16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles

Trista - November 3, 2018

The Parisian slums of the 17th century were a wild place. Unlike most other cities, Paris had numerous slums throughout the city. Each tenement had its own culture, hierarchy, and language. Despite the prosperous and famed reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the peasants of France were poor as ever. Many rural French fled to Paris to seek better fortune than they were finding in the country. Many of these refugees became beggars. To increase their earnings, these beggars often pretended to be sick or disabled during the day, while miraculously healing when work was done at night. Indeed the Court of Miracles.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
An illustration of the Court of Miracles. Wikimedia.

 

16. Victor Hugo Drew Inspiration From the Court of Miracles

Victor Hugo is one of France’s most famous novelists. Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris or “Our Lady of Paris” in the original French) are iconic pieces of literature that have been adapted to the stage and screen countless times. Hugo found a great deal of inspiration in the historical and anthropological account of the Court of Miracles written by historian Henri Sauval.

The criminal and desperate underbelly must have held a great deal of fascination for the well-bred Hugo, who was the comfortably middle-class son of a general and a painter. Hugo once floridly described the court, calling it, “a gutter of vice and beggary, of vagrancy that spills over into the streets of the capital […] immense changing-room of all the actors of this comedy that robbery, prostitution and murder play on the cobbled streets of Paris.

Both of Hugo’s most famous novels derived a great deal of inspiration from the depictions of poverty and suffering that appeared so broadly through Savual’s documentation of the Court. Both books feature tragic and penniless characters, and Hunchback even features the Court as a location in the story. While Hugo’s characters are far better known than any of the true stories of the Court, one can glimpse a few their lives through his fiction.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A depiction of the Court of Miracles in Assassin’s Creed. Assassin’s Creed Wiki.

15. The Court of Miracles Was the Name of the Parisian Slums

Cour des Miracles was the French word, meaning Court of Miracles, for the network of slums throughout Paris. The best known of the slums laid between the rue (street) de Caire and the rue Réamur and was called the Grand Court of Miracles, or simply Grand Court. However, thanks to the careful documentation of the slums by French historian Henri Sauval, we now know that far more than the Grand Court existed and, in reality, the Court of Miracles was an extensive network of slums that ran through Paris in its entirety.

Perhaps as ironic as the name Court of Miracles for a slum is the fact that the shining Palace of Versailles, home of the Sun King Louis XIV, sat amidst the poverty and desperation of the Court. The number of people living within the slums multiplied greatly during the reign of Louis XIV as desperate laborers and farmers left the barren countryside seeking a source of income in the city.

The refugees to the city soon found that no paid work was available for them through honest means, and most ended up forced into one of the Court’s numerous slums. There, they would end up having to engage in begging, theft or prostitution to survive. Thieving was easily the most stable and profitable of the three, as the thieves had a hierarchical and well-organized structure throughout the city.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
Gringoire In the Court of Miracles by Célestin Nanteuil. Amazon.

14. Paris Had Numerous Slums Throughout the City

Paris in the 17th century was far too small for the number of residents that called the city home or at least called it a temporary resting place. The city was incredibly dense and overcrowded, particularly during the reign of Louis XIV as countless laborers fled rural areas seeking more stable employment. Due to Louis XIV’s focus on warfare and parties, and not much else, there was little employment available for the rural refugees within the city, so it’s no surprise many slums developed.

By far the largest and most notorious of the slums lay between the rue (street) de Caire and the rue Réamur in central Paris. This slum was called the Grand Court of Miracles or just Grand Court for short. Many new slums created a larger interconnected network called The Court of Miracles collectively.

Within this spider’s web of poverty and desperation sat the lavish Palace of Versailles, home of Louis XIV and many of his nobles. The palace was the home of many indulgent parties, meant to entertain and soothe his nobles after an uprising early in his reign. Ultimately it was believed that the city had at least a dozen slums and quite possibly more. This notion stands in stark opposition to the excesses of the reign of the Sun King.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
An illustration of the social hierarchy of a slum. Wikimedia.

13. The Slum Residents Had Their Own Social Hierarchy

While it would seem natural for so many desperate people to work together, sadly it is rarely the case. The slums of the Court of Miracles were no different. Instead of a unified front, the residents of the slums found themselves sorted into veritable classes within a slum social hierarchy. People were categorized by the jobs they undertook in the slums, whether it was thievery, begging or prostitution.

Within the broader classes defined by jobs, there were further hierarchies. Particularly within the community of beggars, levels were strictly limited and sometimes even carried limitations on when one could beg. Beggers referred to as the courtads de Boutange, for example, were only allowed to solicit during the winter.

