“Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just god when he’s drunk” – Tom Waits
The Luxembourg Palace and Gardens located in the 6th District of Paris on the Rive Gauche-Left Bank are said to rival the Tuileries in their beauty. Choice real estate to be sure. That’s why the same plot of ground has been occupied for over 2000 years. Before the final Roman conquest of Gaul in 52 B.C., the Iron Age Gallic Parisii, who had inhabited the area since at least the 3rd Century B.C. built a fort in expectation of the general rising of Vercingetorix against Julius Caesar. Caesar came, saw, and conquered it as he did with pretty much everywhere else that caught his eye, and until the 5th Century A.D. it remained a vast Roman military camp and then the prosperous Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, ultimately renamed as Parisius (after the original Parisii inhabitants) in 360 A.D. Parisius morphed into the cultural center of France when the first Merovingian King Clovis made it his capital. A few Viking sacks later you had Paris. Basically, an enormous amount of blood has been spilled over this pretty little enclave on the Left Bank of the Seine across two millennia. One would expect a little spectral activity, thus it is no wonder that tales are told of the infernal Diable Vauvert that terrorized the vicinity of the aptly named Rue d’Enfer (“Street of Hell”) until roughly 1259.
By the 10th Century, the Carolingians had succeeded the Merovingians as the French royal dynasty, only to be succeeded by Hugh Capet (a 7th generation ancestor of Charlemagne) in 987 A.D. and by Hugh Capet’s son Robert the Pious (972-1031). You would figure anybody with the sobriquet “pious” would have been dubbed thusly as he was a mild-mannered, mellow dude. This was not the case. Robert was considered “pious” because he reinstated the Roman Imperial practice of burning heretics at the stake. Good times. The infernally pious Robert built the first manor house on the as of yet not appropriately named Rue d’Enfer, and things immediately started going sideways in what would one day be the tranquil Luxembourg Gardens.
We know the garden to have been the site of the Roman camp which protected the palace of the Ceasars until the time of Horiorius. The history of the gardens then becomes that of the romantic old Chateau Vauvert, a maison de plaisance, said to have been built by Robert the Pious, and to have stood where now begins the palace of the Observatoire. Tradition said that the house was haunted, that it was the abode of the devil himself, and brave men hesitated to pass along the road at night because of the dreadful noises which issued from the manor and the frequent evils which befell nocturnal ramblers in the vicinity (Henderson, 1921, p505).
Well, evidently Robert the Pious wasn’t as pious as his name superficially would lead us to suspect. After a series of failed marriages, Robert tried to marry his cousin and Pope Gregory V excommunicated him. The Roman Catholic Church will put up with a lot of nonsense from the average monarch, but it seems marrying your cousin was regarded as beyond the pale. The next pope was more obliging, but an excommunication on your permanent record has got to come up when they do a background check. Along comes Philippe I (1052-1108), or Philippe “the Amorous” as his friends called him, who assumed the title King of the Franks in 1060. He promptly married Bertha of Holland as the result of peace negotiations with Flanders. He had a fling with Bertrade de Montfort, repudiated Bertha (on the grounds that she was too fat, seriously), and got himself excommunicated in 1094. Are you noticing a trend?
Philippe I, after his excommunication, had built himself in this neighborhood a castle with the familiar pointed-roof towers of the period, known as the Castel de Vauvert, or Val-Vert, and its isolation, the nocturnal tumult which was heard within during the nights, and the lights which incessantly shone in its windows, inspired the ignorant dwellers in the neighborhood with such superstitious terror that the name of ehemin d’Enfer was popularly given to the pathway that connected it with the postern gate Saint-Jacques in the city wall. After the death of Philippe, the castle was abandoned and remained long uninhabited except by phantoms and demons, and probably by a band of thieves who established themselves unmolested in the lower stories. To consign your enemy to the Diable Vauvert was to devote him to a long and most perilous journey, and the few travellers in this quarter of the city’s surroundings made long detours around this infected spot (Walton, 1899, p232-233).
After a few thousand years of bloodshed on the location, two excommunicated Kings as owners, and a whole lot of ensuing phantasmagoric ruckus, folks decided it would be prudent to stay clear of the area. The Chateaux Vauvert was allowed to fall into disrepair, although it remained the property of the King of France. When Louis IX (the only canonized French monarch i.e. “Saint Louis”) became King of France in 1226, the crown still held the deed for Chateaux Vauvert. For an absolute monarch who took part in the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, Louis IX was actually pretty chill. He banned trials by ordeal, and introduced the concept of “presumption of innocence” into jurisprudence. Of course, it’s all relative when it comes to the 13th Century. He also cracked down on blasphemy, gambling, interest-bearing loans and prostitution, and expanded the scope of the Inquisition. At any rate, he was impressed with a particular monastic order called the Carthusians (also known as the order of St. Bruno), who happened to be looking to establish their first urban charterhouse. Louis found a place for them.
Saint Louis, having invited the Carthusian monks to Paris, assigned them a habitation in the Faubourg Saint-Jacques, near the ancient chateau of Vauvert, a manor built by Robert (le Diable), but for a long time then uninhabited, because infested by demons, which had, perhaps, been false coiners. Fearful howls had been heard there, and spectres seen, dragging chains; and, in particular, it was frequented by a fearful green monster, serpent and man in one, with a long white beard, wielding a huge club, with which he threatened all who passed that way. This demon, in common belief, passed along the road to and from the chateau in a fiery chariot, and twisted the neck of every human being met on his way. He was called the Devil of Vauvert (Conway, 1881, p201).
