In 430AD, or thereabouts, a fifty-something bishop met a young girl in the low hills of Charonne. Did Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and six-year-old Geneviève of Nanterre, future patron saint of Paris, exchange words? Or did she simply watch the great man sweep past along what is modern-day rue de Bagnolet? The plaque outside the church that sprang up, in stages over centuries, on the place of their encounter does not say. It doesn’t note whether the child, the only daughter of a civic official, was alone, how her presence was recorded, or if anything marked her out as special. Later, she would persuade her fellow Parisians to stand strong in the face of Attila the Hun and convince Clovis to build a church dedicated to saints Peter and Paul (which today bears her name) in the Latin Quarter. But then she was just a little girl.
In memorial of this encounter, so the story goes, the locals built a small chapel. The chapel grew into a church in the 12th century, with further additions and refinements in the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries. Now the austere beauty of L’Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne caps a neighbourhood that still feels like a village, with the cobbled rue Saint-Blaise leading from the foot of the stairs past artists’ studios and towards clusters of residential towers. On 21st-century evenings, along with the chiming of the clock, rock music from La Flèche d’Or opposite and chatter from the smokers out front of Mama Shelter’s fashionable pizza bar mingle with the stop-start sounds of traffic.
I find it impossible to imagine what Charonne might have looked like in the fifth century. The Gallo-Roman garrison of Lutetia had been renamed Paris less than a hundred years before, and the nascent hamlet on its edges was still almost a millennia and a half from being drawn by Napoléon III into the city proper. I imagine it was fields and forests, feudal and stinking, pagan and God-fearing, and fearful of marauding invaders taking advantage of the collapsing Roman Empire.
It’s easy to be swept away with the Belle Époque vision of Paris, and to forget that the boulevards, art nouveau fountains and Métro signs are recent additions to the landscape. It’s easy to think of the city as a museum piece, frozen in time for our ease and consumption, both of which are very 19th-century concepts, also. (I’ve just picked up Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola.) But there was a Paris before Haussmann, before the Revolution, before the Middle Ages brought such flourishes as Nôtre Dame, the fortress of the Louvre and the scholars of the Sorbonne to the banks of the Seine.
Of course, vestiges of the city’s past remain.
Yesterday afternoon, I stood amid all this history, smells of baking bread and bus fumes filling my nostrils, and took in the newly unveiled Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, which had been under scaffolding for at least two years while work was done to restabilise its foundations. The public has not been permitted inside since 2009 due to safety concerns, but you can mount the sandstone steps, pristine and crunchy underfoot. The little cemetery behind the church is open and affords the curious a chance to gaze upwards at the stained glass, and thick unembellished walls. If visitors could go past the heavy red doors, into the cool, somber interior, they would be able to see the depiction by Belgian painter Joseph Benoist Suvée (1743-1807) of Geneviève before the bishop, clad in white, hands clasped in prayer.
In looking at the painting (or rather its digital image) showing Germain with eyes raised passionately to the heavens, I’m grateful to Wikipedia for providing the bones of his backstory. Before he was tapped to succeed Amâtre as bishop of Auxerre, he was a lawyer and, typical of his aristocratic status, fond of hunting. So much so that he liked to string the heads of his prey up in a large pear tree. Christianity was a much more fragile doctrine then, and Amâtre saw this as idolatry and had the tree felled. Germain threatened his elder with death, forcing him out of town. Regardless, the dying bishop had a vision that Germain was his successor, and put him on the path to conversion and sainthood.
Apparently, many years later, he and Geneviève crossed paths again, by that stage united in ideals of church and empire. I wonder what they would make of the city now.