Please help me welcome Catherine Delors to the Ball. Catherine’s first novel, Mistress of the Revolution is a scrumptious historical set in the French Revolution, the cover alone made me swoon Welcome Catherine!
An environmental nightmare: Paris in the 18th Century
When Deb Eileen told me that the theme for my post here would be Earth Week, and that I should, if at all possible, make it relate to my book. I was a bit perplexed. Not that I don’t care about environmental issues, far from it, but at first I couldn’t think of a way to link them to my novel, Mistress of the Revolution, which is set during the French Revolution.
Though many political topics raised – and fought over – during the Revolution remain current to this day, I couldn’t find any discussion of environmental issues at the time. But then I thought again: there was problem that was of concern to many people at the time. It was the availability of water, and in particular drinking water, in Paris in the 18th century. I had found my topic!
A reader told me that what she liked in my novel is that I did not only depict the glamorous aspect of aristocratic life before the Revolution, and that I also showed Paris as it really was: an overcrowded, smelly, dirty city. The Parisians of the time complained bitterly about it.
The Seine River was everything to Paris. Barges brought essential merchandises from distant provinces. Often they went no further than in Paris, to be dismantled in the spot and sold as wood. One embankment specialized in the commerce of wheat, another was dedicated to the wine trade. The embankments were not the paved, clean ones we see now. At the time, they were muddy or sandy, depending on the location. Indeed the Roman name of the city, Lutetia, is said to be derived from the Latin lutum, “mud.”
In summer people went swimming in the river. They did it to exercise, and for many it was the only time of the year when they could enjoy a bath. With the onset of the Revolution, morals became more puritanical, and the Municipality of Paris passed an ordinance making it illegal to bathe nude in the Seine.
For those who could afford it, bathing establishments, installed on barges moored along the embankments, offered private cabins and showers. The poor were left with the option of bathing in their shirts or not at all. In any case, they washed their clothes in the river.
The Seine also served as an open-air sewer and garbage dump. The streets of Paris were only cleaned when it rained, and the runoff naturally flowed into the river. People also threw their solid waste in it since there was no organized garbage collection. In particular all of the detritus from the nearby slaughterhouses of the Chatelet district were dumped into the river. Contemporary accounts mention a pinkish scum floating on top.
People and animals often drowned in the Seine, and it provided the “safest” means of disposing of the corpses of murder victims. The bodies were sometimes recovered downstream, robbed of any remaining possessions and buried unceremoniously in the mud of the banks. Those corpses fished from the river within Paris were taken to the Morgue, also in the Chatelet district, where relatives could identify and claim them.
Within city limits fountains were rare and often enclosed within the private gardens of convents or mansions. Most were therefore inaccessible to the public. That left – you guessed it – the Seine! Water carriers filled their buckets in the river and for a few sols brought the water up many flights of stairs (six-story buildings were frequent within the city.) And yes, people drank it.
The rich, of course, could afford to have spring water brought from the suburbs. They also drank excellent wines, much the same as our best modern French wines. Poor people drank “wine” as well, or rather a liquid by that name, but it often had nothing to do with fermented grape juice. It was a toxic mix of various chemicals and purple dye. From a health standpoint, it would have been a difficult choice between Seine water and fraudulent wine.
At one point in Mistress of the Revolution, my heroine, Gabrielle, is arrested and imprisoned because of her former association with Marie-Antoinette’s Court. The turnkey brings her a bottle of cloudy water and, upon her question, confirms that indeed it comes from the river. Gabrielle, spoiled, sheltered, had never before swallowed “a liquid into which 700,000 people emptied their chamber pots and garbage,” as she puts it. The turnkey is not a bad man and seeks to reassure her. “Don’t worry about it, Citizen” he says. “Some say it loosens your bowels, but I drink it everyday, and I’ve never suffered anything like that. But then I let it stand for a while. That way the filth settles at the bottom. If you do the same, you’ll be fine.”
And I did not make this up! I read this advice in a book written by a contemporary. A helpful reminder that we often take for granted what may be our greatest luxury: clean drinking water.