Legacy of the Templars and the Benedictines in Paris

Northeastern Paris offers two sites with immense religious heritage that are all but invisible today. I would like to step back in time a few centuries to the heydays of the Saint-Martin-des-Champs Priory and the Old Temple Quarter, just a few blocks southwest of Place de la République. What has become of these ancient sites?

Saint-Marin-des-Champs (red box to the west) and the Temple Quarter (red box to the east) have each taken on new roles in today’s Paris.

My first chance to wander through the Temple Quarter came when my big brother Tom visited Paris last month. He wanted to see parts of the city that related to the French Revolution, and so we planned a bit of a saunter through the northeastern area of the city:

  • Place de la République, which hosts an admirable timeline on its monument for the chief events of this period,
  • the Temple, which served as a prison for the royal family before their executions,
  • the Carnavalet Museum, which tells the history of Paris with great coverage for the revolution period, and
  • the Bastille, which was the site of one of the Revolution’s most dramatic events.

The Temple Quarter

A late 18th century maquette of the Temple Quarter from the Carnavaelt Museum. We are looking north.

The Temple Quarter takes its name from the Knights Templar, a Catholic organization founded in 1119 CE to protect pilgrims on their way to and from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem after the city was captured during the First Crusade (1099 CE). The initial home of this order was on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the knights were compelled to move their headquarters repeatedly when Jerusalem was recaptured by Muslim armies under Saladin in 1187 CE. Generous gifts of land and money fueled the growth of the Templars, and their 1139 CE settlement in the marshy area to the northeast of Paris’ city hall (“Marais” means “marsh”) rapidly transformed it into a rich farm, supported with windmills just outside the Porte du Temple.

This 19th century map of the Temple Quarter shows the Palace of the Prior with its U-shaped court (labeled “IV”), the donjon keep (four black dots joined in a square), and the church of Saint-Marie du Temple, which incorporated a rotunda design to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

When the Latin Kingdoms of the holy land were lost, the Temple Quarter became a European headquarters for the order. The Temple Quarter had considerable autonomy, as the Templars were not accountable to the King of France. That was acceptable to Philippe Augustus and to “Saint” Louis IX, but it was not to Philip IV “the Fair” (r. 1285-1314 CE). In 1307, he arrested the leaders of the Templars and subjected them to torture and trials. When the last of them were burned at the stake in 1314, the pyre was apparently at the western point of the Île de la Cité, near Place Dauphine. The Temple Quarter then became a home for the Knights Hospitallers, ironically a rival branch of Catholic knights from the Crusades. Over time, the Temple Quarter shifted from farmlands to the urban landscape shown in the maquette above.

This 18th century engraving by J. B. Rigaud looks east toward the palace of the prior. See also his view from inside the gates.

I would highlight two buildings of this complex. The palace of the prior, constructed by François Mansart in the 1660s, was the large building at the lower left corner of the maquette shown above. A horseshoe-shaped court draws attention to the building. At first, however, it was surrounded by gardens, as in the 17th century engraving below by Israel Silvestre.

The Palace of the Prior was grand, but it could not match the height of the donjon (great tower) of the Temple.

The donjon of the Temple, dating to the 13th century, made the most lasting impression on the citizens of Paris. As we saw at the Bastille, small bumps mark the outline of this tower on the pavement in front of the city hall for the third arrondissement of Paris. Because the royal family was held here before their execution in the French Revolution, it became a site of pilgrimage for royalists. That was intolerable to Napoleon I, so he ordered its destruction in the first decade of the 19th century.

A 1792 engraving. The text translates roughly to “people stare wide-eyed at the sight of these towers of the Temple containing Louis XVI and his family.”
The altar of Sainte-Élisabeth de Hongrie

On our walk through the Temple, we paused at the Church of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, just across the street from the former Temple Enclosure. The church, consecrated in 1648, for some time retained some works of art relating to the zenith of the Temple Quarter. I was glad my brother could see this church, since even humble parish churches in Europe are pretty eye-popping. I could almost hear the thoughts in his head, “this is older than my home country!”

The Square du Temple is a lovely place to relax in front of the 3rd Arrondissement town hall.

When we reached the Square of the Temple itself, you might ask what remains of the medieval Temple enclosure. The answer is… nothing. Today the square is a park of grassy lawns and a lovely reservoir. The other day, however, Natasha and I returned to this spot. We had arrived just as a tremendous street market was closing up. The market is linked to two locations nearby. Le Carreau du Temple was formerly a big cloth market, just northeast of the Square du Temple. The Marché des Enfants Rouges (market of the red children) is the oldest surviving covered market area in Paris, dating from 1615. It looked like a delightful place to shop and eat, if only we had had enough energy!

The Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

An arithmetical machine for counting money, courtesy of Blaise Pascal (1645)

The reason we were out of energy was that we were coming from the Musée des Arts et Métiers, housed in a former Benedictine Priory just a few blocks to the west of the Temple. This museum of scientific and technological arts has one of the best collections I have ever seen! It particularly emphasizes great French innovators, such as Blaise Pascal, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, Ferdinand Berthoud, Léon Foucault, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, Léon Bollée, Jacques Vaucanson, Louis-Nicolas Robert, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Lumière brothers, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, Clément Ader, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, and a host of others. All of these are represented by personal instruments, measurement standards, precision machinery, clockworks, cars, and even airplanes.

Natasha said she would be willing to try Otto’s Safety Bicycle (1879)

Given that the Paris skyline so prominently features the masterpiece of Gustave Eiffel, it is perhaps not so huge an omission that his name is not widely seen at the museum (he shows up as having helped August Bartholdi in creating the massive “Statue of Liberty Lighting the World” by building its iron skeleton). I was grateful that American pioneers also made an appearance, with prominent exhibits from Seymour Cray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. The museum sits cheek-by-jowl by the Arts et Métiers ParisTech, an engineering school dating from 1780 that has long led France’s efforts in mechanization and industrialization.

The chevet of Saint-Martin-des-Champs guards the entryway for the museum.

Given that this entire city block is given over to science and technology, it might be surprising to realize that this entire complex occupies the ground of the second-oldest church still standing in Paris (it was constructed just after Saint-Germain-des-Prés). The structure of Saint-Martin-des-Champs was first consecrated in 1067 CE for the Canons Regular by King Philippe I; the “des-Champs” part reflects that the church was build in the fields lying to the northeast of the city of Paris. I think it’s pretty funny that both London and Paris feature churches dedicated to Saint Martin in an area of the current city that was previously agricultural lands.

Western facade of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

At first the church design was essentially Romanesque. Two notable changes to its structure came in 1135 CE, when the chevet was rebuilt in a precursor to the Gothic style (much like Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre), and in 1455 CE, when its western facade was changed to a flat plane from its previous porch design. The thirteenth century saw the nave rebuilt on grander scale. Saint-Martin-des-Champs was constructed right on the boundary between the worlds of the Romanesque and of the Gothic.

Looking west from the chevet into the nave at Saint-Martin-des-Champs

Today, however, we encounter the nave of the church as the final display area of the museum. From the highest point of the ceiling a Foucault pendulum gently swings, showing evidence of the Earth’s rotation, and three different airplanes are suspended nearby. A grand piano was roped off in the axial chapel. The colors of the nave interior are quite lovely, reminding us that churches are not required to be dun and bland inside.

Looking east from the nave into the chevet at Saint-Martin-des-Champs

Nonetheless, it is clear that Saint-Martin-des-Champs is no longer a church. I was grateful I could spend a moment imagining it in an earlier time.

Étienne Martellange left us this 17th century drawing of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs at its height.

That is why I am glad we have images from the distant past to remind us of those times. The drawing above comes from 1630 CE. In 1079 CE, the church was given to the Benedictine order, particularly to the Cluny community (the same group that built the medieval mansion over Roman baths on the left bank). As a “daughter of Cluny,” Saint-Martin gained a belltower and a chapel by the early twelfth century. In the thirteenth century an adjoining refectory and dining hall was also constructed (today the dining hall houses the library of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers).

This map from 1742 shows the extent of Saint-Martin-des-Champs Priory after Paris had grown to surround it.

Unlike the Temple, the buildings of Saint-Martin-des-Champs have remained intact and unified in purpose. Of course, training the next generations of the science and technology community is a rather different mission than serving as a home for the Benedictine order in the capital! The surprising proximity of the Temple to Saint-Martin-des-Champs (just about three blocks) contributed a structure to this area of Paris. When Philippe Auguste constructed his wall around the city in the thirteenth century, these two districts contributed neighboring gateways in the wall: Porte St. Martin (late 12th century) and Porte du Temple (completed in 1280 CE).

Porte Saint-Martin (1674), as viewed from the south

Today, however, it would be very easy to travel through this area of Paris and see little more than another old church and another pretty park. I am glad to have had the chance to examine each a little more closely!

6 thoughts on “Legacy of the Templars and the Benedictines in Paris

  1. Pingback: Carnavalet: a museum dedicated to Paris of the past | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Deborah Key

    Brilliant chapter. Meticulously researched and illustrated as always! A fabulous read. Thank you!!
    PS: please add to my ever growing itinerary 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
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