A rue by any other name… exploring the streets of Paris
David Parsons writes in his book on Shropshire place-names that street-names ‘reveal the layers of history in a place’ and ‘fill the imagination with the sights, sounds, and smells of the past if we attend to them.’ We learn, for instance, that a high street in Shrewsbury formerly went by the name of ‘gumbestolestrete’ – a ‘gumble-stool’ being another word for ducking-stool, used in the Middle Ages to submerge supposed witches in water; that a Barker Street referred, not to a local dignitary as one might think, but to the tanning trade from the Middle English barkere.
From avenues to esplanades
While researching the street names for Paris Street Tales, I came across similarly interesting derivations and associations, so thoroughly studied in Jacques Hillairet’s classic Dictionnaire des rues de Paris. In Paris, streets are of course called not only rues, the usual word for streets, but avenues, allées, quais, boulevards, chemins, passages, passerelles, esplanades – all of which have slightly different connotations. Allées, for instance, tend to be in parks or cemeteries, avenues usually have trees on each side, quais are the paths along the banks of the Seine, and boulevards are the straight lines cut through the city by the Baron Haussmann in the 1850s.
Streets named after politicians (avenue Jean-Jaurès, rue Bonaparte); writers (place Colette, boulevard Beaumarchais); philosophers (boulevard Voltaire, rue Descartes), and over a hundred streets commemorating mathematicians and scientists, remind us of the debt of gratitude and respect we owe to those celebrated men and women who have gone before us. Other streets are named after flowers, trees, rivers, countries, towns, and so on – over five thousand of them altogether.
Memories and habits
Streets named after historical events – the rue du 8 mai 1945, for example, in the tenth arrondissement recording the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, or the place des Martyrs-Juifs-du-Vélodrome-d’Hiver, commemorating the Jews who were imprisoned here before being sent to death camps, are a sobering reminder of events in the not so distant past. I wonder if we will see a place Bataclan, or a rue Charlie Hebdo before too long?
Some streets fill the imagination more than others. The rue des Blancs Manteaux in the Marais, originally the rue de la Parcheminerie (‘parchment’), was changed to its present name because of the white habits (blancs manteaux) worn by the nuns in the convent in that street in the Middle Ages. It acquired a rather more sinister connotation in modern times when Juliette Gréco sang the song of that title, composed by Sartre and Kosma, about the executioners of the French Revolution. Not far from there the rue des Francs-Bourgeois (‘citizens exempt from tax’) was so named because a certain nobleman called Mazurier donated a mansion in that place in 1415 with accommodation for forty-eight of the poorest people, who didn’t have to pay taxes. The rue du Chat-qui-pêche, the narrowest street in Paris, a stone’s throw from the boulevard Saint Michel, is named after a legendary fishing cat which belonged to an alchemist and was popularly thought to be the incarnation of the Devil.
Professions (including the oldest one)
Many streets like the rue de la Parcheminerie tell us what trades were practised there in previous centuries. Who would suspect that the popular rue de la Bûcherie just across from Notre Dame on the Left Bank, used to be a street where logging took place? (bûches means ‘logs’). Often small quartiers reflect in their street names the trades practised in that area, for example, the rue des Taillandiers, (‘cutting-tool makers’ ) and the rue de la Ferronnerie, (‘ironwork’) which was originally rue des Charrons (‘waggon-makers’). One story, ‘Rue de la Tacherie’, in my anthology is sited in a street in the fourth arrondissement that was associated with hooks and fastenings – the original word being attacherie. Another instance, among many, of the name being corrupted with time is rue de la Grange aux Belles which may be a corruption of pelles (‘spades’). The image we have today of a shed full of beautiful women was probably nothing but a depot for spades!
It will not be a surprise to the inhabitants of Oxford, familiar with the original name Gropecunt Lane, now Magpie Lane, to learn that streets in the area of Paris that was famous for prostitution had similarly graphic names. The rue Dussoubs in the second arrondissement was originally in the thirteenth century named rue Gratte-Cul (‘scratch-arse’) and the neighbouring street rue Marie Stuart was originally named rue Tire-Vit (‘pull-cock’), vit being a word for penis. It was changed to the slightly less vulgar Tire-Boudin (‘pull-pudding’) in the fourteenth century, presumably to reflect developing sensibilities and pudeur. The story goes that after Mary Stuart had married the Dauphin, François II, in 1558 she drove along this street and to the general embarrassment of her companions, asked what it was called. No one told her. In 1809 the minister who was at that time responsible for naming streets decreed it should once again be changed and given the much more decent name of Mary Stuart.