Other classes included the malingreux, who faked illness for their begging. The marfaux were agents who worked for prostitutes, possibly similar to pimps today. The narquois were those who pretended to be injured or disabled for their begging, often pretending to be veterans of Louis XIV’s ongoing wars. Thieves were quite high in the social order since they received regular wages from their employers higher up in the thief hierarchy. Young thieves were treated almost as apprentices and would therefore also have enjoyed much higher social standings than beggars.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A page featuring Medieval England’s Thieves’ Cant. gallica.bnf.fr / Biblioteque nationale de France / Wikimedia.

12. Each Social Group Had Its Own Slang and Organization

The social structures and hierarchies within the Court of Miracles were clearly delineated, to the extent that some of the “classes” within the slums began to resemble their autonomous societies. Some of the classes, such as thieves, had clear leadership and coordinated direction between tenements. Others even developed their own unique slang language that would be used to communicate without other slum residents being able to understand.

The beggars had a clear and rigid hierarchy, with the names of the officers coming from the beggars’ slang itself. The equivalent of the king of the beggars was originally called the ragot, but later became known as the chef-coërsre. The chef-coërsre was served by assistants called ducs. Below the ducs were the archissupots. The archissupots were former students of the beggars’slang who took on the role of teaching the slang to newly initiated beggars.

The existence of the slang is preserved in modern knowledge thanks to the incredibly detailed accounts of historian Henri Savaul. His depictions of the day to day life of the Court’s residents included diagraming the hierarchies of how the societies operated, including the slang languages unique to various groups. It is interesting to note that the poorest of France’s residents constructed social classes as rigid and elaborate as those in shining Versailles who lived at their expense.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
An illustration from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wikimedia.

11. The Court of Miracles Is Popular Fodder for the Arts

Victor Hugo was not the only artist fascinated by Henri Sauval’s vivid and detailed descriptions of life in the 17th century Court of Miracles. While his depictions of tragic and impoverished characters inspired by the Court are the most famous with English speaking audiences, many other artists in both literature and visual art were intrigued by the period and represented it in various formats.

French painter, illustrator and engraver Célestin Nanteuil was similarly intrigued by the Court and created the painting Gringoire In the Court of Miracles. Gringoire is a mildly fictionalized character based on Pierre Gringore, a French playwright, and appears in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Nanteuil’s painting depicts a classic moment in the novel which is set within the Court.

Countless sketches, maps, and engravings also depict the various classes of beggars within the Court. There is even an illustration that illustrates the different social orders within the beggars’ society along with their titles. “Poverty porn,” in which portrayals of suffering are intended to invoke sympathy to sell newspapers, art, etc. has been existence for centuries, and one wonders if some of the fascinations with the Court of Miracles stemmed from a similar phenomenon.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A painting of Valjean and Marius inspired by Les Misérables. Wikimedia.

10. One Had to Be Initiated Into the Court of Miracles

One of the most interesting aspects of the Court of Miracles was that it was not an automatically welcoming society to the downtrodden. If one wanted to join the organization, or community, of thieves within the Court they had to survive two purse-cutting tests. Thanks to the rigidly hierarchical nature of the Court societies, especially the thieves’ group, more experienced members had the right to set criteria and rituals for new people wanting to join.

The first purse-cutting ritual for potential thieves required candidates to cut a purse covered in bells without making any sound. One cannot even imagine the havoc one of the Court’s thieves could wreck today if they had that level of subtlety and skill. The second test was far more dangerous.

The second purse-cutting challenge saw candidates dragged to a public marketplace or another densely populated area. The master overseeing the test would instruct the candidate to pick several pockets or cut several purses. Once the master was satisfied with a target the candidate had acquired, they would yell “thief” and flee, leaving the candidate alone in an angry crowd. The test was meant to establish if a candidate had the quick wits and fast feet required to stay out of trouble within the city.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
An illustration of a beggar. Wikimedia.

9. Begging Was Despised by the Wealthy French

The wealthy residents of Paris did not wish to be reminded of the pervasive poverty and decay in the city. Begging was deeply frowned upon by all ranks of society, but especially hated by the uppermost echelon. Many of the wealthiest residents of France fled to burgeoning suburbs on the far bank of the Seine to avoid having to see the residents of the Court.

Louis XIV developed a police force, by royal proclamation, to deal with the crime and poverty in the Court by any means necessary. The newly created effect imprisoned many residents of the Court for petty crimes, and, in some cases, solely for being poor or ill. Hospitals that used to serve the more impoverished communities were repurposed to house those committed by the police forces.

Lest anyone feel judgmental about 17th century France for this callousness, many modern US cities have panhandling and begging laws in place to prevent anyone from publicly asking for money. New York City famously banned panhandling under mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Other major cities including Des Moines, Iowa currently have bans in place that limit the practice. It seems the dislike of witnessing poverty was not unique to the old French.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
An illustration of a male beggar. Wikimedia.

