Friday, January 23, 2009

The History of Paris, part II

The faubourgs of Paris formed around four centers: the market, the palace, the churches, and the vineyards. A market is a coming together of people to exchange goods. It is necessary. Subsistence farming is an interesting idea, but it is probably less common than we think. (Can you think of a culture with supposedly subsistence farming but no cities? I think you'll find only cultures with cities and cultures with no farming.) To be sure, there have been farmers in every age who worked primarily to feed their family, and made most of the things their family used. But farm implements -- plows, shovels, axes, barrels, carts, even shoes -- are pretty important, and there are not too many farmers who can make these things by themselves. I have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder with my kids; certainly in her time there is not the slightest hint that a farmer would consider making these things himself -- or surviving without them. Indeed, the Ingalls family always farmed close to the railroad precisely because farming without tools is impossible. And the markets of Paris -- les Halles -- grew up because farmers needed places to exchange what they could produce themselves for what they needed but could not produce.

The market is also a place of luxury goods. Housewives have always wanted things like salt and spices and sweeteners, and pretty fabric. Children (and their fathers) have always wanted toys. If the modern agrarian wants to condemn these things as petty, he might remember that books, by their very nature, must come from elsewhere, not only because a farmer hasn't the resources to print or copy his own books, but also because books convey other people's ideas. The same is true of art. A family can make its own music, but not its own musical instruments. The market is necessary both for subsistence and for leisure.

It is noteworthy that in Paris, les Halles was its own faubourg. That is, it was not just an empty space where farmers got together, but a place where people lived. A market town obviously must support the barrel makers, cobblers, ironworkers, and trinket makers. It would take another post to justify them, but a market also supports market staff: the much-maligned "middlemen" who help get things from the people who produce them to the people who want them. And a thriving market town also includes those who make a career of providing leisure: professional musicians, inn keepers, artists, actors. To scorn the market town, and the city of which it forms a central part, is to scorn both subsistence and culture.

Surprisingly, other faubourgs grew up around the dozen abbeys that surrounded Paris. It is noteworthy, already, that the abbeys surrounded Paris. We think of places like Citeaux, out in the wilderness, but during times of unrest -- times before St. Bernard's lovely twelfth century -- the monks also needed a fortress, and the Christian monastic culture has always participated in the world of culture, and even of trade. Monks need tools and books, too, and only a monastery that is itself a city can produce these.

But even more interesting, the abbeys were not only themselves in the orbit of the city, but they created their own faubourgs: lay Christian communities have always grown up around the monasteries, and indeed, much of Paris owes its origin to them. Modern neighborhoods like St.-Germaine-des-Pr ├ęs (St. Germaine in the meadows), Temple (of the Templars), St. Paul, and Cluny are just old abbey faubourgs.

And here is another truth about cities. Traditionally, a parish is not just the church that best suits you; it is your neighborhood, your community, the people you live with, work with, play with, your extended family. In past ages, Christians came together by force of necessity: before the advent of modern transportation, a country parish was something of an impossibility. Now, it seems normal enough to drive thirty miles to get to your community. But how different a parish community is when you only see them at church. The urban parish remains a place of neighbors, bound together for better or for worse, sharing the texture of life. How beautiful that Christians once thought it normal to create a town together, instead of seeking isolation. And I don't know, but I would guess that a medieval faubourg was somewhat less exclusive than the modern gated community: the towns in question were not just the people who rubbed you the right way; because they were intergenerational, they surely included many people you wouldn't chose as subdevelopment neighbors.

Along with les Halles and the churches, another great stimulant to Right Bank development was the palace. (Later, the Louvre, but that was not the first.) Romantic versions of anarchy are always tempting; agrarians like to imagine we can all be Jeffersonian farmers, with an occasional meeting or muster, but otherwise self-sufficient. And modern government has certainly impinged on life in ways it should not. Nonetheless, government is natural, and necessary. Indeed, in the middle ages, the governments of Europe grew out of the necessity of self-defense and basic public management. I write a lot about ways to devolve power away from government, but please do not misunderstand me: without an army, a power to enforce contracts, and some infrastructure, including some common coin, life is nothing but brutality and rapine. It is unfortunate that our schools do not teach the history of the dark ages, especially the Norman invasions. Anarchy is a terrifying thing.

Government requires personel, and a place to work. The palace may seem parasitic on society, a bunch of rich nobles living on the sweat of another man's brow. And indeed, it is ever subject to abuse. But in another sense, the other man can live by the sweat of his own brow only because the government provides him the space to do it: above all, the safety, both from marauders and from cheats. And government is a creature of the city. All those lawyers and bureaucrats produce the very space within which we live. The Louvre, and the city which contains and sustains it, is nothing to shake a stick at.

The Louvre, les Halles, and even many of the churches, were on the Right Bank. On the Left, along with more abbeys, there grew the vineyards. This is one of the most pleasant parts of Paris. Without the city, there can be no wine, because wine is labor intensive. The vintners could survive only where there was a market, to sell their most precious commodity and to buy the food and the tools that sustain them.

Wine is a symbol of leisure, and the Left Bank also gave rise to that greatest of all leisure activities, the University, the last stop on our tour of Parisian history. The University is perhaps the most obvious city creature of all. Students and teachers are not self-sustaining. Innkeepers and artists survive from another man's work, but they are as nothing to academics. The University needs the safety of Paris's walls, the market to buy food, the stationers to make paper, the churches in which to pray and discuss, builders to provide houses, a government to regulate relations (the early history of the University of Paris is more rowdy than you may know) -- and of course the vintners, to make wine! In turn, the University gives us books, and the ideas by which to govern our society, and it gives some men the opportunity to pursue the life of the mind, too little valued in our post-modern times. Such a thing can only happen in the city.

(Incidentally, Oxford -- one of the three original universities, with Paris and Bologna, and in that early constellation that included Padua, Constantinople, and Cambridge, Toledo and Salamanca, Montpelier and Toulouse -- is no exception. It is now no small town, with 150,000 residents. It was at its founding one of the great cities of England, a fort built to defend a river crossing, with special privileges from the King. The notion of scholars gathered in the contemplative countryside is nothing but romance.)

So there is Paris: a fortress, a network of villages, a market, a palace, parishes, vineyards, and a university. And there is the true nature of the city, a place of human flourishing, on a human scale.