In Louis XIV’s capital city, slosh from chamber pots mixed with mud, blood, and offal to form a sulfurous stew. What to do?
Paris has long been the dream of many a tourist. In the 17th century, it would have been a nightmare.
Slosh from chamber pots thrown from windows mixed with dirt in the city’s unpaved streets to form a sulfurous-smelling stew. On Thursdays and Fridays, Parisians had no choice but to walk through inches of thickened blood that slaughterhouses tossed into streets with names like Cow Foot (Rue du Pied-de-Boeuf) and Tripe (Rue de la Triperie), turning the mud in those neighborhoods permanently red.
The filth of Paris was inescapable. It attached itself ruthlessly to clothes, the sides of buildings, and the insides of nostrils. “Paris is always dirty,” a British visitor observed. “By perpetual motion dirt is beaten into such a thick black unctuous oil, that where it sticks, no art can wash it off. … Besides the stain this dirt leaves, it gives also so strong a scent, that it may be smelt many miles off.”
Although King Louis XIV had set his sights on building Versailles, his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert pushed for new efforts to clean up the country’s capital. It was time, Colbert argued, to “purge the city of what was causing its disorders.”
In the fall of 1666, a group of 16 men streamed into the palatial home of Pierre Séguier, the royal chancellor, on the Rue de Grenelle for the first meeting of the committee. They gathered in the immense second-floor gallery, which boasted some of the most elaborate architectural detailing in Europe. One side of the meeting hall was lined with soaring windows topped with colorful midcentury frescoes in elegant plaster frames called gypseries. A long table covered with rich purple felt dominated the center of the room. Colbert sat at the head of the table, Séguier at the other end. Colbert’s uncle, the irascible Henri Pussort, was at the finance minister’s side. Thirteen other committee members, handpicked by Colbert and Séguier, filled the remaining seats at the table.
The men quickly settled on the major areas of concern: gun violence, access to drinking water, price gouging on essential provisions (bread, meat, and of course, wine), brothels and prostitution, and prison conditions. But one problem took precedence over all else: the city’s notorious, stinking mud.
For centuries, royal edicts attempted to cajole residents to take better care of shared public thoroughfares. In 1563, Charles IX had ordered that “with no exception,” every property owner must tidy up in front of his own residence at precisely six o’clock every morning and again at three in the afternoon. Homeowners were to amass all “mud, trash, and other filth” against the wall of the building or in a basket until the trash collector arrived. The edict also forbade inhabitants to throw any household or human waste out the window and into the street. This, too, should be neatly swept toward the walls or kept in a basket. Citizens were alerted to the edicts by postings in public squares and announcements throughout the city by town criers. Violators would be fined.
But as the continuing filth of the streets revealed, fines were no deterrent. A 1608 edict was even more specific: Instead of simply pushing the dirt toward the walls of buildings, inhabitants were ordered to work together as a brigade, twice a day, to push detritus from the front of their homes toward the river. After each dumping of “urine, cooking grease, and bathwater,” they were to rinse the street with at least two buckets of clear water. And just as butchers were forbidden to leave animal excrement in public passageways, residents were forbidden to leave their own human waste in the streets. In 1637, 1638, 1650, and 1660, still more edicts were issued. All reiterated the same ineffective regulations. Paris streets still oozed vile muck.
Colbert began the meeting by presenting a Monsieur Galliot, an enterprising commissioner in the Marais quarter who had offered to take over the responsibility for street cleaning. It would be an immense task. Galliot said he would need to coordinate with each of the city’s 47 other commissioners to organize teams of men to shovel the worst of the filth out of the narrow streets in their quarters. Horses and carts would then be needed to transport the mud either to the Seine, where it could be dumped, or to the main gates of Paris, where it could be left outside the city walls. If the fall rains began before the cleanup was done (as they no doubt would), Galliot would have to begin the process anew.
Once the worst of the mud had been removed, Galliot explained, the commissioners would find it much easier to fine homeowners and shopkeepers if they refused to keep the spaces in front of their properties clean. In theory, the cleanup would be financed by the fines that each commissioner collected from residents who violated the mud laws. (Of course, this assumed that the commissioners were actually collecting fines and putting the money to its intended use, rather than pocketing for themselves.)
Galliot’s promises were huge, but his price was fair. At the urging of the Colbert committee, the commissioners unanimously agreed to turn the responsibility over to him.
Three weeks later, there was little evidence of progress. Not wanting to suffer the king’s wrath, committee members quickly lost patience. Speculation swirled among them that the city commissioners were putting obstacles in Galliot’s way because they were outraged that he was receiving preferential treatment and handsome payment for his efforts. To this, Colbert replied dryly that if the commissioners expected payment, they should do a better job of collecting the mud fines from inhabitants who refused to abide by the wishes of the king.
The Saint-Germain quarter, which sat directly across the river from the king’s palace at the Louvre, was the dirtiest of all.....MUCH MORE