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Signs of the City: Place, Power, and Public Fantasy in Medieval Paris

Signs of the City: Place, Power, and Public Fantasy in Medieval Paris

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Figure i.i. 42 rue Galande, Paris. Photograph courtesy of the author.


Figure 1.2. Sign of St. Julian, stone relief, 1373-80, 42 rue Galande.

Photograph courtesy of the author.

though weathered, is unrestored, in its original site, and still performing

its original function—it is a house sign.1

This sculpture cannot be a fragment from the destroyed tympanum

of the nearby church of Saint Julien le Pauvre, demolished in 1675. First,

the church was probably dedicated to a different Julian, either the Martyr

or the Confessor and not the Hospitaller. Second, and more important,

in 1380 the house on the rue Galande was already described in a document as "Maison ou au-dessus est 1'ansaigne de saint Jullien" (the House

above which is the sign of Saint Julian).2 Seven years before, the same

building is also described as the "Maison de la heuse" (House of the Boot),

which gives us a fairly clear date as to when this particular sign was

placed over the door. Another document of 1441 describes the material,

position, and subject matter of the sign: "Maison ouquel est a present

elevee en pierre de taille 1'ymaige de Sainct-Jullian, sur 1'uisserie dudict

hostel" (The house where there is at present raised in carved stone the

image of Saint Julian on the door of the said hostel).5 Today, two houses

to the west, at number 48 rue Galande is a restaurant called the "Auberge

des deux signes," an example of what we might at first assume is a modern linguistic sign referring to lost visual markers. But already in 1360




this was known as the "Maison des deux signes." To confuse matters,

the house appears in a 1429 document as the "Hostel des deux cignes"

(the House of the Two Swans), possibly part of the veritable menagerie

of animal signs surrounding the sign of St. Julian. There was the "Maison du cheval rouge" and the "Maison des lyons" on one side, and at the

corner, "La Corne de cerf (the Ram's Horn), a famous sign attested in

1435, marking a house that belonged to the Picard Nation of the University. The various Nations of the University of Paris, needing lodgings for

visitors and students, owned many of the houses on this street, which at

its east end abutted one of the most famous streets of the quarter, the

rue du Fouarre or the Street of Straw, where students of the liberal arts

crowded to hear lectures. We do not know who owned the house with the

image of St. Julian, only that it was an important and valuable property

transferred in 1413 for the substantial sum of more than 80 "ecus d'or."4

The last time I photographed the cinema at number 42, not only

had its owners restored and cleaned the modern concrete facade around

the medieval sign, they had put up their own new, eye-catching, painted

and projecting sign reading "Studio Galande," incorporating an image

of movie-camera projection. In the modern metropolis we negotiate

space almost totally through the grid of language. Nineteenth-century

photographers like Charles Marville and Eugene Atget show that Paris

was the first great city of signs in the modern sense with billboards and

the bombardment of written words on every wall and surface, and, as

Molly Nesbit has shown, the first studies of older signs in the city were

part of a modernist and surrealist construction of the urban phantasmagoria.5 I shall return to this issue, but it is important to first understand how medieval signs functioned in radically different ways from

modern ones. In contemporary Paris, for example the green cross of the

pharmacy is a visual sign, but the word "pharmacie" is necessary for it to

dispense drugs. Not only in maps and road signs, street signs announce

our location as pedestrians, painted words guide us during the day and

neon ones at night. Most of these textual signs are commercial. We find

individual houses through similar linguistic and numerical means, a

number and a street address.6 Street names existed in Paris during the

Middle Ages, but numeration of houses was not standard until quite recently, imposed by law only in i8o5-7 Until then one located inhabitants

and businesses through a system of purely pictorial signs, three thousand of which were still listed in the seventeenth century. In the tax reg-


isters of 1292, houses are indicated by the name of their proprietor,

which suggests that the imposition of signs was a relatively late medieval phenomenon.8 As late as 1599 the foreign visitor Thomas Platter

