In Old Paris

Edited & Translated
by Robert W. Berger

H-France, August 2003.

Sixteenth Century Journal 34.2 (2003)

Medium Aevum 72.2 (2003)


H-France, August 2003
Review by Colin Jones, University of Warwick.

In Old Paris is a useful teaching volume, with modest aims which are accomplished tidily. It provides a selection of five descriptions of the city between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. There are passages from Jean de Jandun’s A Treatise on the Praises of Paris (1323); from Guillebert de Mets’s The Description of the City of Paris (early fifteenth century); from A Description of Paris written in the late sixteenth century by the Secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Paris; from Marana’s A Pleasant Critique of Paris (1692); and Karamzin’s Letters from Paris (1790). The editor tells us that these particular texts have been chosen because “they are the most interesting and vivid descriptions of the city from each of those centuries that are suitable for an anthology.” The introductions to each text bring out the vividness of the detail well and also comment on the very different genres to which each text belongs. With the exception of Karamzin, all are made available in English for the first time.

The translations look crisp, and the scholarly apparatus comprises a brief appendix on the size and population of Paris, some useful maps, and a fairly lengthy “architectural gazetteer.” The latter is a little luxuriant, in a volume less than half of which is primary text, and I would have preferred footnotes to the architectural gazetteer. But these are niggles. All in all, this is a job done well: let us hope that Professor Berger finds an audience.


Sixteenth Century Journal 34.2 (2003)
Reviewed by Whitney Leeson, Roanoke College

ROBERT W. BERGER, editor and translator of In Old Paris, offers the reader five memorable descriptions of Paris written by an eclectic group of individuals whose writings span 467 years of Parisian history. Collectively they describe “old Paris” — Paris before the political upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte; Paris before Napoleon III tasked Baron Haussmann with transforming the medieval city into a well-ordered capital set out along a geometrical grid of avenues and boulevards. The Paris brought to life in Berger's anthology is associated with such architectural monuments as Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Place des Vosges, and Notre-Dame. Yet the texts assembled here provide much more than an enumerated list of the city’s historically significant architectural features. They provide the reader with eyewitness accounts of dramatic, political events as well as glimpses of quotidian life in Europe’s most populated city. Indeed, the sights, smells, and sounds of Old Paris come alive through the words of Jean de Jandun, a native Frenchman and philosophy professor at the University of Paris in the early 1300s; Guillebert de Mets, a Fleming who was a professional scribe and book-dealer whose clientele included Duke John “the Fearless” of Burgundy; an anonymous secretary to Girolamo Lippomano, the Venetian ambassador to the French court from 1577 to 1579; the Italo-French author Giovanni Paolo Marana who lived in Paris from circa 1684 until his death in 1693; and the renowned Russian writer Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin who enjoyed three months in Paris from March 27 to late June 1790 as part of his European grand tour. Of the five authors in this anthology, only the Karamzin text has been previously translated.

Three criteria in particular determined Berger’s selection of texts: First, chronology: one selection for each century ranging from the fourteenth through the eighteenth; second, quality of description: the portraits of Paris chosen include what Berger considered to be “the most interesting and vivid descriptions of the city”; and third, strategies of description: each selection represents a different genre of urban description ranging from the laudes (praises) tradition to the epistolary form. Specifically Jandun’s “A Treatise of the Praises of Paris” (1323) is written in the laudes tradition and extols the virtues of the city and its inhabitants including the faculty at the University of Paris, priests, and manual artisans. Using a topographical approach, Guillebert de Mets, in “The Description of the City of Paris and of the Excellence of the Kingdom of France” (1407-34), comments upon the neighborhoods of Paris, the city's monuments, and the difficulties of living in a city politically divided between the Burgundian dukes and their Orleans kin. “A Description of Paris...” (1579), written in the ambassadorial tradition by the Venetian ambassador's secretary, details political events, notable personalities (particularly Catherine de Médicis and her son, Henry III), as well as the practicalities of living in a foreign city where the price of food and lodging is high. Marana's chatty epistolary style of writing in “An Italian Letter Written by a Sicilian Containing a Pleasant Critique of Paris” (1692) allows him to move randomly from descriptions of streetlights and tennis to astute comments concerning class and gender distinctions among the Parisians. Lastly Karamzin’s diary entries entitled “Letters from Paris” (1790) offer pages of vibrant prose devoted to descriptions of coffeehouses, the National Assembly Parisian theatres, and the squalor associated with the lower classes.

Scholars interested in Paris, medieval and early-modern France, urban description, or travel literature will want a copy of Berger’s latest contribution to the field of French art and architecture. In addition, a select bibliography on “Parisian History Urbanism, and Architecture,” several maps, an architectural gazetteer, an appendix giving the size and population of Paris from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, a glossary, and an index make In Old Paris a useful textbook for classroom use. The price, a mere $15.00, makes it a practical choice as well.

Medium Aevum, 72.2 (2003): 378

This useful anthology includes — from the medieval period — descriptions of the city of Paris by Jean de Jandun (1323) and Guillebert de Metz (1407-34), as well as descriptions by a Venetian (1577-9), a Genoese (1692), and a Russian (1790). Its great value, of course, is to place at the disposal of an English-speaking audience a miscellany of impressions which suggest ways in which the city was perceived across some four centuries. It includes a useful introduction and bibliography, along with notes on each of the texts anthologized.


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