Tucked away on a little side street, somewhere between Place du Pantheon and the Seine, you’ll find Collège des Bernardins, a former residence of Cistercian Monks. Eight Centuries of history are packed into a small space which is today used as a cultural centre.
Of all the secret spots you might stumble upon in Paris, Collège des Bernardins (much like Cloître des Billettes) remains truly unexpected. After all, it’s not often that you stumble upon such a large structure that’s hidden in plain sight, even in a quirky city like Paris.
Located at No. 20, Rue de Poissy, the college was first founded as a part of the prestigious University of Paris, which is one of the oldest universities in the world (though, if you’re counting, it does not count as a university ‘in continuous operation’ because the University of Paris was briefly abolished during the French Revolution).
A (very brief) history of and the dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe
Up until the 13th-Century, the church was the main centre for cultural studies and learning throughout Europe. It was through the church that most information was disseminated and through the church that culture and history were kept alive in readings and writings.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, it is also thanks to the church that many of the Pagan texts of the Greek and Romans survive to this day. The dissemination of knowledge and learning through the church was particularly prevalent from the 9th Century onwards when the Holy Roman Empire was established under Charlemagne.
However, the spread of knowledge, and how academics acquired information shifted dramatically during the 12th and 13th Centuries with the rise in popularity of Universities. These were self-governed institutions that did not rely on the church like previous knowledge bases once had.
Instead of railing against them, the Pope of the time, Pope Innocent IV took note of this shift in knowledge and encouraged the most learned of monks to begin attending university, most notably that of the University of Paris. Here, the monks studied language (especially Latin. During medieval times, the ‘Latin Quarter’ of Paris got its name because the students of the nearby University of Paris would constantly converse in Latin with one another.), the humanities, and of course, theology.
The beginnings of Collège des Bernardins
The Collège des Bernardins was founded by the abbot of Clairvaux, Stephen of Lexington (an English Cistercian Monk) in 1248 in the 5e arrondissement of the city. What had once been a swampy piece of land was now home to a building which served as the residence for the Cistercian monks who studied at the University of Paris.
The Collège was not only intended to house the monks but to train them in the ways of the church. In Stephen of Lexington’s vision, the college was not just a place of learning, but a way of life. The College was home to monks and other ecclesiastical members for the following four centuries, and right up until the institution was closed during the French Revolution.
Durig the Revolution, the college was sold in 1791 as a National Property. Much of the original church buildings were demolished to make way for more modern buildings and roads, and little remained of the original structure.
Until 2001, the College remained with the City of Paris, serving various functions over the years. These included being used as a prison for convicts, use as a warehouse, and a Chrisitan School. In 2001, the College was once more purchased by the Diocese of Paris and transformed once more into a place of cultural and theological learning.
Visit Collège des Bernardins
Today, the College serves various functions, most notably as a place for conferences and exhibitions. You can wander in and stroll the ancient corridors for free if you happen to pass by. There are also daily afternoon guided tours at an extra cost if you wish to learn more about the history of the college. If you look hard enough, there’s also a lovely little (and little known about) garden out the back door which would make for the perfect picnic spot…