Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 4 Revolution

This is the 4th installment of my adventures in the off-limit Paris catacombs. Here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Wandering 60+ feet below the surface of Paris, three specific periods of time seemed to jump out at me. I talked a little bit yesterday about the 1980s, and the crews of cataphiles who adopted the catacombs as their sacred place for art, partying, exploring, and taking refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city above. I mentioned the creation of the catacombs around the time of the French Revolution and the untimely death of Philibert Aspairt soon after their creation. And then there are the traces of the Nazis during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. I’ll talk about that more later. But for now, let’s go back to the beginning.

Gilles Thomas teaching me the history of the catacombs, inscription by inscription.

Gilles Thomas giving me the history of the catacombs, inscription by inscription.

Like I mentioned in Part 2, the story of the catacombs began with the collapse of a limestone mine in 1774, which swallowed a whole street of houses (and people) along what is now avenue Denfert-Rochereau.

This prompted King Louis XVI to pass a royal decree in 1777 that a special commission would inspect the mines. (Um, yeah…a whole 3 years after the disaster. Bureaucracy seems to have been just as bad, if not worse, back then.) The Inspection générale des carrières (IGC) was founded and Charles-Axel Guillaumot (the king’s architect) was named chief inspector.

He took on the task whole-heartedly, working with a team of eighteen men. Like I mentioned before, Guillaumot and all of the inspectors after him each left their mark. And if you know the code, you know who was in charge when each pillar was reinforced. (Finding a “G” for Guillaumot is a special thrill!)

inspectors1inspectors2(table copied from Inspection Générale des Carrières)

As you can see, Guillaumot was inspector twice: for 14 years, then a five year gap, then again from 1796-1807. Can anyone guess why? Yep…it was because of this little thing called The French Revolution.


Pillar #2 by Guillaumot, reinforced in 1782—before he was thrown in jail. (The drawing underneath would have to date after the wall was built, of course.)

Since Guillaumot had been appointed by the king, the revolutionaries didn’t look kindly on him and threw him in jail. But he was given his job back in 1795 (Napoleon recognized his importance to the project) and his “G” once again appears on inscriptions using the Revolutionary calendar, like the one below. He kept working on his prize project until he died in 1807.

Pillar I by Guillamot in the 9th year of the Revolution, or 1800.

Pillar I by Guillaumot in the 9th year of the Revolution, or 1800, 5 years after Napoleon let him out of jail and gave him his job back.


Near the end of Guillaumot’s first stint, Louis XVI was guillotined (on 21 January 1793). Starting that year, all signs of royalty were ordered destroyed. Therefore, all of the fleur-de-lys that were carved into the catacomb’s signs were scratched out.

Scratched-out fleur-de-lys and number 30.

Scratched-out fleur-de-lys and number 30.

But that wasn’t the only thing that changed. Before Napoleon, the streets were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… up one side of the street, and then coming back down 10, 11, 12, 13… In 1805 Napoleon instated the system that is still used today: even numbers on one side of the street and odd on the other. (The numbers start at the Seine with 1 and go higher as you get further away from the river, or for east-west streets start with sunrise, at the east, and get higher in the direction of sunset, at the west of the city.)

So when you see a number scratched out, and the new address carved in its place—topped with a star—you know that dates from 1805 or later. (My photo of the starred address looks like I shot it while running for my life. I will spare you.)

HOWEVER…the people tasked with scratching out the fleur-de-lys missed a few. Ten, to be exact. And Gilles led the artist and me to each and every one, letting us find them ourselves on a mini-scavenger hunt. They weren’t easy to find—which is the reason they were missed in the first place! One had been in a pool of water. The other behind another sign:


And others had lost their color or were in unexpected locations:




Also, thanks to the Revolution, all signs of religion were destroyed, so streets with saint names were changed, thus rue St. Jacques becoming plain old rue Jacques. During the restoration, some of these were once again altered, but if there was no space a tiny “St” was carved in between words.

But my favorite remnants of the Revolution aren’t the official ones. They are the graffiti left by the cataphiles of the day.

As I learned while studying Napoleon with my eleven-year-old son a couple of weeks ago, the general-turned-emperor became reviled for (well, for a lot of things, but especially for…) as one poet said, “taking all of our sons”. Napoleon’s battles were bloody, and a great number of France’s young men were killed during his short reign. One of the unfortunate boys to be enlisted went down into the catacombs to express his grief over choosing the lottery number that ensured his army inscription. (I can only imagine it would be treason to express it anywhere above-ground!)


I can’t read the whole thing, but it gives his name, says he was born in 1789…. “drew in 1809 the number 197″… and the rest basically says “in drawing that number, the people of France chose my fate.” In just one of the battles of 1809, Napoleon lost 23,000 men to the Austrian army. We can only hope that this boy was one of the few to survive.

This one shows a Napoleonic soldier. The date 1813 is written above it, which happens to be the year of the Battle of Leipzig, which cost more than 90,000 men their lives.

P1030576Close up of the soldier:


Not far away, in the same corridor, Gilles pointed out a drawing and asked, “What do you think this is?”


After a moment’s thought, I said, “A guillotine, with a ladder going up to its platform.” Gilles looked at me so strangely that I thought I had gotten it wrong, but apparently I’m the first person who answered his question correctly. (!) The theme is repeated in a more detailed drawing on the facing wall.



Print showing the 1794 execution of Robespierre, copied from (No date or artist listed).

Which is quite similar to the one used to execute Robespierre, complete with side-railings.

However, in the catacombs version, the artist has gone all-out and included ladder-railings and a basket to catch the severed head beneath the guillotine.

And on that note, we will close today’s history-lesson-slash-treasure-hunt, because tomorrow I’ve got something I know you’re all going to love: BONES. Lots of them.

A demain!


3 Comments to Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 4 Revolution

  1. by MeneNM - On June 16, 2017

    Awesome blog, thank you so much for sharing!! So cool! I got vey into it.


  1. Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 5 Bones | Amy Plum
  2. Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 6 Nazis | Amy Plum

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