Modern day Latin Quarter

Rue de la Huchette in Latin Quarter
Rue de la Huchette

The Latin Quarter, the old student district and one of Paris’ iconic landmarks, attracts thousands of tourists each year.

However, they might be disappointed to learn that it has little to do with the medieval district that once ranked Paris as the intellectual capital of Europe!

Baron Haussmann indeed pulled it down completely during his extensive renovation of Paris in the 1860s. 

All that is left is a handful of lanes and buildings that miraculously escaped destruction.

Several vestiges of colleges still exist, but are not visible as they are today on private property.

That said, the Latin Quarter has retained some of  its student identity to this day because of the prestigious Sorbonne, Collège de France and Lycée Louis-Legrand.

Medieval building with corner tower in Latin Quarter
Medieval building with corner tower

Latin Quarter, the second oldest Parisian district

The Latin Quarter stretches on the Rive Gauche, from Boulevard Saint-Michel to Place Maubert.

It is Paris’ 2nd oldest district after the Ile de la Cité.

It developed after the Year 1000, in the vicinity of the Abbey of Sainte-Genevieve.

But more importantly, it developed among the vestiges of the ancient Roman city, on the Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve.

The area had remained semi-deserted until then, but the start of the new millennium marked a turning point in history.

It indeed generated an unprecedented social and religious revival and commercial expansion.

This resulted in an increase of wealth, social well-being and a sense of security, which had a significant impact on demographic expansion.

Latin Quarter, the students district

Until the late 12th century teaching had remained under the tutelage of the bishop of Paris.

An old college on Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve - Latin Quarter
An old college on Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve

Lessons were indeed taught in Notre-Dame Cloisters on the Ile de la Cité.

Abélard, one of the scholar monks, rebelled against the authority of the diocese. 

He migrated to the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, and all his students followed him!

In the early 13th century, the Pope granted the freedom of education to the schools.

However, King Philippe-Auguste went further.

He granted them a status of independence, which resulted in the foundation of the first French university, the Paris University.

As a result, other colleges were founded on the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève which soon became known as Latin Quarter because lessons were taught exclusively in Latin.

University of Paris in the Latin Quarter

Sorbonne in Latin Quarter

Paris was then thriving and regarded as the intellectual capital of Europe. 

Turbulent and unruly as ever, students turned the Latin Quarter into a vibrant and cosmopolitan enclave.

The University of Paris was a group of colleges that taught theology, art or law.

French regions and European countries funded them to accommodate their students in Paris (Scots’ College, English’ College…)

However, these colleges were far from being luxurious hotels. 

They were modest pensions that only provided housing and meals, as lessons were taught outdoors!

Outdoors teaching on Place Maubert and Rue du Fouarre

Until the early 14th century, lecturers taught in the open air during daytime in Rue du Fouarre and on Place Maubert.

Rue des Grands Degrés in Latin Quarter
Rue des Grands Degrés

They stood on a podium. Students sat meekly on bales of hay or fouarre, hence the name of the street that dates from 1215.

The College of Constantinople was the first school in the Latin Quarter. It was indeed founded in 1206 at no.1 Impasse Maubert.

The tiny lane originated at Place Maubert, a square created in 1202 on land that belonged to Sainte-Geneviève Abbey.

Some believe Maubert is the alteration of Jean Aubert, the second abbot of Sainte-Geneviève. 

Other think it is the corruption of Master Albert, the Dominican monk who preached and taught philosophy in the square.

When lecturers taught indoors

The atmosphere of the Latin Quarter changed in the early 14th century, when lecturers repeated their lessons inside the colleges during the evening.

English bookshop Shakespeare in Rue de la Bucherie in Latin Quarter
English bookshop Shakespeare in Rue de la Bucherie

A few decades later they were essentially taught indoors.

As a result, the lively Place Maubert where scholars, teachers, students and merchants mixed eventually became a marketplace.

The schools were also organized into major and minor colleges. 

The first provided a general education of high standard, while the second taught specialist subjects.

The colleges thrived until the mid 16th century.

The discovery of printing, the lack of funding and the reform of teaching indeed led to their decline.

By the late 16th century, only ten major colleges and the prestigious Sorbonne College remained in business!

The prestigious colleges

By the late 16th century, only ten major colleges including the prestigious Sorbonne College remained in business!

Rue de la Harpe in Latin Quarter
Rue de la Harpe

The Jesuits were expelled in 1672. 

The University of Paris took over their College of Clermont and merged it with six other colleges to found the Lycée Louis-Legrand.

The school immediately enrolled the scholarship students coming from the 30 colleges that had been closed. 

The prestigious establishment has since remained a symbol of academic excellence.

The École Polytechnique was founded at the Revolution as Ecole Centrale des Travaux Public as it was a training school for engineers. 

Placed under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Army, it was transferred to Palaiseau in the southern suburbs of Paris in 1979.

The former Faculty of Medicine, at nos13-15 Rue des Ecoles, opened in the 15th century and was the first school of medicine. 

It was rebuilt in the 17th century (its amphitheatre-rotunda a century later) and is listed Historical Monument.

Paris University

Metro entrance on Place Saint-Andre-des-Arts
Metro entrance on Place Saint-Andre-des-Arts

The Paris University and 17 provincial universities were closed at the French Revolution (1792) with the exception of the Lycée Louis-Legrand.

Napoleon I founded the Imperial University in 1806.

Some of the academies are still active to this day.

The University of Paris was re-structured in 1970.

Thirteen new universities (languages, humanities, literature, arts …) and many institutes were founded in Paris and the suburbs.

Each university is fully independent and is in charge of its own curriculum and examinations.

Directions: 5th District
Metro and RER B: Saint-Michel, Cluny-Sorbonne on Lines 4, 10
Coordinates: Lat 48.851041 – Long 2.344278

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