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.  

In its time, surely Montfaucon was the closest thing to Hell on Earth.

Perhaps a future world ruled by machines may come to regard today's car breakers' yards as equally appalling.


[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 -

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