Thursday 30 June 2016

The skull of Bishop Jean Soanen of Senez

I came across an old life of the Jansenist Bishop Soanen of Senez, dated 1902, which piqued my curiosity, since it was subtitled  "his retraction, his death, his skull". The story of the skull appears on pg. 60, and is taken from a Lyon newspaper article of February 1890.  We learn that a skull, said to be that of Soanen, had been inherited by a young man who subsequently sold it for next to nothing to an antiques dealer in the Quartier des Terreaux.  He in turn sold it for 1,000 francs to a "Jansenist lady", who apparently already owned the bishop's jawbone. Sieur B. the agent who had secured the transaction, touting around the skull in a silk lined casket,  now demanded 500 francs in commission and threatened legal action. 

The case was eventually settled out of court.

As the writer notes, the incident proved that Jansenist piety and veneration for the appellant cause was live and well among the anticoncordataires of 19th-century Lyon, who were few in number,  but represented several influential and wealthy families.

I was motivated to find out more about the bishop and his relics.

Monday 20 June 2016

A Frenchman considers the English "mob"

In May 1788, barely more than a year before the Revolution, a reader of the Journal Encyclopédique sharpened his quill to pen a letter on the English word "Mob".

Our learned correspondent contests the view that "Mob" can be translated into French by "canaille". "Canaille" had already been naturalised into the English language: according to Johnson's Dictionary:

CANAILLE (French): The lowest people, the dregs. the lees, the offscouring of the people, a French term of reproach.

"Mob", on the other hand, is defined by the number of people and their disorderliness rather than their social status:

MOB (contracted from MOBILE Latin), the crowd, a tumultuous rout.

The writer cites examples from Dryden and Addison where the word is used simply to mean a crowd (une foule).  There is also an English word "populace" which is defined by Johnson as "the common people", "the multitude".  "Mob", however, has no synonym in French.

But what if "la canaille" forms the crowd?  The word "Mob"itself still does not denote a particular social composition, though it does suggest unthinking movement, the milling of the crowd around an object. English wits used "Mobility" (as opposed to "nobility") as a pun.  Perhaps, since the populace is mobile, "mob" and "populace" might be considered synonyms, but all social statuses are still included.   Burke, in a recent speech in the House of Commons, called the Ministerial Party a mob - he surely did not mean "la canaille insensée".

A final example of use of the term comes from Voltaire during his sojourn in London.  When his French costume excited the hostile attentions of passersby, he climbed up on the bench of a nearby stall and won over the crowd with a pretty speech, harangued them in English as "GENTLEMEN OF THE MOB".  [This anecdote is repeated later by Wagnière (Mémoires i, p.23), though sadly with different words attributed to Voltaire.]  I am not convinced  - maybe Voltaire just displayed sufficient panache to be forgiven his imperfect command of English idiom.


Letter dated 3rd April 1788, Journal Encyclopédique Vol 4, part 1, p. 135

Friday 17 June 2016

The French, the English and the Water Closet....

!8th-century France was a world of stinking latrines, commodes and chamber pots. Only towards the end of the Ancien Regime did water closets make an appearance.  The facilities themselves have long since been swept away. Youri Carbonnier's book Maisons parisiennes des lumières (2006) surveys the remaining evidence from surveys, plans and literary sources. In theory at least Parisian apartment of the 18th century were equipped with two latrines, one close to the cesspit on the ground floor, either near the stairs or in an outbuilding,  and a second high in the attic to minimise smell.  It is not entirely clear who would use these facilities:  well-to-do householders with servants would no doubt prefer a swiftly emptied chaise percé. According to Carbonnier, water closets or cabinets à  l'anglaise - represented perhaps as little as 3% of all facilities.  They were largely confined to the most aristocratic hôtels. In the hôtel Lambert, rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile, for instance, the apartments on the first and second floors boasted cabinets à l'anglaise,  one with a marble bowl, as well as two traditional cabinets d'aisances.  In the 1780s the hôtel de Langeac rented by Jefferson was also equipped these "lastest inventions in modern plumbing".

Water closets - architectural treatises

Architectural works suggest a somewhat earlier date than might be supposed for the introduction of water closets into France.  The earliest references uncovered by Youri Carbonnier occurs in the work of  Jacques-François Blondel (1705-1774) whose private École des Arts, set up in Paris in 1743 was influential in the formation of many well-known neoclassical architects. Blondel's treatise "on pleasure houses" published as early as 1737 describes a cloakroom furnished with what he calls lieux à soupape - "toilets with a valve" - which can be safely sited off a bedroom since "they never give off a bad odour".  He specifies that these should be prettily decorated and fitted in a wooden surround (Blondel, De la distribution des maisons de plaisance et de la décoration des édifices en général, p.29).  

More detail can be found volume four of Blondel's Course of Architecture, published  in 1773 by his pupil Pierre Patte on the basis lectures delivered in the 1750s. This description, complete with illustrative plate, leave no doubt that Blondel's "valve toilet" was indeed a primitive form of water closet.  We are told that cloakrooms ("Garderobes") known as lieux à soupape should be provided with a circular or square niche sufficient to house a bench of fourteen or fifteen inches in height containing a hollowed out block of marble with sloping sides "to facilitate the fall of matter".   A  mechanism operated by a handle (C in Fig.1) operates a stop (N) which covers the outlet pipe leading down to the cesspit. This is is the "valve" which minimises rising miasmas.  In addition there are further taps (E and F) which allow water into the bowl:  "abundant water" washes  matter down into the cesspit with sufficient force to ensure that no odour is left in the cloakroom.  As a further refinement the toilet may be provided with its own separate cesspit, though even here water is necessary to ensure that no offending matter remains in the pipes.  So great are the advantages that expense should not prevent their installation in buildings of consideration or even in "an ordinary house". Blondel notes that such facilities are often called lieux à l'Angloise but that this is an error, since "several persons of consideration" who have lived in London  assured him that they did not know about their usage until they came to France. 

