Rue Saint-Jacques: Paris’ oldest street

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Did you know that rue Saint-Jacques is the oldest street of Paris? Let’s find out more about this 2,000 year-old thoroughfare that crosses the Latin Quarter (5th arrondissement). Created in the 1st Century BC, the street was one of the main thoroughfares of Lutetia, the Via Superior, which crossed the town from North to South.


How come Rue Saint-Jacques is Paris’ oldest street?

Rue Saint-Jacques, Map of Gomboust - 1652

Rue Saint-Jacques, Map of Gomboust – 1652

During the Roman era, some 2,000 years ago, Lutetia (ancient Paris) covered the Ile de la Cité. It also extended to a small stretch of the Right Bank. 

But the major part of the city occupied the Left Bank of the Seine.

There were the forum with its basilica and temple, the public baths and the amphitheater.

The cardo maximus

First, Roman Paris was organised according to the cardo maximus.

This was the name the Romans gave to a model of city planning that was applied in towns in Italy. In turn the Romans borrowed it from the Greeks.

The cardo maximus referred to a town lay-out based on a primary north-south axis.

That street was crossed in the middle by a less-important east-west axis called decumanus maximus that served as a secondary main street.

In Lutetia, the grid plan adapted to the local topography, and so the cardo maximus climbed the Sainte-Geneviève hill where the Panthéon now stands.

The fact that the hill rose 23 metres above the river meant that flooding could not reach the buildings.

Two roads meeting on the Ile de la Cité represented the north-south axis.

The south road coming from Spain via Orléans is today’s rue Saint-Jacques.

Another road coming from Rome via Lyon and Melun followed todays’ rue Mouffetard and rue Galande.

Beyond the Left Bank

On the Right Bank, the cardo maximus is continued by today’s rue Saint-Martin.

Two wooden bridges spanned the river to reach the Ile de la Cité: Petit-Pont on the Left Bank and Grand-Pont (or Pont Notre-Dame) on the Right Bank.

On the Left Bank, a number of less important east-west axes crossed the cardo maximus. The decumani followed today’s rue Cujas, rue des Ecoles and rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques.

It’s probable that rue Cujas was the decumanus maximus, that is the main east-west axis.

Why? Because at the intersection of the cardo and decumanus maxima was the Forum, the city’s major landmark.

Corner rue Saint-Jacques and rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques © French Moments

Corner rue Saint-Jacques and rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques © French Moments

Rue Saint-Jacques: a safe place!

The major part of the city was on the left bank of the Seine, which was higher and less prone to flood.

The centre point where the cardo and decumanus met is at number 172-174 rue Saint-Jacques. It’s from there that the grid pattern of Lutetia was drawn, forming a network of orthogonal roads which divided Lutetia into insulae (blocks of houses and public buildings). Yes, blocks like in New York city!

These blocks measure exactly 300 Roman feet, that is to squares close to 89 by 89 metres.

So to reply to the question – which is Paris’ oldest street -, I would say that Rue Saint-Jacques is the oldest urbanised street. 

The street after the Roman era

Rue Saint-Jacques by Charles Marville ca. 1853–70

Rue Saint-Jacques by Charles Marville ca. 1853–70

However its width has varied over time and most of the houses along it were built between the 18th and 20th centuries. 

And the roadway is higher than the ancient cardo.

During the Middle-Ages, a groupe of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela frequented the street, hence its name (rue Saint-Jacques = St. James street).

Its name come from an old chapel that was part of a medieval Dominican convent (1218). The chapel was dedicated to St. James (Saint Jacques) and its named was given to the thoroughfare.

The former Dominican convent (seen from rue Racine)

The former Dominican convent (seen from rue Racine)

Besides, in the past the street took the name of Grand’rue du Petit-Pont or Grand’rue Saint-Jacques-des-Prêcheurs. Parisians gave it its current name in 1806.

Therefore, the street lost its importance in the 19th century when Prefect Haussmann created a much wider street parallel to it: boulevard Saint-Michel.


Monuments and landmarks along rue Saint-Jacques

Several interesting monuments and landmarks border Rue Saint-Jacques:

Saint-Séverin-Saint-Nicolas church

The Interior of Saint-Séverin church, Fifth arrondissement of Paris © French Moments

The Interior of Saint-Séverin church, Paris © French Moments

Arguably one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Paris!

Saint-Séverin church is a Flamboyant Gothic sanctuary built from the mid-13th century and finished in the 15th century.

The façade (on rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin) dates from the 13th century. It includes a portal that once belonged to a church on the Ile de la Cité that was demolished in 1837.

Inside, don’t miss the Flamboyant pillar in the centre of the double ambulatory. It takes the form of the trunk of a palm tree.

The Sorbonne university

Rue Saint-Jacques and Sorbonne © French Moments

Rue Saint-Jacques and Sorbonne © French Moments

The east side of the world-famous Sorbonne university border rue Saint-Jacques.

It is an old College of Theology founded by a royal chaplain, Robert de Sorbon in the mid-13th century and became the seat of the University of Paris.

The present-day buildings date back to 1885.

Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas church

Interior of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas © French Moments

Interior of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas © French Moments

Gaston of Orléans, brother of king Louis XIII, laid the foundation stone of the catholic church in 1630. The neo-Classical sanctuary was completed in 1684. Its façade shows a decoration with four columns supporting an entablature and a triangular pediment. A square tower flanks its south part. 

Val de Grâce hospital

Dome of Val de Grâce © French Moments

Dome of Val de Grâce © French Moments

The church of Val de Grâce has one of Paris’ most impressive domes. The Baroque church was inspired by the Gesù Church in Roe. 

Architect Lemercier built the Val de Grâce in between 1645 and 1665.

Its façades shows a double series of superimposed columns and two triangular pediments.

In addition, the magnificent dome is one of the highest in Paris.

Finally, the Val de Grâce gives onto a lovely square with Haussmannian buildings: Place Alphonse Laveran.

Place Alphonse Laveran, Paris © French Moments

Place Alphonse Laveran, Paris © French Moments


A curious sundial made by Salvador Dali himself!

At number 27 rue Saint-Jacques is one of the most interesting sundials of Paris.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) designed it as a present to his friends who owned a boutique at this address.

The Dali sundial in Paris © French Moments

The Dali sundial in Paris © French Moments

Find out more about Salvador Dali’s sundial on this post!


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Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris © French Moments


More about Paris’ oldest street and its neighbourhood


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management.

4 Comments

  1. Richard Dotson on

    It would probably be encyclopedic in length, but I’d be delighted to have a list of all the rues and blvds of Paris with how and when they got their names, but for today I’ll ask only about rue des Mauvais-Garcons,in the 4th.!

  2. Stephen Rosicka on

    I would love you to do one of these on my favourite street in Paris. Rue de l’Abreuvoir

    Thanks

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