Mysteries of the Court of Miracles

19th Century


Beginning in the 1830s and lasting through till the 1860s, the ‘mystery’ novel was a hit with readers across the world. In France, there was Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842–43). In Canada a little earlier there was Mysteries of a Convent (1834). These novels were followed in Britain with George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48) and Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56). In the United States there was Mysteries of New York (1848–49) by Edward Zane Hudson Jr; Mysteries of Manchester (1844); Mysteries of Boston (1844); and Mysteries of St Louis (1851). In Spain there appeared Los Misterios de Barcelona(1844). In Portugal there was Misterios de Lisboa (1854) by Camillo Castelo Branco, who followed up with a sequel titled Livro Negro de Padre Diniz (1856). In Brazil, there was Juana Manso’s Misterios del Plata (1852). [1]

Title page to Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (Stephen Basdeo collection)

There were many other mysteries novels in countries such as Mexico, Australia, Colombia, Venezuela, and India. In short, it seems that wherever you were in the world between c.1830 and c.1860, you would have been aware of ‘mysterymania’. They were not ‘mystery’ novels as we would understand them today, in which a detective usually solves a crime. Instead, these novels sought to portray vice and depravity among all classes of society, showing how the lives of people from each social class—especially those from the ‘underworld’—were interconnected as demonstrated through multiple, almost ‘encyclopaedic’ narratives. [2]

Victor Hugo (Stephen Basdeo collection)

Eugene Sue is usually credited with kick-starting the mysteries genre. But perhaps the first ‘mystery’ novel, although not featuring the word in its title, was Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831)—this at least is the view taken by Richard Maxwell in his brilliant monograph The Mysteries of Paris and London(1992). Maxwell argues this because Notre Dame de Paris shows how the outcast and borderline and often outright criminal denizens of the shadowy Court of Miracles influenced the lives of the elites. Just as the character of Pierre Gringoire does in Hugo’s novel, let us venture into the Court of Miracles to see the types of characters which await us….

Notre Dame de Paris (Stephen Basdeo collection)

‘Where the Scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair’

On the morning of 6 January 1482—a day of which history, according to Hugo, has not kept any record [3]—Pierre Gringoire had grand visions of fame. The day was meant to be the debut of his grand mystery play for the burgesses and notables, and the common people, of the city of Paris inside the great hall of the Hôtel de Bourbon. More importantly, from the money he earnt from this play, Gringoire would be able to finally eat, for, like many writers before and afterwards, he is short of money. Unfortunately for Gringoire, on the same day another event would take place in Paris: The Feast of Fools. Although Gringoire’s play starts off well, the attention of the people is soon diverted by another attraction—La Esmeralda is dancing in the street as part of the Feast of Fools after which the election of the Fools’ Pope would follow.

Poor Gringoire! The hall soon empties and, what is worse, the local council forgets to pay him. After Esmeralda’s dancing, Quasimodo elected fools Pope, and the general festivities are ended, then penniless and forlorn, Gringoire wanders about Paris. His wanderings take him deep into the Court of Miracles.

Esmeralda dancing (Stephen Basdeo collection)

Historically, the name of the Court of Miracles—or rather we should say ‘Court s of Miracles’—was a generalised term given to a number of areas which had existed in Paris from the thirteenth century onwards. Courts of Miracles existed in Impasse de la Corderie, the Rues de Damiette and des Forges, Cour du Roi, situated in the Rue Saint-Denis; the Cour Sainte-Catherine; the Cour Brisset, Rue de la Mortellerie; the Cour Gentien, Rue des Coquilles; the Cour de la Jussienne; the Cour Saint-Honore; the Cour des Miracles, Rue du Bac; the Cour des Miracles, Rue de Reuilly, and the Cour des Miracles, Rue Jean Beausire. [4]

Penniless and skint Gringoire wanders about Paris (Stephen Basdeo collection)