described how "if one is searching for a person it is necessary to know

the exact house where he lives, the sign of that house, and the floor

which he inhabits."9 The rue Hirondele just off the old rue Git-le-coeur,

also on the Left Bank, still has the old eighteenth-century incised street

name below one of the famous nineteenth-century blue plaques that itself has been replaced today by an even more modern one (figure 1.3). In

our current urge to historicize, now we tend to name streets after famous

people, events in the past, or even dates, but this street was named after

a sign, an image of a bird on one of its houses. The house sign often created the street name in this way. The rue Galande, however, was named

after one of its noble owners, Mathilde de Garlande, wife of Matthew of

Montmerency, who received the land as a fief of the abbey of St. Genevieve

in 1202 in order to build hospitibus ad hospitias.10 But many streets in

Paris whose names date back to the Middle Ages refer to a more impersonal imposition of signs.

The image of St. Julian on the rue Galande is not only the oldest extant street sign in the city, it is the only Parisian sign of any antiquity that

is not now housed in the Musee Carnavelet, which has an extensive collection of house signs, most postdating the medieval period." The subject represented here is taken from the dramatic story of one of the three

Julians recounted in the Golden Legend, that of St. Julian the Hospitaller.12

Out hunting one day, a noble youth is chasing a stag, which turns to him

and says, "Why do you hunt me, you who are destined to kill your own

father and mother?" In order to escape fulfillment of this awful prophecy, the young man wandered to a country far away from his home where

he married and became a prosperous householder. Returning to his

house one day, he saw what he thought was a stranger in bed with his

wife under the covers. Drawing his sword, he slew the two who turned

out, to his horror, to be none other than his long lost parents, who had

come in search of their son and whom his wife had taken in for the

night. In order to expiate himself from the sin of having killed both his

parents, he built a hut by the side of a perilous river where he and his

wife ferried travelers across. Long after this a stranger appeared and

begged to be ferried across the river on the night of a terrible storm.

As the story ends in the Golden Legend, the man "who was eaten with




Figure 1.3. Rue Hirondelle, Paris. Photograph courtesy of the author.

leprosy and horrible to look upon" turns into a shining angel who announces their repentance has been accepted so the couple can die peacefully. The sculpted image focuses on the latter part of the narrative and

not the scene of Julian's sin. The earlier image of Julian's terrible mistake takes up the main space of the miniature in a full page dedicated to

the saint in the fifteenth-century Hours of Peter of Brittany (figure 1.4)."

But in the bas-de-page, we see a similar composition to that in the Paris

sign with the saint and his wife on either side of a small boat and a

standing, nimbed figure, not just an angelic messenger but Christ himself, in the middle. In the manuscript the figure is clearly Christ with a

cruciform nimbus, but in the sculpture he has a more ambiguous


Figure 1.4. Legend of St. Julian in the boat, bas-de-page of the Hours of Peter of Brittany.

Fifteenth-century Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale Ms. lat. 1159 fol. I55V. Copyright Bibliotheque

Nationale de France, Paris; reprinted courtesy of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

human appearance, the "cliquette" or "clapper" carried by lepers to announce their coming hanging around his neck. That Christ appears with

the most highly stigmatized physical illness of the Middle Agesleprosy—is also significant in terms of the spaces of medieval Paris,

where leprosaria, most notably the hospital of St. Lazare, their patron

saint, were located at the periphery of the urban space.14 Here near the

center of the city, the most feared leper appears in the most-loved body

of Christ. According to the Golden Legend, it had been a particularly

stormy night when Christ appeared in the guise of a leper (qui sic




infirmus et quasi leprosus apparuerat) and asked to be transported across

the river. On the left of the scene is the goal of the journey, the safe

haven of the hostel on the far shore, which metonymically also represents the house over which the sign stands. The scene depicts that climactic moment of recognition as their mystery passenger reveals his

identity and, in return for their charity, promises the two astonished sinners eternal salvation.

