to mean ‘martyr, Clement (the Pope at the time of Saint Denis), and Denis.’ This must surely be the place of martyrdom of Saint Denis. As many as 60,000 pilgrims, led by the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici, in person, came to pray at the holy shrine. A new abbey was built at the spot, which eventually took the place of the less accessible abbey on the top of the hill, founded back in the 12th century. —Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Volumes I, II, III published by Iliad Books, UK, and Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK). Visit her at  
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