As Gringoire presses on into the labyrinthine network of courts and alleys, he encounters many beggars, blind men and—to use Hugo’s term—‘cripples’. A few accost him and ask for money as he walks along the dark streets but he shoos them away and presses deeper into the labyrinth. Then something strange occurs:

[Gringoire] began to run. The blind man ran. The lame man ran. The man with no legs ran. And then, as he penetrated further down the street, the legless, the blind and the halt came swarming around him, together with the one-armed, the one-eyed, and the lepers with their sores […]

Onde vas, hombre?’ cried a cripple, throwing away his crutches and running after him on the soundest two legs that ever measured a regulation yard on the pavements of Paris. The legless man, meanwhile, was on his feet … while the blind man was staring him in the face with blazing eyes. [5]

A panicked Gringoire asks: ‘Where am I?’ and one of the very real spectres surrounding him replies: ‘In the Court of Miracles’. [6]

The blind man ran, the lame man ran (Stephen Basdeo collection)

The Underworld Utopia

Gringoire has finally reached the underworld. In popular histories of crime and in the media, the ‘underworld’ is, according to Heather Shore, a ‘nebulous concept’, rarely a physical place, and carries with it

The notion of a separate culture, shared by those living outside of the boundaries of normal and respectable society. [7]

This is exactly how Hugo deploys the concept, for the Court of Miracles is a place where

No law-abiding men had ever penetrated at such an hour; a magic circle where those officers from the Chatelet or provost sergeants who ventured into it vanished in small pieces; a city of thieves, a hideous wen on the face of Paris; a sewer from which that stream of vice, mendicancy and vagabondage that is in a constant spate in the streets of capital cities flowed each morning and to which it returned to stagnate each night; a monstrous hive to which all the hornets of the social order returned in the evenings with their booty; a bogus hospital where gypsies, unfrocked priests, ruined students, and wastrels from every nation, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and of every religion, Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, idolaters, were beggars covered in artificial sores by day and transformed themselves by night into brigands; in short, a vast dressing room, in which the entire cast of the everlasting comedy performed in the streets of Paris by theft, prostitution, and murder donned and removed their costumes. [8]

Although Gringoire is face-to-face with the dregs of medieval Parisian society, the diverse population of the Court of Miracles paradoxically represents a kind of racial and religious utopia where all are welcome, provided they abide by the laws of the Court of Miracles and contribute to the underworld society in which they live. It could be interpreted almost as proto-communist society, [9] as Hugo illustrates:

In this city, the boundaries between races and species seemed to have been abolished, as in a pandemonium … all seemed communal; everything fitted together, was merged, mingled, and superimposed; everyone was part of everything. [10]

The idea of underworlds—fictional or otherwise—as quasi-egalitarian utopias has a long history. There is some evidence, for example, for ‘republics’ of pirates in the early modern period in which

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment. [11]

Long John Silver, the famous fictional pirate. Pirates have been claimed to have run their societies along ‘communistic’ lines by some scholars (Stephen Basdeo collection)

Certainly there is also evidence that some pirate groups operated a small-scale form of welfare for pirates who could no longer participate in active service:

He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb, in Time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of one hundred and fifty Pounds Sterling, and remain with the Company as long as he shall think fit. [12]

Communities of outlaws in England, such as those peopled by the likes of Robin Hood, were said to be ‘egalitarian’ in some way or other. However, before mentally canonizing the likes of pirates and medieval outlaws it should be noted that some of these conclusions, as drawn in Victorian adventure novels and, later, especially as drawn by Eric Hobsbawm in his classic Bandits (1969), can be dismissed as wishful thinking by those on the left. Pirates and thieves certainly, and often, showed loyalty to each other (hence the term ‘honour among thieves’), but as Anton Blok points out, they

‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’. [13]

Such people were not proletarian freedom fighters and neither are those who inhabit the Court of Miracles.

Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, and Little John (Stephen Basdeo collection)

The King of the Court of Miracles

Hugo did not fall into the trap of romanticizing the delinquents and criminals of the Court of Miracles. As the passage above makes clear, the people of the Court of Miracles are the worst of the worst, and it seems that gypsies are the dominant social group. Hugo based his characterisation of gipsy life upon remarks made by Daine’s Barrington to Gilbert White (quoted in the latter’s Antiquities of Selborne published towards the close of the eighteenth century). [14] The gypsies were said to have originally been ‘Egyptians’ who migrated out of that country and

…first attracted notice in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and within a few years afterwards, they had spread themselves all over the continent. The earliest mention which is made of them was in the years 1414 and 1417 when they were observed in Germany. In 1418 they were found in Switzerland; in 1422, Italy; and in 1427, they are mentioned as having been seen in the neighbourhood of Paris, and about the same time in Spain. In England they were not known till some time after. One remarkable part of their history is their continuing the same unsettled mode of life, and rigidly keeping apart from all other people. [15]

White referred to the gypsies in negative terms such as ‘hordes’ and their association with criminality—for White at least—was clear. In fact, through the eighteenth century there seems to have been a low moral panic over gypsies’ activities. Henry Fielding (1707–54), novelist, playwright, and Magistrate of Westminster, for example, published A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning, Who Hath Sworn that she was Robbed and Almost Starved to Death by a Gang of Gipsies and Other Villains in January Last, For Which One Mary Squires Now Lies Under Sentence of Death (1732) which, as the title implied, imputed hideous crimes to the ‘tribe’ of ‘Egyptians’.

Fielding’s pamphlet against gypsies (Law Book Exchange)

The limited suggestion in Notre Dame de Paris that the Court of Miracles might be egalitarian (differences only seemed to have been abolished) is dispelled when it is revealed that they are perfectly content with the existence of social hierarchies within their own for there exists a King of the Court of Miracles who keeps his court in a rickety tavern—it is to this tavern that Gringoire is dragged and brought before the king.

The existence of a king also reveals that what has been established in the dark and damp courts and alleyways of Parisian society is nothing less than a parallel state. The theme is also carried on in Hugo’s subsequent play La Esmeralda: An Opera (1836) in which beggars and truants are seen dancing around the makeshift throne of the King of Thune and vow to defy ‘Pope and Bull’ in ‘the place where we reign’. [16] Hence, the denizens of the underworld do not pay taxes or contribute to mainstream society for

…as a parasite, you won’t have to pay for street cleaning, the poor, or lighting, to which the burgesses of Paris are liable.’ [17]

The Court of Miracles is also a vengeful society. Gringoire is in King Clopin’s domain and, unwittingly, has broken the laws of the society into which he has ventured:

You have entered the kingdom of the argot without being an argotier, you have violated the privileges of our town. You must be punished, unless you’re a canter, a palliard, or a hooker or, in the jargon of the law-abiding, a thief, a beggar, or a vagabond …. You will be hanged. It’s quite simple, messieurs the burgesses of Paris! As you use our kind among you, so we use your kind among us. The law you apply to the truants, the truants apply to you. If it’s a vicious one, that’s your fault. [18]

This is one of the areas where the lyricists and composers of the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame perfectly captured the essence of the king’s attitude to outsiders when Clopin sings:

Maybe you’ve heard of a terrible place

Where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair

Maybe you’ve heard of that mythical place

Called the Court of Miracles

Hello, you’re there!

Where the lame can walk

And the blind can see

But the dead don’t talk

So you won’t be around to reveal what you’ve found! [19]

Henry Fielding’s History of Tom Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving away from Disney perhaps, for his novel, Hugo took his cue here from Fielding for, in the latter’s novel Tom Jones encounters the King of the Gypsies in one of the lonelier parts of Britain’s countryside and the Gypsy King tells Jones:

‘how the difference is between you and us. My people rob your people, and your people rob one anoder’. [20]

In Fielding’s novel, much as in Hugo’s, the gypsies treat members of mainstream society on a ‘tit for tat’ basis—they treat others how they are treated.

