The Slums of Paris Had Their Own Intricate System Of Laws Ruled By Thieves And Prostitutes

You might remember the popular Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but did you know that its source material, the novel by Victor Hugo, was inspired by a real, intricate society of beggars, thieves, and sex workers who lived in slums in 17th century Paris? These slums were spread out all over the city, rising in numbers due to the increase of homelessness. Historian Henri Sauval referred to these slums as Cours de Miracles, or the "Court of Miracles," named for the beggars who would disguise themselves as disabled or ill during the day but return to the slums 'miraculously' cured. These slums were an intricate system of laws, leaders, and some groups even had their own languages. There were initiations, rules, and even a hierarchy resembling the actual French court. 

  • Unlike Other Cities With Only One, Paris Had Numerous Slums

    Seventeenth century France was marked by a surge in people moving to Paris to try to make a living. However, not everyone thrived, and many ended up living on the streets, having to resort to begging to survive. As the homeless population in Paris grew, mostly during the reign of King Louis XIV, so did the number of places available to them to seek shelter. These slums were spread out all across the city, and though it wasn't unusual for a big city at the time to have one or two slums, it was believed Paris had about a dozen or more. These slums housed the poorest people in society, and were referred to as the "Court of Miracles."

  • The 'Court Of Miracles' Was The Name That Referred To All The Parisian Slums

    The term "Court of Miracles" was what was used to refer to the Parisian slums made up of beggars, thieves, and sex workers, and it was what was used to refer to the Parisian slums that sheltered these people. Rather than just one area, the "Court of Miracles" was an all-encompassing term that referred to all the slums of Paris. The most well-known of these slums sat between the rue du Caire and the rue Réaumur, and was called the Grande Cours de Miracles, or the "Grand Court of Miracles."

  • The Beggars Were Healed Of Their Ailments As Soon As They Walked Home – Hence The 'Miracles' In The Name
    Photo: Ivan Yermenyov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Beggars Were Healed Of Their Ailments As Soon As They Walked Home – Hence The 'Miracles' In The Name

    The "Court of Miracles" got its name from the way the people who resided in its confines made their living: by pretending to have specific ailments in order to gain sympathy and money from the wealthier public. By day, these beggars were amputees, blind, deaf, epileptic, besot by disease, and more. However, by night, these same people were "miraculously" healed of their fake ailments. The handicapped threw away their canes, the amputees undressed their numb limbs, the eczema-ridden washed off their makeup — it's even described in a song from the Victor Hugo-inspired Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

    Maybe you’ve heard of a terrible place where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair… Maybe you’ve heard of that mythical place called the Court of Miracles! Where the lame can walk and the blind can see – but the dead don’t talk, so you won’t be around to reveal what you’ve found!

  • Social Structures Delineated Status Between Different Kinds Of Beggars And Thieves

    There were numerous classes of people that operated within the structure of the "Court of Miracles," and this separation lent itself to a self-imposed hierarchy. People were categorized by what specific kind of begging or thievery they partook in, and the structures even broke down further within those boundaries. Different classes included the narquois, those who pretended to be injured soldiers; the malingreux, who feigned illnesses; the marfaux, agents of sorts for sex workers; and the names didn't just classify these people, either. Some classes, if lower than others, had restrictions. The courtauds de Boutange could only beg in the winter.

  • Each Social Group Had Its Own Laws, Slang, and Leader

    Since there were so many classes within the "Court of Miracles" system, some turned into mini societies within which there were laws, leaders, and even slang pertaining only to that group. Many of the names categorizing the different types of people within the system stemmed from slang used by the beggars and thieves themselves. 

    The entire system was structured, as well. There was a leader of all the beggars, initially called the ragot and then later the chef-coësre. This was basically the King of the Beggars, and he had his own lieutenants, called Ducs. Below them were the archissupots, who were former students who took the task of teaching the slang to the new beggars. 

  • The Thieves Were The Most Organized Of The Social Groups

    In order to be a proper thief in the "Court of Miracles," you couldn't just be good at picking pockets. There were rules to follow, and some thieves were even taught by those of higher ranking. Thievery in Paris during this time was not unlike an apprenticeship. There was a test to get in, a teaching of skills, and proper payment or "employment" for each person within these "guilds." Another important aspect of these groups were to make sure there weren't too many thieves in any given area, meaning the organization had to be quite thorough to prevent this from happening while still insuring everyone was properly "employed."