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Originally a hamlet within the independent commune (municipality) of Belleville, Ménilmontant was, like other suburban communes surrounding the French capital, absorbed into the city of Paris in 1860. The name is said to derive from Mesnil Mautemps, meaning "bad weather house". By the 16th century mautemps had been corrupted into montant (meaning "climbing"), probably owing to its situation on a hill overlooking Paris.
The area also served as the location of a retreat, established by the Saint-Simonian theorist Enfantin and forty followers. Before its 1860 absorption into Paris, Ménilmontant lay beyond the capital's tax border (octroi), so that wine was cheaper there, leading to the development of numerous drinking establishments, known as guinguettes, in the 18th century. It has long been a predominantly working-class neighborhood, and in the early 1830s became notorious for the commune established there by the Saint-Simonians before being banned by the authorities.