Rue du Petit Musc, Quid? {Scented Thoughts} {Fragrances of Paris}

Plan médiéval Paris.jpg

The other day, I posted a picture of a street in Paris, located in the IVth arrondissement, which is called "Rue du Petit Musc" - literally reads as "street of the little musk" - thinking that I should double-check its meaning and learn more about the history of that street. I have found a couple of books which will offer more complete information, but for right now I was already able to determine that the word "musc" here does not make reference to "musk", but to a history of illicit pleasures in the city......

If that street smelled of musk in the middle ages, it was of human musk. Indeed, "Musc" really derives from Ancient French "muche" which meant a hiding place, a hideout. It is said that every self-respecting French city had such a street that was called "rue du petit musc", not because people were crazy about this odoriferous substance, quoique....but because sex workers were in high demand. At that time a common word for whore was "pute", a variation of "putain" and "petit musc" is an alteration of the expression "pute-y-musse" meaning something a little more matter of fact than what your feverish imagination might gather, that is, simply a street that hid whores, in other words a red lights district contained within a street.

"Musc" also means "musk" in (modern) French, but it has a completely different etymology as it comes from Latin "muschus", which itself comes from Greek moschos, which comes from Persian musk, which itself might come either from Sanskrit "muska" or Iranian *muska, both meaning "testicle".

Somehow, we ended up talking about sexuality when looking at different etymologies for "musc" in French. They both evoke musky smells, and this is pure coincidence, except of course for the reference to testicles. Of course, it is possible that somehow, simultaneously in different French cities the alteration occurred because "musc" was a popular substance and it made for a natural association with the olfactory identity of such a street. So la Rue du Petit Musc must have wafted some pretty strong perfumes and aromas in the past. Today, it is an inconspicuous narrow street located not far from la bibiliothèque de l'Arsenal, which is just a tad darker, austere, and more discreet than other neighboring streets. Not much sunshine goes into it, and this might have been one of the reasons why it constituted a good hiding place as well as a more affordable place to be invested by a congregation of whores.

I adore Paris and I love to imagine the effluvia that historically wafted through it.

(Sources:, medieval map of Paris from

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. When I was 18 (1973) I lived for some time at number33 laRue du Petit Musc at the home of Mr & Mrs Foque.Their son Olivier said at that time that the name referred to ladies of the night and at that time (1970's) La Rue Des Tournelles (on the other side of Rue Saint Antoine) was busy with 'Les Putes' right throughout the day.

    Paul McColgan
    • Thank you for this oral-history note. It makes the whole scene come more alive :)

      Chant Wagner
  2. I live at #25 right now! I'm so happy to have stumbled upon this tidbit. Thanks!


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