8. Many of the Court’s Residents Were Formerly Rural

Several years in the mid 16th century saw poor crop yields and bitter winters. This devastation left many farms destitute, having had to use their seed grain as food. With no way of securing the money to purchase new seed crops, many fled the countryside assuming they could find work and income in Paris. The rural migration was exacerbated by constant warfare under Louis XIV’s command, which would have left the countryside with too few able-bodied men for farm labor as well as leaving it defenseless against vagabonds.

Due to the shortage of grain from the reduced crop years, bread, the staple of the French diet in the 17th century, became incredibly expensive. For the average day laborer, purchasing enough food to feed their family would have eaten up over 60% of their wages. Sadly even that level of earning was out of reach for most of the rural refugees to Paris, as little work was available.

The ranks of the various societies in the Court would have been filled with countless rural refugees who fled the failing farms in the countryside. While Henri Savaul carefully documented much of the daily interactions in the lives of residents of the Court, it is not clear if there was any lower status afforded to those refugees versus native denizens of Paris. Given the highly hierarchical nature of the Court’s society, one has to wonder how the rural refugees fared when they arrived pennilessly.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A portrait of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Wikimedia.

7. The Court Was at Its Peak During the Reign of The Sun King

At the peak of Louis XIV’s reign, over 10% of the population of Paris was destitute and lived in slums. Due to several harsh winters and Louis XIV’s continuous waging of war, the cost of bread was exorbitantly high and amounted to over 60% of a household’s wages in a year. Despite these conditions, 5% of France’s entire income was dedicated to maintaining Louis XIV’s lavish palace of Versailles in the center of Paris.

The several years of bad crops, coupled with the loss of farm labor due to near-constant war, led many rural dwellers to flee to the city in search of safety and more stable income. Of course, little work was available due to the overall poor condition of the French economy for all but the handful of wealthiest nobles at the time.

The population density of the Court would boggle the modern mind. At one point, small buildings were holding dozens of men, women, and children. There was one person for every three square meters of the city, which would likely have been far, far more dense in the crowded slums. It wasn’t until after the French Revolution of the 19th century that the tenements were demolished and redesigned to be much larger, safer and more sanitary.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
The Horse Thieves by Eugène Delacroix. Wikimedia.

6. The Thieves Were a Highly Organized Slum Group

In a structure that may sound familiar to fans of fantasy novels or games like Skyrim, the Court of Miracle’s thieves had an extremely organized structure bordering on the idea of a thieves’ guild. Anyone who wanted to operate as a thief within Paris had to be inducted into the group of thieves through two purse-cutting rituals. It is unclear if the thieve’s group doled out punishments to anyone who stole outside of their supervision.

Young or new thieves inducted into the ranks would serve as the equivalent of an apprentice to a more experienced thief. These apprentices earned a wage, which was unheard of for many of the rural refugees fleeing to Paris at the time. Becoming a thief would have provided a surprisingly stable lifestyle compared to what many of the slum’s residents were used to.

The rigid structure of the thieve’s group served an eminently practical purpose: ensuring no part of the city was over-robbed to avoid attracting undue police attention. The group of thieves worked to ensure that each portion of the town had the correct number of active thieves. It must have been a tricky balance to keep apprentices and master thieves employed while also ensuring they didn’t steal enough to trigger a significant law enforcement crackdown.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A map of Paris. Wikimedia.

5. Henri Sauval Documented The Court of Miracles

The modern world would know little about the Court of Miracles if it weren’t for the groundbreaking work of historian Henri Sauval. Sauval wrote extensively of the lives of residents in the slums, with vivid depictions of their everyday lives. He documented the minutiae of their days to present a clear picture of what it is was like to live within the hierarchies of the slums. Many of the induction rituals, social hierarchies, rules, and languages of the slums are only known due to Sauval’s work.

It took some time for Sauval’s writings on the Court to be widely recognized. It was unpopular and little published soon after printing, as the details were considered salacious and seditious. However, about a half-century after its creation, the historical accounts began to receive greater attention and respect as a historical and anthropological work.

The recognition of the fact that Paris had numerous slums, not just the Grand Court, was due to Sauval’s careful documentation. Sauval argued in his writings that the slums of Paris were as old as the professions of begging and prostitution themselves. Sadly, some of Sauval’s original manuscripts, as reproduced by later scholars, were lost in the fires of the Paris Commune in 1871.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A portrait of Georges-Eugene Haussmann by Henri Lehmann. Wikimedia.

4. Social Reforms Eventually Destroyed the Court

While the early police forces of Paris were tasked with keeping the Court of Miracles in check, it was actually the social reforms during the reign of Napoleon that ultimately led to the demise of the court. In the middle of the 19th century, the center of Paris was an incredibly overcrowded deathtrap. There were neighborhoods with a population density of one person in every three square meters. Disease was rampant, with five percent of each of the densest neighborhoods dying every year, with cholera being a particularly useful killer.

