awaken in us at the present day; that horrible cell, a sort of intermediate link between the dwelling and the grave, between the cemetery and the city; that living being cut off from the communion of mankind and already numbered with the dead; that lamp consuming its last drop of oil in the darkness; that remnant of life flickering out in the pit; that whisper, that voice, that never-ending prayer encased in stone: that eye already illumined by another sun; that ear inclined attentive to the walls of a tomb; that soul imprisoned in a body, itself a prisoner within that dungeon, and from out that double incarnation of flesh and stone, the perpetual plaint of a soul in agony—nothing of all this reached the apprehension of the crowd. The piety of that day, little given to analyzing or subtle reasoning, did not regard a religious act from so many points of view. It accepted the thing as a whole, honoured, lauded, and, if need be, made a saint of the sacrifice, but did not dwell upon its sufferings nor even greatly pity it. From time to time the charitable world brought some dole to the wretched penitent, peered through the window to see if he yet lived, was ignorant of his name, scarcely knew how many years ago he had begun to die, and to the stranger who questioned them respecting the living skeleton rotting in that cave, they would simply answer: “It is the recluse.”

This was the way they looked at things in those days, without metaphysics, neither enlarging nor diminishing, with the naked eye. The microscope had not been invented yet for the examination either of material or spiritual objects.

Examples of this kind of living burial in the heart of the town were, although they excited but little remark, frequently to be met with, as we have said before. In Paris there was a considerable number of these cells of penitence and prayer, and nearly all of them were occupied. It is true the clergy took particular care that they should not be left empty, as that implied lukewarmness in the faithful; so when penitents were not to the fore, lepers were put in instead. Besides the cell at the Grève, already described, there was one at Montfaucon, one at the charnel-house of the Innocents, another, I forget just where—at the Logis-Clichon, I fancy; and others at many different spots, where, in default of monuments, their traces are still to be found in tradition. The University certainly had one; on the hill of Saint-Germain a sort of mediæval Job sat for thirty years, singing the penitential psalms on a dung-heap at the bottom of a dry well, beginning anew as soon as he came to the end, and singing louder in the night-time—magna voce per umbras; and today the antiquary still fancies that he hears his voice as he enters the Rue du Puits- qui-parle: the street of the Talking Well.

To confine ourselves here to the cell in the Tour-Roland, we confess that it had seldom lacked a tenant—since Mme. Rolande’s death it had rarely been vacant, even for a year or two. Many a woman had shut herself up there to weep until death for her parents, her lovers, or her frailties. Parisian flippancy, which will meddle with everything, especially with such as are outside its province, declared that very few widows had been observed among the number.

After the manner of the period, a Latin legend inscribed upon the wall notified to the lettered wayfarer the pious purpose of the cell. This custom of placing a brief distinguishing motto above the entrance to a building continued down to the middle of the sixteenth century. Thus, in France, over the gateway of the prison belonging to the Manor-house of Tourville, stands, Sileto et spera; in Ireland, under the escutcheon above the great gateway of Fortescue Castle, Forte scutum, salus ducum; and in England, over the principal entrance of the hospitable mansion of the Earls Cowper, Tuum est. For in those days every edifice expressed a special meaning.

As there was no door to the walled-up cell of the Tour-Roland, they had engraved above the window in great Roman characters the two words:


Whence it came about that the people, whose healthy common sense fails to see the subtle side of things, and cheerfully translates Ludovico Magno by Porte Saint-Denis, had corrupted the words over

  By PanEris using Melati.

Previous chapter/page Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter/page
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.