Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Les Rats de Montfaucon

I have been dipping into 'Gleanings in Natural History' by Edward Jesse (John Murray, London, 1834). It is a collection of miscellaneous essays and notes on plants and animals, half bound in green leather with beautifully marbled boards. I have been searching for information about eels. However yesterday I allowed allowed myself to be distracted by stories about other animals. What I read about the rats of Montfaucon made my hair stand on end.

Montfaucon is an area on the north-eastern side of Paris, part of the unexceptional quartier called Les Buttes-Chaumont. As I remember from my days living in the city, its greatest attraction is a public park with interesting rocky terrain, sited in some old sandstone quarries. Two hundred years ago it was a frightful place.

Until 1760 it had been home to the biggest gibbet in France: a square, three-storey building, like a stone-built warehouse with windows, open on three sides with an access ramp to the rear; each window could hold a hanged body, sixty windows all round. A factory of public execution. The smell of the place and the crowd of dogs and carrions birds were atrocious.[1]

Le Gibet De Montfaucon. Image courtesy

At the same time, Montfaucon housed the capital's night soil processing factory, la voirie de matières fécales, at which excrement collected by cart was processed into valuable 'poudrette' fertiliser. It was sited in one of the disused quarries, and consisted in a descending series of linked basins. Liquid matter was gradually drained off, and the solids progressively matured into a nitrogenous earthy material for resale.[2]

Two horse knacker's yards and rendering plants were situated in another quarry. They were able to process 15,000 carcases per year (that means 288 per week; 41 per day). Products included hide, hair, grease and maggots (for fishing and raising poultry). Every night a horde of rats sallied out from drain pipes and holes and stripped the carcases clean of anything edible. Only the bones remained by morning.

The knacker's yard at Montfaucon (Parent-Duchatelet, 1827) Image courtesy

A knacker's shed at Montfaucon, 1831. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes the rats themselves fell victim to campaigns of extermination and commercial exploitation - as many as 2,500 could be killed in one night, tackled with a poisonous mixture of arsenic and flour or by dogs, sticks and flaming torches. Their miserable skins had some value. The tricky thing was not to provoke them into making a panicky exodus into surrounding housing estates.

When the wind was in the north, all Paris suffered from the suffocating stench of Montfaucon. As the population of the city grew, people lost patience with the place. Also, the rats were becoming a mortal danger, and not just to lone drunkards and tramps. Buildings and public infrastructure were being undermined by their burrowing.

The trigger for change was an outbreak of cholera in the city in 1832, leading to a public health campaign and a final decision to close the site. The night soil processing was moved to the Forest of Bondy, some 15 km east of the city. But what of the knacker's yards?

The question had evidently been debated for some time, as Edward Jesse wrote:
The most interesting account of rats I have met with, was made some time ago in an official report to the French government. It was drawn up in consequence of a proposition made for the removal of a horse slaughter-house at Montfaucon, to a greater distance from Paris, when one of the chief obstacles urged against such a removal, was the fear entertained of the dangerous consequences that might result to the neighbourhood, from suddenly depriving these voracious vermin of their accustomed sustenance. (p.311)
The writer Théophile Gautier (1838) likened the potential rat problem to a volcano - 'Naples has its Vesuvius, and Paris has its Montfaucon', he wrote [3]. He dramatically explained the situation for prurient readers:
The rats of Montfaucon are no ordinary rats; the abundance and quality of their food has developed them prodigiously; these are Herculean rats, enormous, huge as elephants, ferocious as tigers, with teeth of steel and claws of iron; rats that make one or at most two mouthfuls of a cat; the fields they cross are trodden down as though an army had passed through with its artillery, baggage train, ammunition wagons and field smithies; the clay they carry on their feet gives this trackway a greenish hue that distinguishes it from other paths: these routeways, toughened as if by tarmacadam, terminate at subterranean ratopoli with immense tunnelworks where innumerable gnawing and devouring populations swarm…

Those who dine like Belshazzar at Montfaucon, suddenly missing their sustenance, will come into Paris to eat human instead of horse meat.

Montfaucon was finally closed in 1849 [4], and re-opened as Buttes-Chaumont Park in 1867. I have not been able to find an account of the closure of the site. I suspect the feared rodent apocalypse never happened. Dogs, poison, sticks and flaming torches can accomplish great work.  

If pure stench and carnal corruption are revelations of Hell then Montfaucon was surely a Hell on Earth. Sad to say, it was not an exceptional one. There were in those days many fragments of living Hell in the world, where living things were tortured or recycled without compassion by their fellow beings or obliviously by the plutonic processes of decay and putrefaction. The slaughterhouses of Regency England are a case in point. Today such facilities are sanitised and closely regulated, as are facilities for sewage processing and capital punishment. Today they are conducted pretty well out of sight and mind. However, we need the story of places such as Montfaucon to remind us of the existential truths our civilisation has masked, and indeed what civilisation has accomplished over the last two centuries. Is there such a thing as progress? I think the story of Montfaucon is clear evidence that there is.

