Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Conciergerie Prison



When you look at maps of Paris, the unofficial center of the city seems to be the little island in the middle of the Siene, the Île de la Cité. It is probably most famous for being the location of Notre Dame Cathedral, but toward the other end of the island is a former royal palace, first occupied in the 10th century.

It seems like a perfectly obvious place to have put a Royal palace, with the river providing a natural moat for easy protection. However, it's hard to fault Charles V for choosing to move just across the river to the much more grand residence that is now the Louvre.

The former palace, being left in charge of a concierge, was now named The Conciergerie. Although it does seem to me that they could have found something a bit more refined to use a former palace for, presumably furnished and decorated accordingly, than to turn it into a prison. But go figure, that's exactly what they did.


Today it's mostly used by the Paris law courts. But the oldest part, below ground, is open to the public, with exhibitions about prison life there. There is also, as usual, a lot of information to be found about the place on Wikipedia.

Its most notable function as a prison was during the French Revolution, which I find adorably ironic. Prisoners accused of treason were brought here to await a trial for which there were only two outcomes, acquittal or death - with no possibility of appeal. And if they were sentenced to death, execution was usually within hours. So the Conciergerie soon became known as "the anteroom to the guillotine".

So prisoners weren't often here long during that period, but that wasn't the case before and afterwards, which meant there was still a very definite class system in place. It's just the kind of thing I found very interesting about the Titanic exhibition I went to see in Las Vegas once, how so many class variations manage to fit under one roof in their equally varied circumstances.

It's also one of the reasons I like to see personal homes that are still intact from past periods. Each group has its own designated area, with comfort and style reflecting the group;s place in the hierarchy. There are the family adults at the top, followed by the children, then upstairs servants, downstairs...and so on.

Anyway, in prisons, the largest population was the poor.
They were crowded into rooms with straw on the floor for sleeping. And that was pretty much it. They were even referred to as "pailleux". Straw yokels.

The rooms were infested with rats and, according to Wikipedia, "the stench of urine permeated every room".

That Wikipedia, with its flowery phrasing.

I apologize for the glare in these photos, but the exhibits are all behind glass, and my non-existent photography skills are not up to that kind of challenge.

Next, a very much smaller group, were those with enough money to spare for a few creature comforts. An actual bed, off the ground, just one or two roommates. As the exhibit description explains, "...prisoners could at least sleep while avoiding the promiscuity and bad smells of the pailleux quarters."

All righty, then.

Those with actual wealth could afford to rent their own room,
and furnish it with any number of comforts. The glare in this photo is extra bad, but I think you can just make out the drop leaf desk. And, of course, you can always click on photos to make them bigger and hopefully easier to see.

The highest comfort was reserved for the most famous prisoners. And probably the most famous to reside within these walls was Marie Antoinette.

She had more room, but it was at the expense of her privacy.
If this exhibition is accurate, then there were always a couple of guards just right behind a simple decorative screen.

The original women's courtyard, where they went for fresh air and to do laundry, is also available to the public. If you look closely, you can see a small part of a stone tub sticking out from a corner on the left. That's where they did the washing.

There was plenty more, and I didn't even get a photo of the building's exterior, which was fabulous. Of course. But you can see all of that on either the landmark's website, or Wikipedia, using the links above.

But this is exactly the kind of thing I really do find interesting and would like to take my time visiting, yet I'd never heard of it before. That's why I want more time in Paris, to explore. I've got a few more days coming up soon. I plan to skip the Eiffel Tower again, since I will be bringing the kids to see it when they get here.

Very nice circular staircase.
That means more that I've never seen before, but hopefully a bit of time to just hang out and enjoy the city a bit, as well. Of course, I'm not counting on the same fabulous weather, I think that many days of sunshine in a row was considered something of a miracle by the Parisians.

But whatever, unlike those poor people in this post, I'm going to my happy place. [Insert sparkly emoji here.]

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