Blondel's patriotic denial that water closets originated in England is echoed by several other writers. The carpenter A. J. Roubo, for instance, notes that  "the cloakrooms most frequently used in houses of consideration are those known as lieux à soupapes, or sometimes à l'Angloise, though with little reason, since they were known in France a long time before they came into use in England" (Roubo, L'Art du menuisier (1769-70) vol.1, p.203).

In later writings, the designation Lieux à l'Angloise is usually accepted: here are a couple of further descriptions:

 " Lieux à l'Angloise" in Pierre Bullet Architecture pratique (1768) p.462-3
(This account is noteworthy for its distinction between closets with a dedicated reservoir

"Lieux à l'Angloise are in great use today.  They are very convenient and do not give off bad odours.  

They must not be connected with communal or public cesspits. They should have their own pit, or rather a well, with three or four feet of fresh water.  It is known from experience that fecal matter which falls into water loses its odour. The little room destined for this use is normally enlivened with paintings, marbles, marquetries etc.  A niche is built for the seat...
The bowl must be of polished marble.  Its usual measurement is three feet long, 16 inches wide and 15 inches high, cut with a slope...At the bottom of the slope is a hole of about three inches in diameter, and opposite are two notches for the water jets.

The surround of the bowl is wooden, with a seat and a hinged lid. On the right are two handles, one of which allows a little stream of water into the bowl, the other the flush of water for cleaning.  On the left is another handle which lifts a copper valve which fits tightly into the hole.  When the valve is open water and matter wash into the hole, after which the valve or stop is allowed to fall and neither water nor matter remain in the bowl.  A reservoir must be built to provide water to the taps via lead pipes.  

In bourgeois houses,  porcelain bowls are used, and a lead reservoir is built at a certain height and filled with water as necessary to form a pool in the bowl. Since the bowl will be connected to the communal cesspit, care must be taken when lifting the stop, to ensure that vapours do not rise; this can be avoided by making sure that the stop is lifted only when the bowl is well filled with water.

Marble and porcelain are the only suitable materials for toilet bowls, since they are odour- resistant.  Neither stone nor lead should be used.

Lequeu, Jean Jacques (1757-1825?), Plans for Lieux à soupape (1785)

Le Camus de Mézières, Le génie de l'architecture (1780)

This final extract comes from The Genius of Architecture by the visionary architect Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières.  Describing a luxuriously appointed hôtel, Le Camus is much more interested in appropriate appearance than the intricacies of plumbing.  He mentions two sorts of facilities, a garderobe de propriété and a cabinet à l'Anglaise.  The first, significantly, houses a commode rather than any sort of latrine - one door gives on to the bedroom and a second onto a lobby "so that servants may attend to it without passing through the principal rooms of the apartment".

Water Closet:  This room closely resembles the foregoing; it serves much the same purpose, except that it is not in such general use. It is called cabinet à l'Anglaise, because it came to us from the English. The bowls are marble troughs to receive the matter, and this is soon washed away when one lifts the plug with its valve and turns the faucet, which gives water in abundance and carries away whatever is in the bowl; the plug closes hermetically, so that the odours cannot pass; it is even covered by a little water, so that no vapors may escape. There are also little conduits from which water springs when one desires to wash oneself, a custom that combines cleanliness and health. A cistern is usually placed in the mezzanine above. Delicacy suggests the attachment of a cylinder of hot coals, so that the water shall not be too cold in winter. Water is drawn from this same cistern to supply a little fountain for washing the hands, which is emptied by an overflow pipe. It is easy to give an artful arrangement to this room. The seat must never be placed facing the door, but to the right or left. It most commonly occupies a niche,square in plan, and to either side there are shelves for white napkins. At the height of the seat there is a little press in which to drop the day's soiled linen. The frames that support the little shelves for linen and scented waters normally taper to serve as a base for a vase full of perfumes and scents. 

This room is paved with freestone or with marble; it has a ceiling and a cornice. It is pointless to lavish ornaments upon it. The wainscoting must be simple and massive, with the look of architecture rather than of woodwork, and with panels that are either in relief or recessed in the walls; for it is generally to be painted to resemble marble, well polished, and varnished. The effect is more solid than stucco but lacks its brilliance. The same decoration may be made in plaster; but observe that the arrises are never sharp enough, which is a great disadvantage. To remedy this, you may leave your walls quite smooth and paint them to look like marble. Shadow and perspective will create whatever masses you may desire. The windows in this room will face North, so that the odors may be less in evidence; the fermentation of the matter is less promoted by cold than by heat.

But, once again, this room must not offer an elegance that would be out of keeping with the rest; without a just relation between the parts and the whole, there is no architecture.

Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, The Genius of Architecture; or, The Analogy of That Art with Our Sensations, trans.David Britt, Getty Publications, 1992.

