Book Summary: “How Paris Became Paris” by Joan DeJean


How Paris Became Paris

Title: How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Author: Joan DeJean
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

The history of Paris from 1597 and 1700 and how it came to be the “City of Light”.

My Comments

The formation of cities is one of the keys to progress. In Agrarian societies, as Europe was during this time period, the political, economic, religious, cultural, artistic life of the nation is concentrated into one enormous capital city.

Paris is the premier example of such a city.

Key Take-aways

  • Between 1597 and 1700, Paris was transformed from a dirty medieval city into the “City of Light” that we know today.
  • Much of the transformation was due to innovations in transportation and economic infrastructure:
    • Demolition of city walls enabled large public parks to be built
    • Cobblestones replaced mud on streets and sidewalks
    • The first street lighting replaced dark alleys
    • The first public mail delivery
    • The first urban transit (via horse carriage)
  • During this time, modern fashion was born, and Paris was its beating heart.
  • Because of all of this, Paris became the playground for elites from throughout the European continent. They came to see and be seen. When they returned to their home country, they brought with them Paris fashion, attitudes and beliefs.

Important Quotes from Book

Between 1597 and 1700, that urban disaster (medieval Paris) was rebuilt and transformed.

The Sun King was thus the first ruler to respond to the changing nature of warfare and of national defense: from the seventeenth century on, each European country’s line of defense shifted from individual cities to the nation’s perimeters. Louis XIV replaced an architecture of paranoia with an architecture of openness; he thereby made Paris the first open city in modern European history. This was a crucial step in the transition from the walled city to the modern cityscape.

Those who collected the numbers concluded that Paris continued to grow because its gravitational pull was attracting provincial French and, above all, foreigners. Provincials, they explained, came in search of economic opportunity. And foreigners? They came “out of curiosity” or “in search of pleasure.”

Foreigners were also attracted by the city’s technological modernity. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the French suddenly outstripped the Dutch, until then the European leaders in city services and urban technologies. Between 1653 and 1667, Paris saw spectacular advances as the city acquired in quick succession three absolute firsts: a public mail delivery system, public transportation, and street lighting.

France had long been a producer of luxury goods such as fine textiles. Until the reign of Louis XIV, however, French craftsmen had been overshadowed by their principal European rivals, the Italians. In the 1660s and ’70s, Colbert set out to achieve absolute dominance for the French over the most profitable sectors of a highly lucrative industry by making sure that trade regulations and import duties favored the business community. Before the century’s end, all over Europe the elite wanted only the goods crafted by French tailors and French cobblers, French jewelers and French perfumers.

The civil war years had awakened in Parisians a new appetite for faster communication and rapid movement. As soon as the war was over, private investors attempted to capitalize on those desires. They invented two revolutionary urban technologies focused on the circulation of information and people: public mail delivery and public transportation.

With official royal permission, they put into operation innovations designed to help both Parisians and visitors alike find their way as the city added streets and neighborhoods, and to help them share news far more rapidly and frequently than ever before. Soon, a third urban technology, one instantly seen as a definitive mark of urban modernity—street lighting—made Paris a city where it was also possible to be on the go twenty-four hours a day.

The revitalized city jump-started the creation of a French luxury goods industry. Over the course of the next three decades, France achieved a virtual stranglehold over this highly profitable trade.

Colbert is given credit today for crucial tactics that rebooted the French economy. His interventionist policy—called protectionism, mercantilism, or simply colbertisme—imposed heavy taxes on all imported goods. Colbert also ordered French manufacturers to copy the foreign products French consumers most desired. He even established standards, and this strictly enforced quality control guaranteed the superiority of French made goods.

The single-minded collaboration between monarch and minister made it possible for fashion to become a state industry for France.

In Paris there was no longer a necessary relation between fine dress and fine status.

Previously and still in places such as India, fashion served as an absolute marker of station. Because styles did not change very quickly, an expensive article of clothing retained its value as a status symbol for some time. But as long as fashion moved at a stately pace, the production of luxury goods could never develop on a large scale. For that to happen, fashion had to change frequently… In addition, for something worthy of the name “industry” to develop, high fashion had to be adopted by an ever-growing segment of the population; it could no longer be reserved for those in the highest rank. A fashion industry had to promote democratized fashion open to all.

To say this openly, however, would have been to destroy what Louis XIV had immediately seen as a major selling point for French luxury goods manufacturers: the notion that styles began at the court of France.

But the true legacy of la mode is found outside of Paris. Every major urban center now has a fashion scene, and every modern fashion scene is indebted to the manner in which the French fashion industry was invented and first marketed its goods. Paris in the seventeenth century defined shopping as we still know it—comparison shopping, indoor shopping, shopping in an attractive store with seductive displays of merchandise and seductive employees, paying more for the very latest styles and for the most coveted brand names, shopping as a leisure activity. It gave us the first fashion advertising, the original fashion magazine, and the very idea of fashion trends. In the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that Paris simply was shopping—and in many ways, it still is.

In all the major urban projects of seventeenth-century Paris, from the Place Royale to the Île Saint-Louis to the Place Vendôme, and in all the most visible spots in every fashionable neighborhood and along every newly constructed or newly widened thoroughfare, innovative and attention-getting architecture was likely to have been bankrolled by individuals who occupied what Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, termed “a separate sphere” in French society. He had in mind the members of a new and newly powerful financial elite who gradually came to ever greater prominence in France in the course of the seventeenth century.

And whereas previously, in European cities such as Venice and Amsterdam, most recent wealth had been accumulated through trade and the overseas trade in particular, the parvenus of seventeenth-century Paris had amassed their fortunes by dealing not in goods but solely in money.

The emergence of the financier began in about 1600, when the French monarchy first encountered fiscal problems that have ever since plagued the modern state.

Whereas in the sixteenth century the French monarchy’s revenue had remained stable, in the range of eight to twenty million livres annually, during the first half of the seventeenth century this situation changed dramatically. Between 1590 and 1622, for example, revenue rose from about eighteen million livres to an estimated fifty million a year; by 1653, the total had grown to roughly 109 million, and it stayed well over a hundred million throughout Louis XIV’s reign. This meant that the French monarchy had access to resources that vastly outstripped those of its major European rivals. A noted eighteenth-century economist estimated that during Louis XIV’s reign France’s revenue was four times greater than England’s and nearly three times superior to that of the Dutch Republic.

Relatively little of that was spent on keeping up appearances: between 1600 and 1656, court expenses rose only from three million livres to six million. However, whereas in 1600 court expenses accounted for thirty one percent of the budget, in 1656 they represented only seven percent. During that half-century, the cost of war changed the face of French finance.

The French government’s bookkeeping divided expenses into “ordinary” (court expenses) and “extraordinary.” Due to the rising cost of war, between 1600 and 1656, extraordinary expenses ballooned—from just seven million livres to over a hundred million. When budget deficits began to surge, the state began to borrow as never before and thus had recourse to a type of financial agent who surfaced in the late sixteenth century: the financier.

In return, they acquired the right to collect a new tax or import or export duty from which they guaranteed the government a fixed income—and from which they were allowed to retain a sizeable share of the profits… a rate of twenty-five percent became standard— hence the steady rise in “extraordinary” expenses, a category that included the interest on loans.

It was in Paris that most financiers were in business and that their fortunes were on display. Every stage in the city’s reinvention was made possible by them—by their willingness to invest in public works and to accept financial risk.

In France, the evolution from a caste-based society in which honor and prestige were the dominant values to a class-based society in which great wealth could determine an individual’s social station began with the seventeenth-century financiers. Their stories demonstrated that an individual’s rank could be made rather than inherited.

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