Around 585 or 586, a fire broke out in the city of Paris, destroying a large portion of the city. It was the worst fire that the Parisians living at that time could remember, and after the flames burned out, the people of Paris began to question why the fire occurred. Forensically, the fire was supposedly started by someone carelessly leaving a candle near a cask of highly flammable oil. Yet, Parisians also wanted spiritual or supernatural answers as to why a fire struck their city after so many years of being spared such a disaster. A theory soon took hold, one involving several ancient figurines uncovered while the Parisians were renovating and repairing a bridge. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a bishop and historian contemporaneous to that time, reported the odd tale about the mysterious figurines:
“It used to be said that this town of Paris was, as it were, hallowed from antiquity, so that no fire could overwhelm it, and no snake or rat appear there. Only a short time before, when a drain by the bridge was being cleaned out and the mud which blocked it was being taken away, they discovered a snake and a rat made of bronze. They removed them both: and from this time onwards an inordinate number of rats and snakes made their appearance. Subsequently the city began to be plagued with fires” (History of the Franks, VIII.33).
Such was one of the theories produced by superstitious people in Paris about their lack of protection against fire in their city. Unfortunately, as the quote suggested, the fire was not the only cause of concern for Paris. Like other growing medieval population centers, the Parisians were starting to suffer from increasing pest problems, such as the snakes and rats mentioned above. Gregory of Tours neglected to record for us if the Parisians ever tried to put the magical bronze figurines back into the ground in hopes of regaining the protections they offered, but whatever the case, the alleged supernatural defenses never returned. As buried magic charms were no longer offering any protection, cities such as Paris would need to rethink their defenses against fires and unwanted critters—an ongoing struggle that persists to this day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Alchemist, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.