The Conciergerie

By the time we’d had lunch the early morning cloud had started to clear so we decided to go exploring the Ile de la Cite a little more.

We found the Palais de Justice easily enough, but the queue to get in was just a little too long so after admiring the gilt decorated gates we turned to the right and walked along under the shade of the trees that line the Boulevard de Palais.

We’d literally walked right past the conciergerie’s entrance, but as luck would have it we caught a tantalising glimpse inside as we passed the exit to the Conciergerie and decided to find out what it was.

So it was chance that brought us to the Conciergerie and as Pasteur remarked “Chance favours the prepared mind”, but we were totally unprepared for what we found when we walked through the totally unremarkable entrance into the vast Hall of Men of Arms.

In front of you stretches a vast light filled hall of illuminated pillars, The simple four part vaults and clean cream of the brickwork in total contrast to the darkness and gothic embellishments of Notre Dame.

But simple or not there’s always a little medieval detail tucked away somewhere. I’m not sure whether this is a monk or a serving woman, but as the hall was a refectory for the King’s men at arms my guess is the latter.

In each corner of the hall there’s a huge hooded fireplace, left over from when this was the palace kitchen.

After the king left the Conciergerie (at the end of the 100 years war) the building was used as the Treasury and by the Parliament of Paris (the highest court in France) as well as a prison.

Of course come the revolution the Tribunal set up shop here and turned the place into a prison for ‘enemies of the revolution’ as it was convenient to house prisoners here before their trial.

Under the Tribunal the Hall of Men at Arms became an overcrowded and disease ridden men’s prison, think concentration camp and you’d have the conditions.

Mary Antoinette was imprisoned here, in the womens quarters, and she almost escaped as well. But as the wheels of the terror turned the revolutionary leaders (Danton, Desmoulins, Hébert, Chaumette, Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Coffinhal) all passed through here on their way to meet madame guillotine. If you’re interested in such (we were) the upper apartments have been turned into a museum of that time.

The women prisoner’s who were housed in the cells that surround the yard gathered in this yard during the day. I wonder how many of them looked up at the blue sky above the walls and wished they were somewhere, anywhere else?

Somewhat odd to think that the 18th century French revolution invented the enemy of the state, show trials, secret police and not to mention the terror; all the grisly trappings of 20th century modernism. It seems that we still haven’t learned that reason and idealism divorced from moral sense breeds horrors.

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