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The cemetery of the Innocents, Paris.

The Square of the Innocents today

During the eighteenth century the burial grounds of Paris were as appalling as those of London; in the case of the Cimetière des Innocents in the Halle district, perhaps even more so. Since the fourth century this ground was the main burial place in the city, particularly for the poor. During the fourteenth century huge pits holding up to 1500 bodies were left open until full. It is estimated that over the centuries between two and six million bodies were buried here.
   As shown in these engravings, this was achieved with the use of the charnier (charnel houses) built around 1400 to surround the ground  The ground floor of these buildings were used for the more well-to-do burials, while on the upper floor the bones removed from the ground to make way for new interments were stacked as grisly relics. As shown in the engraving, the ground floor arcades were decorated with a macabre dance of death. In 1418 plague added a further 5,000 corpses to Les Innocents.
   In 1590 during the siege of Paris the bones were put to grisly use; they were ground down to make flour for 'bone bread' for the starving population. All those who ate the bread died, probably because the bones provided no nutrition at all. 
  The ground was reduced in size at the end of the seventeenth century when the Rue de la Ferronnerie to the south was widened, necessitating the removal of the charnier on that side. 
  By 1780 conditions at les Innocents had become intolerable. Around 90,000 corpses had been added in the previous 35 years,  the whole area stank,  and the soil was incapable of decompositon.  In the district, it was claimed that meat rotted within hours and wine turned to vinegar. In May, following heavy rain, The weight of the dead in a burial pit had caused a collapse in nearby cellars and people were asphyxiated. 
    The ground was closed for burials around 1782, and cleared during the winters of 1785-6. The charniers were emptied and the ground cleared out to a depth of 6 feet . The remains were carted across Paris and deposited in the catacombs. 

Charnier showing the 'Dance of Death.'

Views of the ground in 1785 before the clearance

Once the ground had been tidied up, the Fountain of the Innocents was moved here. (see photograph at the top of the page). The present appearance is of a pleasant enough square, popular with roller bladers and skateboarders, and embellished (where isn't?) with the usual Macdonalds and KFC. A panel gives information on the history of the place, of which no doubt 99% of visitors are unaware. 

The surrounding area of Les Halles has been notorious for squalor throughout history.  One of the oldest streets in Paris, La Rue St. Denis, runs down the Eastern side of the square - a street with a troubled - and troublesome - history. On our visit, the street was a mix of the lively and seedy, with  food shops and  small boutiques rubbing shoulders with cheap strip joints and sex shops, and street corner prostitutes shivering in the bleak November wind as they have done here for centuries. 

Location - Rue St Denis runs right to left at the top of the map.