Paris: landscape and urban environment

Early History

Île de la Cité

The Île de la Cité is a natural island on the Seine which was at the center of the early development of Paris.  It was used as a fortified crossing point by the Parisii, a tribe of Gauls who inhabited the island starting around 300 B.C. [1]. These early inhabitants are responsible for the modern name of the city, Paris [2]. The opportune location of this island on the Seine made it a defensible retreat point which prompted its initial growth. The much smaller nearby island, the Île Saint-Louis, was also used by early inhabitants in a less formal capacity.



The first walled town on the main island of Île de la Cité was constructed by the Gallo-Romans [1]. Under the command of Julius Caesar in 53 B.C., the Roman army conquered Gaul, which includes the Parisii settlement on the Seine [3]. The first mention of the early name for the town, Lutetia, is made in this period by Julius Caesar. 


Lutetia in these times included many of the staples of a Roman town such as a forum, an amphitheater, and an extensive bath complex [1]. The Thermes de Cluny, like all roman baths, were freely open to the public. The construction of these impressive sites might have had the effect of bringing Roman customs to the Gaulish population. Despite these additions,  Paris and much of its development was still centered around and largely confined to the Île de la Cité.

While the main city was centered on the Île de la Cité, infrastructure to maintain the population expanded beyond these boundaries. Under Roman rule, production of food relied on the large farms outside the city center and three necropolises (cemeteries) on the edges of the city [3]. It was in one of these necropolises that the body of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was placed circa 250 [4].

Military Fortification

Attacks by the Germanic Alamans and Franks around the year 275 caused damage to the town of Lutetia [3]. This lead to an increased focus on fortification of both the Île de la Cité and the area around the Roman forum. Despite these impacts of the ‘barbarian’ attacks, Lutetia was not as affected as other areas and residences outside of the defensible barriers were still constructed [3].

Lutetia became a garrison city with the establishment of a military camp. The military focus on Lutetia facilitated improvements in the road system in order to facilitate the swift movement of troops [3].  In 358 A.D. Ceasar over the western provinces, Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus) chose the city as his winter headquarters to oversee the Germanic raiding. He described it as:

“a small island in a river, a wall entirely surrounds it, and wooden bridges lead to it on both sides.” [1].

As evidenced in this description, the town had grown during this period to include wooden bridges for more expeditious transportation to the Île de la Cité.  Julian also established a basilica on the Île de la Cité which became increasingly important in later periods [3].

Map of Lutetia as it would have been during Julian’s time.
Image courtesy Parisian Fields.

Post Roman, Merovingian


A few years before Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410, Lutetia and much of the Roman defensive frontier was overtaken by the invaders [3]. Development of the urban environment of the city was limited by repeated conquests compared to other major cities. Compared to Rome, Trier, Lyon and many other cities of the period it had relatively few inhabitants. However, Paris did have the advantage of being one of the few cities in Northern Gaul in which building could be done with locally quarried stone [3]. Deposits of limestone and gypsum a short distance from the Île de la Cité provided raw materials for the construction process throughout the medieval period. 

Political Status

After Clovis conquered much of the original Western Empire in 508, he needed a new centrally located base of operations. Other locations were too far out of the way so:

“He chose Paris: the little walled city, still confined to the island in the Seine, [which] was in the heart of Clovis’s northwestern kingdom” [1]. 

After Clovis’s death, his kingdom was divided into 4 for each of his sons. His wife Clotild, in an attempt to foster harmony, designated as capitals of the four kingdoms near Paris which further improved the location of the city of Paris [1]. A more prominent political position fostered increased urban development.

An example of such development is the Abbey of Saint Germain-des-Prés (Saint Germain of the Meadows, located on the outskirts of the early medieval town. It was founded by Clovis’s son Cuthbert and was the burial place of many of the Merovingian kings [12]. At that time the left bank of the Seine was prone to flooding so it was surrounded by meadow, explaining its name. The church and nearby monastery were frequently plundered and set on fire by Vikings in later times [12].

Land Use

During this time Clovis, but unlike the Romans before him, did not hold court within the walls. The forest surrounding Paris “encompassed game-filled forests broken by the occasional vineyards and grain fields of the Gallo-Romans” [1]. Clovis likely established a guard in the town and moved from one hunting lodge to another in the woodlands. During this time the city had grown to include the area of land on the left bank of the river on what is now Sainte-Geneviéve hill.

