Bizarre and Grotesque History of the Square des Innocents

Painting by John James Chalon (1823)

History has always interested me. Living in Paris has only added to this interest because not only am I obsessed with this city, but also learning about it. While a lot of people turn up their noses towards Chatelet, I like the area because of all the history behind it. The Square of Innocents has an interesting past to say the least. I live near one of the only surviving Renaissance fountains in Paris, the Fountain of Innocents. This area has gone through a lot of changes through the years.

Originally, the Square of Innocents was home to a cemetery and the fountain that is there now has actually been moved several times. The cemetery has been around for a while as it was a graveyard in Roman times. The thing I think is extremely poor planning is that Les Halles is the spot where the city market was. Not that I know much about city planning, but for some reason having a cemetery overflowing with bodies next to a food market does not sound overly appealing…or sanitary.

There wasn’t even a wall around the graveyard until the 12th century. However, it wasn’t until 1780 that someone brought up the point of health and the cemetery was closed. All the bones were brought to what is known as the catacombs now. The rest of the remains (which I am not going to explain more what I mean) can be read about here. It is shocking it took this long because stories of the stench of this place date way back. It was said you could catch a disease just walking by, if you survived the walk in the first place. Apparently, a poor little shoemaker had fallen into a burial pit one night and was found dead the next morning.

Whenever I read anything about this area, I imagine something out a horror movie. A bulging cemetery, overcrowded with bodies and sketchy characters like thieves and prostitutes populating the outside. This area attracted loads of grave robbers even though there was a wall put up in attempts to stop them. What started as a graveyard for individual burials, soon turned in to a place where up to 1500 people were buried in one pit. Eventually the cemetery got so full, the bodies were stored in nearby cellars. There was a deadly outbreak of disease in a nearby street; however, it was attributed to ‘bad air’ at the time. Fought with resistance from the church collecting burial fees, the cemetery was finally closed after the long period of rain that truly exposed the horrors of the place.

The Fountain of Innocents today

The fountain was built in the 1540’s and relocated in the 1780’s to the middle of the square where the market was relocated to the spot of the old cemetery (still not clean in my eyes but hey). It was originally at the back of the now demolished church on the corner of Rue Saint Dennis. It was designed by Pierre Lescot and sculpted by Jean Goujon. Finally it found its permanent home in 1858, where it is now on top of a circular basin. Sadly there is no longer the bustling market surrounding it, but rather modern shops and skateboarders. However, I will take this any day over the disgusting filth that was there during its cemetery days.

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