The Paris Catacombs is a major tourist attraction for the capital city of France and its history is even more enticing.
Back when Paris was being built, stone was used from limestone quarries, that at the time were well outside the city. But by the 17th century so many people had died in Paris that its cemeteries were quite literally overflowing. A solution was needed to clear out the backlog and hopefully create a solution for those that were still to die.
I really feel sorry for those that were living near the Les Innocents cemetery, which was the city’s oldest and largest cemetery. The cemetery had been in use since the early medieval period, eventually becoming the main cemetery for Paris. So it’s no wonder that the smell started to get pretty bad, especially because there are reports that there were layers of graves. They were literally just trying to stuff everyone in, it didn’t matter where.
Rabelais, a writer from the 16th century, even went so far as to describe Paris as "A good city to live in, but not to die in…"
When 1763 came around things were so bad that Louis XV, king at the time, had to issue an edict that banned any further burials within the capital. But, of course, the Church wasn’t a fan of this. And so literally everyone ignored the King’s orders and nothing changed. Typical.
When Louis XVI came around he kept harping on that all the cemeteries needed to be moved outside of Paris, you know for hygiene reasons, and still nothing was done.
And then we find ourselves in 1780 and Paris had been living with this problem of too many dead for about 20 years by this point. But the city was forced to do something about the problem this time, when excessive rain caused part of the wall that was literally holding the dead bodies in the cemetery to collapse, and lo-and-behold, dead, rotting corpses were spilling out.
It was thought that the old quarry tunnels that extended far, far, far under the city could be a pretty good spot to put all the dead people that were, quite literally, taking up way too much room. And so, it was decided that the bodies in the city’s cemeteries would be transferred to these underground places. Nice and out of the way.
The whole operation was the responsibility of a Monsieur Charles Axel Guillaumot, he was an inspector at the Department of General Quarry Inspection. Originally set up by Louis XVI in 1777, the department was meant to sort out the abandoned quarries that were causing parts of Paris to collapse. But now they had a much cooler job.
Starting from about 1785 the remains from the cemeteries were moved to the quarries under Paris. Interestingly, not many people wanted to really think about this, let alone see it, so the movers were forced to only carry out their work at night, so as not to upset the residents.
Les Innocents was the first to have its occupants moved, and it took another 12 years until all the cemeteries around Paris were cleared. Meaning that over 6 million individuals now call the Paris Catacombs home. And don’t even think about finding them, everyone’s just mixed in with everyone, like a great big happy family. Some of these folks even date back to more than 1200 years ago, or the Merovingian era.
As the bones were moved they were just dumped into two quarry wells that were located outside of the city. Then a group of quarry workers were forced to head on down and group, distribute, and pile the bones into galleries. Not creepy work at all.
And this work didn’t stop for anything, not even a revolution. In fact they only stopped after the French Revolution in 1814. And those who died throughout the French Revolution weren’t given a traditional burial, many of them just ended up straight in the Catacombs. But at least they’d be in pretty good company, because down there you might just find, Jean-Paul Marat, a pretty radical voice throughout the Revolution, or even Maximilien de Robespierre, a pretty influential figure not just for the Revolution but also for the Reign of Terror.
And these two aren’t the only famous people resting in the catacombs, because no records were kept we can’t know who is down there for sure, but you can bet there are many an infamous character from French history living it up in the tunnels.
Even though the movement of bones stopped briefly, they started up again in 1840 mainly because Louis-Philippe wanted to update the look of the entire city. Which is why we have the Haussmannian look throughout Paris that we have today.
It was in 1860, though, when the movement of the bones was officially and finally stopped. 6 million bodies had filled the quarries and Paris was once again able to handle their dead.
While it might seem like a pretty horrible thing to do to a whole lot of dead people who thought they would be in one spot for the rest of eternity, I suppose it is something that city planners need to take into account. At least the site was consecrated by the Church and named the ‘Paris Municipal Ossuary’ in 1786, so technically people are still resting on holy ground. But because of the discovery of the Roman Catacombs in the 16th century, the name stuck to the Paris equivalent.
The early catacombs were officially open to the public in 1809, but in reality it was only a select few that knew the right people who were able to head on down.
But just as the catacombs were opening to the public, the whole place kinda went through a ‘decorative rearrangement’ one might call it.
A bloke named Héricart de Thury was put in charge to transform the site using an approach similar to that taken in a museum at the time.
Before the rearrangement, the bones had been basically in piles, pushed in to make the most amount room for the 6 million complete skeletons still to come.
