History of Paris: the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery and what remains of it

Published by Rizhlaine F. · Updated on 13 April 2021 at 16h51 · Published on 13 April 2021 at 13h10
Did you know? In Paris Halles area used to lay a very infamous cemetery in town: the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. Find out more about its fascinating history and the few remnants that can still be seen today.

Paris’ face has changed over time, and sometimes, we surprisingly discover the past of some places. This is the case of the Halles district. Where now stands the Place Joachim-du-Bellay used to lay a very well-known cemetery: the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery.

The cemetery originates back to the Merovingians and for over 1,000 it used to be the resting place of Paris’ deaths until it closed in 1780. It is said that about two million Parisians have been buried there. A first chapel commemorating Saint-Michel has been built before being replaced by a wider church circa 1130, as ordered by Louis VI the Fat. It was dedicated to the Holy Innocents – hence the name.

Histoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en reste

The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery – a landmark in the Paris daily life

In addition to the church, charnel houses, and a fountain, the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery also use to provide two secluded places – called reclusoir in French. These small cells used to house secluded people who were then walled-in. The first Innocents’ secluded place was the most famous in Paris. It included two loopholes that had grills fitted, one looking over the outside to get the food, and the other to the inside of the church to enable the secluded person to attend the religious services.

Four famous women are said to have secluded at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. The first one, Alix La Bourgeotte, is said to have stayed lived in her reclusoir for 46 years. The second one, Jeanne La Verrière, said she wanted to live secluded while Alix La Bourgeotte was already living in her cell for 18 years. A second reclusoir was then built. Renée de Vendôme – found guilty of adultery and for murdering her husband – has been sentenced to live until the end of her life in a reclusoir. As for the fourth secluded woman, she was a widow called Jeanne Pannoncelle.

The least we can say it that this cemetery was highly coveted by Parisians. Genuine place of life and meeting, by night it used to be the place to be for merchants and walkers. But by night, the cemetery was less reputable. The remains of 22 Parisian parishes were buried, added to those from Hôtel-Dieu, the bodies of the victims of the 1348 plague, as well as non-identified bodies from the morgue of the Cité, including people who drowned in the Seine, and people dead on the public place, were then buried in mass graves.

Histoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en resteHistoire de Paris : Le cimetière des innocents et les vestiges qu'il en reste

The end of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery

There were then too many corpses for a too-small of a cemetery. It was also said the soil could eat a body in nine days. Charnel houses have been added around the cemetery to house bones removed. The Charnier des Lingères, set on the South side of the former cemetery – parallel to rue de la Ferronnerie – used to stand out with a fresco depicting a danse macabre. In turns, it depicted nobles, religious representatives, farmers, and even sovereigns forced to follow the dead, reminding that no one can escape this fate.

But after a thousand years of activity, the cemetery – set in the heart of Paris – grew insalubrious. The level of the soil is even said to have exceeded by 2.50-m the one in the neighboring streets, because of the excess of bodies there was. Furthermore, a bill from 1765 banned cemeteries within cities for insalubrious grounds. A decisive event led to the definitive closure of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in 1780. Because of the weight of bodies buried, one of the dividing walls collapsed and the remains of Parisians poured into a restaurateur’s cellar. The cemetery was then destroyed in 1786.

The remnants of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery

Today, there are very few remnants of this Parisian cemetery. The remains of people buried there are now found in Paris Catacombs. On the Place Joachim-du-Bellay, the Fontaine des Innocents – or Innocents’ Fountain – was the one standing next to the Eglise des Innocents, now destroyed. At 8 rue de la Ferronnerie and 15 rue des Innocents, you can find the arches that used to support two of the cemetery charnel houses. Remnants are also kept in the Louvre and the Musée Carnavalet.

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