Islands

The boulevard Morland is a tree-lined, one-way thoroughfare in the fourth arrondissement. Nothing indicates that the buildings between it and the river occupy what was once an island, or that the street sits atop what was once an arm of the river and a quay. Here was one of Paris’s many now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t islands.

Turgot’s map from the 1730s shows the now-vanished island joined to the Right Bank by a precarious-looking bridge at its western end (the foreground in the image), and an estacade (wooden pier) partly blocking the entry to the arm of the river at the east end.

I couldn’t identify the shapes covering the island until I read in Jacques Hillairet’s Dictionnaire Historique des Rues de Paris that the island was the site of a wood market. Those are huge piles of wood to be used for heating.

The island was not urbanized until it was joined to the Right Bank in the 1840s.* Mind you, at dawn or dusk, as this 18th-century image by Pierre-Antoine Demachy suggests, the huge stacks of wood must have looked like fantastic towers.

Before becoming attached to the Right Bank, the island was known as the Ile Louviers after Charles de Louviers, who owned it in the 15th century. Earlier in its history, according to Paris Ancien et Moderne by Jean Lacroix de Marles (1837), it had been called Ile aux Javeaux (javeau is a sandbar) or Ile aux Meules (haystacks) or Ile aux Ormétiaux (elms).

The multiple names are typical. In researching vanished islands, I discovered that they all had umpteen names. At least three different Paris islands had names that incorporated the word vaches (cows), which suggests what the islands were used for. At least two included the word treilles (vines), suggesting what they looked like.

One of the cow-pasturing islands was just downstream from the Ile Louviers. Before the urbanization of Ile St-Louis in the 17th century, there were two islands – the Ile aux Vaches (island of cows) and the Ile Notre-Dame. Here, they are shown on the Plan Vassalieu, 1609.

Yet according to writers such as Jacques Antoine Dulaure (Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris, 1823), those two islands had been created from a single island called Ile Notre-Dame, which was bisected by a channel when the wall of Philippe Auguste was built in the 13th century. The single island appears on a few maps, but most of those maps were made long after the division occurred.

(This is the thing about early Paris maps. Popular map databases – including Gallica and Wikipedia – include many maps that purport to show Paris in ancient or medieval times, but were, in fact, created in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on early accounts of the city. They are approximations based on what was known at the time. You can read about one example here.)

Ile Louviers was not the only island to disappear over the years. Further downstream was the long, narrow Ile Maquerelle. Like the Ile St-Louis, it was cobbled together from two or more former islands. In this map showing Paris in the 1550s (this version is an 18th-century copy of a 16th century original), two islands are visible at the bottom of the map (north is to the left and east is at the top of the map). Written accounts suggest that up to five islands originally occupied this area.

Hillairet suggests that the island’s name came from “mal-querelle” (or bad quarrel, that is, the kind that leads to a duel on a largely deserted island). That’s one theory. Maybe Hillairet is being polite. Maquerelle can also mean a madam, in the sense of a woman who runs a brothel (the female version of maquereau, meaning pimp). Who knows what went on there?

By Turgot’s day, the amalgamated island had acquired the less edgy name Ile des Cygnes (swans) after Louis XIV populated it with birds he had received as a gift from the Danish ambassador. Turgot’s map shows it as yet another wood market (clearly a popular use for otherwise unoccupied islands). I suppose the swans had moved on. It only just makes it into Turgot’s huge map in the bottom right-hand corner. This was suburban terrain (I am tempted to call it the sticks).

Hillairet adds the gruesome detail that the bodies of many victims of the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had been thrown into the Seine, washed ashore here, where the river bends, and were buried on the island. A few decades earlier, it had been the burial site for plague victims from 1544.

Ile Maquerelle/des Cygnes was joined to the Left Bank in the late 18th century. Its western end became part of an expanded Champs de Mars for the Ecole Militaire. The Quai Branly now occupies part of the site.

At least two other vanished islands form the downstream tip of Ile de la Cité. In this historical painting by Fedor Hoffbauer from the 1890s that depicts a much earlier view, the tip of the island is a jumble of low-lying islands, but most maps show only two islands.

The one closer to the Left Bank (which is actually on the right in the image above) was known, among other things, as the Ile aux Juifs (Jews), or the Ile aux Templiers (Knights Templar). These names refer to the execution of people on the site, not to erstwhile inhabitants. Today, there is a plaque about the execution of the last Grand Master of the Templars in the Square du Vert Galant.

The former names of the island nearer the Right Bank include Ile à la Gourdaine (a word meaning ferry), Ile de Buci, and Ile aux Bureaux (the last two names represent people associated with the island). Nearby, standing on piles in the water, was the Moulin de la Monnaie (the mill of the Royal Mint), used to mint coins. Hoffbauer includes it in his painting, above, and it is labelled in a map from the 1550s (here again, north is to the left). The mill disappeared when the Pont Neuf was constructed in this spot in the 1570s.

