Why there are so many churches in Paris

There are 197 churches in Paris–that’s a lot. Here’s why so many.

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800px-Reims_Cathedral,_interior_(4)
Ribbed vaults in the cathedral at Reims. Picture source: Magnus Manske., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14607.

Standard tourist question in Paris: is that Notre Dame?  The short answer is usually no.  One possible longer answer would be which Notre Dame?  There are 37 churches in Paris called  Notre Dame (Our Lady) of something or other.  According the Wikipedia page listing religious buildings in Paris, there are 197 churches in Paris at the moment.  That’s just in the 20 arrondissements of Paris proper.  Even without bearing in mind the observation that French society can be aggressively anti-clerical, that’s a lot of churches.

Robert Cole’s explanation: as the year 1000 approached, everyone knew that the world was going to end.  Prayer for the sparing of life was widespread, and when the world did not, in fact, end, gratitude was widespread as well.  A spate of church-building was the result.

Should we buy this account?  Clearly the churches of Paris are not generally anywhere near that old.  Parts of Saint-Germain-des-prés go back 1000 years, and Saint-Julien-le-pauvre began construction in the 1100s, but most Parisian churches are at least a hundred years younger than that.  So, you could call Cole’s explanation into question because of that.  However, it’s also certainly the case that many Parisian churches are built on the sites of earlier churches, or are mostly additions to earlier churches, or are replacements for churches that burnt down, or exploded, or set on fire by Vikings (I’m not kidding about any of this), or what-have-you.  So, there’s often some rationale for dating a church as being earlier than the current state of whatever you happen to see on the spot today.  For example, the current Saint-Germain-des-prés is dated to 1014, but it replaced another church that went up on the same spot in 542.  Saint-Julien-le-pauvre replaced another church built on the same spot in the 500s.  Google oldest church in paris and it will suggest both Saint-Germain-des-prés and Saint-Julien-le-pauvre.  It’s a difficult question.  But, it’s not inconsistent with Cole’s story.

600px-Gotic3d2 ribbed vault
Ribbed vaults in the cathedral at Reims. Picture source: Magnus Manske., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14607.

A personal digression: my very boring little residential neighborhood alone contains a Gallic Rite church–the somewhat-Celtic, somewhat Eastern Orthodox–and possibly somewhat Dark Ages French–Gallic Rite was abolished at some point (can anyone tell me when?), but later revived by Russian emigres in Paris in the early 20th century–and a wonderful Art Deco church.  I always assumed that Art Deco was totally American–it turns out that Art Deco is short for Arts Décoratifs, and the style had its origin in France.  Who knew?  Personally, I don’t think that this list of the ten most unusual churches in Paris has anything on my little neighborhood.

For more information on millenialism in medieval France, see:

Some good vocabulary for talking about churches in French:

  • la voûte: vault.
  • voûté (adj.): vaulted, arched.
  • voûté: stooped, round-shouldered.
  • la clé/clef de voûte: keystone.
  • la voûte en ogive: ribbed vault.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why there are so many churches in Paris”

  1. Millenianism sounds logical, and it’s an unexpected link between Orthodox white Russians and Gallic rites (somewhat Celtic?) … Art Deco was a gorgeous step ahead in aesthetics, and it’s not suprising it was “adopted” by Americans.

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  2. A point to learn or remember is that France for more than 1000 years was called ” the eldest daughter of the Church”. Before year 500 AD Clovis, the Frankish king who later became the first to reign upon more or less the territory of modern France, found clever to become Christian and submit to the bishop of Rome . By then this bishop was just one of several religious leaders aiming to become the Big Boss . The fact this huge and united country suddenly recognized his authority was a tremendous help for him, hence this nickname for France .
    France has always been a very spriritual country ( and I don’t mean religious ) . The first crusade was initiated from France, the Knights Templars too, my beloved Cathars tried to replace the dirty parody made by religious masters with an authentic spiritual way, the wars of religions between Catholic and Protestants triggered a long civil war .
    The weight of the Church was so heavy that there’s no wonder why revolutionary France associated it to the power and started going in the opposite direction . Action/reaction, logical .
    And about Celtic influence one has to know every cathedral and church were built upon Druidic sacred places (Chartres cathedral with its mysterious maze is just above “l’Ombilic des Gaules”, the telluric center of all Gauls where all druids met once a year), cathedral builders invented their technics by mixing what they had learnt from Jerusamen temple ( Free Masons origin here), the advanced Muslim architecture AND some druidic specific knowledge . All along the Middle Age Druidic tradition discretly survived in several Christian monasteries . The Holy Graal and the sudden appearing of the Cult of Mary come from this influence .

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