The Miracle Courts: Paris’ Notorious Neighborhoods in the 17th Century

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The Miracle Courts: Paris’ Notorious Neighborhoods in the 17th Century
Paris in the 17th century was not a safe city to live in. The streets were mostly unpaved and there was no street lighting. Add to that a street plan that had barely evolved since the Middle Ages and you had the perfect combination for criminals, prostitutes and beggars to thrive. All law-abiding citizens made sure they were safely at home when dusk fell, and even during daylight hours they had to be constantly on their guard against cutpurses and footpads. Petty criminality was so pervasive it formed its own self-contained sub-society. Whole communities survived in separate neighborhoods across Paris, each with a strict hierarchy, rules and regulations. They hid in squalid, slum courtyards and ancient buildings, generally known as the Cours des Miracles, or Courts of Miracles.  But what, exactly, were the Miracles? Ah, well, you see, these beggars and thieves weren’t quite what they seemed. By day they would appear to be crippled, blind, or otherwise horribly disfigured, all to play on people’s sympathy. At night, back home, off would come the bandages, crutches thrown in the corner, eyepatches removed. “Miraculously” they were not disabled at all.  Jacques Callot, The Beggar with the Wooden Leg (1622). A realistic vision of the beggars of the time on crutches, by an artist from the era of the Court of Miracles. Public domain Cours des Miracles had existed since the Middle Ages. The late-medieval poet François Villon was well-acquainted with the courts around Les Halles and wrote poems about them. Their peak, though, came in the 17th century. Thousands of impoverished rural migrants, fleeing years of failed harvests and uprooted by war, poured into Paris in search of work – itself in short supply. Inevitably, many of these migrants fell into destitution and were forced to turn to crime. By the reign of Louis XIV, the courts had extended beyond their medieval origins in and around Les Halles to establish themselves throughout the modern 1st, 2nd and 3rd arrondissements. The district between modern Rue and Passage du Caire and Rue Réaumur was known as the Grand Cour but Rue du Temple and Rue des Tournelles were also notorious for their cours des miracles, as was the area between Rue Saint Denis and the Rue de la Forge, which was the site of the rather inaptly named Filles-Dieu Convent (Daughters of God).  The Temple area in 1734 – detail of the Turgot map of Paris. Public domain.

Lead photo credit : The Court of Miracles. Gustave Doré's illustration of Victor Hugo's novel, Notre Dame de Paris. © Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons

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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.


  • Donald Reuss
    2024-01-11 06:56:37
    Donald Reuss
    FANTASTIQUE ! I can't wait to return to Paris after the completion of the restoration.