The water closets of Versailles

19th-century water closet in the Queen's Apartments 
When did Royalty flush?This is actually quite a difficult question to answer conclusively, but Versailles was certainly not at the vanguard of sanitary innovation.   No trace of pre-Revolutionary fitments now exists; although there are several antique water closets on view these date only from the reconstructions of Louis-Philippe.  According to the recent Versailles dictionary, the first lieux d'aisances à l'anglaise were installed in the palace at the time of Louis XV. One was certainly fitted for Marie-Antoinette as part of the refurbishment of the  Petit Appartement de la Reine, in the early 1780s (Pierre Verlet, Le château de Versailles (1985), p.403, cited in Wikipedia).  The Trianon, however, had no flushing toilets. The royal page Hézecques noted the existence in the King's private apartments of a sumptuous toilet, built à l'anglaise in marble, porcelain and acajou, which made the venerable office of porte-chaise d'affaires redundant (Souvenirs, p.212).  This must have been a very new addition. Louis XVI had wanted to install a water closet in the garde-robe off the King's bedroom as early as 1775 but it was apparently only in 1788, on the eve of Revolution, that his wish was finally fulfilled.

"Modern reconstruction" in the King's apartments 

Youri Carbonnier, Maisons parisiennes des lumières (2006) p.401-9

On Versailles:  Louis XVI's water closet in Mathieu Da Vinha and Raphaël Masson, Versailles: Histoire, Dictionnaire et Anthologie (2015)

Article on the restoration of Louis's cloakroom:"

Cabinet de la chaise de la Reine" [Discussion]  Le Forum de Marie-Antoinette

Wednesday 15 June 2016

More 18th-century cesspits ....

The cesspits and their emptiers

The provision of cesspits in the houses of the capital was made compulsory by an Arrêt of the Parlement of Paris at the surprisingly early date of 1533. In 1777 a survey found their existence all but universal; often cesspits were shared between several adjacent proprietors, either dug out immediately at ground level, usually in courtyards, or under basements - the standard rates for emptying differed accordingly.  Regulations demanded retaining walls of at least a foot in thickness; they were generally tiled or provided with clay lining, though the problem of leaching was not successfully addressed until the 19th century.

 The vidangeurs, cesspit emptiers, usually worked by night.  They sometimes just skimmed off the liquid at the top of the cesspit using a system of ladles, buckets, and pulleys, but periodically they were obliged to descend right down into the pits to remove encrusted solid matter with shovels. Due to the inefficiency of fluid retention 18th-century cesspits needed emptying less frequently than those of later years;  the great 19th-century hygienist Parent du Châtelet observed that in 1835 cesspits often had to be cleaned once or twice annually whereas in the 18th century the larger pits were cleaned out only once every eight or ten years.  Unfortunately for the same reason the build up of noxious fumes was that much greater;  the vidangeurs  were usually obliged to work in irregular bursts because of the fetid conditions.  The ordure then had to be taken by cart or trundled away in barrels, in theory  all the way to the voirie at Montfaucon. Not surprisingly, given the conditions under which they laboured, the vidangeurs had a reputation for hard drinking, truculence and malpractice.  Police played a cat-and-mouse game trying to catch them illegally dumping: much complain was caused by the use of pierced barrels or "lanternes" which allowed liquid waste to pour off conveniently into the gutter.  Regulations promulgated in 1726 and succeeding years laid down in detail how the task was to be completed,  including a strict prohibition on diverting to cabarets or eau-de-vie sellers.

Despite their marginal status and frequent confrontations with authority, the cesspool workers were integrated into the guild structure of Paris.  In 1776 there were thirty-six master vidangeurs, each of whom was required to produce a chef d'oeuvre (!) and  pay a fee of one hundred francs.  In 1729 the Parlement of Paris reaffirmed the master cesspool cleaners' monopoly of the trade in Paris.  The guild also claimed the right to self-policing and appointed paid inspectors to enforce the rules.  However, the occupation continued to attract penniless and inexperienced labourers who undermined the guild's control, often to the detriment of safe practice.

Early attempts at improvement

In the closing decade of the Ancien Régime, growing government intervention in public health and hygiene tranformed cesspits and their cleaning, rather bizarrely, into a subject of  fashionable concern.  In 1777 Louis XVI appointed a royal commission, composed of the great Lavoisier and others, to investigate and evaluate proposed improvements.  Some of the most celebrated chemists of the age took part:  Bosc,  Brisé, Cadet de Vaux, Fougeroux, Fourcroy, Frandin, the two Girard, Guyton-Morveau, Gourlier de Gardone, Hallé,  Janin de Combe Blanche, Laborie, Lavoisier,  Marcorelle,  Parmentier, Pilâtre de Rozier, Portal (listed provided by Liger,  Fosses d'aisances (1875) p.94).  Efforts concentrated almost exclusively  on determining the composition of the miasmic gases which accumulated in the pits. (According to Google Ngram Viewer, "méphitisme" and  "gaz méphitique" are neologisms of the late 1760s).  An assortment of  neutralising agents  was proposed  - chalk, quicklime and similar alkalines   (Bosc, Marcorelle, Gourlier de Gardone, Parmentier, Cadet de Vaux and Laborie); fire (Lavoisier); vinegar (Janin de Combe Blanche) hydrochloric acid (Guyton-Morveau in 1773).  Mercier in the Tableau de Paris remarks on the intrepidness of modern chemists "who make light of all the deadly miasmas and who offer to descend into cesspools with the same confidence that a dancer at the fair walks a tightrope."  Donald Reid, historian of the Paris sewermen,  concludes that  the interest was less to do with occupational welfare than a general preoccupation with noxious odours -  the vidangeurs "provided a microcosm of the urban experience of living in a world of mephitic exhalations"(p.90-1).  However, the generously egalitarian sentiments of  Marcorelle, Baron d'Escale, are not in doubt: operation so important and at the same time so dangerous as that of emptying privies, should not be left to chance. On this operation depends the health and the lives of men, and principally of that class who undertake it: a class so useful, and yet so despised: whose functions are so revolting against nature, and the imminent perils of which render it so deplorable; in fine, a class who hazard their lives to preserve the lives of others, and are exposed every instant to the risk of finding a grave in their laboratory.