Who can say what further progress may yet be made in the spheres of justice, waste disposal and animal rights?


[1] - Le Gibet de Montfaucon, at: Plateau Hassard: Le Blog - 
[2] - La Voirie de Montfaucon, at: Plateau Hassard: Le Blog - 
[3] - 'La Ville des Rats', by Théophile Gautier (1838) - 
[4] - La Voirie de Montfaucon, at Wikipedia -

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the South Downs


I do not know the South Downs, but my visit to Petersfield last week was drawn into their power. They looked grey and brooding in the mizzling weather blowing up from the south.

Locals must be familiar with these hills and the bulk that forms a backdrop to their lives: southwards towards Burriton, westwards to Ramsdean, northwards to Steep. They frame all views except eastward, into Sussex, where the Weald lies.

The hills are chalk; their summits are mostly bare and their slopes are mostly wooded. In past centuries they would have been given over to sheep, with flocks crossing the downland turf. The Downs remain but sheep and downland are mostly a memory now, as arable or tree plantations have taken over. What would the poet Edward Thomas have made of this? He lived at Steep; he walked these hills, knew their paths and people; he digested what he saw and felt, he distilled it into his ungainly yet ecstatic, wild yet thoughtful writing, in which the character of nature is blended with his own troubled soul. He chronicled the pre-War world just before it crumbled. He wrote a book 'The South Country' and filled it with his response to the Downs.

My friend Jonathan runs a sawmill near Butser Hill. He manages Whitelands Wood, with its modern stands of ash and western red cedar climbing the northern flanks of the hill. He nurtures a few ancient yew trees in clearings. He delights in the wood's biodiversity. Old man's beard scrambles along the fences and up the trees; Roman snails still live in the rough chalky soil. Otherwise there are few traces of the ancient downland visible on old maps and which developed here since the Bronze Age. Constant grazing is just not practical. Times have changed.

Buried path - a former downland trackway, with flints and mosses underfoot

On Tuesday Jonathan and I drove to the Shepherd's Church at Didling, with his son Bede and grey, shaggy lurcher Beaumont for company. The chalk escarpment runs east-west here, fronted by a dark ribbon of woodland; its summits are green and bare. The church stands alone, surrounded by fields and is reached by a farm track, which becomes a footpath that continues towards Didling Hill. We paid our respects to this ancient shrine before walking on, with Beaumont trotting along in a universe of smells. The day was patchy sunlight with passing clouds. I became absorbed by the hill's wooded presence as we climbed towards it. Edward Thomas's words were flickering through my thoughts: old man's beard, 'that  hoar-green feathery herb' and how the scent of its shrivelled seed heads evoked unplaceable memories; the shell of 'a little snail bleached in the grass, chips of flint and mite of chalk'; the badger, 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts', dug from his sett and given to the hounds in a dark combe with 'sliding chalk by beech and yew and perishing juniper'.

We passed a chalk pit; we entered the wood.

The world changed - ash and yew crowding around us. Deprived of grassy cover, the topsoil showed bare flint and chalk in the gloom beneath the trees, which the deer had browsed into a canopy just below head height. Brown and white earth from a badger's sett was mounded up between the roots of a large ash. A pile of yew seeds in various stages of decomposition marked a vole's winter feasting place. Beaumont was in his element, alert, alive and questing. We diverged from the path a bit, exploring tree bark with a forester's eye, reading the past written into its hard, rumpled textures. Jonathan noticed a scatter of prehistoric flint knapping debris underfoot, white shards glowing in tree shade - they would have been hidden by an overgrowth of turf had this been open downland. In places I found my feet struggling to grip on the sloping soil, the sliding chalk.

The old world of the downs finds shelter beneath the trees. Here, we move into a different, set-aside space on a north-facing scarp too steep for farming. Root and tree, teeth and fur, flint and bone; the smell of earth and vegetable decay; animal trails, invisible. The elder world seems closer here, with Thomas's sturdy footsteps close behind us and the whisper of corduroy as he walks past, struggling with his thoughts. He has a weekend's leave from the Army; he is walking to clear his head, clear the turbulence of a homecoming to his wife Helen and their three clamouring children ten miles way in the cottage at Steep. They only remember him as he was before he enlisted. He is walking to find the words he needs, to encounter places where his own nature can do its work of healing; he strides out to forget everything on earth 'except that it is lovelier than any mysteries'. He sees a fallow deer as it watches him under the trees; it stamps then runs. He finds himself alone.

We turned and left the wood.We hadn't even reached its upper margins, where open skies and downland begin - I don't know why: I would have relished a summit view. For some reason the wood had been enough, a saturation. Beaumont trotted on across the reseeded grass ley, indifferent to its green monoculture.

Meaning flourishes in spots of diversity in the landscape, like a 13th century flint church, a pile of yew seeds between the roots of a tree, or the smell of a badger.

Such things are worth walking to find.

Edward Thomas