Soon after the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe in the February Revolution of 1848, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of France. One of his first goals was to begin the rebuilding of Paris to make it a safer and healthier city. Napoleon’s Minister of the Interior chose Georges Eugène Haussmann to oversee the reconstruction.

Under Haussmann’s direction, thousands of feet of new streets were laid throughout Paris including the cross of Paris, which allowed cross-traffic through the city as never before. Haussmann’s changes to Paris were so significant that the period of urban development is now referred to as the city’s Haussmannisation. The slums of the Court of Miracles were eradicated by the reformation, with the slums being cleaned up and the population density reduced through Paris over doubling in size.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A painting of French aristocrats. Wikimedia.

3. The Slums Highlighted the Division Of Wealth in France

The reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was a time of absolute opulence for the aristocracy of France. Louis himself was a believer in the religious doctrine of the divine right of kings. He inhabited the lavish palace at Versailles and required that many members of the nobility live with him, where they would throw incredibly indulgent balls. While the nobles lived a truly gilded life in Versailles within the center of Paris, they were surrounded by utter squalor and poverty.

Due to poverty and famine, many rural residents of France fled to Paris throughout the 17th century looking for new sources of work and income. These refugees quickly found that joining the hierarchies of the slums were the only source of safety and income. They became beggars, thieves, prostitutes or other underworld denizens.

Louis XIV’s response to the Court of Miracles wasn’t to lower taxes, create social safety nets, or aid them in any other way. Instead, he established an office of police that was tasked with slowing the growth of the slums to preserve the wealthier parts of Paris. The increasingly large gap between the rich and the poor, combined with the lack of aid from Louis XIV during a period of stable monarchic rule, set the groundwork for the turbulent and violent period of the French Revolution in the 18th century.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
Portrait of Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, Lieutenant General of Police of Paris during the reign of Louis XIV. Private Collection. Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images.

2. The Court Led to the First Modern Police Force

The disdain of begging and the sight of poverty led French politicians to take action against the Court of Miracles in the latter half of the 17th century. Jean-Baptiste Colbert presented King Louis XIV with a proclamation that would establish an office of Lieutenant General of Police, which would enable the office holder to create a police force comparable to modern police forces. King Louis XIV approved, and Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie was installed as the first holder of the office.

De la Reynie’s task was to create a force that would both protect and preserve the more beautiful portions of the city while inhibiting the growth of the unpopular slums known collectively as the Court of Miracles. De la Reynie held the office from 1667 to 1697. During his time in office, he held a very modern view of law enforcement and developed police units and tactics that influenced the development of current police forces.

One hallmark of De la Reynie’s time in office was the severe and extensive punishment of what he viewed as seditious writings. He also was brutal towards the poor, mentally ill and prostitutes. The hôtels-Dieu, or Houses of God, were French hospitals originally built to tend for the poor sick. De la Reynie used them to incarcerate the poor and anyone he deemed immoral in cramped, inhumane conditions.

16 Street Laws in Paris Shaped by the Infamous Court of Miracles
A painting of disabled beggars. Wikimedia.

1. The Beggars Were Magically Cured Each Night, Hence the Court’s Name

Begging was deeply frowned upon in 17th century France. The wealthy residents of Paris did not want to be accosted by the site of the poverty they ignored through their legislation and actions. There was a massive divide in wealth during the period, and the wealthy did not care to be reminded of it. The King himself took steps to eliminate the sight of the beggars in the city. It is worth noting he didn’t want to fix the poverty, he just didn’t wish to see it.

There were several noteworthy exceptions to the general disdain for beggars. War veterans, orphans, the ill and the disabled were seen as legitimate charity cases, and their begging was not frowned upon the same way as that of non-disabled adults. The wealthy Parisian citizens were far more likely to open their purses to help those they viewed as valid charity cases.

These exceptions were common knowledge to the beggars, so it became commonplace for beggars to prepare for their day of work by applying makeup or other devices to appear sick or disabled. Limbs were bound with a cloth to fake amputation; makeup was used to replicate skin conditions or diseases, among other effects. At night, after the day’s begging was done, the beggars would return home and seem to miraculously heal of their ailments as limbs were freed and diseases disappeared. The name, Court of Miracles, is a reference to this practice as grievously afflicted men and women healed magically every night.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Slums of Paris Had Their Own Intricate Systems of Laws Ruled By Thieves and Prostitutes” Cleo Egnal, Ranker. n.d.

“Let There Be Light: Paris’ first police chief exposes the unholy work afoot in the ‘crime capital of the world'” Holly Tucker, Vanderbilt Magazine. September 2017.

“Cours des Miracles (Court of Miracles)” Aaron Netsky, Atlas Obscura. n.d.

“La Cour des Miracles” Party Like It’s 1660 staff, n.d.

“Paris under Louis XIV, XV, XVI” Yoojin Jang. November 2007.

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