How mortifying it is to hear it coolly remarked afterwards, that this class is only composed of porters, accustomed to sell the strength of their shoulders to their fellow citizens, an inhuman and contemptible reflection, which none but base and savage minds could be capable of making; it would be more difficult to change them, than to neutralise the most fetid mass of corruption.
Marcorelle, Advice for neutralising necessary houses (1782) p.4

Cadet de Vaux and the Ventilator

The most practical measure suggested to improve the lot of the cesspit cleaner was the use of a "ventilateur". This device was an airtight structure placed over the entrance to the cesspit, with bellows fitted to force the stagnant air out into the street. Its application was advocated in a paper entitled  Observations sur les fosses d'aisance, read and approved  by the Academy of Sciences in 1777 and subsequently published as a pamphlet.  The  authors were Louis-Guillaume Laborie, a member of the College of Pharmacists,  Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux (1743-1828) and his associate Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813). Cadet de Vaux was a reformer with a gift for publicity, who in 1777 founded the highly successful Journal de Paris to promote his ideas. (In the Revolutionary years he was to be behind the celebrated clearance of the Cimetière des Innocents)  The ventilator was not a new invention - privileges had been issued for its use in the 1760s - but the Observations added refinements; the use of quicklime as a disinfectant and the addition of a furnace to encourage the movement and dispersal of gases. 

 Under the patronage of Lenoir, radical steps were now taken to put the idea into practice.  In 1779 a Société du ventilateur was formed with Cadet de Vaux and his father-in-law Charles Delaplace among its associates. Royal letters patent awarded the new company exclusive rights to empty the cesspits of Paris. The guild of vidangeurs was simply swept aside, its members displaced or reduced to employees of the company.  (Exact timing is a little confused: Reid puts this initiative in 1776 in the context of Turgot's reforms but the Journal de Paris has a notice  with a date of 11th May 1779). The enlightened reformers laid down exactingly high standards of cleanliness, capped with a proud declaration that all cesspits would henceforth be emptied by day.  Prices were set at 65 livres per toise for pits on the ground floor and 70 livres for those in cellars. In the event, however, the venture was shortlived.  The costs, passed on to disgruntled consumers, proved too high;  after a few years, the company was disbanded and the guild reinstated.

Laborie, AA. Cadet de Vaux, AA Parmentier
Observations sur les fosses d'aisance, et moyens de prévenir des inconvéniens de leur vidange, Paris 1778.

Notice in the Journal de Paris

Cadet de Vaux in Dictionnaire des journalistes

Some cesspit accidents

1.  Fatalities at Narbonne 

This incident was the subject of a report by Jean-François de Marcorelle, baron d'Escale (d.1787), a keen local mathematician and scientist and corresponding member of the Parisian Royal Academy of Sciences. His paper was read to the Academy and subsequently published.  He went on to write an  Avis pour neutraliser à peu de frais les fosses d'aisance (in the English version, "Advice for neutralising necessary houses at a small expense" )  This second work was sharply criticised in the Journal de Paris for advocating the use of quicklime or whitewash ("chaux vive" / "lait de chaux"), already put forward in the Observations of  Laborie, Cadet de Vaux and Parmentier.

The accident, which claimed the lives of three workmen and five rescuers, occurred on 16th April 1779  in a large house near the old town walls of Narbonne known as Le Luxembourg after an inn which once occupied the building.  The owner, an pharmacist named Faure, had let the accommodation to a large number of different tenants, all of whom were employed in noxious trades:  anatomical demonstrations took place in one room, silk manufacturers occupied the ground floor, whilst the basement was given over to the production of verdigris. The whole building was served by a single cesspit situated in the second of two courtyards.  It was eleven-and-a-half feet by six feet, nine feet deep and covered with a slanting roof.  This monster received not only excrement from the entire household, but silk cocoons, anatomical debris, sediment from the verdigris and a host of  "other substances likely to produce  infected, dangerous,  murderous vapours  which would poison those who breath them".  Despite M. Faure's entreaties, local vidangeurs had refused point blank to empty it.

M. Faure finally decided that there was no other solution but to have a second cesspit dug. It was then that disaster struck.  "By the saddest of fates", comments Marcorelle, "the means he employed to avoid death in the first cesspit brought him death in the second." On morning of 16 April construction was well under way when suddenly the retaining wall between the two pits dramatically collapsed and a "mephistic torrent" poured into the new pit.  The builder and his assistant, a girl of 18 years, who were working in the new pit were instantly overwhelmed.  Two workmen were  dislodged from the scaffolding.  One fell into the pit.  The son of the second came to his father's rescue and he too fell in and drowned.  A wool merchant who tried heroically to rescue the unfortunate builders was also overcome.  At this point M. Faure himself went down and was asphyxiated, as were two other passing tradesmen who followed.  Finally M. Faure's two young nephews succeeded in bringing up their uncle and the builder.  A 31 year-old former grenadier pulled out the others.  All eight were pronounced beyond help.  Marcorelle is scathing about the medical treatment they received. though he at first revived, M. Faure himself eventually succumbed under the onslaught of repeated bleedings in a sealed room.  Only the builder survived both the cesspit and the attention of the doctors.   Marcorelle finishes his account by reproducing a royal edict of 1740  based on the researches of Réamur, which offered rather more intelligent advice on how to deal with drowning - warming the victims, moving their limbs, blowing warm air into their lungs.

