For centuries, an old-fashioned bank in Paris, the Crédit municipal, has enabled ordinary citizens to deposit valuable stuff such as jewelry and take out low-interest cash loans. Later, if and when clients get back onto their feet financially, they can return to the institution and buy back their deposited goods. After a certain time, if the stuff is not bought back, then the institution, in the time-honored traditions of pawnbrokers, auctions it off and makes a nice profit. So, everybody is happy… except maybe the ghosts of ancestors who see their precious family legacies being dilapidated by cash-strapped descendants.
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This kind of money-lending institution, referred to in Italian as a Monte de Pietà (Mount of piety), was invented in the 15th century by an Italian monk as a scheme designed to end the monopoly of usurers of the kind that would be stigmatized, a century later, by Shakespeare’s notoriously anti-Semitic portrait of Shylock.
The Italian expression has in fact been misunderstood. Monte de Pietà has nothing to do with mounts. It refers rather to an amount of cash that is offered, allegedly through piety, to people in need.
Since the eve of the French Revolution, the Parisian Mont de pieté has been located in the Marais quarter. Its ancient entrance still exists in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.
Meanwhile, the main entrance is located in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois: the eastern continuation of the Rue Rambuteau, where I lived for many years.
I’ve walked past that door almost daily, for years. Well, I’ve just learnt that this ancient Parisian financial institution is about to be closed down, simply because (like many other old-fashioned social entities) it can’t adjust itself to the digital era. This is weird in a way, because it shouldn’t be too hard to invent an Internet business model for pawnbroking…
I come now to the subject of this blog post: the existence of an ancient wall around Paris. referred to in French as the Enceinte de Philippe Auguste [Wall of Philip II Augustus]. This protective wall around the French capital was erected as a reaction against threats from the nasty English monarch, my ancestor King John, who would be forced at sword-point to sign the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. Here’s a plan of the wall dating from 1223:
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Its builder was the king of France, Philip II, commonly referred to in French as Philippe Auguste, primarily because he was born in August, and also because this nickname likened the monarch to a wise ruler of ancient Rome. Be that as it may, the French king appears to have been a nicer sort of a fellow than the abominable English monarch on the other side of the Channel.
Parenthetical comments: From a pragmatic viewpoint, the fact that King John was my 22-times-great-grandfather means little, if anything at all. His genetic contribution is diluted homeopathically today in a chromosomal soup stewed up from the gametes (reproductive cells) of countless other male and female ancestors. He was no more than a single member of the vast cohort of my medieval ancestors, whose number cannot even be vaguely estimated. Realizing that he’s one of my ancestors, I’ve nevertheless made an effort to know more about the man. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find anything whatsoever of a noble nature in his profile. Consequently, it’s not surprising that no other English king has decided to call himself John.
Let’s get back to the Paris wall. Inside the domain of the Paris pawnbroking institution that is about to become extinct, there’s a fine fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.
Observing this tower, I was always impressed by the lovely pink-brick structure at the top… but what counts, in fact, is the relatively dull stone structure at the base, which is a perfectly intact fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.
Further to the west, we enconter the address of 16 rue Rambuteau, where Christine and I lived with our children Emmanuelle and François for many years. At the time, we didn’t think much about the fact that our apartment was situated upon the wall of Philippe Auguste. People had told us that this was the case, but this didn’t mean much in the context of our daily existence. In my personal photographic archives, I have countless images of our children on the balcony overlooking the nearby Hôtel de Saint Aignan, seen here:
Today, the elegantly-restored edifice has become (thanks to Jacques Chirac) the Museum of Jewish Art and History.
The balcony of our apartment was located in the upper left-hand corner of the above photo, where there seems to be a video camera. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a huge statue of the extraordinary man who symbolized French anti-Semitism: Alfred Dreyfus. On the left of the courtyard, directly below our apartment, a stone façade with fake windows has been erected, solely for esthetic reasons, against the ancient wall of Philippe Auguste.
In any case, and above all, I'm overcome by a strange and wonderful feeling of warmth and pride every time I reflect upon the fact that our tiny Skyvington-Mafart family came into being here in the ancient inner heart of the fabulous City of Light. At the time, I didn't think that this might be any kind of achievement (maybe Christine did). But today, I realize that Emmanuelle and François grew up on the top of a legendary wall, in a fabulous Old World place that might even be thought of (by people like me, in any case) as the cultural centre of western civilization.