Welcome to Paris in the late-17th century. The reign of ‘the Sun King’ Louis XIV has brought illumination within the kingdom, with its cultural influence as well as economic wealth making France the most powerful nation within Europe. The radiant glory of the country is featured through magnificent and posh receptions – notably at Versailles – attracting among the most famous intellectuals of the time.
That being said, one may think this was a happy time for everybody, that the riches of the kingdom would eventually benefit to the regular French population. But beyond that polished image of a golden court, the social gap widened in the capital city. Some districts of Paris did contrast dramatically with the ‘sunny reign’ of Louis XIV, as they were rather dirty and shadowy – that is the case of the Cour des Miracles.
Indeed, while the King and his palaces were flooded with light, La Cour des Miracles (literally, “the Court of Miracles”) was a murky and eerie area hiding the excluded and the needy of Paris. The slum welcomed the poor in wobbly houses, especially those who had deserted the countryside to find a job in the capital, in extremely precarious living conditions.
As you can imagine, most of the locals heavily relied on begging for money to bring some food home, and in order to get as much as they could, they had to fake terrible injuries. If you’d jump into the time machine and get to see the Court of Miracles by broad daylight, you would encounter more terrible(-looking) handicaps than in any hospital emergency department. Crippled, armless, hunchbacks… All sorts were to be found: the worst it looked, the more likely it would be pitied.
But if you’d stay until nightfall, you would be seeing something different. Blind people would regain sight; the lame would all of a sudden run back to their homes; hunchbacks would stand up straight and smile at you while pocketing their coins…You would be witnessing numerous miracles, hence the name of that kind of district.
It goes without saying that Victor Hugo found there a lot of inspiration for his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), later adapted into a Disney cartoon. Incidentally, a scene from the 1996 movie depicts an army of gypsies led by Clopin singing:
Maybe you’ve heard of a terrible place where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair… Maybe you’ve heard of that mythical place called the Court of Miracles! Where the lame can walk and the blind can see – but the dead don’t talk, so you won’t be around to reveal what you’ve found!
This image of an organized society dedicated to thievery and tricks is actually not far from the truth, as the French historian Henri Sauval revealed: children appearing to be orphans were shaking in the winter cold; some people pretended to be former soldiers having been injured at the King’s service, while sick-looking others faked epileptic seizures; beggars invited passers-by to go gamble with their accomplices or distracted them while their peers cut off their purse.
Everybody, woman, man or child, had a role within a Court of Miracles; and it is estimated that a dozen places like this coexisted solely in Paris, the most famous gathering more than 500 families living off theft and trickery at the Fief d’Alby. Moreover, if one wanted to become a member, one had to go through a specific rite of passage, as Sauval further explained.
To be accepted, one was asked to commit a robbery in plain sight of everybody. But once the ‘apprentice’ was near his chosen victim, his accomplices would shout: “Watch out! This man is about to steal your purse!” and leave their poor fellow being beaten up by a quickly-forming crowd. Then, if he did not try to denounce his companions, they would join the angry mob and, in the general chaos, steal as many purses as possible; then they would drag their partner in crime away, who would be granted the right to join their society – and perform this kind of trick as daily occupation.
Eventually, in 1667, Louis XIV ordered these secret societies to be uncovered and their members to receive severe punishment, which resulted in the general disappearance of the Courts of Miracles within the capital city.
Today, light has flooded these mythical places, but you can still visit some streets of Paris (like the “Rue de la Petite-Truanderie” and the “Rue de la Grande-Truanderie”) which bear the memory of a kingdom of brigands taking over the Sun King’s riches… And that is a true miracle.