The History Of Paris Part II – The Middle Ages To Napoleon

In the History of Paris Part I we learned how the Celts came to settle at Lutetia and why the Romans thought is was worth conquering. Paris was prized not only by the Romans, but by the Huns and the Vikings (neither of who managed to take the city), and the Franks (who did).

The wave of invaders and would-be conquerers lessened after the early period of the history of France and wouldn't be seen again until the 19th and 20th Centuries. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, let's first go back to the history of Paris in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages

France continued to be ruled by a succession of kings mostly named Louis or Henry as Paris expanded into an important commercial center during the Middle Ages. In the 12th Century the city's merchants were awarded exclusive control of all river traffic, which strengthened the commercial importance of Paris.

With the founding of the first university in France (the Sorbonne), Paris cemented its claim to being the intellectual and cultural center of the kingdom.

As Paris continued to grow, the city's fortified walls were torn down and built further out, in a succession of rings. The last set of walls formed a large circle around what is now the twenty arrondissements. Today's ring road around Paris (the péréphrique) was begun when these walls were dismantled.

The Renaissance in Paris

The Renaissance

Some of the biggest and most visible impacts of the Renaissance on Paris were completed by Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France, in around 1600.

Henry completed the beautification of Paris begun by previous kings — including work on the Louvre started by Catherine de Medici, and the now-destroyed Chateau des Tuileries, as Paris transformed from a medieval city. This was an important time in the development of Paris.

It was during this era of the history of Paris that the city began to take the early form of what it looks like today. Also built in this period were the Pont Neuf (the "New Bridge", today the oldest bridge crossing the Seine), where an equestrian statue of Henry can still be found; Place des Vosges; the Jardin des Plantes in eastern Paris; and the beautiful triangle of Place Dauphine on Île de la Cité.

Royal Paris

Royal Paris

France reached its royal peak (and Paris, as its capital, saw the most benefit) after the Renaissance, under the last of the kings named Louis. Louis XII, who succeeded Henry IV, gave Paris room to grow by expanding the city's Right Bank fortifications out to what are now the Grands Boulevards.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, continued to beautify and glorify the city, even though he moved his court to Versailles. In this period, toward the end of the 17th Century, were built Place Vendôme, the Louvre colonnade, the Invalides (a home for wounded and aged soldiers, whose dome inspired the United States Capitol building), and the Jardin des Tuileries.

Louis XV and Louis XVI continued with grandiose schemes and massive spending until France was nearly broke and it all came to a head in…

The French Revolution

The French Revolution

The French Revolution started in 1789 and, from the distance of a couple of centuries, seems confusing and even messy! Fighting, governments coming and going, heads rolling. It's hard to keep it all straight.

Especially with all those heads rolling.

The infamous guillotine was set up in what is today called the Place de la Concorde but was known at the time as Place Louis XV and then renamed by the revolutionaries Place de la Revolution (what else would it be?).

The French Revolution is an almost mythic period to the French and important in the eventual shaping of the modern country. But, unlike other eras, it didn't really add very much to the physical aspect of Paris.

It was a brief but complicated time in the history of Paris. And, once it was over, France ended up with Napoleon.

The Napoleonic Age

The Napoleons

It could be said that Napoleon Bonaparte saved France from the French Revolution. What he did for Paris steered the city into the modern era.

Napoleon was crowned emperor at Notre Dame in 1804 and set off on a program of building grand monuments and streets that he thought befitted the capital of an empire. The work he started includes the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile (the big one), Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (the smaller one in the Tuileries), Rue de Rivoli, and the of revamping Place de la Concorde.

Despite his many contributions to France and to Paris — including the Napoleonic law code and the Metric System — Napoleon's reign was short, and by 1815 he was gone.

Paris itself grew rapidly in the 19th Century, despite revolutions and other disruptions. Things finally settled down when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later known as Napoleon III) was elected as the country's president. A few years later he made himself emperor (it runs in the family) and that's when the biggest changes to Paris began…

Read More About the History of Paris

Six Free Paris Planning Guides

A Gift from Us to You.
Bon Voyage !