The Urban Environment

Pre-revolutionary Paris, writes Jeffry Kaplow, was a densely populated city of over six-hundred-thousand inhabitants, where the social classes rubbed shoulders.

Jeffry Kaplow | Published in History Today

The Russian traveller Nikolai Karamzin saw Paris for the first time in March 1790, and his reaction was no different from that of thousands of his predecessors. All were impressed by the grandeur of the city, its vastness, colour and all-pervasive sense of movement.

All noted the size and density of the population (600,000 and more in 1789), the animation of the streets, and, above all, the sharp contrasts between extreme luxury and abject poverty, the opulence of the noble and financier, the mediocrity of the artisan, and the starving faces of the ubiquitous beggars. Karamzin wrote:

‘Soon we entered the Faubourg Saint Antoine, and what did we see there? Narrow, dirty, muddy streets, evil looking houses and people in tattered rags. “So this is Paris,” I said to myself, “the city that seemed so magnificent to me from afar.”

But the decor changed completely when we arrived at the banks of the Seine. There arose before us magnificent edifices, six storey houses, rich shops; what a multitude of people! What variety! What noise! One carriage follows on the heels of another. At every moment, one hears the cries: Take care! Take care! and the people roll about like the sea.’

To anyone viewing Paris for the first time, it must have seemed, as it did to Marianne in Marivaux’s novel, like the moon, another world difficult to understand and still more difficult to accept. The Burgundian peasant and the city-dweller from Provence, even the rich businessman from Lyons, Bordeaux or Rouen, would be equally impressed, and not a little confused by what they saw.

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