If you go snooping around the western half of the 13th arrondissement (and adjoining sections of the 5th) in Paris you will find numerous references to a river called the Bièvre (pronunciation here) — but you won’t find the river itself, because it was banished underground over a century ago.
I was reminded of a phenomenon called phantom limb pain, which is what can happen if someone’s arm or leg has been amputated but the person still feels pain (or tingling, itching, cramping, heat or cold) in the limb even though it is no longer there. Some people in Paris are still very conscious of the Bièvre River flowing through their neighborhoods, even though it hasn’t done so for more than a hundred years.
In the city hall of the 13th arrondissement at Place d’Italie there is a long, narrow room on the second floor called the Galerie Bièvre. When I was there in July 2013 I went to a free exhibition in this gallery called ‘The Bièvre in Paris.’
The exhibition showed historic maps and photos, with information about how the Bièvre was used — and polluted — by tanners, dyers, washerwomen, butchers and hospitals, long before the start of industrialization. In a map dated 1787 the Bièvre was labeled as the ‘Stream of the Gobelins’ because the Gobelin family’s cloth dyeing plant was right on the river. The Gobelins no doubt contributed to the pollution of the river as much as anyone, but they were not alone.
Even though the Bièvre was small and sluggish, three different millers made mill ponds and set up their mills on the river to obtain energy from water wheels. This reminded me of a similar river in Hamburg called the Wandse Creek, which starting in the 14th century provided water power for up to eight mills, even though Hamburg is even flatter than Paris and the current of the Wandse Creek was negligible. Before the start of industrialization, millers and other craftsmen were starved for rotational power and thankful for any little bit they could get by any method other than muscle power.
These photos from the exhibition show the Bièvre before and after it was put under ground.
The word Bièvre used to mean beaver, but there is no evidence that beavers ever actually lived there. If they did, it must have been a long time ago.
Despite the obvious pollution dating back to the fourteenth century, poets sometimes claimed to find inspiration on the banks of the Bièvre. As late as 1831, Victor Hugo wrote a poem called “Bièvre” in which he claimed the river was full of fish, with clear water flowing into the mill ponds, while “pensive willows cried on the shore” and let the ends of their hair soak in the water “like an indolent and naive bather.”
Oui, c’est bien le vallon ! le vallon calme et sombre !
Ici l’été plus frais s’épanouit à l’ombre.
Ici durent longtemps les fleurs qui durent peu.
Ici l’âme contemple, écoute, adore, aspire,
Et prend pitié du monde, étroit et fol empire
Où l’homme tous les jours fait moins de place à Dieu !
Une rivière au fond ; des bois sur les deux pentes.
Là, des ormeaux, brodés de cent vignes grimpantes ;
Des prés, où le faucheur brunit son bras nerveux ;
Là, des saules pensifs qui pleurent sur la rive,
Et, comme une baigneuse indolente et naïve,
Laissent tremper dans l’eau le bout de leurs cheveux.
Là-bas, un gué bruyant dans des eaux poissonneuses
Qui montrent aux passants les pieds nus des faneuses ;
Des carrés de blé d’or ; des étangs au flot clair ;
Dans l’ombre, un mur de craie et des toits noirs de suie ;
Les ocres des ravins, déchirés par la pluie ;
Et l’aqueduc au loin qui semble un pont de l’air.
Et, pour couronnement à ces collines vertes,
Les profondeurs du ciel toutes grandes ouvertes.
Of course it could be that Victor Hugo was rhapsodizing about some other section of the Bièvre, further upstream, before it reached Paris.
All along the former bed of the Bièvre there are now markers in the streets. This particular one is in a dead-end street called Rue Nicolas Houel, between the Austerlitz train station and the Jardin des Plantes. The marker says that this was the ‘only arm’ of the Bièvre, the reason being that further upstream it was divided into two arms, the ‘live arm’ and the ‘dead arm’.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Couvent des Cordelières on the banks of the Bièvre.