With its thematics of wandering hospitality—the young saint leaving

his home after the prophesy, his wife giving up her own bed to the old

couple, and the penance of running a hostel for travelers—Julian became

the patron saint of hostels or more general lodging places in the later

Middle Ages. The French poem "La Paternostre saint Julien" was a prayer

recited by travelers in the hope they would receive hospitality on their

journey.15 Chaucer describes the generosity of the Franklin by allusion to

the saint: "An householdere and that a greet was he; Seint Julian he was

in his contree." As Gawain sees Bertilak's castle in the distance in

Gawain and the Green Knight, he associates the same two sacred figures

we see on the Paris sign, thanking "Jesus and sayn Gilyan, that gentyle

ar bothe, that cortaysly hade hym kydde and his cry herkened. 'Now

bone hostel,' coth the burne, 'I beseche yow yette!'"16

An internationally understood and not just a local image promising

hospitality, the rue Galande example also shows not an otherworldly

saint but a contemporary and functioning economic unit—a married

couple—who ran the hostel. Many medieval signs show a man and wife

as an economic unit, either the "first" couple, Adam and Eve, or other

couples.17 The rue Galande is not far from the Petit Pont and the great

river artery of the Seine, so this example has a topographical as well as a

symbolic logic. First, a ship was on the seal of the merchants and a crucial emblem for the city.18 Saint Julian was also patron of fishmongers,

as evidenced in an elaborate stained glass window at Rouen cathedral

dedicated to the multiple Saint Julians described in the Golden Legend.

Fish were not only a major source of food for Parisians, but they also

appear carved against the running water, once probably painted blue, on

the sign.19 But the central emphasis in the carving upon the leprous and

therefore abject nature of the mysterious traveler/Christ suggests that

this image did not function as a shop sign but rather that here was a safe

resting place. Today more often a verbal logo, "Holiday Inn" welcomes

the tired driver from a distance, and in a similar way this sign was com-


monly used for pilgrimage hostels to suggest comfort, spiritual as well

as physical. It may have been designed especially to contrast to commercial signs, like the wisp of straw or greenery on a pole that often signaled a public house or a tavern.20 Signs like that of St. Julian suggest a

nucleated concept not of persons but of place, in which each house had

its own centrality and significance, not just a numbered element in a

sequence as in our modern cities, but with its own identity in an image.

While the recent historical research on the city has emphasized the importance of images in the performative rituals that animated the streets

during special festivals, the more quotidian tactics of these static signs

have for the most part been ignored.21 Many historians of the city, as a

mode of experience as well as an architectural site, have described how

urban life puts more emphasis upon visual recognition, and the importance of visual signs certainly suggests another kind of quotidian literacy,

based not upon textual learning but another system of understood symbols and structures.22 I want to explore in the rest of this chapter the

function of such an image—its use of a hagiographic legend to advertise

a commercial and not a spiritual location and what this little vestige of

the medieval city can tell us about the status of signs in the urban spaces

of medieval culture.


I say spaces and not space quite deliberately. There was no such thing as

"space" for medieval people. The word "espace" meant an interval of

time or distance, and, as Edward S. Casey has described in his recent

book The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, the hotly debated issues

among Parisian philosophers of the time concerned place f locus) and not

our modern abstract notion of space, which is a postmedieval category.

In this respect architectural historians who talk about the "space" of the

great Gothic cathedrals are imposing an anachronistic notion of experience on these structures.23 Signs are indicators of lived social place, not

disembodied abstract space. Modern theorists and semioticians often fall

into what I see as a trap of overstratifying what they call medieval urban

space into two distinct and separate registers, one embodied in the sculptural complex of the cathedral of Notre Dame and its multifaceted and

complex sign system (figure 1.5) and the other represented by the little


Figure 1.5. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris: north transept with projecting gargoyles (mostly restored).

Photograph courtesy of the author.


sign of St. Julian only a couple of stone's throws away (in medieval spatial terms) across the river (see figure 1.2).