The Oath and the Test

Gringoire, in an attempt to save himself, tells them that while he is no thief, he is an outcast just like them: a penniless poet. Unfortunately for Gringoire, the court has no need of a poet—though there is a way in which he can save himself from the noose. He must agree to take the Truants’ Oath and become part of the Court of Miracles:

Do you admit you are a member of the parasites?’ The King of Thune continued.

‘Of the parasites’.

‘A subject of the kingdom of the argot?’

‘A truant?’

‘A truant.’

‘In your soul?’

‘In my soul’. [21]

Alternative criminal societies usually have some kind of oath which they make new members take, or at least this is an accepted fact in fictional portrayals of organised crime groups. As far back as the Middle English Gest of Robyn Hode (1495) the outlaws repeat their code of conduct at the beginning of the poem:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn

We shall do well ynough

But loke ye do no housbonde harm

That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman

That walketh by grene wode shawe

Ne no knyght ne no squyer

That wolde be a good felawe. [22]

Of the modern Sicilian Mafia’s oath Tyler Welch states that

No one can leave the mafia because they have to go through an initiation ritual that includes an interrogation, a blood oath to never betray the family, and holding a burning piece of paper. Anyone of the members can move up in the chain of command if they work hard enough because it was a democratic system with an election based on the other family members. To keep track of all these criminals there has to be something to keep them in check. That one thing is honor. A member of the mafia has honor if he always puts the family first and abides by the mafia rules … There is one sacred term that every member of the mafia must follow and that term is Omerta. That word signifies a code of silence which forbids mafia speaking about the group to non-members, which in practice is a prohibition upon speaking to the police. [23]

Yet before Gringoire can be fully initiated into the society of thieves and reprobates that constitute the Court of Miracles, his skills in pickpocketing will be tested. It is by no means an easy test—a dummy, to which is attached numerous bells, is hangs from a gibbet and it is Gringoire’s job to successfully pick the dummy’s pocket without setting any of them ringing. To make the task that little bit harder, Gringoire can only reach up to the dummy by standing on a very rickety stool… If he sets off the bells, Gringoire will be hanged.

Gringoire’s test (Stephen Basdeo Collection)

Predictably, Gringoire fails. His foot slips on the stool and he crashes into the dummy setting off all the bells. The gypsies pick Gringoire off the floor and drag him to the gibbet. He is about to be hanged when the king suddenly remembers an ancient gypsy law: If a woman in the crowd is willing to marry the condemned, then he will be saved. This

There seems to be no one in the audience who wants to marry poor Gringoire—not even the old fat ugly spinsters. Yet suddenly—a glimmer of hope. The good, pure Esmeralda who, despite living among the vagabonds and truants has remained pure at heart, steps forth and agrees to marry Gringoire (though she refuses afterwards to consummate the marriage and thereby retains her purity).

Gringoire is saved! (Stephen Basdeo collection)


Richard Maxwell said:

‘The great English imitator of Hugo … was G. M. Reynolds, who, after much immersion in French fiction-he published an enthusiastic book on the subject-put pen to paper and brought forth The Mysteries of London’. [24]

Reynolds, who translated many of Hugo’s poems and was a big admirer of him, did indeed create his own underworld in The Mysteries of London (1844–48) to resemble the gypsy-led Court of Miracles. There are indeed many organised crime groups in Reynolds’s London. The Resurrection Man and his gang will do all kinds of foul deeds for an appropriate fee. But one of the most fearsome groups, who it is suggested have a big hand in controlling all crime in London, is the tribe of Zingarees from the land of Egypt (gypsies).

