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Montmartre is full of stories, many of which can be fleshed out by sights you will see if you visit the area today. Here are three very different tales, one legendary, one fictional and one historically accurate, which illustrate aspects of this fascinating corner of Paris and range from the third to the 20th centuries.
The Legend of St Denis
The legend of St Denis is unforgettable. It is said that in the third century, an elderly Christian, over 100 years old, was tortured by the Romans – beaten, burned, thrown to the lions – and then sentenced to be executed. Awaiting his fate in prison, he was visited by angels, which is said to explain the miracle which followed. After he was beheaded, he picked up his own head, washed it in a nearby stream and carried it several miles across the countryside, preaching a sermon as he went, to the site where he wished to be buried. Only then did he lie down to die. That is how St Denis earned his sainthood, how the Basilique St Denis came to be built and how Montmartre got its name, because the hill outside Paris where this story begins was known as Mons Martyrum, or the mountain of the martyrs.
Denis, thought to have been the first Bishop of Paris, had been sent to Gaul by the pope, with a mission to convert its people to Christianity. He and the apostles he brought with him to Lutetia, as Paris was then called, were so successful, gaining followers and founding many churches, that the Romans felt they had to act. Denis was arrested, along with two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius and on the orders of the Roman Governor, all three were taken out to the highest hill outside the city, the site known today as Montmartre, and executed.
Today you can see a tall stone statue of St Denis in the Place Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre. He stands holding his head in his hands, still adorned by his bishop’s mitre. Also, at 11, Rue Yvonne le Tac, just off the Rue des Martyrs, is the Martyrium, a crypt built on the site where it is thought St Denis was beheaded. It’s a simple little room with cream-colored walls, a plain altar and a few wooden chairs, a much-visited shrine until the revolution, then restored in the 19th century. You can visit on Friday afternoons and see the marble plaque commemorating both St Denis and St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit movement, who took his vows here in the 16th century.
And of course there is the Basilique St Denis, the glorious gothic cathedral, built in the 12th century by Abbot Suger on the spot said to have been chosen by St Denis. Earlier Christians had marked the site with a small shrine and the abbot is said to have had the saint’s remains – and those of his two companions – reburied under the high altar of his new cathedral. There is an intangible legacy too, for St Denis became the patron saint of France and the oriflamme, the sacred battle standard used by the early French kings, was consecrated on his tomb. The battle cry of their armies was Montjoie! Saint Denis! Today, Catholics still celebrate his Feast Day every year on October 9th.
Tale of The Man Who Walked Through Walls
Another story which can be “found” in Montmartre today is the fictional tale of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, written by Marcel Aymé and published in 1943. If you pause in the Place Marcel Aymé you will see the statue of Dutilleul, the hero of the tale, looking down at you from the wall in which he is stuck, half in and half out. A nearby information panel explains that Aymé’s story begins with the words: “There was once a man in Montmartre, an excellent man, who had a special gift, the ability to walk through walls without the least trouble.”
The story tells of a petty official who discovered this gift and used it to play tricks on his boss, to break into houses undetected and then to get himself arrested and imprisoned, simply for the pleasure of breaking out easily. His exploits were the talk of Montmartre, but eventually he was undone by love. One night, as he tried to pass through the wall from his (married!) lover’s room after une nuit passionnée, his powers failed him and he got stuck. He has been there ever since.
The story – Le Passe-Muraille, as it is called in French – was very popular with readers who enjoyed its unusual mix of the fantastical and the mundane and appreciated the author’s ironic tone. Of Dutilleul‘s decision to get caught, Aymé wrote, “No man who walks through walls can consider his career even moderately fulfilled if he has not had at least one taste of prison.” His explanation of how this rather dull office worker attracts a beautiful blonde lover, is that “nothing stirs the imagination of the young women of the present day more than plus-fours and horn-rimmed spectacles.” Aymé was a prolific writer of plays and novels and his short story collection, titled The Man Who Walked Through Walls, which was his most successful work, can still be bought in English translation.
The Agile Rabbit
How did a rather scruffy 19th-century Montmartre cabaret club get the unusual name of Le Lapin Agile, or ‘The Agile Rabbit? That’s another intriguing story from Montmartre, centered on the oldest cabaret still open in Paris. In the 1880s, the artist André Gill was tasked with painting a sign for the little auberge, one which would advertise that it served food. He came up with a jaunty rabbit, shown leaping out of a cooking pot, wearing a bow tie and balancing a bottle of wine on one paw. It caught the imagination of many customers who referred to it as “Gill’s Rabbit,” or Le Lapin à Gill in French. Soon they noticed that the French version sounded exactly the same as Le Lapin Agile – the Agile Rabbit – and that was the name which stuck.
In its heyday, the Lapin Agile was a lively, somewhat bawdy bar, the place where largely impoverished artists, singers and dancers of Montmartre came to drink cheaply and often to excess. This cabaret artistique had two low-ceilinged rooms where the lights were covered with red scarves and where poets and artists sang drinking songs and sea shanties which got louder as the night wore on. There was dense smoke, there were mice, and the damp walls were covered in artwork – often provocative – donated by visiting sculptors and painters. After long nights of revelry, those too drunk to go home simply slumped on the ground outside. Some of the most famous names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries came here: Verlaine, Renoir, Modigliani, and Picasso.
Today, the sign outside invites you to an evening of “Chanson – Humour – Poésie,” where you can enjoy a traditional atmosphere of French convivialité (to quote the website!) based around guest artists singing classic songs by, for example, Édith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier. There’ll be some singing along, too and, mindful that some customers might not speak French, that will include choruses of oui, oui, oui, non, non, non from the well-known drinking song “Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde,” the “Knights of the Round Table.”
If you spend an evening at Le Lapin Agile, you will surely feel you have traveled back in time to a very different era. It will be a reminder, as all three of these stories are, that the streets of Montmartre are full of tales from the past, many of which can be rediscovered today if you just know where to look.
11, Rue Yvonne Le Tac
Open on Friday 3- 6 pm
The Lapin Agile
22, Rue des Saules
Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9 pm – 1 am
Entry €35, (includes one drink)
Lead photo credit : Basilique_Saint-Denis, Photo by: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons