Thursday, 28 May 2009

Gunpowder and Pity

According to Benjamin Franklin there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. If we include another obvious first event, birth, we find two of the three certainties taking place in hospitals and the third paying for them. We begin our lives there and end our lives there, so shouldn't we make them into places to be celebrated and not feared between the two events? Fortunately in Paris there are several establishments that offer much of historical and architectural interest, principally the Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière.

On a personal level, this institution is significant for me not as the place where Princess Diana and Josephine Baker took their last breaths, but as the place where my son took his first. On that hot afternoon I walked around the gardens, head-giddy through lack of sleep and sheer excitement. Now I was linked to the ground I was walking on and not just a visitor. A part of my flesh and blood was now a kicking and screaming part of this country, and that helped me to feel I belonged by extention. I was glad that it had happened at this place, a part of the city I’ve learned to love, and which will always have significance for my son too.

I am not a religious person, but in the days that followed I often went and sat in the St Louis chapel. This massive structure, designed by Libéral Bruant (who was also the architect of Les Invalides) was built in 1675, and the thick stone walls brought me shelter from the heat and a quiet place to reflect on the immense change in my life. I even lit a candle, asking for my son to be as strong and handsome as these walls. At the time all was happiness and fear, and I gave no thought to what else these walls had seen.

Later I learned that my son had been born in a place which quite literally had an explosive history. The name, Salpêtrière, stems from its past as a producer and storage area for saltpeter, which of course was used to make gunpowder. When it became impractical to store something so dangerous in the city, the site was transformed into dumping ground for small-time criminals or simply for those too poor to survive elsewhere. Although Louis XIV added a suitably regal entrance as well as the St Louis chapel in the 17th century, it was still a cruel and harsh environment. Prostitutes and the mentally weak were rounded up and thrown into large prison buildings or, worse, were chained up in individual box rooms. These still survive today, transformed into rather attractive looking offices.


The old single cell blocks where female prisoners considered to be insane were chained and locked up.

As I sat in one of the four chapels in the St Louis building I had no idea that these had been built to divided the sane from the insane, the inmates from the staff. Did I light a candle to the favoured or the downtrodden? Recently I have returned on many other occasions, most notably to find traces of the Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, and now have a far greater understanding of the importance and significance of these historical remains. My memories of this place are all joyous, but others throughout the ages have suffered immensely. In the 18th century, female prisoners here were forcibly married to male prisoners from the nearby Bicêtre hospital and sent out to populate French colonies in the Americas. During the revolution, in 1792, a group of men set out to release the unfairly imprisoned street girls, but although they managed to release 183 prostitutes, a kind of alcohol fuelled frenzy took over them, and they also massacred 45 innocent women for no discernable reason.

The Batiment de la Force, the principal prison building, and the site of the massacre. Interestingly, today it houses the hospital's psychiatric unit.

At the end of the 18th century, the site finally became a true place of medicine, and in a first timid gesture, straitjackets replaced iron shackles and prison cells. It became a site where people tried to understand, not condemn, and saw the birth of neurology and psychiatry. The hospital has grown since then (indeed, the Pitié part of the hospital was added at the beginning of the 20th century, and features many splendid brick buildings), and today is one of the largest institutions in Europe. Although the structures and facilities are state of the art today, many of the original structures remain, and it is a place littered with memories. Some immensely painful and some filled with indescribable joy.

8 comments:

CarolineLD said...

A wonderful post - I'd previously come across this hospital with reference to Philippe Pinel and his introduction of 'moral management' of the insane but had little idea of what it's like today or its wider history.

ArtSparker said...

I had no idea that France also transported prisoners to its colonies, as did England.

I must be a different experience becoming a parent within such old walls, as compared to those of a mall-like recently-constructed hospital.

Starman said...

How very interesting that the site of a brutal massacre became the site of a psychiatry unit.

Peter said...

You really know how to make history fascinating! A lot of nice statements and thoughts here - again!

Owen said...

Lovely piece, excellent history research... my two daughters were both born in Bon Secours, not far away in the 14eme... I share your memory of trepidation and joy and walking the streets and seeking refuge at moments in Parisian places nearby.

Amazing the stories that turn up if one scratches the surface a little... no doubt mental health care was a terrifying subject in centuries past. If you have ever been in the lovely little museum in the medical school at Odeon, the collection of incredible tools that "doctors" used for performing trepanation on people with mental problems, to let the evil spirits out (?) is quite edifying.

Adam said...

Caroline: I forgot to mention Pinel by name, but he was the one credited with changing the way the mentally ill were treated. Incidently, if you go to the Charcot library on the site, you pass by a large mural taken from a painting by Tony Robert-Fleury of Pinel liberating the 'aliénés'.

Cergie said...

Un très beau message, on sent comme la naissance de ton fils t'a transformé en un instant.
Le passé tragique des bâtiments heureusement ne perdure pas. Sinon il ne nous faudrait habiter que dans des bâtiments modernes ou périodiquement, comment dire, désenvoutés ?
Pour ma part je suis née dans une maison en bois construite sans un clou comme une maison de trappeur et mes deux parents sont décédés à leur domicile. Cela est de plus en plus rare. Ce qui m'inquiéte le plus ce sont les fins de vie solitaires, sans personne pour tenir la main.... Et cela aussi c'est de plus en plus fréquent.
(En novembre il est très probable que nous allions en Guyane où étaient pas mal de bagnes français)

Marc Piel said...

What a coincidence that you post this just after the French President's mistress has just spent 10 days there recovering from nervous stress.

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