Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stones Crying Out

As I have probably mentioned before, Paris is like a living, three-dimensional history book. The street names are reminders of the great men and women who have made their mark in literature, art, medicine, and other disciplines. We stand daily upon strata of stories, zig-zagging their way back through the centuries. This is true of anyplace in this world, but it is more transparent in some cities than others. Here, the stones answer back with full, rounded tones, the same sounds made by a thousand and one boot heels echoing throughout the passageways of this ancient town.

Intent upon encountering something of the past, I strapped on a pair of boots and set out yesterday with a view to get a clearer picture of the sixteenth century in Paris. Specifically, relating to the publishers and writers who were busily putting a relatively new invention called the printing press through its paces. Since the starting point for all things in France is point zero in front of the Notre-Dame, I decided to head there first.

Upon my arrival, I noticed other markings embedded in the pavement: a church over here, a former road over there. Now, things were starting to take shape. On two plaques at the east and west end of the plaza, I found the ghost I came to haunt: the Rue Neuve Notre-Dame. I love this. Rue means street, and neuve means new, so you can see how ironic it all is. (Incidentally, the Pont neuf, or "new bridge" is the oldest in Paris.) Unless this is an outline for a future plan for construction. I can just see the campaign now: "Haussman's shortsighted plan for wide streets only encouraged auto traffic and pollution. Let's bring back the narrow streets of the Middle Ages!"

Right. Besides disease-ridden rats thanks to the plague, sewage, and other nuisances, this medieval street was home to a great many publishing houses, all crammed together and churning out the books and pamphlets on demand. This is why I find idyllic images of jolly workmen in large, airy workshops with windows, loading up the press with movable type rather funny. Maybe those were German workmen. Parisian shops had to be tiny, at least given the dimensions I found underfoot.

Speaking of which, if you descend into the Crypte Archeologique exhibit underneath the Parvis Notre-Dame, you can see the basements of these brave businesses. I always wonder how many contraband copies of banned books were kept nestled between those stones. If only these walls could speak! And yet, in some sense, they do. Historians have dug into manuscripts, ledgers, and licenses to discover, for example, that a guy named Vincent Sertenas had a shop under the sign of "Saint John the Evangelist". Grab your copy of "L'Amie de court" quick - they're selling like hotcakes! (Must be that hot chick on the front - works every time.)

Clearly, Rue Neuve Notre-Dame was a hustling and bustling quarter of the big city, where men with inky fingers came and went, toiling in the hovering, motherly shadow of the Notre-Dame cathedral. The poets whose lines were defining the framework for literary, historical, and religious revolutions would also duck under the low doorways to chat and negociate. Some of those printed words would soon condemn them to prison, exile, and even death. Clement Marot, whose name some of you might have heard me intone a time or two, was one of the king's favorite bards. That is, until the poet began dabbling in Bible translation into French and consorting with heretics, or "lutherites". Quick as a wink, he landed himself in the infamous Chatelet prison (as a prison in the Middle Ages at right, and below as a theatre today) , on a charge that he had eaten bacon during Lent. Uh-huh. What about all those books of his they seized and burned? Fortunately for Marot, he was a poet. And poets have a way of coming up with fabulous poetry out of misery. He did get out alive, but only to be soon driven into exile. He died in Geneva, hanging out with John Calvin. I suppose it could be worse. His editor and friend Etienne Dolet was tortured, strangled, and burned at the stake by the flame of his own books in 1546. This horrific incident took place at Place Maubert, which is not even a ten-minute bike ride from our apartment.

The power of the pen. Sometimes I wonder about the interval of time between ink and blood spilled on the cobblestones. And an old lament comes to mind..."what have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground."

1 comment:

Sasha said...

What a fascinating little piece of history--so well written too!
Cheers, Sasha