Rue Saint-Jacques

Arrondissement 5

Numbers: 2, 10, 44-46, 54, 115-123, 158, 176, 216, 241, 260, 272, 277, 278

One of Paris’ oldest streets the road was the main north-south route through Paris under the Romans, who paved it and widened it (to half its present 20 metre width).

Use of St Jacques in the road’s name dates from the 1218 founding of a monastery of Dominican ‘brother preachers’ with a Saint-Jacques chapel. The location of the Jacobin brothers’ monastery was approximately around No. 158. It was closed in 1790 and its building gradually demolished over the first half ot the 19th century. In the early 17th century a second monastery for ‘reformed Jacobins’ was built on the Rue Saint-Honoré.

Pre-revolutonary Paris showing the Rue St Jacques from left to right with the College de Plessis, the Sorbonne University and the Jacobin monastery

The road was definitively named the Rue Saint-Jacques in 1806 and variously widened and extended out to the Boulevard de Port Royal in the 1860s and 1900s.

No. 2 used to stand with other houses and shops in front of the Saint-Sevérin church was finally pulled down in 1907 for the last road-widening.

Saint Sevérin church with about-to-be demolished houses and shops in front of it in 1907 before the road’s definitive widening at its northern end close to the Seine (and the tourists).

But on June 23 1848 workers resisting the closure of the world’s first workshops for the unemployed took shelter in the novelty shop No. 2 (not unlike the one I photographed in 2017 in the Rue des Petits Ponts a few metres away and shown here). The bourgeois armed guard entered the shop after them and massacred all of them.

A small narrow shop like this one a few metres to the north of the Rue St Jacques was the scene of a summary execution of those fighting to defend the first ever unemployment pay system.

The Saint-Sevérin church itself at No. 10 witnessed the summary execution of Communard supporters within the Church’s domed apse on May 24 1871. Many had been defending the barricade across the street at No 54 that was helping protect the Versaillais troops from attacking the Panthéon further up the hill.

Another barricade across the road at No. 195 was bypassed by the Versaillais troops and all its defenders killed on that same day during the ‘bloody week’ of the Commune.

The first student demonstration against the German occupation took place on 8 November 1940, when students gathered at the cross roads of the Rue des Écoles and Nos. 44-46 Rue St Jacques to protest against the arrest of Paul Langevin.

The Jesuit-origin Lycée Louis-le-Grand  at No 123 has helped train French ruling elites since the 17th century now includes the site of the old Collège du Plessis at No. 115.

From 1792 to 1799 the Collège de Louis-le-Grand was renamed the Collège de l’Égalité. Its alumini included Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre, but also before the Revolution, Moliere, Voltaire, Sade and after Victor Hugo, Delacroix and Marc Bloch.

Part of the Plessis college was used as a prison, initially keeping those sent to Paris to be tried or executed by provincial towns lacking a guillotine, and then as an overflow. It was here that Babeuf met and influenced Buonarroti, Joseph Bodson (or William Bodson), Claude Fiquet, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lefranc, Morel, Claude Menessier, Jean-Baptiste Cazin, Guillaume Massart and Mathurin Bouin and other future members of Babeuf’s “conspiracy”. They were rounded up as Robespierre’s supporters in the summer of 1794 but used the months together to develop a more radical, communistic revolutionary politics.

The Academie d’ Absinthe café used by Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine was situated at No. 176. Absinthe was banned in 1914 in France but it remained the only European country not to allow the name to be used when it was approved by the European Union in 1988.

In 1888 Verlaine restarted his Wednesday literary meetings at the Grand Hôtel des Nations at No 216 where he was living. Later, in 1891, he lived at the dancer Eugénie Krantz’s flat at No 272 before moving to No. 187, which was where in 1893 he asked her to come and live with him.

When she came back to France in October 1910, the Bolshevik Inessa Armand first lived at No. 241 before moving to a flat next to Lenin’s in the Rue Marie-Rose.

Half a century earlier, No. 241 had also been one of the addresses where the teenage Emile Zola had stayed in 1859-1860 soon after arriving in Paris.

Zola moved to the sixth floor of No. 278 in 1864-1865 when he was 24 and worked in a bookshop. This was where his first novel, Contes à Ninon (Stories for Ninon), was published.

The school for deaf children founded by Charles-Michel de L’Épée at No 254 became a centre for revolutionary republican clubs in 1848. Those based here included: the Club des Intérêts du Peuple, the Club démocratique Ibérique and the Comité électoral démocratique du 11ème arrondissement.

The plaque at No 254 recalls the Institute’s history of welcoming pilgrims on their way to St Jacques de Compostelle in the Middle Ages, but not its revolutionary credentials in 1848.

Further south down the street is a plaque outside No 260/262. This honours Emile Durkheim, the ‘founder of sociology’, who lived there from 1902 to 1912.

The military hospital, Val de Grâce, at 277bis, now houses an interesting museum. During the First World War Apollinaire was a patient there, while Louis Aragon and André Breton first met when they were stationed there.

In 1979 the military teaching hospital in the old abbey was moved to a new building with an entrance in the Boulevard de Port-Royal. It was finally closed in 2016, after having treated people like Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and the Algerian president from 1999 to 2019, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Marc Blondel died there in 2014.

Today outside the Val de Grace hospital the authorities have hung a copy of De Gaulle’s 18 June 1940 proclamation calling for the French to fight together to ‘Save France’.

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