Secrets of the Paris Catacombs

Written by Jasmine Grace,
High School Intern

Origins of the Catacombs

Dug by the Romans and expanded later by the French, the tunnels beneath Paris supplied limestone to the city. By the 18th century, they were becoming unstable. Officials shut the tunnels down in 1776. A collapse of one of the tunnels destroyed an entire street. 

Les Innocents Cemetery

At the same time, the city had another problem: it’s graveyards were full. By 1763, burial within city limits was illegal. However, that didn’t fix the cemeteries that were already overflowing. Les Innocents became a particular issue in 1780. Extreme rain that year caused one of the cemetery walls to collapse, and bodies tumbled into the street. Louis XVI shut down the graveyard permanently. Before that, it had been a burial site for ten centuries. 



With two major problems in the city, officials decided to solve both at once. The bones from Les Innocents and other cemeteries were dug up and dumped into the tunnels. 

Working at night, workers moved the skeletal remains of seven million people beneath the city. Some bones were over twelve hundred years old. 

Map of the Catacombs

Louis-Héricart de Thury

Thury took it upon himself to renovate the tunnels beneath Paris. He rearranged the bones that had been dumped into the tunnels and added some of the decorations from ground-level graveyards in the city. He made intricate patterns from the different bones in a variety of styles, back-filling the space behind his designs with more bones. His arrangements provided more support to the tunnels. 

Bone Designs

The tunnels were completely off limits to the public. However, after the creation of the mausoleum in 1809, authorities permitted some tours. These underground excursions weren’t open to the public, they were an exclusive experience for the elite. About four trips visited the catacombs each year. Today, the catacombs are open to all, and have become a major tourist attraction. 

Mystery of Les Guillotinés

Historical accounts tell us that the victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution came to rest in the  catacombs. Architects of the Reign of Terror, such as Maximilien de Robespierre, lay beside their aristocratic victims. However, a recent discovery has put that story into question. 

Maximilien de Robespierre

Four cemeteries, among them Old Madeleine cemetery, were built for les guillotinés (victims of the guillotine). Old Madeleine was officially closed in 1794, because, like the rest of the cemeteries, it was full. This is when it was believed that les guillotinés were moved to the catacombs. Later, the Chapelle Expiatoire was built on the site of Old Madeleine to honor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. However, Louis XVIII had them re-interred at the Saint-Denis Basilica, the traditional resting place of French Royalty.  

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Exploring Biliteracy

Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence – high school Intern

What is Biliteracy? 

If you look up biliteracy in the dictionary, you’re going to get the bare essentials of a definition: “the ability to read and write proficiently in two languages.” Bilingualism is a similar concept but applied to more speech and comprehension. A person who is biliterate is, inherently, bilingual; a person who is bilingual, though, is not inherently biliterate. Biliteracy and bilingualism, therefore, are two foundational components of language-learning and proficiency. Both serve, in a way, as an end goal of learning a language. 

Bilingual = speaking/understanding 2 languages.

The concepts of biliteracy and bilingualism, however, are much more than their dictionary definitions. For many people, biliteracy is a way of life. When someone is biliterate, it is entrained into every fiber of their being. As a student of language, I have personally witnessed how biliteracy affects the people around me. Many of the biliterate people around me have pride in their languages and desire to spread their language to others. Often, they develop a passion for the culture of their languages. Being biliterate, it seems, fosters growth of a personal self. This is truly what biliteracy is: a development of one’s personal self through language. 


Language, Biliteracy, and Yourself

At this point, you may find yourself asking “Okay, but what does this have to do with me?” The answer, quite simply, is: a lot. Biliteracy is possibly one of the most crucial skills in all of society. Almost every imaginable career requires some form of biliteracy or could be bolstered by the inclusion of biliteracy. Imagine a doctor’s office, where a tourist comes in, unable to properly express their needs to the medical staff. What if a nurse there spoke that language? Or even a doctor?  This person would now be eligible to receive potentially life-saving medical attention. Not everything is life or death, obviously. Imagine a businessperson who can speak two languages. This opens opportunities for communication with more companies or customers. Being biliterate can field possibility in your career, propelling you farther in life.

Beyond your career, biliteracy is about personal connection, as we established above. For many people, biliteracy was natural, as their parents or grandparents spoke another language as their native tongue. Biliteracy, then, was how they communicated with their family. Even more, biliteracy opens your ability to communicate with others. If you can speak two languages, then you can communicate with anybody who speaks either of those languages. Imagine the potential you have just tapped into. Your future can be changed by anyone, and they just might speak another language. 


Fostering Biliteracy in New Hampshire and Beyond

How do we build up biliteracy then? Well, there are a million possibilities to start. One of the first steps to take, I believe, is educating our youth. Literacy and proficiency in languages are easier to obtain at a younger age. In the US government, a bill regarding biliteracy being integrated into education was recently discussed. You can check out this blog for more information on this act. Raising awareness in general, though, is also an important component in bringing biliteracy to more people. If more people know about biliteracy, particularly its many benefits, then more people will likely become interested in it. 

The most important part of fostering biliteracy, however, is community effort.  One person, nor one organization cannot foster biliteracy statewide, never mind nationwide. It will take the effort of entire communities to promote biliteracy and change the world. That, truly, is the goal of this blog, to begin a discussion on biliteracy in our community.


Discussing Biliteracy

The goal of the Franco-American Centre of New Hampshire is to promote history, culture, and education of the Franco-American populations in New Hampshire and around the globe. This new series, “Discussing Biliteracy,” will bring together people of our community, all from various walks of life, to discuss the importance of biliteracy and their own experiences with biliteracy. In the end, I hope to show you that biliteracy truly does foster personal growth and opportunity.