I have been greatly looking forward to having Australian author Elizabeth Ellen Carter as my guest because I know her latest book, MOONSTONE CONSPIRACY, involves a scene in the Paris Catacombs... or at least the part of the catacombs that has served as an ossuary for over 200 years. I visited the catacombs on our recent trip to Paris... and it is a case of one visited - never forgotten.
DOWN AMONG THE DEAD OF PARIS
Paris has few skyscrapers unlike many modern metropolitian cities and the reason lies beneath the city streets.
For under the City of Light, is a City of Death.
They are the catacombs – miles of upon miles (some say as much as 400 miles) of tunnels that criss-cross the city.
Strictly speaking, only a little more than a mile of the underground network is an underground ossuary (correctly called a catacomb), the rest are disused mining tunnels that supplied limestone and gypsum for the people above ground.
I have to confess, that before researching Moonstone Conspiracy I hadn’t given much thought to the origin of ‘Plaster of Paris’!
Ultimately expediency helped the people of Paris solve a distasteful and potentially deadly problem – where to store the remains of the dead.
By the 17th century Paris was a major European centre home to half a million people – a population equal to that of London. And people have a rather inconvenient habit of dying.
Rather than establishing new cemeteries outside the city (and one very good reasons against doing so is cemeteries ‘sterilise’ arable land otherwise use for feeding the living), Parisians keep piling more and more bodies into existing cemeteries.
|Church of Les Innocentes|
Sadly, not a sustainable practice, especially when the inmates decide they want to escape – literally. Following heavy rains in the spring of 1780, a wall of Paris’s largest cemetery, Les Innocents , collapsed, spilling rotten corpses onto neighbouring properties.
From 1786 and for the next 12 years, between six and seven million new ‘residents’ found their eternal resting place underground. The earliest bones moved to the catacombs are estimated to be more than 1200 years old.
The catacombs today are a major Parisian tourist attraction – officially and unofficially. Organised tours are available to savour this history of this most remarkable place.
|Supporting pillars of bones and skulls|
For others, known as cataphiles, the appeal is the forbidden. Groups of modern day cavers explore the rest of the tunnel network, dodging officials sent to ferret them out and not always successfully. One underground amphitheatre had been turned into a cinema, complete with chairs, projector and screen, a neighbouring cavern was home to a restaurant and bar!
So it’s not very surprising to learn that during World War II, both the Germans and the French Resistance used the catacombs as secret bunkers.
While I didn’t find any research to suggest that Parisians looking to escape persecution and certain death during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror used the tunnels, I think they would have done so on that basis, the Paris Catacombs and the people who inhabited them play a major role in Moonstone Conspiracy.
During the French Revolution, churches were nationalised and deconsecrated, even the magnificent 1200 year old Notre Dame Cathedral was vandalised and turned into a temple for the culte de la raison (that incident featured in Moonstone Obsession). Not only were aristocrats guillotined, but also priests and nuns – including those who were cloistered with no interest in temporal politics – others were dragged out onto the street and hung or raped, then beaten to death.
Catacombs often brings to mind the ones in Rome where, back in ancient Rome, Christians escaped persecution. So I extrapolated some historical fact to create eglise sous terre – the church underground – in Moonstone Conspiracy to draw attention to not only real historic events in Paris, but also the restive outer regions including the Vendee.
Excerpt from MOONSTONE CONSPIRACY
A single candle lay inside a small adit, just wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Daniel picked it up and handed it to Abigail. His meaning was clear—if he had to defend them, he would need both hands.
The white chalky walls reflected the light down a tunnel which turned black as it pushed further into the hill.
“Do not fear, you are among friends,” whispered a voice that echoed eerily down the passage ways.
“Who do we have the honor of calling friend?” asked Daniel.
“Come further inside to safety. The soldiers are superstitious; they won’t come any further than this entrance.”
Daniel placed his left hand on the small of Abigail’s back to gently urge her forward. She glanced up at him and he gave a nod of confirmation making sure in the candlelight that she caught of glimpse of the knife he carried.
They rounded the corner and the passage continued for about fifteen yards to where a small lamp stood, indicating another corner. They rounded it and then another. Dotted at intervals of about ten yards small lamps lit their way until they entered another passage. Abigail suppressed a scream. A skull in the wall eyed her sightlessly. She raised her candle higher and could see skulls, hundreds of them, twenty feet along and lining six feet up the walls.
Bones of other sorts too were neatly stacked in rows.
“There’s no need to fear. Our sentries will keep a look out,” the voice laughed, amused by his own jest.
For her unwitting participation in a plot to embezzle the Exchequer, Lady Abigail Houghallhas spent the last two years exiled to the city of Bath. A card sharp, sometime mistress, and target of scandalous gossip by the London Beau Monde, Lady Abigail plots to escape her gilded cage as well as the prudish society that condemns her. But the times are not easy. France is in chaos. The king has been executed, and whispers of a similar revolution are stirring in England. And because of her participation in the robbery plot, the Spymaster of England is blackmailing her into passing him information about the members of London’s upper crust.
When the dashing English spy Daniel Ridgeway takes a seat at her card table and threatens to expose her for cheating, she has no choice but to do as he demands: seduce the leader of the revolutionaries and learn what she can about their plot. As she’s drawn deeper into Daniel’s dangerous world, from the seedy backstreets of London to the claustrophobic catacombs of a war-torn Paris, she realizes an even more dangerous fact. She’s falling in love with her seductive partner. And the stakes of this game might just be too high, even for her.
MEET ELIZABETH ELLEN CARTER
Elizabeth Ellen Carter’s lives in Australia with her husband and two cats. A former newspaper journalist, she ran an award-winning PR agency for 12 years.
Her debut novel, Moonstone Obsession, set in England and France during the French Revolution,was published in 2013. Her second novel, Warrior’s Surrender, was published the following year. Set in Northumbria in 1077, it sets the relationship between a displaced Saxon noblewoman and a Norman baron against the turbulent backdrop of England in the years following the Norman invasion of 1066.
Warrior’s Surrender (now in print as well as eBook) was named Favourite Historical Fiction at the 2015 Readers & Writers Down Under Readers Choice Awards in March this year.
A Moonstone Obsession character, the sinful Lady Abigail Houghall, features in the full length novel Moonstone Conspiracy, released in July 2015.
Carter is currently working on her fourth novel, set in ancient Rome and tentatively titled Dark Heart, which will bring together the elements for which she has become known in just a few years – in-depth historical detail woven through gripping adventure and captivating romance.
Find E.E. Carter