The Saint–Marcel Neighborhood

The writer Louis–Sébastien Mercier recorded in his Portrait of Paris detailed and witty commentaries on many aspects of life among the common people. In this article on the Saint–Marcel neighborhood, he comments on the difficulties faced by urban workers.


For the houses here, there is no other clock than the sun. The people are three centuries behind in terms of skills and customs. Every private fight becomes public as women, unhappy with their husbands, plead their cases in the peoples' court [the street], rounding up all the neighbors to tell them her man's scandalous confession. Every kind of discussion ends in a fist fight, but by evening they have reconciled, even though one of them has had their face covered with scratches.

There, a man holes up in a garret, evades the police and the hundred eyes of their stool pigeons, almost like a tiny insect escapes the most concentrated effort to find him.

An entire family occupies a single room with four bare walls, where straw mattresses have no sheets and kitchen utensils are kept with the chamber pots. All together the furniture is not worth twenty crowns and every three months, the inhabitants, thrown out for owing back rent, must find another hole to live in. So they wander, taking their miserable possessions from refuge to refuge. They own no shoes, and only the sound of wooden clogs echo in the stairwells. Their naked children sleep helter-skelter.

On Sunday, the people from this area go to Vaugirard for its many cabarets, for men must try to forget their troubles. There, men and women, dancing without shoes and swirling without stop, raise so much dust that within an hour they can no longer even be seen.

With a terrible, confused din and a vile odor, everything keeps you far away from this horribly crowded place. Here, the masses drink a wine as disagreeable as their surroundings and engage in other suitable pleasures.

Source: Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, vol. 1 (Amsterdam, 1783), 112–14.