Montmartre History and Culture

What does the name ‘Montmartre’ mean?

The name Montmartre is usually understood to mean the martyr’s hill. It is also known as ‘La Butte’, which is French for a mound or small hill.

Montmartre’s geographical positioning, on the outskirts of Paris and its steep slopes have meant that, historically and culturally, it has forged its own identity. Montmartre has always been considered a little different to Paris.

This was said to be the place where Denis (later Saint Denis) Bishop of Paris was executed by the Romans. Montmartre was also associated with temples to the Roman gods Mars and Mercury.

Mercury was the Roman god of travellers, boundaries and commerce. The hill of Montmartre was the limit of Paris, beyond lay the countryside. Mercury helped the voyager negotiate the perils of moving from the known civilised space of the city to everything beyond the city limits.

In the Middle Ages a religious order of Benedictine Nuns, the Abbaye Royale de Montmartre, was established. The site where the Abbey was built was said to have been the same place where St Denis had been martyred. Whilst the Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution and the ground mined for gypsum, the order’s memory lingers in the name of the Place des Abbesses.

Plaster of Paris and windmills

Plaster, the famous plaster of Paris, which is extracted from processed gypsum, has been mined from this hill for centuries. The nearby Place Blanche (White Square) and the Rue Blanche (White Street) are reminders of the chalky dust and debris as the loaded carts bumped and ground their way down the hill.

Many of the mines were filled in from the debris of the rebuilding of Paris in the mid 19th century. When you walk around the steep parts of Montmartre, you will still see buttressed walls. These protect buildings and streets against the unstable ground caused by the traditional mining activity below.

The other more visible traditional activity on Montmartre was milling. Windmills used to fan out on the crest of the hill catching the wind. Two survive and can still be seen on this walk.

The Radet windmill framed against a clear blue sky over the entrance to the Moulin de la Galette restaurant Rue Lepic Paris 75018
The restored ‘Radet’ windmill now serves as a triumphal entrance to the Moulin de la Galette restaurant.

Montmartre avoids systematic 19th century redevelopment

Those abrupt slopes, and the fact that it was on the very limits of Paris, helped protect Montmartre from the extensive urban planning and redevelopment of mid-19th century Paris.

The property speculators who helped Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III to systematically reduce swathes of old Paris to piles of debris saw, for the moment, little opportunity in Montmartre.

The steep winding streets of Montmartre defied most horse-drawn transport increasing its sense of removal in time and space from the remodelled city at its feet. Montmartre to this day is still difficult to access by public transport.

Vines and the Maquis

At around the same time as Baron Haussmann was trying to redefine and reconstruct Paris as a model city, on the north-western flank of Montmartre a self-built community of wooden huts (the Maquis) was springing up. ‘Maquis’ in French means land of little value, scrub or moorland. According to context it can also mean hiding or going underground as for example when the French Resistance fighters of World War II went to the maquis in order to carry out covert operations.

Some displaced people from the redevelopment of Paris would have found refuge here; most of the occupants lived by recuperating, recycling and reselling used fabrics and metal. Before organised rubbish collection this in fact was a common and widespread occupation.  This site (in French) has some interesting photographs of the Montmartre Maquis

On the northern slopes vines were still cultivated as they had been in the Paris region since at least the Middle Ages and probably Roman times. The local population at this time was made up of the growing industrial workforce and a few artists looking for cheap lodging and good light.

The Sacré Coeur church on Montmartre and the Paris Commune 1870 – 71.

The Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart) church sits on the crest of the hill dominating Paris. It is an attempt at national reconciliation and atonement for the terrible events of the Paris Commune of 1870-71. This eccentric and overlarge construction is also a statement by the Catholic Church of possession of Montmartre, the traditional place of boundaries.

French society by the late 19th century was quite clearly polarised. Events such as the Dreyfus Affair threw the fracture into stark relief. On the one hand there was the republican liberal democratic ideal. This was informed by ideas originating in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution such as reason, progress and the optimistic belief that man has the capacity and vision to choose and invent his own destiny. The republican ideal in France eventually found a concrete expression in parliamentary democracy, underpinned by universal (male) suffrage and a supposedly impartial legal system that ensured the individual citizen’s rights.

Opposed to this there were those who held more conservative ideas and who took a more pessimistic view of man’s capacities. The natural order for them was hierarchical and limited, with the King and the Church at the apex of the pyramid.  They looked to tradition and appealed instead to more restrictive, hierarchical, traditional and authoritarian forms of society. These included royalists, Bonapartists and the Church. The aftermath of the Paris Commune, which I deal with on another page, was seen by the Church as a prime occasion to construct a huge edifice right on top of one of the strongholds of the red, independent, revolutionary Parisians who supported the Commune. The crushing of the Commune seemed to vindicate the forces of restriction and pessimism.

The white church looming over Paris

The domes of the Sacré Coeur may look like they are made out of plaster of Paris, flour or perhaps even icing sugar. The basilica is in fact constructed with travertine limestone quarried in Château-Landon, a town some 100 km to the south-east of Paris.

A detail of the dome of the Sacré Coeur Basilica Montmartre. Bright blue sky in background.
The Sacré Coeur Basilica Montmartre Paris

The Sacré Coeur is not featured in this walk. It is however, such an imposing, recognisable and famous structure in Montmartre that I have decided to feature a brief outline of the events of the Paris Commune so that its construction can be placed in a historical context.

The Commune impacted Montmartre and helped to reinforce its image as a sanctuary for radicals and free spirits. One of the key events, the attempted seizure of the Paris National Guard’s cannon situated on Montmartre, actually on the site where the Sacré Coeur is built today, was the spark that led to the explosion. The brief episode of the Paris Commune is not very well known internationally but remains important for some Parisians, especially those who lean to the left politically.

For wheelchair users return to top of Montmartre Funicular.

The entertainment district in the duty free area

In 1860 the wall which had been built just before the French Revolution in the 1780s as a means of collecting taxes on all goods coming into Paris was being demolished. This was part of a larger civic plan of expansion. It was at this time that Montmartre was brought into the 18th arrondissement (district) of Paris.

The wall, which actually encircled the whole of Paris, ran along what is now Boulevard de Clichy and Boulevard de Rochechouart forming the southern boundary of Montmartre. Being outside the walls, which Montmartre and the northern side of Boulevards de Clichy and de Rochechouart were, meant that food and drink on the Montmartre side of the wall was effectively duty free.

Venues like the Moulin de la Galette and the Lapin Agile in Montmartre or the Elysée Montmartre, Chat Noir cabaret or Moulin Rouge on the Boulevards helped to forge the area’s reputation as the best place to go for a night out.

A drawn poster by Theophile Steinlen from 1896 featuring a shaggy street cat advertising Rodolphe Salis’ Montmartre Chat Noir Cabaret tour.
Steinlen’s poster for the Rodolph Salis’ Chat Noir Cabaret tour. © Théophile Steinlen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (1)

The spectacle of Montmartre

In the circus, the dance halls, the cabarets or artistic cafés the professionals providing the entertainment were mostly from humble origins whilst the spectators, consumers and clients from the growing Parisian and international bourgeoisie.

In all of these venues there was prostitution which the respectable bourgeois considered part of the attraction of Montmartre.

This is the world Toulouse-Lautrec was able to observe, capture and condense in the 1890s. Everyday moral boundaries may have been obscured by smoke and alcohol, the carnival atmosphere, the novelty of electric illumination, the uproar of music and dance but social hierarchies remained rigidly in place.

The idea of boundaries and the overturning of everyday social constraint in an atmosphere of carnival is worth bearing in mind when thinking about Montmartre. It is also worth noting that the carnival of Montmartre, like any period of holiday licence because of its temporary, excessive, artificial and cathartic nature actually served the existing social order well.

All photographs © David Macmillan except:

(1) © Théophile Steinlen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. All photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

Théophile Steinlen creator QS:P170,Q706041
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen - Tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis (Tour of Rodolphe Salis' Chat Noir) - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons