There is a mystery that scholars and historians have not yet succeeded to resolve. Perched high above ground, usually fixed on buttresses of churches, hidden balls of rats convey a mysterious meaning. Just opposite the Louvre, the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois features the only ‘Boule aux Rats’ of Paris and one of the nine still existing in France.
What is a ‘Boule-aux-Rats’?
A ‘Boule-aux-Rats‘ (Ball of Rats or Rats Ball) is a sculpted motif in stone or in wood from the 15th and 16th centuries that is seen only in a few places in France. It takes the shape of a sphere surmounted by a cross. Rats are seen getting inside the sphere except in the case of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois where five rats appear to come out of the ball. They are overseen by a demonic cat.
What do they mean?
The interpretation of the Boules-aux-Rats differ as no-one really knows the exact symbolism behind them.
Abbot Baurit, priest of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois speculated that “This could mean that, even though it was saved by the cross of Christ, the world is therefore still the prey of evil personified by five big rats with their long hairy tails. The rats which gnawed the ball from the inside – symbolising sin -, get out of it from the holes they made. A cat referring to the demon lies above the ball and watches over its prey, waiting for the right moment to pounce on them.”
A bit of history
To understand why rats are considered as a nuisance, a historic context will help us. From the Middle-Ages, Paris had lacked sanitation and had very poor waster management. Consequently the city was regularly invaded by rats. To ward off the presence of the rodents, people designed Boules-aux-Rats. The rats symbolised misery that gnawed the world (the ball). A cross surmounted the sphere to implore the divine mercy and to show that the church is the only remedy against misery.
Where to find the ‘Boule-aux-Rats’ in Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois?
The boule-aux-rats is visible from the inner courtyard that separates the church to the City-Hall of the 1st arrondissement, just behind the belfry. The sculpture is situated on top of the central buttress, just under the gargoyle. The courtyard is most of the time closed and special authorisation is required to get in.
Where are the other ‘Boule-aux-Rats’ found in France?
There are only nine Boules-aux-Rats counted in France and that of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois is the only one still existing in Paris.
Four are found in the Paris region of Île de France:
- Saint-Jacques church, Meulan
- former Saint-Martin collegiate church, Champeaux (on the stall)
- Saint-Spire church, Corbeil-Essonne
- Sainte-Anne-de-Gassicourt church, Mantes-la-Jolie
The last four Boules-aux-Rats are found across France:
- Saint-Siffrein cathedral, Carpentras
- Saint-Julien cathedral, Le Mans
- Saint-Sernin basilica, Toulouse (in the crypt)
- Saint-Maurille church, Ponts-de-Cé