The street was named after Saint Benoît, the founder of the Benedictine religious order that created the Saint-Germain-des-Prés abbey (and whose first church dates from 558).
During the Orléans monarchy the oppositional clandestine newspapers Moniteur Républicain (the Republican Instructor) and L’Homme libre (The Free Man) were printed by the Blanquist concierge of No. 26, Antoine Fomberteaux, who was arrested there for possession of gunpowder in October 1838.
In 1839, Etienne Cabet also lived in the street after his return from exile in England.
During the Commune the mainly Proudhon-influenced Paris members of the International Working Men’s Association used to print leaflets at the Claye printshop at No. 7.
The same address was used by Lucien Rameau in 1941-1942. He clandestinely printed anti-Vichy leaflets in the secret Communist Party bookshop and print works based there.
The buildings at No. 16-18 used to be a girls’ school and are now a mixed nursery and primary school. In 1871 it was the meeting place of the ‘Union des Femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés ‘ (The Women’s Paris Defence and Wounded Relief Union), attended by Elisabeth Dmitrieff and Nathalie Le Mel.
The road was initially built on part of the moat around the city of Paris walls leading up to the River Seine, and briefly called the Rue du Sénat from 1867 until the fall of Napoleon III.
It’s well known partly because of the Jacques Prévert poem of the same name.
Maximillien Luce, the anarchist sympathiser and friend of Félix Fénéon, had a flat at No. 16 that he lived in when in Paris.
1830 was a life-changing time for many. George Sand lived at No. 31 in 1831.
After she was excluded from earning a living by teaching in June 1943, Simone de Beauvoir moved with Sartre to live at the Hotel La Louisiane at no. 60. She lived in room 58, Sartre in room 10. They spent their days (when Sartre wasn’t teaching) at the Cafe de Flore.
This Paris street widens as you walk up it towards the Luxembourg Palace in the Rue Vaugirard. It was once the home of several of France’s wealthiest people who built small palaces outside the confines of the inner Paris wall.
But it also has a left history. André Gide lived at No. 2 for eight years, from 1875-1883.
Next door, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin at the Hôtel de Montmorency at No. 4, was followed to his home from the assembly on June 24 1848 and threatened with death after he was denounced for being too supportive of the workers’ insurrection. Sharing the same address at the time was Lamartine, another leading campaigner for the extension of the suffrage.
Jacques Prévert moved to the fifth floor of No. 5 for a year in the winter of 1910 when he was ten years old. Fifteen years later he married Simone Dienne, three years younger than him, whose family lived on the ground floor in 1910.
In 1840 Charles Fourier, the early utopian socialist, edited the revue in the offices of La Phalange (sucessor paper to the Phalanstère) at No 6.
During the 1848 revolution, the anarchist Bakunin stayed at the Republican Guard barracks at No. 10.
In May 1871 the barracks offered a different menu: it was where some Communards fighting in Paris’ National Guard were court-martialed during the bloody week.
The Foyot restaurant that was bombed in 1894 where Laurent Tailhade, ironically a supporter of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchist movement, lost an eye was also used by the painter Gustave Courbet and other Commune supporters in 1871.
A scandal broke out at Foyot shortly before Verlaine died when in rags he was invited to dine there by a symbolist poet and dandy.
Initially bits of the boggy land on a narrow country lane through Abbey land were sold by Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey to builders, and it was called the Saint Sulpice lane in 1517. The road was soon renamed Rue de Tournon in 1541, after Cardinal François de Tournon (1489-1562) who ran the abbey.
Under the Second Republic in 1849 the government decided to allow the road to take its current unique bell-shaped dimensions, running from 13.5 meters wide up to double that when opening up to the Luxembourg Palace.
The Luxembourg Palace (No. 15-17) is the most well-known building in the old Roman road that is the longest street in Paris. The road now stretches 4.360 Km westwards from the Boulevard Saint Michel to the junction of the Boulevards Lefebvre and Victor on the inner ring-road called the ‘Petite Ceinture‘ on which route a small train used to run round Paris
The end of the road was where, at Nos. 393 and 399 barricades were built across the street in March 1871 to prevent the Versaillais troops from entering.
The road’s name comes from the ancient village of Vaugirard, called after the mid-13th century owner of the land there, ‘Val du Girard’.
Among the tens of thousands who have lived in this old road are some who we feature in Left in Paris, often living alongside forgotten bits of left history.
