In the center of one of Paris’s busiest quarters—the Latin Quarter, near Boulevard St.-Michel and the Sorbonne—is the Musée National du Moyen Age and Hotel de Cluny. This area is so busy, in fact, that one can only be alone on the intersection of St.-Michel and St.-Germain, where the museum is located, early on a Sunday morning, before Paris has awoken. The museum is an important one for France, and also for the sharing of medieval history; inside are the famous La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn) medieval tapestries, numerous religious sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and an uncovering of the site’s history back to its Roman founders. Less celebrated, however, is a garden, which adjoins the museum, modeled after what little is known about gardens of the medieval ages. Although open to the public, it, unlike its surrounding area, is rarely busy; there is always a place to sit.
If you know about the history of gardens, then you know that the gardens of the medieval ages were slight and humble compared to later royal gardens like those of Versailles or Luxembourg. Neither were they wild and expansive, like the now-protected Bois de Boulogne—the remnants of the old forest that spanned western Paris up to Normandy. Instead, medieval gardens were small and manicured. Most were for growing food, but the rich kept “pleasure gardens,” specifically for the pleasure of the senses, which grew flowers and herbs. These gardens’ various uses were usually sectioned, included seating, and sometimes—if large enough—areas for musicians or entertainment.
The park adjoining the Hotel de Cluny is separated from the busy streets of the quarter by fences and surrounded by trees, not dissimilar from most other Parisian parks. It has a lookout area where park-visitors can see the old ruins of the Roman thermes—or baths—and another area with sand and “jungle gyms” for children to play. This park along-side the garden is always open to the public and usually populated. Further secluded behind a wooden enclosure or gate are le préau and la terrasse, the two areas of the park created by the museum most closely modeled after what little is known of medieval gardens. Though its hours are regulated by the museum, it is usually open to the public. The wooden enclosure around the garden gives less of a sense of further barrier or separation from the street and instead confirms intimacy and quiet thereby retaining its instructive quality as part of the Musée du Moyen Age.
There are two entrances to le préau and la terrasse: one through the park by way of the children’s play area and up a wooden ramp, and the other I quite prefer, by way of a small cobble-stone walk separated from but alongside Rue de Cluny. The walk’s pragmatic utility is slight: it only gives entrance to le jardin or gives exit onto Rue du Sommerard. Unless one is using the walk to get to the garden, it serves no purpose different from Rue de Cluny. If used as an entrance to the garden, however, it is particularly effective in preparing the visitor for their experience of the garden.
The narrow walk has a Secret Garden spell to it: the trees and plants which line the walkway and its surrounding fence muffle the city sounds, or else the visitor intentionally forgets them. Birds live in this area of green—not just pigeons, but sparrows, and robins and songbirds—they live throughout Paris’s gardens, however hard to believe. The area is shaded; it’s secluded. And all of these things make nature more important than the city—not unbridled, sprawling nature—but the kind of nature placed, grown and cared for by human hands.
Though the view of the pleasance garden and the terrace are far more man-made than that of the walkway, the walkway is only a preparatory step to transporting you into an older time. Before you walk up the steps to the wooden walkway of the garden, you see the Hotel de Cluny, a seamless blend of Gothic and Renaissance architecture bursting with medieval acknowledgment. A townhouse in Paris for the abbots of Cluny, the building was later owned by several other religious figures, an astronomer, the Revolutionary state, and Alexandre du Sommerard, an art collector. It was finally purchased by the state and converted into a museum, which it has remained for 170 years.
As you ascend the steps, in front of you is le préau or, the pleasance. This is a garden of various flowers and grasses surrounded by clear baths of water. This area most closely resembles what one might expect from a pleasure garden, while off to the right sits the terrace, “evoking the domestic nature and diverse facets of a medieval garden” (translation my own, www.musee-moyanage.fr). Every aspect of the garden has a meaning or dedication. A ménagier aligns and separates the different potted areas: basic medicinal herbs are planted in one, vegetables in another. One potted area contains only flowers which symbolize the Virgin; a sunken path and its surrounding flowers are dedicated to the ancient Sainte-Geneviève, patron saint to Paris; another flower bed evokes l’amour courtois—courtly love—the expression of which, so the stories and poetry say, gave pleasure gardens their utility. No area of the garden goes without purpose: pleasing to the senses, useful for survival, or in memory of beloved religious figures—all important and vital aspects to medieval life in France. For a moment, it feels you might exist alongside an older realm.
It is curious to me, why, then, erected in the center of le préau, is a shiny, metal, modern-art installment, impossible not to be seen from anywhere in the garden. Spanning half of le préau are several narrow strips of shiny metal, bent into elegant and clean swirls and lined up beside each other. It isn’t that the installment in and of itself is something laughable, but that it so obviously out of place. It is not a stone sculpture of a saint, neither is it a recognized commemorative art piece. These obtrusive sheets of bent metal disturb one of the few places in Paris that has the potential to be somewhere truly apart and outside of modernity. It is not the unfulfilled desire for such a place, but the sheer attainability of the space to have that unique charm which makes the breaking of that charm so disappointing.
Yes, there are children in sneakers and backpacks traipsing down the wooden walks after their teachers who are explaining about the vegetable garden. And yes, the man sitting across from me in the park is rolling and lighting a cigarette; we’re eating lunch out of plastic bags; we’re texting on cellphones, we’re changing the song on our iPods. Each visitor is aware we’re living in the 21st century, but apart from the people themselves, there is very little to indicate that within the garden, or amongst the trees, or beside the stone building—except those ill-fitted pieces of metal. The garden itself is an edifice dedicated to a different time, place, and people. There is no need for a commemoration inside of a commemoration; there is no need for a reminder of modernity; there is no need to apologize that the garden was a creation of the 21st century instead of the 14th.