In between Matins and Vespers, monks have a lot of free time, and just spitting distance from Faubourg Saint-Jacques they could see prime unoccupied real estate, and started to wonder whether or not a change of venue might be in order. They set about procuring the Chateaux Vauvert. It is unclear whether they knew the haunted reputation and determined they could bring a little religious mojo to bear on the problem, or if these were a bunch of scam artists in monk’s habits. History has leaned towards the explanation that a bunch of cloistered monks decided to get in on the real estate speculation game.
Six monks played off a clever trick of the kind upon that worthy King, Louis, whose piety has procured him, in the annals of his own country, the designation of “the Saint.” Having heard his confessor speak in terms of warm eulogy of the goodness and learning of the monks of the order of Saint Bruno, he expressed his wish to establish a community of them near Paris. Bernard de la Tour, the superior, sent six of the brethren, and the King gave them a handsome house to live in, in the village of Chantilly. It so happened that, from their windows, they had a very fine view of the ancient palace of Vauvert, which had been built for a royal residence by King Robert, but deserted for many years (Mackay, 1841, p372).
Now, monks don’t just go asking for palaces from kings. It’s unseemly. Later historians suggested the Chateaux Vauvert only acquired its haunted reputation once the Carthusians arrived in the neighborhood, but that flies in the face of the scary goings on reported since the time of Philippe the Amorous. Plus, they were monks for god’s sake. The worst thing they ever did was make beer (Chartreuse actually when it came to the Carthusians). Nonetheless, their reputation has forever been besmirched by the Diable Vauvert.
The worthy monks, oblivious of the tenth commandment, may have thought the place would suit them; but ashamed, probably, to make a formal demand of it from the king, they seem to have set their wits to work to procure it by stratagem. At all events, the palace of Vauvert, which had never labored under any imputation against its character till they became its neighbors, began, almost immediately afterward, to acquire a bad name. Frightful shrieks were heard to proceed thence at night; blue, red, and green lights were seen to glimmer from its casements and then suddenly disappear. The clanking of chains succeeded, together with the howlings of persons as in great pain. Then a ghastly specter, in pea-green, with long, white beard and serpent’s tail, appeared at the principal windows, shaking his fists at the passers-by. This went on for months (Owen, 1860, p101).
There are two versions to what happened. Those who are quicker to attribute to roguery what might ever be deemed supernatural credit the monks themselves with inventing and enacting the goings on at Chateaux Vauvert. Others have suggested that they were deeply religious and confident they could wage effective battle against the forces of his Satanic Majesty. Or maybe the devil got a commission.
The Carthusians were not frightened by these stories, but asked Louis to give them the Manor, which he did, with all its dependencies. After that nothing more was heard of the Diable Vauvert or his imps. It was but fair to the Demons who had assisted the friars in obtaining a valuable property so cheaply that the street should thenceforth bear the name of Rue d’Enfer, as it does. But the formidable genii of the place haunted it still, and, in the course of time, the Carthusians proved that they could use with effect all the terrors which the Devils had left behind them. They represented a great money-coining Christendom with which free-thinking Michaels had to contend, even to the day when, as we have just read, one of the bravest of these there encountered his Vauvert devil and laid him low for ever (Conway, 1881, p201).
King Louis IX found it ridiculous that his favorite monks should live a hair’s breadth from a seat of the diabolical, and signed Chateaux Vauvert over to them.
The King, to whom all these wonders were duly reported, deplored the scandal, and sent commissioners to look into the affair. To these the six monks of Chantilly, indignant that the Devil should play such pranks before their very faces, suggested, that, if they could but have the palace as a residence, they would undertake speedily to cure it of all ghostly intrusion. A deed, with the royal sign-manual, conveyed Vauvert to the monks of St Bruno. It bears the date of 1259. From that time all disturbances ceased, — the green ghost, according to the creed of the pious, being laid to rest forever under the waters of the Red Sea (Atlantic Monthly, 1865, p517).
By 1612 Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France decided to relocate her residence to the area, constructing the Luxembourg Palace and the 23 hectare Jardin du Luxembourg as it stands today, and the only remaining reference to the dubious past of the Chateaux Vauvert is the phrase in the French language to send someone “au diable Vauvert” meaning “to the ends of the earth”.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. Demonology And Devil-lore. New ed., rev. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1881.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Harper & brothers, 1881.
Garinet, Jules. Histoire De La Magie En France: Depuis Le Commencement De La Monarchie Jusqu’à Nos Jours. Paris: Foulon et cie., 1818.
Henderson, Helen W. 1874-. A Loiterer In Paris. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.
Mackay, Charles, 1814-1889. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions. London: R. Bentley, 1841.
“Why the Putkammer Castle was Destroyed”. Atlantic Monthly v16 (November). Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co., 1865.
The History of Paris From the Earliest Period to the Present Day: Containing a Description of Its Antiquities, Public Buildings, Civil, Religious, Scientific, And Commercial Institutions… London: G. B. Whittaker, 1825.
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