Francoise Choay made such a stratification in her influential essay

in The City and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics:

The system of the medieval city can be defined especially by

closure (inside its surrounding walls) and by the differential relations between two types of elements: functional cellular minielements (individual houses), and semantically charged maxielements (cathedral or church, palace, squares). The former are

opposed to the latter (in a relation of transcendence) and to each

other by distinctive features, in particular the slope and pattern

of their roofs, the windows of their facade: their heterogeneity

displays itself along the street in a relationship of proximity that

will here be called syntagmatic.24

This analysis is, in my view, misplaced. Sacred sites were not the only

places that were "semantically charged." Choay's interpretation gives

power only to those sculpted signs on sites of ecclesiastical control like the

cathedral or aristocratic privilege, like the hotel or palace, totally neglecting what she calls the "mini-elements." Just as the maxi-elements contained important signs around doorways, windows and entrances, so too

did ordinary house facades. Similarly, just as there were signs on the

cathedral of Notre Dame that jutted out into the street itself, in the form

of gargoyles that kept rainwater off the roof (see figure 1.5) and that had

no individual significance, the streets of medieval Paris were penetrated

by countless projecting signs, usually belonging to shops or trades, of

quite specific significance and meaning. So it was not only at Notre Dame

that the Parisian could see saints and sinners, devils, angels, and fantastic animals cavorting and projecting out into the profane world beyond.

That profane world was itself marked by the same forms. Whereas the

signboard is in a sense a framed picture, a plane set into the grid of geometrically observable signs in the modern city, the old sculptural signs,

jutting out as they did onto the street-space itself, became one with the

rubbed-up-against, quotidian chaos of the urban body-politic. It is not

surprising that they have not survived in large numbers. As well as this

important material aspect, the way such signs create a kind of mental

map of modes of power is also important. The medieval imaginary was




teeming with signs that differentiated one mini-element, that is, one

house, from another. If the monument, the great cathedral for example,

commands bodies and orders space, what of these smaller, vernacular

signals? Do they too project their messages in order to construct conformity and identity?

In addition to ecclesiastical complexes, I also want to contrast these

small urban signs to the sign systems of the aristocracy that were appearing all over the city in the same period—heraldic arms and blazons,

which were the personal property of particular families and which announced more radically than any other sign in medieval culture the elision of image and identity.25 The great town house of the nouveau-riche

merchant Jacques Coeur in Bourges is all about the great ego of an "I."

Life-size statues of servants look out of windows onto the street in expectation of the arrival of their master, like apostles waiting for the Last

Judgment on a church tympanum, and the whole facade was filled with

representations of the owner's mottoes, emblems, and arms.26 The use

of heraldry as a spectacular public form of visual display might, I think,

have played a role in the creation of what Brigitte Bedos-Rezak has

termed "the civic liturgies" developing in towns at the same time, but in

resistance to rather than collusion with these aristocratic signs of self.27

Signs were of three types: the first two usual for house signs, the

third for shops. The first type was sculpted three-dimensional wooden

or sometimes stone images integral to the architecture because they

functioned as either imposts, lintels, or corner buttresses known as

poteaux-comieres. In Paris the only extant example of such a sign in wood

is a vertical sculpture nine meters high and now on display in the Musee

Carnavelet, representing the Tree of Jesse surmounted by the Virgin

Mary. An old drawing shows that it once formed part of the timber structure on a house at the comer of the rue Saint-Denis and the rue des

Precheurs when it was known as the "Maison de 1'arbre-aux-precheurs"

(House of the Tree of the Preachers). This nomenclature suggests that it

was viewed from a nonsacred subject position by the urban population.28

The second, less elaborate type was smaller, sculpted images that

were either set above the door against the wall or placed in specially designed niches, known as "montjoies."29 The third type consists of a flat

board or sometimes an object suspended on a pole projecting out into

the street. This type, traditional for commercial establishments like

shops and taverns, will be discussed later.30 One obvious function is to

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