The bones were in all sorts of configurations, tibias with skulls against one wall, small fragments of bones up against another. And once de Thury got down in there, he started to spruce up the place, masons were brought in to add some Egyptian styles to some of the columns along the early circuit that guests would take. And specific rooms or places of note were given names that only make sense to the living, like the Sarcophagus, the Samaritan Fountain, or the Sepulchral Lamp.
De Thury didn’t want the Catacombs to just be a goggle fest though, he wanted people to actually learn something while they were down there, and so brought in a couple of cabinets of curiosities. These types of cabinets were very popular back in the day for showing off the oddities that one had collected around the world.
Of the two cabinets that de Thury placed in the Catacombs, one was for a display of minerals found in the Catacombs and the second was for pathology specimens that suffered from bone illnesses or deformaties.
Over the years, several studies have been undertaken within the Catacombs. Two researchers from the French Museum of Natural History were the first. There was Jacques Maheu, a botanist who was very interested in what would happen to plants if they were devoid of light. Spoiler alert: They die; and the second was Armand Viré, who was a naturalist who actually discovered that cave-dwelling crustaceans exist. Pretty exciting stuff.
But de Thury was not to be outdone, he also conducted his own experiment in 1813. He added four goldfish to the Samaritan Fountain, which holds ground water. Surprisingly the fish didn’t die right away but because of the lack of light they did go blind.
If we flash forward to 1861 we’ll see an experimental photographer, Félix Tournachon, taking the first photos using artificial light. These days the exposure time is less than a second but back then the time was so long that Félix was forced to use dummies.
As the quarrymen lined the walls with the millions of bones, they took some liberties. They made the decorations that we see today. The bones are arranged in various shapes, you’ll see hearts, circles, all sorts of stuff.
But the biggest issue for the Catacombs these days, is not the continuation of pathological research, but the conservation of the remains. The Paris Catacombs aims to respect and preserve the people who were forced to rest down in the tunnels, and they achieve that by promoting the archaeological, historical and geological heritage of the site and those that occupy it.
So the Catacombs are located about twenty metres under Paris, that’s lower than the sewers and the Metro, so pretty far down.
As we already know the Catacombs were opened to the public in 1809, but only by appointment.
And the Catacombs proved to be quite the popular attraction, both with the locals and foreigners, as early registers can attest.
Signs were put up to serve as commemorative plaques, and arrows were put up on the ceilings, so that those early visitors didn’t accidentally get lost. Because it wasn’t like it was now with steel gates stopping those from veering off the approved route, people could go any which way they pleased, and it would have been all the more spooky because they were seeing everything by candlelight.
It was old mate, Héricart de Thury, who in 1810 really did wonders in simple marketing tactics for the popularity of the Catacombs. He published brochures and encouraged people to visit: the most macabre place in the city.
The only issue they seemed to come up against early on, was that bones, especially skulls, would go missing, particularly from the displays. Initially the quarry workers who looked over the site would replace them with new skulls, but this was eventually stopped, so if you see a gap in one of the displays it’s because someone took that bone with them as souvenir.
Initially open by appointment only, the Catacombs visiting hours were constantly changing throughout the 19th century, sometimes they were open twice a month, sometimes only a couple times a year. But eventually the opening times became more consistent.
Since 2002 the Paris Catacombs have been the responsibility of the Carnavalet Museum, which is interested in everything concerning the History of Paris.
These days anyone and everyone can enter the Catacombs, they can travel along the approved route seeing the bones in their display arrangements, and almost 550 000 people go through. There is a cap on the number of people allowed within the Catacombs at any one time. It can be pretty small in places, so if you plan on visiting yourself get there well before they open otherwise you’ll be looking at hours of waiting.
Over the years they have slowly lengthened the opening hours, which meant that in 2017, over 530 000 people visited the Catacombs, so clearly the demand is there.
And in 2017 they also opened the new exit, which includes a gift shop. And in 2019 the new entrance was unveiled.
If you were to visit today, you’d find yourself descending 131 steps to get 20 metres down, and then you’d spend probably 40 mins to an hour walking through the 1.5 km circuit until you got to the end and start up 112 steps to pop back out at street level. All the tunnels together add up to over 300 km, so be thankful that the tourist route is only 1 and a half. Oh and it’s pretty chilly down there, usually a constant 14 degrees Celsius so don’t forget to bring along a jacket.
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Chantelle Bryant is a history buff that currently calls Melbourne, Australia home. She loves history so much she just had to get amongst everything historical and so set up her own history podcast, Destination: History, [link: destinationhistorypod.com] which helped to keep her sane through Melbourne’s never-ending lockdowns. She hopes that her love for history rubs off on her listeners and readers and allows them to scratch that history itch we all have.