Sainte Geneviève: The Woman Who Saved Paris

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Sainte Geneviève: The Woman Who Saved Paris
At one end of the Pont de la Tournelle stands a statue of a woman. She is looking upriver, hands on the shoulders of a child. Despite standing high above the Seine, the sculpture’s pale grey stone makes her hard to distinguish from a distance, but this is a statue of Paris’s second patron saint: Sainte Geneviève (the other one, of course, is the headless Saint Denis). She gazes eastwards, in commemoration of Geneviève’s most famous act – facing off the invasion of Attila the Hun. But there was much more to her than defeating the notorious Mongolian barbarian. She was also a mystic and shrewd political operator, who enabled, at least indirectly, the spread of Christianity across the future country of France. Pont de la Tournelle. Photo credit: Patrick GIRAUD/Wikimedia commons Geneviève is often depicted with a lamb by her side, which has led to stories that she was a simple shepherd’s daughter. In fact, she came from an aristocratic Gallo-Romano family with political connections. She was born in or around 423CE at Nanterre, just a few kilometers to the northwest of Paris. Far from being an uneducated country girl, it seems likely that she was brought up to take a keen interest in politics and would have been very aware of the disintegration of the Roman Empire around her. On the other hand, she was also well-known for her religiosity: when she was just seven years old she was presented to Bishop Germain de l’Auxerre, who was traveling through Nanterre and who remarked on her extreme piety. It’s not surprising, then, that when she was around 15, Geneviève moved to Paris and “took the veil,” deciding to dedicate her life to the service of God. She was ascetic in the extreme: her diet was composed of barley bread and beans which she ate just twice a week (extreme diets are nothing new!) and she undertook prayer “marathons” of nonstop praying for days on end. As you might expect from such a regime, Geneviève was prone to religious visions; these days skeptics would probably call them hallucinations brought on from semi-starvation. Either way, Geneviève continued to gain a reputation in Paris, not always favorable. People were frightened by this extremely thin, ultra-pious woman who was not afraid to declaim her visions to anyone who would listen. The former Abbey of St Genevieve. F. Kellerhoven – Project Gutenberg. Public domain. On the other hand, her family connections provided an introduction to Paris’s ruling authorities and soon she was advising them. By this time – around 450 – the city still boasted substantial Roman remains but as each decade passed these were disappearing. As civilized Roman rule receded further into the past, Parisians increasingly felt vulnerable towards the “barbarian” tribes which were spreading across Europe.   No tribe was more feared than the Huns, led by their notorious leader Attila. Originating in Asia, they steadily marched westward, cutting a huge swath across Europe. The many legends around Attila the Hun have made him a byword for cruelty and ferocity, but the myths do seem to have a basis in historical fact. His troops marched relentlessly into western Europe, looting and pillaging at will, burning towns and villages, raping women indiscriminately. And as happens with any invasion, Attila pushed a huge wave of refugees ahead of him.

Lead photo credit : St. Genevieve as patroness of Paris, Musée Carnavalet. Unknown painter. Public domain.

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Robert Ferre
    2023-09-15 09:42:27
    Robert Ferre
    A visit to the Bibliotheque Saint-Genevieve is quite amazing. You must schedule it in advance, as it is used almost exclusively by students. They come at 10 am, with private visits available at 9 am. At least that's how it was when I went. I imagine you have done articles on it before, but perhaps another would be in order.