In earlier years I was puzzled by the name of this building, since I knew the word concierge only as a person who sat at the entrance to an apartment building to keep track of who went in and out.
But in medieval times the Concierge was a high government official, appointed by the king, who was responsible for keeping order, supervising the police and prisons, and sometimes even governing the country while the king was off fighting in the crusades. So the Conciergerie (pronunciation here), a former royal palace, was this official’s headquarters. It was later used as a prison, both before and during the French Revolution.
On the ground floor of the Conciergerie, this ‘Hall of the Men at Arms’ is where the police and soldiers used to wait until they were needed to maintain order in some part of the city. It was also their mess hall, apparently.
In January 1910 the Seine River overflowed its banks and flooded large parts of the city, including the ground floor of the Conciergerie. This marking on one of the pillars shows the highest water level, on January 28, 1910.
In the years of The Terror, 1793 and 1794, more than 2600 prisoners were tried and convicted in this building, and sent from here to the guillotine. Today nothing remains from this period, so some scenes have been set up, using life-size effigies to show what it might have been like to be imprisoned here. One of the rooms has an effigy of Queen Marie Antoinette dressed in black, with her back to us, praying and being watched over by a guard. Even during the Revolution, rich prisoners could pay to get more comfortable cells than poor prisoners.
Here some of my fellow tourists are trying to catch a glimpse of the scenes in the reconstructed prison cells. These are on the first floor (one flight up) of the Conciergerie, where there are also some museum displays on the history of the building.
What I liked best about my visit to the Conciergerie was a chance encounter in the Cour des femmes (Courtyard of the women). A group of a dozen or more deaf people were standing in a circle carrying out an animated conversation in sign language, in complete silence except when someone said something funny and they all laughed. One man was obviously the teacher or guide, but the others all asked questions or made comments in a very open and friendly atmosphere.
Location and aerial view on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2020.