MODERN TALE OF A MEDIEVAL PARIS DUNGEON

THL Isabelle de Foix

In March of 1992, I found myself an American in Paris. What do you do when youíre a medieval history buff in one of the most historic places in Europe? Itís simple; go to every medieval landmark in the city. I made the routine visits to Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and a few other places that didnít get obliterated during the political unrest of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the strangest adventure had to be the journey to the dungeon in the Latin Quarter.

The Latin Quarter is so called because it was the place where the students at the University of Paris (now the Sorbonne) lived and studied, and they were required to speak Latin with each other even when they werenít in class. Most of the Sorbonne is now nondescript office and classroom buildings. Their monotony is only broken by a simple plaque on one of them reading "La Sorbonne". The plaque spellbound me; it reminded me that I was walking in the footsteps of scholars like Peter Abelard, St. Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus of Rotterdam. But there is a picturesque district right next to these dull buildings. It is closed to traffic for obvious reasons. The streets retain their medieval narrowness, and only accommodate pedestrian two-way traffic. The buildings have a romantic, quaint look to them. They now mostly house either restaurants or cabarets, with the strange exception of an old church. One of my travel vouchers was admission to one of these cabarets. This included a free crawl through a tunnel into "an authentic dungeon" supposedly dating from the fourteenth century. It was only a block away from the oldest street in Paris, also dating from the fourteenth century. I knew I had to check this out.

I arrived at the cabaret, which was a long flight of stairs underground, and had a seat. The room was a light-grey stone and mortar structure. The entertainment was a lady singer who sang Edith Piaf songs. She couldnít have fit one more sequin on her slinky, ankle-length dress. After a few songs and a drink of wine, I was ready to look for the dungeon.

I was shown to the entrance of the tunnel by the cabaretís proprietor. I climbed in, and found myself in a hopeless maze of brick and mortar. It occurred to me that Iíd forgotten to ask the age of the tunnel, but it was too late. I could only guess that the thing was at least an antique. I started to crawl, and pretty soon I could see absolutely nothing. It was pitch black. How was I supposed to know where the tunnel ended and the dungeon started? Was I in the dungeon? After all, medieval dungeons were uneven structures used only to imprison political opponents. I just had to keep crawling and hope for some glimmer of light.

After about fifteen minutes, I heard a commotion behind me. Some Japanese students had entered the tunnel, and were speaking to each other in Japanese. "Parlez-vous anglais"? I asked them. A little familiarity would have eased my perplexed mood. My French was a joke, and everyone in Paris talked too darn fast.

"Non", one of them answered. They uttered more French, which I couldnít understand. Great. I couldnít even talk to them.

I finally saw a faint light in the distance. I kept on crawling on the uneven brick, and then I saw a grey room. I wriggled out of the tunnel and found myself in a room of light grey stone about the size of my closet. It was lit with a faint lantern. So this was the dungeon! Who on earth had set foot in here? Iíd never know because people usually didnít get out of these places alive. How many ghosts were in this place? Or was the whole thing a fake? I was right around the place where Peter Abelard had started his school, but heíd lived in the twelfth century, two hundred years before this room had allegedly been built. Heck, the date could have been a fake, too. Had it been part of a medieval classroom? Or even worse, could it have been part of a student dwelling? Perhaps that horrid place that Erasmus put up with until he couldnít take it any more? I thanked my lucky stars that I hadnít been a medieval student. But there were no answers to any questions. Now, could I get out of this place? Where on earth were those Japanese students? There was no way Iíd get past them if they were still in the tunnel. But I only heard silence.

I assumed that the Japanese had given up, so I crawled back into the tunnel. After another tough crawl I found myself back in the cabaret. I sat down and ordered an Orangina, a French orange drink. Then I stumbled out into the streets in a daze. Students milled on the grounds of the old church, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. That was a strange sight, to say the least.

I caught the last Metro run back to my hotel. Iíd had quite an evening.