Détails de l'accident funeste arrivé dans une Fosse d'aisance de la ville de Narbonne, le 16 Avril 1779.
Read to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on 3rd May.

Avis pour neutraliser à peu de frais les fosses d'aisance, afin d'en faire la vidange sans inconvénient & sans danger, Narbonne : J. Besse, 1782, in-12, with parallel English text.

Jean-Christophe Sanchez "Les travaux de Jean-François Marcorelle, académicien des Lumières" (Presentation) November 2014.

2.  An unfortunate experiment  

Academic attempts at improvements were not without their dangers; this second incident is recounted in a report by Jean-Noël Hallé: 

On 23rd March 1782 experts gathered in front of the Hôtel de la Grenade in the rue de la Parcheminerie to witness the cleansing of a cesspit. Among the dignitaries of the Academy of Sciences were Lavoisier, Le Roy and Fougeroux.  Also present were five members of the Royal Society of Medicine,  the chemists Macquer and Fourcroy, the duc de la Rochefoucauld,the abbé Tessier, and  Hallé himself. Their objective was to put to the test the antimephitic properties of vinegar advocated by the Lyonnais opthalmologist Jean Janin de Combe Blanche.  The landlady was certain that medical students had added to the occasion by burying  arms, legs and other body parts beneath the excrement.

At about noon meteorological conditions seemed favourable : the temperature was cold - a mere two degrees on the Réamur scale, there had been a heavy snowfall and the wind was blowing from the north. Janin duly spread about his substance; Teslier and Hallé climbed intrepidly up and down ladders primed to gauge the intensity of the stench.  So far, so good. Then at about three in the afternoon a dramatic accident occurred  The vinegar had evidently masked the odour  without dispersing the noxious gases.  One of the vidangeurs, overcome by fumes, fell into the pit.   Two further workmen who went to the rescue "lost pulse, respiration and movement" and a fourth "entirely suffocated" .  The man was eventually pulled out but attempts to revive him prove unsuccessful.  At this point one Monsieur Verville, an inspector for the ventilator company, inadvertently took the breath of the dying man:  Hallé graphically describes the spectacular effect of even this minimal exposure:

He had scarcely inhaled the air that was coming from the mouth of the mortally ill man when he shouted "I am a dead man!" and fell down unconscious ... I saw that he was making an extreme
effort to regain his breath; he was held by the arms, as he reared up with a loud groan; his chest and his stomach moved up and down alternately in violent convulsive movements. He had lost consciousness; his limbs were cold; his pulse became weaker and weaker ... Occasionally his mouth even filled with foam, his limbs became stiff, and the sick man appeared to be having a genuine epileptic fit. (Hallé p.57-8)

In fact Verville soon recovered but remained convinced that "cesspool gases that have been transmitted" were even more noxious than those which have asphyxiated the unfortunate workman.

Jean-Noël Hallé  Recherches sur le méphitisme des fosses d’aisances, 1785

The incident is recounted by Alain Corbin, The Foul and the fragrant (1986) p.2

General references

Donald Reid, Paris sewers and sewermen:  realities and representations (Harvard 1993)

Pierre-Denis Boudriot . "Essai sur l'ordure en milieu urbain à l'époque pré-industrielle. Boues, immondices et gadoue à Paris au XVIIIe siècle" .Histoire, économie et société, 1986, 5(4), p.515-528

François Liger, Fosses d'aisances, latrines, urinoirs et vidanges  (Paris, 1875)

Sunday 12 June 2016

Catherine Vassent, heroine of the Noyon cesspit

Engraving of 1788 by Jean-François Janinet, Bibl.Nat.

In 1788 the town Noyon in Picardy was the scene of a much fêted, if unglamourous act of heroism, when a servant girl called Catherine Vassent came to the rescue of four unfortunate vidangeurs, overcome by noxious fumes in a cesspit ("fosse d'aisance")  Here is the story as told in the official registers of the Noyon town council:

Extract from the Register of Deliberations of the Town of Noyon, 1st April 1788
Mercure de France Sept. 1788, p.88

Yesterday, the 31st March, at ten o'clock in the evening, Augustin Dutilloy, Alexis Lardé, Jean Carpentier, and Pierre Leroi, all from Chiri, having undertaken to empty a cesspit in the house of Sieur Despalles, wigmaker of this town, opened up a cellar, with 14 steps down and its entrance on the street;  half-an-hour later they went down to do their work.  Dutilloy, going down first, fell immediately unconscious;  Alexis Lardé, going to his aid, suffered the same fate.  The third man, Jean Carpentier, was no more fortunate.  Finally, the fourth, failing to see his comrades, went down some of the steps of the cellar; he heard their plaintive cries and went back up to Sieur Despalles to alert him to the danger.  The latter gave him vinegar and urged him to go to the help of his companions. He descended with great determination into the cellar; but as he arrived at the bottom he too was suffocated by the toxic fumes.

