I love France #20: La Conciergerie et Marie-Antoinette


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Did you enjoy your bread and cheese last week?

That was a little tease, but this week, it will be French history! You most probably HATED history classes. I sure did; not sure why, but all my history and geography teachers for 7 years were all so very boring.

Later on, I discovered some very good history teachers, I was asked myself to teach some medieval history classes, and the most fun of it all, is to visit places and learn what happened there.

So, do you know anything about this building?

It is called La Conciergerie.

La Conciergerie (French pronunciation: [la kɔ̃sjɛʒəʁi]) is a former royal palace and prison in Paris, France, located on the west of the Île de la Cité, near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It is part of the larger complex known as the Palais de Justice, which is still used for judicial purposes.

As many buildings, it is being restored. I thought it was whimsical to cover the facade being restored with some ads trying to encourage students to study law to become a magistrate or a judge.

The Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914 and was opened to the public as a national historical monument. It is today a popular tourist attraction, although only a relatively small part of the building is open to public access — much of it is still used for the Paris law courts. We are nevertheless not going to speak about its current use.

So, what happened in this building before that?

It was built in the Middle Ages:

Le Palais west part of the island was the site of a Merovingian palace; and from the 10th to the 14th centuries was the seat of the medieval Kings of France. Under Louis IX (Saint Louis) (1226–1270) and Philip IV (Philip the Fair) (1284–1314) the Merovingian palace was extended and more heavily fortified.

The Hall of the Guards, one of the largest surviving medieval parts of the Conciergerie

Louis IX added the remarkable Sainte-Chapelle – and we will visit it next week!

In 1391 the building was converted for use as a prison. Its prisoners were a mixture of common criminals and political prisoners. In common with other prisons of the time, the treatment of prisoners was very dependent on their wealth, status and connections.

So imagine you are arrested and brought there. One of the first step is the secretary, who keeps a record of all your belongings as you enter:

Now, in what category will you be?

  1. The very wealthy or influential? Good for you, you will have your own private cell with a bed, desk and materials for reading and writing. How could you not enjoy your time in prison!
  2. You are actually less well-off? You can still afford to pay for a simply furnished cell, a pistole, which would be equipped with a rough bed and perhaps a table.

you even have a window!

  1. Alas, you are very poor, you are known as a pailleux from the hay (paille) that you sleep on at home, so why expect better here? I’m sorry to tell you, but you will be confined to a dark, damp, vermin-infested cell called oubliette (literally “forgotten place”). In keeping with the name, you will be left to die in conditions  ideal for the plague and other infectious diseases which are rife in the unsanitary conditions of the prison.

But, if it can be of some consolation, the end will come soon, if not from disease, through the guillotine, and there you will even share the fate of the rich!

Indeed, la Conciergerie became internationally famous as the “antechamber to the guillotine” during the Reign of Terror, the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution.

Before men were led to the guillotine, they were aloud to say goodbye to their wives, behind some bards in the “courtyard of the women”. It is still today a place where you can feel the dreadful heavy spirit of so much grief:

During the French Revolution, la Conciergerie housed the Revolutionary Tribunal as well as up to 1,200 male and female prisoners at a time. The Tribunal sat in the Great Hall between 2 April 1793 and 31 May 1795 and sent nearly 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine.

Its rules were simple. Only two outcomes existed — a declaration of innocence or a death sentence — and in most cases the latter was chosen.

One of the most famous prisoners (and victims) was Queen Marie Antoinette.

Her cell has been reconstituted:

As you can see, she was under the constant vigilance of a guard. I believe this was after she tried to escape – she almost made it!

A friend, tourist guide in Paris, told us that people still come daily to put flowers on her grave! Yes, there are still some monarchists in France.

If you want to pursue your visit with a good book, I highly recommend Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, by Michelle Moran. You can click on the link to read my very enthusiastic review, if you missed it last year. It is an excellent book on the Revolution, full of fascinating history and details.

What a stoke of genius of having chosen Madame Tussaud as the main heroine: her way of maneuvering between both sides of the fence at the peril of her life fits so well. Believe me, you WILL enjoy history when you read this historical novel.

next week, it will still be history, but a bit more uplifting!



If you link your own post on France,
please if possible
include the title of the book or topic in your link:
name of your blog (name of the book title or topic).

5 thoughts on “I love France #20: La Conciergerie et Marie-Antoinette

  1. History was my favorite subject from a young age. I just love learning what happened and why. But I’ve had a few history teachers who I even thought were dull. Thanks for all of the info. I was thinking earlier today that I hadn’t learned anything yet for the day and now I can cross that off the list for the day. I’m hoping to get back to posting things about France soon!


  2. Pingback: (2012) #34 Review: Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow « Words And Peace

  3. Pingback: Confessions of Marie Antoinette: review. I love France #67 | Words And Peace

  4. Pingback: Book review and giveaway: Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days | Words And Peace

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