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March 25, 2009
One of my favorite streets in Paris is the rue Mouffetard in the 5ème arrondissement. In ancient times, it served as the principal Roman road to the southeast. It followed the river Bièvre, which today flows underground as part of the Paris sewer system. The river’s banks provided excellent land for settlement and in the 12th century this street served as the main artery in the village of Bourg St. Marcel where wealthy Parisians had farms and country houses.
Scholars believe there has been a street market on the rue Mouffetard since the 1350s; the market's origins, however, are a little unsavory.
The story goes that a group of clerics from Notre Dame were exiled when they unwittingly consumed a paté made of human flesh. Excommunicated for their sin, they set off to plead their case before the Pope in Avignon. They only made it to the Carrefour des Gobelins, twenty minutes down the road. Their feet were too sore to continue so they settled on the spot and became mendicants. Later that year, Jean de Meulan, the new bishop of Paris, came to visit his farms on the hill of Mouffetard when he was attacked by thieves. He would have been killed had the mendicant friars not come to his rescue. In appreciation, the bishop gave the friars absolution and permitted them to open a market on his property.
Today’s market is devoted almost entirely to food. Mounds of fresh vegetables and fruits are laid out in pyramids or cupped rows. The street caters to pedestrians only.
The shops on rue Mouffetard resemble their medieval predecessors. In the Middle Ages, each shop had a large, horizontally split shutter that was opened for selling. The top half provided shade from sun and rain; the bottom was used as a table on which to make or display goods. All workers, from the shoemaker to the butcher, were required to work in public to ensure honesty and quality. Hanging out past the shutters was the shopkeeper’s standard with a symbol representing the shop’s name and business.
By the late 1700s, tanners, slaughterers, skinners, dyers, and other craftsmen moved into the neighborhood, including the Gobelins tapestry weavers. These famous Flemish weavers were great beer drinkers so it wasn’t long before cafés and cabarets proliferated. By the 19th century, this area served as the commercial center of Paris. Unfortunately, the fumes from the Bièvre had become noxious.
One theory of the origin of the street name is that it's a derivation of the word mouffette, French for skunk.
Which street have you crossed with the best-sounding name?