The Sieur Despalles, taken by surprise by events, called for help.  Several people gathered, including M. Sezille (the Lieutenant-General of the Baillage),M. de la Breuille (Canon of the Cathedral and Vicar-General), M. Joyant, (Commissaire of police).  To begin with they threw lighted straw into the cellar but this only made the fumes more dense.

 The abbé de la Breuille had vinegar brought to pour down the throats of the men and counter the effects of the poison.  He proposed that someone should go down into the cellar but no one was brave enough to confront the danger. However, CATHERINE VASSENT, a servant from the neighbouring house who was present, could not resist the pull of her heart for the poor asphyxiated men,  and cried out, "If I were a boy,  I would go down and save them".  At that moment the abbé de la Breuille, vexed by the delay, went forward himself.  He washed  himself with vinegar, and armed with a jug of the same, made to descend into the cellar.  CATHERINE VASSENT, listening only to her courage, and guided by a principle of humanity, now gave an example of the most perfect heroism. She scarcely allowed herself a few precautions before, taking up a jug of vinegar, she herself went down into the pestilential cellar.  She poured out the vinegar in different spots so that the fog dispersed and she could distinguish objects; the men,  lying there motionless, came into view.  She went back up the steps to get a rope; then, as soon as she had it, courageously descended again.  At the bottom of the steps she saw one of the four men whom she tied by the arm; up above several people dragged him to safety, among them Sieurs Sezille and de la Breuille.  The girl supported his head and managed to manoeuvre him out.  She repeated the same operation for the second man, and then for the third, both of whom showed no sign of movement.

The dangers presented by that place were enough to stop the bravest man; yet a young girl of twenty did not fear to expose herself to them.  Three man had already been brought out by her efforts; she was pleased to see that, thanks to the help of two surgeons who had been summoned, they were beginning to show signs of life.  This reanimated her desire to save the forth, but unfortunately the fumes had affected her; after she had brought out the third man, her strength left her and she lost consciousness.

Anonymous engraving of 1788, Bibl. Nat.
Everyone around was concerned for her and tried to give her help.  The fourth man was still in the cellar.  During this interval time had slipped and moments become precious.  M. l' abbé de la Breuille proposed a reward for anyone who would go down.  A certain Tabari who was a vidangeur by trade had been called; he went down a few steps but then came up again saying he was suffocating and wasn't prepared to take that kind of risk.

At that moment CATHERINE VASSENT came round from her faint, gathered up her  strength and courage and cried: "I won't have it said that I saved three men and left the fourth to perish for want of help."  She took the same precautions, equipped herself with a hook and a rope and thew herself towards the cellar, saying, "If I am lucky I could still save the fourth!"  Arriving at the bottom of the cellar and searching with her hook, she managed to find the fourth man,  Alexis Lardé, who was sunk in the liquid that was all around.  As soon as she touched him, she cried out miserably: "Alas he is dead; he cannot be saved".  She attached a rope to his arm, held up his head and took him outside with the others.

The medical aid administered to the first three, promised that they would achieve a speedy recovery.  The surgeons tried to revive the fourth but in vain.  All those present could see that he could not be brought back to life;  CATHERINE VASSENT was really upset; her heart was not entirely satisfied.  Finally, after an hour and a half, the first three came round from their asphyxia, and the unfortunate Lardé was the sole victim.

Anonymous engraving, with extract from the Gazette de France, and a song 

The making of a heroine

Catherine Vassent was an illiterate twenty-year-old servant girl who had lived all her life in Noyon and was the daughter of a humble porter. She had been very brave but she must have been quite overwhelmed by the spontaneous outpouring of official and popular adulation which her action provoked.  It seems that on the eve of Revolution, popular sensibility was deterred neither by the mundane context of the deed nor the low social status of the heroine.
Engraving after Gourdin, Warner Memorial Library
The various authorities vied with one another to shower her with honours and financial rewards.  The municipality staged an elaborate ceremony in which she was awarded a "civic crown" and a medal with the arms of the town on one side and her name engraved on the other.  She is pictured by a local artist looking stubborn if bemused in her finery; later a bust in her honour was erected in the square.  Money and material favours accumulated in almost comical abundance. There were substantial sums from the Bishop and Cathedral Chapter, from the Muncipality, and from the duc d'Orléans, who had Noyon in his appanage.  The King himself promised a dowry of 2,400 livres.  Some of the grants are telling comments on everyday life - as well a money, the Commune awarded her an exemption from billeting and set her taille at a fixed three sous for life. The local Ferme générale produced an allowance of tobacco, a regrat of salt and 240 livres for provisions.

Most splendid of all, Catherine was awarded the newly established prix de vertu of the Académie française, which she came to Paris to collect in person,  accompanied by two municipal officers and decorated with her couronne civique.   According to the Journal de Paris, this represented a substantial 6,000 livres in silver plus a pension of 200 livres, "a fortune" says the Journal,  "for a young girl of the people" - but "what fortune has every been more honourably earned or merited!"

Catherine's 19th-century biographer gives has  following handy table of donations (it would seem from this that the Prix only actually yielded a more modest 1080 livres):

It should be added that the unfortunate vindangeurs were not forgotten; the duc d'Orléans produced 50 livres for the first two, 100 livres for the third who had raised the alarm and 300 livres for the wife and children of the dead man.

We know little of Catherine's subsequent life. However shortly afterwards,  in the November of 1788, the son of one sieur Fargard was approved by the municipality and the duc as a suitable husband and the couple were duly married.  There is one daughter in the records, born on 6th June 1790.


