The legendary Left Bank, synonymous with la bohème and the Paris of artists, writers, philosophers and all kinds of misfits, has surprisingly clerical roots. The whole area of Saint-Germain-des-Prés once belonged to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and in fact borrowed its name from the esteemed abbey.
Founded in the 6th century just beyond the city outskirts, the influential Benedictine abbey enjoyed the royal patronage and housed an impressive library. The church was ransacked and rebuilt several times, and finally during the French Revolution the adjoining cloister was destroyed. What remains today is the oldest church in Paris.
The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, just beyond the outskirts of early medieval Paris, was the burial place of the Merovingian kings of Neustria. At that time, when the Left Bank of Paris was prone to flooding from the Seine, much of the land could not be built upon and the Abbey stood in the middle of fields, or prés in French, thereby explaining its appellation.
The abbey was founded in the 6th century by the son of Clovis I, Childebert I (ruled 511–558). In 542, while making war in Spain, Childebert raised his siege of Zaragoza when he heard that the inhabitants had placed themselves under the protection of the martyr Saint Vincent. In gratitude the bishop of Zaragoza presented him with the saint’s stole. When Childebert returned to Paris, the king, acting upon the advice of Germain, Bishop of Paris, commissioned a church to be erected to provide a fitting place for the relic. The church was dedicated to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent and built where the king could see it across the fields from the royal palace on the Île de la Cité. It was consecrated by Germain in 558.
The church was frequently plundered and set on fire by the Normans in the 9th century. It was rebuilt in 1014 and rededicated in 1163 by Pope Alexander III to Saint Germain of Paris, the canonized Bishop of Paris. Under royal patronage the abbey became one of the richest in France, to the point that its roof was painted gold. The abbey housed an important scriptorium and remained the centre of intellectual life in the French Catholic Church.
The great wall of Paris built during the reign of Philip II of France did not encompass the abbey, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. This also had the effect of splitting the abbey’s holdings in two. Still, until the late 17th century, the abbey owned most of the land on the Left Bank west of the current Boulevard Saint-Michel and had administrative autonomy in it, most clearly for the part outside the walls of Paris.
In the secular era of the French Revolution the abbey was used as a warehouse. A large explosion of saltpetre stored in the refectory destroyed almost all of the complex, and severely damaged the church.
The church was renovated in the 19th century under the direction of the architect Victor Baltard and the painter Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. To this day, the Chapelle Sainte Genevieve has two 13th-century glass windows, however, all that is left of the original structure are the columns in the triforium.
Many notable historical figures are buried in the abbey, including René Descartes and John II Casimir Vasa, a 17th-century king of Poland who abdicated to become the abbot.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is an area in the 6th arrondissement, which borrowed its name from the Benedictine abbey Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It is a place renowned for its numerous cafes and intellectual life, an embodiment of the modern day, vibrant Left Bank.
Home to many cafés, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a thriving artistic, intellectual and shopping district. Its main street, Boulevard Saint-Germain, is both a high-end shopping street and traditionally, a place for all sorts of thinkers to gather. Saint-Germain-des-Prés is known as the centre of the existentialist movement. Imagine seeing Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore, discussing bleak existence over black coffee. In various times these and similar cafés were also frequented by Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris and Zadkine.