St. Denis

During this period Christianity became an increasingly important force behind life in Paris which was reflected in religious construction. Between 460-480 a basilica was built on top of the necropolis containing the body of St. Denis by reusing materials from a Galio-Roman mausoleum nearby. The basilica became a pilgrimage location bringing people into the city and aristocratic Franks chose to be buried in the necropolis below. The basilica continued to grow in importance with the rise of the Carolingians and in 754 the coronation of Pepin the Short by Pope Stephen II was held there. By 869 the basilica had been expanded to include a hospice, dormitory, kitchen, bakery, refectory, and chapel as well as baths and workshops. It also had a heated water supply which was fed by an aqueduct [4].

End of the Millenium

Eudes, Odo

In the late 9th century Paris was increasingly under attack by a new enemy. The same proximity that had been a defense advantage in earlier times turned into a distinct vulnerability against invading Vikings. In December of 887, Charles the Fat renounced his throne before dying a month later. Western Francia, which was aware of impending Viking attacks, elected Eudes (also known as Odo), who was the count of Paris and lay abbot of St. Denis, to the throne [6]. Eudes, with the help of the locals, had defended Paris from Vikings just two years previously “by pouring flaming oil and wax, boiling water, and cold stones down upon their attackers” [5].

The Early Middle Ages

By 960 Hughes Capet had taken control of the Paris Basin. In Paris, businesses began to concentrate around the Place de Grève on the northern bank, and the southern bank attracted students to Paris’s growing number of schools [3].  With Viking attacks becoming less common, river transport flourished and conversion of forests into farmland provided additional resources and land [7]. 

Map of France at the start of the millennium [11]

The early 11th century brought rapid land clearance and new settlements along with better agricultural practices, resulting in greater production and wealth to support the “fast-expanding old towns like Paris” [8]. Ile de France became a major producer of wine, and vineyards were planted in the outskirts of Paris with the river network allowing easy transport for the barrels [9]. However,

“these changes did not benefit all equally. Indeed, they may well have increased, at least temporarily, the vulnerability of the poor to famine, since large towns were traps in times of food shortage, and risk-taking was built into establishing new settlements or investing in new crops. But for the self-confident, the tough-minded, or those already shielded from the dangers of starvation, opportunities were ripe. Almost unnoticed, a more entrepreneurial attitude toward assets, whether land, goods, or rights, crept into West Frankish society” [10].


  1. Scherman, Katherine. The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops, and Long-Haired Kings. New York: Paragon House, pgs. 58-59, 123-24, 135-36, 1987. 
  2. Parisii. Cassell’s Peoples, Nations and Cultures, 2005.
  3. “Ancient and Early Medieval Paris” Indiana University, The Lilly Library, Indiana University.
  4. Wyss, Michaël, and Nicole Meyer Rodrigues. “Saint-Denis a Town in the Middle Ages.” Saint-Denis a Town in the Middle Ages. September 15, 2006.
  5. Roux, Simone, and Jo Anne McNamara. Paris in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Page xi
  6. Dunbabin, Jean. France in the Making, 843-1180. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 27
  7. ^ Pages 67-68
  8. ^ Page 143
  9. ^ Page 297
  10. ^ Page 143
  12. Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Revolvy.


  1. Wendy Erickson

    So to start us off I found some resources at the library during the meeting on Thursday. Austin suggested that the group check out St. Denis for archeological reasearch and for this section we should look at the wider context of the city including land usage etc.

    Here is one article I found that could be a useful starting point for more in depth research:

    1. christiansonk

      This looks like a really strong start! Thanks for meeting last week to plan our project and divvy up the work. I haven’t been able to do too much work yet because of comps, but I should have a chunk of time tomorrow to devote to it. Based on what you’ve done so far and what we talked about last week I’m planning to focus on the later history with the Vikings and into the Capetians. Also, we should plan to meet later this week or weekend to finalize things and prepare for the presentation on Monday.

      1. ericksonw

        I think that that all sounds great! I think it would be good if the entire group could get together to do the title page and stuff but we could meet individually as well. Also, you should look into St. Denis and more of the archeological stuff. I didn’t do much with that.

        1. christiansonk

          Sweet! I sent an email to you and the rest of our group so we can plan our presentation before Monday. I’ll try to have my info uploaded tonight or tomorrow so that we can look through what we have when we plan our presentation. I have the sources to cover St. Denis; how much depth do you think it needs?

  2. morscheckc

    I found source that has a city plan of Paris. It might be a century or two later than our time period but if you guys are interested in using it let me know.

    1. christiansonk

      Ooh, thanks! Might be nice to include it as an image somewhere. Mind linking it?

  3. christiansonk

    I couldn’t come up with a better title than post-roman; it aptly describes just about everything in that section so I think it’s good


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