"The Rat Hole" by Victor Hugo (from his Notre Dame de Paris or The Hunchback of Notre Dame; 1831)
The "rat hole" of Hugo's novel is nothing less than an anchorhold, the cell of an anchorite or anchoress, from which the recluse did not emerge into public light. Set in the teeming urban setting of medieval Paris, Hugo's vivid description of imagined anchorholds and their strange inhabitants is charged with the fantastic color that makes the entire novel a masterpiece of romance and characterization. Here, too, that magnificent play on words: the motto Tu, ora over the anchorhold, translated by the common people as Trou-aux-rats or "rat-hole."
Book 6. Chapter 2. The Rat-Hole
With the reader's permission we will now return to the Place de Grève, which was quitted yesterday with Gringoire, to follow Esmeralda.
It is ten in the morning, and everywhere are the unmistakable signs of the day after a public holiday. The ground is strewn with débris of every description, ribbons, rags, plumes, drops of wax from the torches, scraps from the public feast. A good many of the townsfolk are "loafing about" -- as we would say today -- turning over the extinguished brands of the bonfire, standing in front of the Maison aux Piliers rapturously recalling the fine hangings of the day before, and gazing now at the nails which fastened them -- last taste of vanished joy -- while the venders of beer and cider roll their casks among the idle groups. A few pass to and fro, intent on business; the trades people gossip and call to one another from their shop doors. The Festival, the Ambassadors, Coppenole, the Pope of Fools, are in every mouth, each vying with the other as to who shall make the wittiest comments and laugh the loudest; while four mounted officers of the peace, who have just posted themselves at the four corners of the pillory, have already drawn away a considerable portion of the idlers scattered about the square, who cheerfully submit to any amount of tediousness and waiting, in expectation of a little exhibition of Justice.
If now, after contemplating this stirring and clamorous scene which is being enacted at every corner of the Place, the reader will turn his attention towards the ancient building -- half Gothic, half Romanesque -- called the Tour-Roland, forming the western angle of the quay, he will notice, at one of its corners, a large, richly illuminated breviary for the use of the public, protected from the rain by a small penthouse and from thieves by a grating, which, however, allows of the passer-by turning over the leaves. Close beside this breviary is a narrow, pointed window looking on to the square and closed by an iron cross-bar, the only aperture by which a little air and light can penetrate to a small, doorless cell constructed on the level of the ground within the thickness of the wall of the old mansion and filled with a quiet the more profound, a silence the more oppressive, that a public square, the noisiest and most populous in Paris, is swarming and clamoring round it.
This cell has been famous in Paris for three centuries, ever since Mme. Rolande of the Tour-Roland, mourning for her father who died in the Crusades, had caused it to be hollowed out of the wall of her house and shut herself up in it forever; retaining of all her great mansion but this one poor chamber, the door of which was walled up and the window open to the elements winter and summer, and giving the rest of her possessions to the poor and to God. The inconsolable lady had lingered on for twenty years awaiting death in this premature tomb, praying night and day for the soul of her father, making her bed on the cold ground without even a stone for a pillow, clothed in sackcloth, and living only upon such bread and water as the compassionate might deposit on the ledge of her window -- thus receiving charity after bestowing it. At her death, at the moment of her passing to another sepulcher, she had bequeathed this one in perpetuity to women in affliction -- mothers, widows, or maidens -- who should have many prayers to offer up on behalf of others or of themselves, and should choose to bury themselves alive for some great grief or some great penitence. The poor of her time had honored her funeral with tears and benedictions; but, to their great regret, the pious lady had been unable to receive canonization for lack of interest in the right quarter. Nevertheless, those among them who were not quite so pious as they should have been, trusting that the matter might be more easily arranged in heaven than in Rome, had frankly offered up their prayers for the deceased to God himself, in default of the Pope. The majority, however, had contented themselves with holding Rolande's memory sacred, and converting her rags into relics. The town, for its part, had founded, in pursuance of the lady's intention, a public breviary, which had been permanently fixed beside the window of the cell, that the passer-by might halt there for a moment, if only to pray; that prayer might suggest almsgiving, and thus the poor recluses, inheriting the stone cell of Mme. Rolande, be saved from perishing outright of hunger and neglect.
