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Book Review: Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey

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Book Review: Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey

Post  Susan Abernethy on Tue May 17, 2016 12:19 am

This title really intrigued me.  Paris is a magnetic city just in its own right.  To imagine there was a secret history was too tempting to pass up.  In my ongoing effort to refresh my French history knowledge before my trip to France, I began reading.

Hussey mentions in the introduction his intention in writing this book is to emulate the work of Peter Ackroyd’s “London:  A Biography”.  Ackroyd’s book is splendid so this was a good sign.  The first chapter covers Prehistory to the year 987 AD.  I found this section most interesting.  Paris was started basically on the small, swampy islands in the Seine.  He talks about how the city, then known as Lutetia, was inhabited by the Franks and the Romans.  The Romans built a wall around the city and it became a trading center.  Next, in this chapter and in every one after, Hussey gives small tidbits of history that might not be as well known by the average reader, the so-called secrets of the city.  One of the highlights in this first chapter is the death by beheading of St. Denis on Montmartre, making the name of the hill self-explanatory.

In the medieval section, Hussey give us a colorful array of characters, talking about the ordinary people.  Sections include, lovers and scholars, students and streetfighters, poets, saints and thieves.  In fact, the entire book is filled with details about average everyday people down to the present day.  The history of Paris is filled with robbers, gypsies, drunkards, beggars as well as the nobility, merchants and the bourgeoisie.  There’s a lot of information on artists, writers, poets and students and how they shaped the politics of the city over the millennia.  If social history is your cup of tea, you will enjoy this aspect of the book.  

Hussey obviously knows and loves the city well.  He gives us details about many of the neighborhoods, even down to who and what kind of people lived on certain streets.  The book has many drawings, maps and photos showing us the boundaries of the city over the years.  One of the first things that struck me as I began reading this book is that it is really well written.  Everything he writes is very clear with no grammatical or typographical errors.  It was just a joy to read.  If you are interested in French history and Paris in particular, I can heartily recommend this book.

Susan Abernethy

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