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“You will all be killed”: Medieval Life in War-Torn Paris

During the Hundred Years’ War, the city of Paris was captured and ruled by the English for sixteen years. The story of this violent and terrible period is vividly recounted by an anonymous writer, known as the Bourgeois de Paris.

A massacre in the streets of Paris from the early 15th century – BnF, MS Français 5054, fol. 8v

We know very little about this author, but a few clues in the text suggests that he worked at the University of Paris and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Some scholars have suggested that he was a priest or canon, but it was unlikely that he was among the elite of the city.

The Bourgeois de Paris has left us an account of the years 1405 to 1449, and it almost reads like a personal diary of what was happening in the city. It is a very detailed account, even noting the ups and downs of prices for food and goods. It is also a very sad tale, as it recalls the sufferings of Parisians as their city was caught up in the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), which pitted the King of France against the King of England.

The author was well aware of what was happening in his city, and knew about the events that was taking place throughout the country. This included a quasi civil war taking place between the supporters of two branches of the French royal family — the House of Orleans (the Armagnacs) and the House of Burgundy (the Burgundians). Their struggle would often spill out onto the streets of Paris, such as this massacre of the Armagnacs that took place in 1418:

All that they found, of whatever rank, whether they had been taken prisoner by the soldiers or not, they hauled out into the streets and killed them at once without mercy, with heavy axes and other weapons. There was not a man there this day who had not got some weapon with which as he passed he struck at these confederates as they lay there stone dead. Women and children passing them, and weak people who could not hurt them, cursed them, saying, “Filthy traitors! You’ve had better luck than you deserve! If only the rest of you were in the same state!” There was not one of the principal streets of Paris that had not had a killing in it. In less time from the moment they fell dead than it would take to walk a hundred yards, there was nothing left on them but their pants. They were heaped up in piles in the mud like sides of bacon – a dreadful thing, it was. Five hundred and twenty-two men died by the sword or other weapons that day in Paris out in the streets, not counting those who were killed inside the houses. And it rained so hard that night that there was no unpleasant smell at all; their wounds were so thoroughly washed by the rain that in the morning there was nothing on them but congealed blood, no foul matter at all.

The English army marched into Paris in the year 1420, and for the next sixteen years the city was under their rule. The English had the support of the Duke of Burgundy, while the Armagnacs took the side of the French king. The Armagnacs also controlled large areas just outside of Paris, which meant the front lines of the conflict were now just on the city’s doorstep.

The Bourgeois de Paris chronicles these events, and for much of his work one can read page after page of war and destruction. It seemed for him a gruelling and often pointless struggle. At one point, he explains “the English would sometimes take one fortress from the Armagnacs in the morning and lose two in the evening. So this war, accursed of God, went on.”

Daily life during times of war

The sufferings he recounts are terrible. The poor would starve because food was so scarce, and thousands of homes were abandoned and falling apart as their occupants had fled long ago. In the countryside around Paris few would travel or farm, for fear of being attacked by the Armagnacs or criminal gangs. Even wolves roamed in the area, so hungry that they would dig up corpses or jump up over the walls looking food.

Here is one example of the extreme and daily violence, which happened in 1430:

fifty or sixty or so carters from Paris and the neighbourhood went to fetch in the corn belonging to the citizens of Paris that had just been harvested near Bourget. The Armagnacs found this out from their spies, of whom they had any number in Paris, and came in strength to attack them. Our men from Paris defended themselves as well as they could, but it was no use, the Armagnacs defeated them almost at once, killed many of them, and took prisoner all the rest, and in their wickedness they set fire to the corn in the carts and wagons and burned everything; nothing was recovered but the ironwork. Any of mortally wounded (or less than mortally) lying on the ground they they saw move, they picked up and flung into the fire, which was enormous, all the corn and the carts were blazing. Besides the dead, they took six score or more prisoners and all the horses and ransomed them.

The writer hated the Armagnacs, but had little good to say about his English rulers. At one point he said of the official in charge of the city, “He always enriched his own country with something from this kingdom, but never brought anything back again except fresh taxes.”

Even the lighter moments in Paris seemed to have a grotesque tone. The Bourgeois of Paris tells this story:

Four blind men wearing armour and each carrying a club were put into an enclosure in which there was also a strong pig. This they were to have if they could kill it. They fought this very odd battle, giving each other tremendous blow with clubs – whenever they tried to get a good blow in at the pig, they would hit each other, so that if they had not been wearing armour they would have certainly have killed each other. On the Saturday before this Sunday the blind men were led through Paris wearing their armour, with a great banner in front of them with a picture of a pig on it. In front of this went a man beating a drum.

Joan of Arc leading a French attack on Paris in 1429 – – BnF, MS Français 5054, fol. 66v

Joan of Arc attacks Paris

In 1429, the war between the France and England took a dramatic turn with the arrival of seventeen-year-old Joan of Arc, who would lead French armies to victory at the siege of Orleans. However, the Bourgeois of Paris was not a fan of Joan. He begins writing about her with these lines:

There was at this time a Maid, as they called her, in the Loire country who claimed to be able to foretell the future and who used to say ‘Such a thing will certainly happen’.

Within months of her victory at Orleans, Joan was marching towards Paris, and city officials “began to fortify Paris, putting guns at the gates in the ramparts, in the houses which stood on the walls, barrels full of stone on the walls, the moats outside the town repaired, and barricades raised inside the town and out. ”

On September 8, 1429, the French forces launched their attack on Paris. Our author writes:

They hoped to take the city by assault, but little did they gain there except sorrow, suffering, and disgrace. Many of them were maimed for the rest of their lives, men who before the attack had been strong and healthy – but a fool will never believe anything till he’s tried it. I say this because of these men who were so unfortunate, so full of foolish trust, then they relied upon the advice of a creature in the form of a woman, whom they called the Maid.

He continues on:

They assembled, a good twelve thousand or more of them, and came up, their Maid with them, at about the high mass, between eleven and twelve, with a large number of carts, wagons, and horses, all laden with huge trebly-roped faggots of wood with which to fill up the moats. They mounted a fierce assault between Portes St. Honore and St. Denis and as they fought they shouted abuse and hard words at the city’s defenders. Their Maid was there with her standard on the bank above the moat, and she said to the Parisians, “Surrender to us quickly, in Jesus’ name! If you don’t surrender before nightfall we shall come in by force whether you like it or not and you will all be killed.”

“Shall we, you bloody tart?” said a crossbowman, and shot at her. The bolt went right through her leg; she ran for safety; another transfixed her standard-bearer’s foot. When he felt the wound, he lifted his vizor to see to take it out and another man shot at him, hit him between the eyes and killed him.

The next day the French forces withdrew, but by 1437 Charles VII, King of France, was again able to enter Paris, after the English were forced to flee the city. The Bourgeois of Paris writes about he “was welcomed as magnificently as if he had been God” and about the celebrations that were held that night. However, two months later the king departed Paris, and our writer wryly comments “it seemed as if he came only to look at the place.”

You can read the English translation of this account in A Parisian Journal, 1405-1449, by Janet Shirley, which was published by Clarendon Press in 1968.

See also: ‘The boldest and most remarkable feat ever performed by a woman’: Fiery Joanna and the Siege of Hennebont

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