These living tombs were by no means rare in the cities of the Middle Ages. Not infrequently, in the very midst of the busiest street, the most crowded, noisy market-place, under the very hoofs of the horses and wheels of the wagons, you might come upon a vault, a pit, a walled and grated cell, out of the depths of which a human being, voluntarily dedicated to some everlasting lamentation, or some great expiation, offered up prayer unceasingly day and night.
But all the reflections that such a strange spectacle would awaken in us at the present day; that horrible cell; a sort of intermediate link between the dwelling and the grave, between the cemetery and the city; that living being cut off from the communion of mankind and already numbered with the dead; that lamp consuming its last drop of oil in the darkness; that remnant of life flickering out in the pit; that whisper, that voice, that never-ending prayer encased in stone: that eye already illumined by another sun; that ear inclined attentive to the walls of a tomb; that soul imprisoned in a body, itself a prisoner within that dungeon, and from out that double incarnation of flesh and stone, the perpetual plaint of a soul in agony -- nothing of all this reached the apprehension of the crowd. The piety of that day, little given to analyzing or subtle reasoning, did not regard a religious act from so many points of view. It accepted the thing as a whole, honored, lauded, and if need be, made a saint of the sacrifice, but did not dwell upon its sufferings nor even greatly pity it. From time to time the charitable world brought some dole to the wretched penitent, peered through the window to see if he yet lived, was ignorant of his name, scarcely knew how many years ago he had begun to die, and to the stranger who questioned them respecting the living skeleton rotting in that cave, they would simply answer: "It is the recluse."
This was the way they looked at things in those days, without metaphysics, neither enlarging nor diminishing, with the naked eye. The microscope had not been invented yet for the examination either of material or spiritual objects.
Examples of this kind of living burial in the heart of the town were, although they excited but little remark, frequently to be met with, as we have said before. In Paris there was a considerable number of these cells of penitence and prayer, and nearly all of them were occupied. It is true the clergy took particular care that they should not be left empty, as that implied lukewarmness in the faithful; so when penitents were not to the fore, lepers were put in instead. Besides the cell at the Grève, already described, there was one at Montfaucon, one at the charnel-house of the Innocents, another, I forget just where -- at the Logis-Clichon, I fancy; and others at many different spots, where, in default of monuments, their traces are still to be found in tradition. The University certainly had one; on the hill of Saint-Germain a sort of medieval Job sat for thirty years, singing the penitential psalms on a dung-heap at the bottom of a dry well, beginning anew as soon as he came to the end, and singing louder in the night-time -- magna voce per umbras; and today the antiquary still fancies that he hears his voice as he enters the Rue du Puits-qui-parle: the street of the Talking Well.
To confine ourselves here to the cell in the Tour-Roland, we confess that it had seldom lacked a tenant -- since Mme. Rolande's death it had rarely been vacant, even for a year or two. Many a woman had shut herself up there to weep until death for her parents, her lovers, or her frailties. Parisian flippancy, which will meddle with everything, especially with such as are outside its province, declared that very few widows had been observed among the number.
After the manner of the period, a Latin legend inscribed upon the wall notified to the lettered wayfarer the pious purpose of the cell. This custom of placing a brief distinguishing motto above the entrance to a building continued down to the middle of the sixteenth century. Thus, in France, over the gateway of the prison belonging to the Manor-house of Tourville, stands, Sileto et spera; in Ireland, under the escutcheon above the great gateway of Fortescue Castle, Forte scutum, salus ducum; and in England, over the principal entrance of the hospitable mansion of the Earls Cowper, Tuum est. For in those days every edifice expressed a special meaning.
As there was no door to the walled-up cell of the Tour-Roland, they had engraved above the window in great Roman characters the two words: Tu, ora.
Whence it came about that the people, whose healthy common sense fails to see the subtle side of things, and cheerfully translates Ludovico Magno by Porte Saint-Denis, had corrupted the words over this dark, damp, gloomy, cavity into Trou-aux-rats, or Rat-Hole -- a rendering less sublime perhaps than the original; but, on the other hand, decidedly more picturesque.