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Lesson Transcript

You Don't Want to End Up in the Catacombs of Paris!
In this last lesson, to close this series we’re going to talk a bit about history. We’ll be learning about the Parisian catacombs. I’m Becky, and you're listening to Season 1, Lesson 25 - You Don't Want to End Up in the Catacombs of Paris!
Since the establishment of Paris, up to the French Revolution, all Parisians were buried in graveyards, in French cimetières, which were initially located along the periphery of the city according to ancient Roman law. However, as the capital grew and progressively absorbed its outskirts, the city’s original 200 graveyards were no longer enough. The victims of the plague and various epidemics, famines, and wars were buried in graveyards, or stacked up in the mass graves of churches, in French églises.
At that time churches and graveyards were vast, muddy fields that were home to a mix of homeless people, merchants, street acrobats, and prostitutes. Pits, or trous, were dug, where cadavers were deposited behind surrounding walls, and every day epidemic diseases threatened to spread into the capital. Paris was overflowing with the dead, and the smell, or odeur, was unbearable.
The citizens complained as incidents of disease and infection multiplied. The first public health reports, or rapports de santé publique, from 1554 were already alarming. The Faculty of Medicine of Paris and the doctors of the Royal Academy of Science in 1737 did nothing but confirm these declarations. For just the Saints Innocents Cemetery, some historians estimate that nearly 80,000 corpses were added during the final thirty years of monarchy.
The walls of a restaurant cellar, near the Saints Innocents Cemetery finally yielded on May 30, 1780, and what was discovered in the basement of the building struck horror in the hearts of Parisians. Several cubic meters of old bones, in French os, were piled among corpses in mid-decomposition. The building was completely contaminated. It was reported that by simply being in contact with one of these walls, a mason got gangrene a few days later. This cemetery, like all those of Paris, was an immense mass grave located only a few meters away from residential buildings.
Following this incident, the French Parliament issued on September 4, 1780, the closure of the Saints Innocents Cemetery. However, this decision was not put into effect for five years, thus allowing for further accumulation of other bodies from neighboring cemeteries. The "solution" finally came from Police Lieutenant Lenoir, who supported the idea of transferring the bones to the old underground mine, in French pronounced mine. This effort was finally carried out on November 9, 1785, and thus the history of the Capital's and that of the underground mine of Paris have become the catacombs of Paris.
So listeners, how did you like this lesson? Did you learn anything interesting?
Are you interested in learning more about French history?
See you in another series.