The Medieval Period

In 52 BC, the Romans defeated a tribe called the Parisii and established a city they named Lutetia, which probably means “swampy.” Today, that city is Paris—and it’s still swampy in the springtime! Traces of Roman architecture remain visible in Paris: if you look at a map, Rue Saint-Jacques cuts right through the middle of the city and was the main Roman road in and out. But when the Roman Empire crumbled, its architectural genius disappeared as well, and the Dark Ages were actually a step backwards architecturally. During the early Middle Ages, the people of Paris sometimes stole and relocated entire sections of Roman walls to use for their own buildings, because the Roman walls were so much sturdier. During this entire period, the “architect” per se didn’t yet exist, and important buildings were designed and constructed by teams of masons.

Most surviving medieval architecture in France is religious; this is partly a question of durability: the earliest secular buildings were roughly built, often using flammable wood and straw, whereas religious buildings were made to last with stone, built for the glory of God. In France, as in much of Europe, churches evolved through a series of styles beginning with the Romanesque. This early tradition featured a wide central aisle or nave, usually flanked with narrow aisles on each side. Be sure to visit the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church, one of the few remaining churches that has retained its Romanesque shape. It dates back to the 10th-century, the truly Dark Ages.


By the 1100s, three unique engineering improvements appeared in France and created a new, Gothic style. These three innovations were: pointed arches, which can carry more weight than Romanesque round arches; cross vaults, or X-shaped ribbing growing up from columns inside the arch, for better support; and flying buttresses, which channel the weight of the roof and walls to the ground, allowing walls to be thinner and opening them up for windows. The Basilique Saint-Denis (1140-1144) in nearby Saint Denis was the first of the great Gothic Cathedrals; here in Paris, Notre Dame, begun by the Bishop de Sully in 1163, was the first to appear. Sully claimed that Notre Dame appeared to him in a vision, but it’s more likely he was trying to compete with Saint-Denis, to ensure that Paris remained the most important Christian city in the area.

Soon after Notre Dame was completed, Paris suffered such a disastrous series of events that any other city would have given up. Along with nearly constant warfare, the year 1315 brought so much rain that the Church declared a new Flood. In the following years, there were a series of crop failures so disastrous that the period is now believed to have been a miniature Ice Age. And during the plague-filled winter of 1348, 800 Parisians died per day. A third of Paris’ population was wiped out. The desperate times show in the buildings: you’ll notice shutters, very small windows, and well-bolted heavy doors protecting inner courtyards. While parts of Italy were entering the Renaissance in the 1400’s, Paris was still recovering from the Hundred Years War. No wonder people barricaded themselves behind crenellated walls and prayed for deliverance.