Relevant documents, reports and manuscripts are all collected together in:
René Pagel, "Catherine Vassent",  Comptes rendu, Comité archéologique de Noyon.1898.

A slightly variant account of events in the fosse, obviously supplied by the abbé de la Breuille, can be found in various sources, eg. Journal de Lyon, 1788, p.256 

Events were rapidly embellished, for instance Catherine was soon being dragged to safety by her luxuriant hair. 

Thursday 9 June 2016

Montfaucon - Paris's answer to Hell....

The suburb of Montfaucon, to the north-east of Paris,  features notably in the first novel of the Nicolas Le Floch detective series by Jean-François Parot.  The action takes place on 2nd February 1761 on a muddy hillside in La Villette, where two lowlife villains come to deposit a dead body.  One asks if this is really where they used to hang people. His companion retorts: "They stopped hanging people here before your grandfather's time.  Now there's only dead cattle from the city and beyond.  It's the knacker's yard - it used to be at Javel but now it's here at Montfaucon.  Can't you smell the stench?  In the summer, when there's a storm brewing, you even get a whiff of it in Paris, all the way to the Tuileries!"  It is a place of giant rats, where the poor come to scavenge for meat......
"Here's the knacker's yard and the tallow vats.  The lime pits are further on.  Walls of rotting flesh, piles and piles of it, believe me!"

Montfaucon was indeed a place of horrors.....

The Gibbet 
The Gibbet, recreated in 3D by Grez Productions
The most impressive and gothically gruesome  feature of Montfaucon was the royal gibbet, which dated back to the 13th century.  Strictly speaking this was  a set of  "Fourches patibulaires" - sandstone columns with horizontal bars from which criminals were not only hanged but their bodies displayed. Set on a natural promontory, it was a  potent symbol of royal justice.  By the 1620s the Gibbet had fallen into disuse; in the mid-17th century it was already described as being in a ruined state.  The surrounding area was occupied by limepits (plâtrières)and served as a voirie where excrement and rubbish were collected.  In 1760 - just a few months before Parot sets his tale -  the whole edifice was demolished and reconstructed some 500 metres further to the north, the main motivation being  to free up the existing site and move the voirie further away from the faubourg Saint-Martin. The new gibbet was a more modest affair comprising only four of the original pillars set on a square base, with a surrounding ditch and a wall.  Although no-one was ever hanged there, an area at its base still served as burial place for those executed elsewhere in Paris.  Thus Langilleville, 19th-century historian of the Gibbet:

When a condemned man is executed on one of the squares of Paris, after he has hanged for an hour on the gibbet, he is transported into the room at the base of the gallows;  at eleven in the evening, the executioner, accompanied by his assistants, brings a cart on which the body is deposited and driven in silence, with no mark of distinction, to the barrier; there, each man lights the torch with which he is equipped;  then the sombre cortege continues on its route towards the enclosure of the Fourches patibulaires, where a grave has already been dug that morning. The corpse is put in it, covered with earth, the torches are extinguished; and the next day, there is no exterior mark to indicate the whereabouts of this accursed tomb where no one comes to shed tears. (p.104-5: "note communiquée")

The gibbet was finally dismantled entirely by the Revolutionaries in 1792 when the pillars were reused to line basin in the voirie and for the knacker's chantier. There is now absolutely nothing to see apart from twin commemorative plaques.

The original site is pinpointed as a set of anonymous flats in 53-55  rue de la Grange-aux-Belles which is just off the Place Colonel Fabien, home of the very modern French Communist Party HQ building.  Here in 1953 construction of a garage brought to light the remains of a pillar and parts of a female skeleton.   (In the Le Point video of 2014  the presenter has great fun asking bemused modern passersby the whereabouts of the gibbet.)  The new position is 46 rue de Meaux, just north of the Place and close to the Marché Secrétan (an edifice of 1866, smartly refurbished in 2013)

The Sewage 

The word "voirie" translates innocently enough into English as rubbish dump or refuse tip, so it took me a while to realise quite what was meant.  Montfaucon was no ordinary rubbish dump, but a  "voirie de matières fécales", that is a series of cesspools, which received the excrement of Paris. The products of the fosses d'aisances, the latrines and cesspits of the city, were emptied out in vast quantities by an army of vidangeurs, who transported them to Montfaucon on horse-drawn waggons or trundled them out in hand-carts. After 1781, Montfaucon  became the sole voirie for the entire capital.

It is not certain when the site became administratively a voirie.  In the 17th century the land belonged  to Notre-Dame-de-Paris and permissions to extract limestone date back to at least 1627.  In 1629 a certain Ménard asked to acquire lands at Montfaucon  which he describes as a voirie "from time immemorial".(Lavillegille, p.92)  In 1674 responsibility for administration of waste formally was vested in the King and became part of the charge of the newly created office of Lieutenant of Police. At this time Montfaucon was only one of several facilities, both outside and within the city walls; records from the 1720s mention others at Saint-Denis, Saint-Martin and Saint-Antoine.

The main preoccupation of the administration in the first half  of the century was with improving the service of vidage.  In 1727  the voiries were offered "en adjudication", that is put out to tender, for a period of eighteen years.  The successful applicants were able to impose a levy of 3 sols per tombelle and were expected to maintain the voiries and the roads leading up to them. At this stage three concessions were involved: at Montfaucon, Faubourg Saint-Marceau and Faubourg Saint-Germain.   In 1760 the Montfaucon voirie transferred to its new location.

