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A Brief History of Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris

Updated: Nov 9

What is Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés?


Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the Oldest church in Paris housing the burials of Frankish kings and the philosopher René Descartes.


Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés


Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés History


Saint-Germain-des-Prés translates to ‘Saint Germain of the fields’, but look around there today and you won’t find a field in sight. The name does however speak to the long history of the church. Founded by the Frankish King Childebert I just far enough away from the banks of the Seine to avoid flooding, but close enough to make use of the fertile field upon which it was built, Saint-Germain is in fact the oldest church in Paris, dating all the way back to the mid-6th century AD. Nowadays, the area around the church is a thriving and bustling part of the metropolis, famous as the epicentre of the existentialist movement and for once being home to a generation of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Originally called Saint Vincent, the church was built to house holy relics and the shroud of Saint Vincent of Saragossa, which Childebert had acquired when he laid siege to northern Spain. It was later renamed in honour of Germain d’Autun, the Bishop of Paris, who was interred in the chapel in 576. King Childebert was later buried in the church, and so it also became the final resting place for his dynastic successors.


At the time of its construction, the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was in fact situated outside the walls of Paris, which left it without the protection of the city. Consequently, the church was sacked on several occasions by the Normans in the 9th century and eventually had to be entirely rebuilt in 1014.


The abbey later donated some of its land to the University of Paris, which is how the area came to be known as the Latin Quarter. Latin was the only common language amongst the students who arrived from all over Europe to study at the Sorbonne. The relationship between the abbey and the university flourished and by the early 17th century Saint-Germain-des-Prés was a major intellectual centre in France with a library that was stocked with thousands of manuscripts.


During the French revolution the church was desacralized and turned into a munitions factory. The monks were disbanded in 1790 and then expelled from the monastery just two years later; anyone who refused to leave was shot. In 1794 the saltpetre, which was manufactured for gunpowder, exploded and a fire started destroying everything in the church except, amazingly, the basilica. A bench in the abbey garden to the left of the entrance is now all that remains of the monastery.


Though services resumed in the early part of the 19th century, by the 1820s the church was labelled as unsalvageable by the city of Paris. Thanks to passionate lobbying by its parishioners and celebrities like Victor Hugo the decision was rescinded and important restoration work was undertaken in the 1840s.


Saint-Germain-des-Prés is also notable for containing the tomb of René Descartes, a preeminent figure in modern Western philosophy who coined the phrase ‘cogito, ergo sum,’ or, ‘I think, therefore I am’.


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