In the years before dredging and embankments, the Seine was prone to the build-up of sand and mud. Islands came and went. One, which sounds like little more than a sandbar, was dignified with the name “Ile du Louvre,” because it was close to the Louvre on the Right Bank, but it disappeared with the creation of the Port St-Nicolas. I have not yet seen a picture of it on a map or illustration.

Other islands also live on only in name. For example, after describing some former islands, Hillairet comments: “Finally, there were other small islands, like… Ile Merdeuse opposite the Palais Bourbon.” Ile Merdeuse? According to the ever-polite Hillairet, the name signified “good for nothing,” because it was too small and too barren to find a use. Or perhaps the name reflects the shouted reaction of someone on a riverboat running up against a buried sandbar.

Ile Merdeuse does not appear on any map that I have seen. Perhaps it’s an urban legend. It reminds me of something I discovered when I was doing some work in a town in southern Ontario. I noticed that the city crest consisted of a bird’s-eye view of the city and the river that flowed through it. The original version included an aeroplane that represented one of the industries on which the city was built (aeroplane manufacturing). But in one badly reproduced iteration, the aeroplane flying over the river became a blob and in a later version, the blob became an island in the river that did not exist. The city has long since changed its crest, but that incident showed me how easy it is to forget what a blob on a map might mean. Now I take nothing for granted. The tendency to copy from what came before rather than verifying matters in person is universal.

Since I cannot find any corroboration for Hillairet’s mention of “Ile Merdeuse,” I am not going to insist that such a place existed. Its ostensible location opposite the Palais Bourbon (now the French National House of Assembly) suggests some leg-pulling.

Another hard-to-pin-down island is the Ile Boute-clou (bouter is to drive and clou is a nail). Hillairet suggests that this was one of the former names for the Ile Louviers. Elsewhere, I have seen the name referred to in connection with a small island near the Quai des Grands Augustins on the Left Bank that was the subject of a tussle between rival monasteries in the 16th century. But again, I have not seen it on any map.

The 19th century saw the disappearance of many islands from the Seine in the interests of improved navigation. The 17th-century map above gives you an idea of the abundance of islands, only a few of which remain. Many that did were industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that’s another story.

So it seems almost perverse than in the 1820s, a brand-new island was created where none had existed before, called the Ile aux Cygnes (a nod to the now-vanished Island of Swans upstream). It was at first a dike created to protect the port and depots at the Quai de Grenelle. Later, it was strengthened and eventually came to serve as a support for three bridges (road, rail, and metro) and as one of the spaces for pavilions at the 1937 International Exposition.

It also provides a green promenade with a view of the Eiffel Tower. At least, I suppose it does. When I lived in Paris as a student, I was given to understand that some dodgy characters were to be found there and it was best avoided. That was long ago, and is probably no longer the case, but still, I have never visited the island.

As the Seine winds its way to the sea, it passes hundreds more islands. A 2016 exhibit at the Pavilion de l’Arsenal featured stories and images of them. Appropriately enough, the Pavilion is situated on the former Ile Louviers.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images from Wikipedia and Gallica.

*In her enjoyable book, The Seine: The River that Made Paris, Elaine Sciolino claims that the Ile Louviers housed a theatre, but I think she means that it was used as a staging ground for royal and public entertainments and spectacles over the years.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris bridges, Paris history, Paris maps, Seine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Islands

  1. ROY says:

    Very good post !
    The wood logs used to be for heating and building (beams).
    They used to arrive to Paris by floating from the Morvan mountains (in Burgundy). They were transported by the rivers Cousin, Cure, Yonne and Seine, organized in rafts, bound by ropes; the main logs had a hole for. You still can see such holes in the wood ceilings of the old Parisian buildings.
    An interesting book has been written by Isabelle Backouche about the relation between the Seine and Paris: “La trace du fleuve” (https://journals.openedition.org/rh19/330)

  2. Narelle Jarvis says:

    Another interesting post! Thank you for your research Philippa.

  3. Jan Whitaker says:

    An especially fascinating post! It made me think of Boston’s islands, mostly used for exiling people and trash.

    • I definitely need to find out more about Boston’s islands! Toronto has an island that was created when a big storm turned a peninsula into an island. There is a small community of people living there to this day, depending on the weather and the ferries. Lovely, romantic, and impractical.

  4. Heather Franca says:

    Thank you for putting so much effort into these posts, Philippa. I always find them to be so fascinating. Xo

  5. Cathrine says:

    Wow thank you again so interesting. Missing travelling – I’m in Australia no travel except local and NZ at the moment so posts keeps me yearning

  6. marilyn Clemens says:

    I love your posts!. Sure you have seen “Le Dessus des Cartes, un atlas parisien, l’Arsenal, 1999.
    Marilyn Clemens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.