In the late 1770s  the design of cesspits and the system of vidage came under considerable scrutiny from the increasingly influential ranks of academic public health experts.  Their intiatives were accompanied by closer  regulation of vidangeurs and by the suppression of  all voiries in the interior of the city.  In 1781 Parisian officials closed the antiquated "voirie de l'Enfant-Jesus" in Saint-Marceau.  Montaufaucon came under review, but was sanctioned as adequate for sole use, despite its proximity to to the Faubourg Saint-Martin - in the 1780s the site was a mere three hundred meters away from the new Wall of the Farmers General,  within sight of Le Doux's visionary customs houses at Saint-Martin and Saint-Louis. The voirie occupied an old quarry, which provided an elevated site with different levels.  In the 1780s it consisted of two settling basins at the summit where the raw effluent was directly deposited.  The sediment was allowed to separate out and liquid waste (les vannes) discharged into system of lower basins and sumps. Some effort made to improve the design but the liquid effluent was still largely allowed to leech away into the soil.

Voirie de Montfaucon on Piquet, Plan routier de Paris (1821) [Wikimedia Comm.] 
Eighteenth-century innovators were of course anxious to put excrement to economic use.  In the earlier part of the century it had been an established privilege for the peasants and market gardeners of the suburbs to collect solid fecal matter directly from the basins as a fertiliser. The royal administration, fearful of the health hazard, tried to restrict them to material which had been in the voirie for at least three years, and forbade its use with cereal crops or vegetables intended human consumption. Sometimes necessity got the better of principle:  an Ordonnance of December 1720 actually commanded the peasantry to take excess from overflowing voiries of Paris. However, perhaps through the introduction of greater regulation, by 1760 the practice of manuring the fields in this way had largely died out.

From 1785 onwards experiments were conducted to produce a more acceptable fertiliser by drying the solid deposits into a powder.  In 1787 a cultivator by the name of  Bridel acquired a concession at Montfaucon which he exploited until 1793 for what rapidly became the famous "poudre de Montfaucon". In this period the voirie attained truly monstrous proportions,  processing 38,000 cubic meters per annum by 1791.  In 1798 it was put out to tender with the expectation of a yearly profit of 64.000 francs.

Plan of the Voirie in 1821 from a report by Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet  

The Knackers' yards

Views  of the équarrissage at Montfaucon, from Parent-Duchâtelet's  report of 1827 (fonds-ancien.equestre)
The other nasty business at Montfaucon, again has a polite French name - équarrissage; there is no English equivalent, so we are reduced to the less decorous "knacker's yard";  it was here that horses were slaughtered and their carcasses dismembered.  In a world of horse-drawn transport this was an industry of considerable proportions.  No part of the carcass was wasted.  Écorcheurs sold on the hides to tanneries on the banks of the nearby Bièvre River; meat, bones and horsehairs were salvaged;  fires rendered the fat into tallow;  even the iron horse-shoes were prised from rotting hooves.  

Équarrisseurs  are documented at Montfaucon by 1667, though there were many elsewhere, notably in the  rue du Pont-aux-Biches, where a concentration of noxious trades offended the inhabitants of smart new houses nearby. Throughout the 18th-century ordonnances and police action  attempted to  force the the knackers out of town so that they became increasingly cantonised  in Montfaucon. Its dominance was challenged only once, in 1780-81, when, with the backing of the Lieutenant of Police Lenoir, the chemist Cadet de Vaux briefly transferred équarrissage  for the whole of Paris to a site at Javel. His experiment failed and the knackers were soon reestablished at Montfaucon. 

The site is described at length by the famous 19th-century hygienist Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet  who investigated the équarrisseurs of Montfaucon in 1827.  At this time there were two separate businesses operating at the furthest point of the voirie, to the north of one of the basins -  you can see the basins clearly in the illustration from the report (above). The first consisted of a chantier d'équarrissage, a paved area where slaughter and initial processing took place. There were also various sheds and a tallow foundry.  The second establishment was a more gruesome affair, with piled up carcasses, and workers slithering around in  a courtyard covered in intestines and bloodsoaked mud. Horses arrived both dead and alive, the cadavers brought on carts, and the live animals tethered in bands of  fifteen or twenty.  Throughput was huge.  In the 1780s it is reckoned that the knackers processed  25 horses a day, that is over 9,000 in one year.

Finally....there were the rats!
(to be continued)


Jean-François Parot, The Châtelet Apprentice [Nicolas Le Floch Investigations 1] Eng. trans. 2008, opening pages.
See Jean-François Parot website entry for the Monfaucon:

Le Point dossier: "Journées du patrimoine : visitez le gibet de Montfaucon démoli en 1760"
[3-D reconstruction from Grez Productions]

Paul Arthur Nouail de Lavillegille,Des anciennes Fourches patibulaires de Montfaucon  Paris, 1836 id=mYFaAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

"La voirie de Montfaucon" Plateau Hassard [blog]

"Quartiers Est au 19ème siècle : ODEURS" Quartiers libres No.23, 1984
"La grande voirie de Monfaucon" , Quartiers libres, No.103, 2006

Jean-Michel Poughon, "La voirie de Montfaucon, illustration d'une politique d'hygiène publique", Revue Juridique de l'Environnement, 8(3)  1983  p. 189-205

Ghislaine Bouchet, Le cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (1993)  p.228-30

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