This ‘Convent of the Ropes’ was founded towards the end of the 13th century by Marguerite de Provence, the widow of the French King Louis IX, who is now better known as ‘Saint Louis’ because he was canonized twenty-seven years after his death.
Marguerite was nearly fifty when her husband died in 1270. She had been married to him since she was thirteen and had borne him eleven children. She had even gone with him on one of the crusades, the seventh (1248-1254), so three of their children were born in Egypt.
After all their other sons had died, their youngest son Philippe was in line to become king. Since Philippe was the one person in the family with the least leadership potential, Marguerite made him promise (solemnly vow, in fact) that she could rule as his guardian until he was thirty, but Louis IX was still alive at this point — and was not yet a saint, just an ordinary male chauvinist king — so he quashed this idea and persuaded the Pope to release Philippe from his vow. He also wrote a sort of handbook for his son on how to run a country.
After Louis IX died his widow must have been at loose ends, since she was not allowed to rule France after all. As a second choice, she tried to gain control of her native country, the Provence, but that didn’t work either. So for lack of anything better to do she founded a convent, but this was at best her third choice of what to do with the rest of her life.
Her situation reminds me of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night also wanted to rule her husband’s kingdom after he died, but her husband thought a woman’s place was in the home, not on the throne, so when he died he left the symbol of his power, the Sevenfold Sun Circle, to Sarastro instead of to her. The Queen of the Night was very bitter about this, and spent her life plotting ‘hellish’ revenge.
Whether Marguerite de Provence was so embittered I don’t know, but in any case she eventually founded a convent on a seemingly idyllic eight-hectare site in the countryside south of Paris on the banks of the then-lovely Bièvre River.
Although the Bièvre was still a relatively clean little river in the 13th century (it didn’t get seriously polluted until the 14th), it had an unfortunate tendency to overflow its banks after heavy rains in the winter, so in later years the convent was repeatedly damaged by flooding. (Six centuries later the Bièvre was banished underground and integrated into the Paris sewer system, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find it.)
Marguerite had a daughter, Blanche, who took over the convent after her mother’s death.
Today the only remains of this convent are some ruins that can be seen on the grounds of a hospital, the Hôpital Broca, which is not on Rue Broca but several blocks away at 54-56 Rue Pascal in the 13th arrondissement of Paris.
The Broca Hospital is a geriatric hospital which was built from 1972 to 1982. It describes itself as a “regional expert centre devoted to Alzheimer’s disease (AD)” and palliative care for elderly patients.
A short distance away is this fresco, from the year 2013, on Rue Émile Deslandres. It was painted by the street artist Julien “Seth” Malland (born 1972 in Paris).
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the 13th arrondissement of Paris.