The Trianon-hôtel, for example, at No. 1- 3 witnessed one of the first attacks by the resistance against a hotel requisitioned by the German army. The bombing took place on 14 November 1942 organised by thelargely foreigner and Jewish Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d’œuvre immigrée(Fighters and partisans – Migrant Workers) group.
At No. 4, then called the Hôtel Lisbonne, Paul Verlaine lived off and on between periods in hospital from 1889 to 1994. Today the hotel boasts of its earlier desperately poor and severely ill guest, and calls itself the Hôtel Fontaines du Luxembourg.
From 1906 Jacques Prévert lived at No. 7 and went to school next door, in No. 9. I’ve very fond memories of the Vaugirard school where my son Michael spent a happy four months when he was ten. The area has completely changed since then. The school was constantly complaining about the bourgeois dog owners who allowed their tiny animals to deposit all over the surrounding streets as they walked them to the Luxembourg Garden.
Émile Zola lived in rooms at No 10 in 1866 with Alexandre Meley whom he married in 1870.
After the Farmers’ General wall was completed there were two customs posts across Rue Vaugirard. One was at No. 102 and another (la barrière du Maine) from Nos. 111-132.
Victor Hugo and his wife Adèle lived at what was 90 rue de Vaugirard but is now numbered 86-88 for the first three years of their marriage, from 1824-1827.
On December 10 1904 Lenin sat for the Russian sculptor, Naoum Aronson (1872-1943) at his studio in No. 93.
When she first arrived in Paris around 1860, the feminist bookbinder and Communard Nathalie le Mel mother of three worked at Pasquier et Vigneau’s bookbinding works at No. 150 (in the 15th arrondissement).
French measurementsof distance
For the real historical nerds among us, in the wall at No. 85 is an early 18th century ‘half-league stone’. The Fleur de Lys on it was removed during the French Revolution. The marker (borne) indicates the first half-league (lieue) – that is 500 toises.
A toise was the distance between a man’s outstretched arms, approximately 6 feet) or 2 Km from the entrance to Notre-Dame cathedral. 1 lieue = 1,000 toises, or approximately 4 Km. A toise is the equivalent of the fathom in English, but in France it was used both on land and at sea.
At the French Revolution France still used hundreds of different weights and measures, originally derived from Roman units where the leuga (lieue/league) was the distance that a man can run in an hour. King Charlemagne (742-814) had added the pied du Roi (the King’s foot) and the toise. The pouce (inch) was the width of a human thumb, and was 1/12th of the pied du roi. The ligne (line) was 1/12th of a pouce, and the point (Truchet point in English) was 1/12th of a ligne.
After Charlemagne the fragmentation of France and of Europe accelerated. So distances varied from town to town, with the variation in 1 league (lieue) being from 3.268 km to 5.849.
On August 4 1789 a successful resolution from the Jacobin Club at the Constituent Assembly abolished all the privileges of the Crown, including its right to determine measures of distance and weight.
In 1790 Talleyrand proposed the drawing up of a Universal Measure, and the National Assembly proposed doing this jointly with the United Kingdom, who refused.
In 1791 a law established a Commission to establish the universal measure. They decided it should be based on a quarter of the length of a meridian and gave two geographers the task of measuring it exactly. They took seven years to measure the distance between Barcelona and Dunkerque.
This exercise was considered too long-winded for both military and political reasons. So on August 1 1793 the National Convention passed a decree determining the ‘provisional’ length of what in 1795 was named the metre. This was based on a millionth of the 1739-1740 distance measured by Lacaille from the North Pole to the Equator. It was exactly 3 pieds, 11 lignes and 44 hundredths of the principal toise used in Paris.
Finally, on 7 April 1795, the new system of weights and measures adopted by the French National Convention were named: metres and grams. A metal metre-long yardstick embedded in marble was then placed in the wall at no. 36 rue de Vaugirard. And in a shop window at No.r 215 there is an 1840 cast iron kilometer stone marking 3.5 km from the centre of Paris.
The old and new systems were used concurrently in France over the next half century. Metric leagues were used from 1812 to 1840 with one metric lieue = 4000 metres or 4 Km. The use of the old system was finally ended across the whole of France by the law of 1837.
But when in 1988 Joe, Joan and I bought a half-finished farm/barn in the Haute Savoie, and I had to finish off the plumbing, I can still remember the plumbing shop in Thonon-les-Bains where the width of copper pipes and joints were still in pouces (inches). In the UK metrication became government policy under Wilson in 1965 and in 1973, with accession to the European Economic Community, the UK was given 5 years to adopt metric units and by 1980 virtually no schools continued to teach in feet and inches.