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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Tour Saint-Jacques in Paris

What is the Tour Saint-Jacques?

The Tour Saint-Jacques, or saint-jacques tower in English, is an elaborate 16th-century Flamboyant Gothic tower in Paris that was a meeting point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

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Tour Saint-Jacques History

Legend has it that the body of Saint James, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, was carried in a stone boat from Jerusalem to the Galician coast in northern Spain. In the 9th century, his remains were discovered by a local shepherd, and a shrine was built in his honour in Santiago de Compostela.

For the past thousand years, Christian pilgrims have made the arduous journey from all over Europe to pay homage to Saint James’ shrine. Although now a standalone Flamboyant Gothic tower, there was once a church on this spot named after the revered Apostle, a rallying point for pilgrims on the road to northern Spain. The church itself, however, was known by the longer name Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (or Saint James of the Butchers), after the many butchers who worked at the nearby market of Les Halles and were the wealthy patrons of the church.

Much of the building was destroyed during the French Revolution, and in 1797, the medieval church was sold to an entrepreneur who made no secret of his intention to demolish the structure. Fortunately, since the French government decided to indemnify the new owner for the material value of the building’s stonework, and included the building in a proposed list of eleven ‘historic monuments’, the tower was saved. Tour Saint-Jacques stands at an imposing 52 metres tall, and due to its shape was later converted into a shot tower, a structure used for making small shot balls for guns. This was done by allowing molten lead to pass through a sieve at the top of the tower, where it would fall down into a tub of water, cool and harden in the shape of a bullet.

Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was the burial place of Nicolas Flamel, a 14th-century Parisian scribe who became a patron of the church. Some 200 years after his death, Flamel was the subject of a myth that alleged he had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, which turned base metals into gold and silver, and enabled him and his wife to become immortal. If you recognize the name but are unfamiliar with the history, it may be due to the fact he has appeared in a number of works of fiction, most famously in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for obvious reasons.

The tower also has further philosophical connections. There’s a statue of the famous scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, which can be found at the base of the tower, who used it in the mid-17th century to conduct experiments on atmospheric pressure and the use of weights (before Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity).

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