Frieze screen surrounding the choir, Notre Dame de Paris, c. 1350
Stephen G. Nichols
Johns Hopkins University


In the 14th century, Paris became a global capital, an internationally-acknowledged arbiter of culture, and the cause of one of the longest wars in history. The political turmoil incited popular uprisings of Parisians that came close to overthrowing the Valois monarchy, and did inspire royal chroniclers to “discover” the Salic Law debarring matrilineal accession to the throne of France (a principal cause of the Hundred Years War). Civil war between French factions allowed Paris to suffer the ultimate indignity of English occupation including the coronation of an English King, Henry VI, in Notre-Dame de Paris in 1431.

And yet, in the midst of a long century that witnessed political instability, a plague in which, as the chronicler Froissart observed, one-third of the population died, the exile and imprisonment of a French king in London, Paris flourished as never before. It was the center of a vibrant book trade that produced some of the most extraordinary illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. So renowned was it for manuscript production that Dante, could speak of “that art which in Paris they call ‘illumination’” (Purg. XI, ll. 80-81). Indeed, as scholars have recently shown, Paris virtually invented techniques for “mass producing” codices, as manuscript books are called. In light of these facts, it’s not surprising to find that, while French literature from this period may have been written elsewhere, chances are high that it certainly was published in Paris.  

Paris was the first European city to support an extensive book trade for the same reason that it earned its outsize reputation in other domains: scale. Not since classical Rome had Europe known an urban concentration on the scale of Paris in the fourteenth century. Numbering between 250,000-300,000 inhabitants, in 1340, it was the largest city in the western world. By contrast, London was less than one-third the size of its Gallic rival.  

We generally construe increased population density as a sign of urbanization, defined as a migration of people from rural areas to an expanding metropolis.  But it was not simply size that distinguished Paris in the fourteenth century. It was, rather, the diverse nature of the Parisian populace that gave the city both distinctive flavor, and dynamism. In a word, Paris was not only Europe’s largest city, it was what we would call today, an international city, a global capital of culture.