George W.M. Reynolds (Stephen Basdeo collection)

The area in which they live is not a ‘court of miracles’ but is instead named ‘The Holy Land’:

There poverty hides its head through shame, and crime lurks concealed through fear;—there every thing that is squalid, hideous, debauched, and immoral, makes its dwelling;—there woman is as far removed from the angel as Satan is from the Godhead, and man is as closely allied to the brute as the idiot is to the baboon;—there days are spent in idleness, and nights in dissipation;—there no refinement of habit or of speech is known, but male and female alike wallow in obscene debauchery and filthy ideas;—there garments are patched with pieces of various dyes, and language is disfigured with words of a revolting slang;—there the natural ruffianism and brutal instincts of the human heart are unrepressed by social ties or conventional decencies;—there infamy is no disgrace, crime no reproach, vice no stain. [25]

Hugo’s influence in unmistakeable. Reynolds’s gypsies are a separate society with their own laws and way of life, who pass unnoticed in the courts and alleys of London society as one of their traditional songs demonstrates:

Oh! who is so blythe, and happy, and free

As the ever-wandering Zingaree?

‘Tis his at his own wild will to roam;

And in each fair scene does he find a home,—

Does he find a home!

The sunny slope, or the shady grove,

Where nightingales sing and lovers rove;

The fields where the golden harvests wave,

And the verdant bank which the streamlets lave,

Are by turns his home.

The busy town with its selfish crowd,

The city where dwell the great and proud,

The haunts of the mighty multitude,

Where the strong are raised and the weak subdued,

Are to him no home.

Oh! ever happy—and ever free,

Who is so blest as the Zingaree?—

Where nature puts on her gayest vest,

Where flowers are sweetest and fruits are best,

Oh! there is his home.

And they have their own form of justice for any who breaks their laws: They bury the malefactors alive. The exposure of criminality in all its forms and among all classes was Reynolds’s ‘drawing the veil partially aside from the mighty panorama of grandeur and misery which it is our task to display’ and initiating the readers into the knowledge of THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.


[1] Stephen Basdeo and Luiz Guerra, ‘Juana Manso’s “Misterios del Plata” and a Global Mysteries Tradition’, Victorian Popular Fictions, 4: 2 (2022), 121–35 (123–24).

[2] Stephen Knight, Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson, NC: Macfarland, 2012), 184.

[3] Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, Trans. John Sturrock, rev. ed. (London: Penguin, 2018), 7.

[4] William Watton, Paris from the earliest period to the present day(Philadelphia: G.M. Barrie and Sons, 1899), 230–36.

[5] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 79.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Heather Shore, ‘Undiscovered Country: Towards a History of the Criminal ‘Underworld’, Crimes and Misdemeanours, 1: 1 (2007), 41-68 (43)

[8] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 79–80.

[9] Bianca Tredennick, Victorian Transformations: Genre, Nationalism and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Literature (London: Routledge, 2011), 21.

[10] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 80.

[11] David B. Morris [online], ‘Pirate Utopias: Under the Banner of King Death’, accessed 14 September 2023, available at:

[12] Ibid.

[13] A. Blok, Honour and Violence (London: Polity, 2000), 16.

[14] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 91.

[15] Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. by T. B. Browne (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875), 186–87.

[16] Victor Hugo, Dramas: Mary Tudor, Ruy Blas, Torquemada, Esmeralda, 4 vols (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, c.1890), II, 427, 431.

[17] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 87.

[18] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 84.

[19] The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney, 1996)

[20] Henry Fielding, ‘The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling’, in The Works of Henry Fielding, ed. by David Herbert (Edniburgh: W.P. Nimmo, 1875), Book 12, ch. 12 (p. 370).

[21] Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 87.

[22] Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘The Outlaws’ Code’, Reynolds’s News and Miscellany, 24 December 2014.

[23] Tyler Welch [online], ‘Organized Crime’, Reynolds’s News and Miscellany, 28 April 2018.

[24] Richard C. Maxwell, ‘G. M. Reynolds, Dickens, and the Mysteries of London’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32: 2 (1977), 188–213 (190).

[25] George W.M. Reynolds [online], The Mysteries of London (London: G. Vickers, 1844–48).

Categories: 19th Century, literature, Medievalism, novels, Victor Hugo

Tagged as: Court of Miracles, Criminal underworld, France, French Literature, George W M Reynolds, Hunchback of Notre Dame, literature, Medievalism, mysteries of london, Notre Dame de Paris, Novels, Paris, Stephen Basdeo, Victor Hugo