Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 1 of 3)

I mentioned in my previous “Smith in the City” post (see here) that Adam Smith’s principal residence in Paris in 1766, the Hotel du Parc Royal, was located in the historic Faubourg Saint-Germain. Originally, this faubourg or “suburb” was an agricultural area located beyond the old city walls of early medieval Paris. By the time of Adam Smith’s residency in Paris (1766), however, this quiet quarter, still far less populated and polluted than the other parts of this growing metropolis, was becoming one of the most exclusive and fashionable parts of the City of Lights.

Two great monuments marked the outer boundaries of this up-and-coming district. On one end was the Invalides, a grandiose hospital and retirement community for aged soldiers built in the 1670s, nine decades prior to Smith’s visit.[1] On the other, next to the oldest part of old city wall of Paris, the Wall of Philip Augustus, stood the thousand-year-old abbey complex of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the burial place of Saint Germanus and of King Childebert and other Merovingian kings and one of the oldest churches in Paris. Pictured delow is a fragment of the 1615 Merian map of Paris (available here), which shows the original abbey complex (bottom center) and old city wall (top left) as well as the Rue du Colombier (bottom center):

The name of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was founded by Childebert I during the Middle Ages (6th century), derives from Saint Germanus, the bishop of Paris during Childebert’s reign (511–558) and the fact that it was originally built on a meadow, prés in French.[2] The north side of the abbey complex faced the Rue du Colombier, which ran parallel to the River Seine and was where the Hôtel du Parc Royal was located. Under royal patronage, the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés became one of the richest in France and remained a center of intellectual life in the French Catholic church until it was disbanded during the Revolution. Today, most of the abbey complex is gone, but the original abbey church still stands as the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés.[3]

Between these two ends of Faubourg Saint-Germain were many hôtel particuliers, private gardens, the Café Procope, theatre houses, and other sights.[4] But as far as I am concerned, what must have struck Adam Smith the most about this district–and about the City of Lights overall–was the corps of garbage collectors and lamp lighters who performed their municipal tasks each day. Garbage was collected every morning, and street lamps were lit every evening. Given Smith’s keen sense of observation and attention to detail, how could he have not taken notice of the scale and efficiency of these quotidian public works?

I will describe the details of the daily garbage collection and lamp lighting operations of the police of Paris in my next two posts.


[1] Louis XIV had commissioned the architect Libéral Bruant in 1670 to design and build this great complex. CITATION] Stretching almost 200 meters along the Seine River, the complex had 15 courtyards, the largest being the cour d’honneur (“court of honour”) for military parades.

[2] At the time of its founding, the Left Bank of Paris was prone to flooding from the Seine, so much of the land could not be built upon.

[3] The Abbey’s cloisters were destroyed by an explosion during the Revolution and its library destroyed in a fire in 1794, but the church itself was spared these calamaties. The oldest part of the current church is the prominent western tower (partly restored and modified), which was built by Abbot Morard around the year 1000.

[4] During the 18th century, after the initial construction and later expansion of the Invalides, many of the most prestigious families of the French nobility began to build their residences or hôtel particuliers in this area of Paris. This quarter became so fashionable within the French aristocracy that the phrase le Faubourg has been used to describe French nobility ever since. Honoré de Balzac, for example, explains the very specific Faubourg’s aristocratic way of life in his novel La Duchesse de Langeais.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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3 Responses to Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 1 of 3)

  1. Sheree says:

    Fascinating series of posts, thank you.

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