On Monday, April 15, and Tuesday, April 16, the world watched in horror as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris was transformed into a matchbox filled with fire. “Watching the spire on fire fall in real time is something that, as a medieval art historian, I could barely stomach,” Dr. Emily Guerry Sr. Lecturer in Medieval European History at the University of Kent told an American news reporter.¹ We can all share Professor Guerry’s shock and anguish, but Notre Dame isn’t meaningful only for Medievalists. In fact, it is arguably not only a medieval edifice—it’s also a modern one.
Built in the 13th century, Notre Dame was updated, renovated, restored, and vandalized throughout the ages that followed. It’s difficult to tell what proved more destructive: the loving modernizations it underwent early in the 18th century or the destruction wreaked upon it by French Revolutionaries during the 1790s. They planned to turn it into a “Temple of Reason.”
There’s something exciting about that notion. The main building of the University of Pittsburgh, on the National Register of Historic Places is such a structure. In 1926, construction started on this pseudo-Gothic tower known as the “Cathedral of Learning.” Up close, its stained-glass windows depict different fields of modern scholarly inquiry, and it’s an inspiring place for anyone who feels that Enlightenment values need some Medieval illumination. However, the Cathedral of Learning was built from scratch—not upon the ruins of an older and more magnificent cathedral.
Luckily for Notre Dame de Paris, completing the Temple of Reason was low on the list of priorities for the Republic’s new government. In 1801, Napoleon’s Concordat returned the cathedral to the Catholic Church, but its problems didn’t end there. After Napoleon’s coronation there in 1804, Notre Dame was largely forgotten by everyone with the power and money necessary to restore it to its ancien regime glory—until Victor Hugo came along.
In 1831, this young poet and playwright published a revolutionary novel: the historical romance Notre-Dame de Paris. The story of the fifteen-year-old gypsy courtyard-dancer La Esmeralda, the various men who coveted her, and the birth of the modern world from the medieval one. Notre-Dame de Paris was an instant success. Part of its appeal lay in Hugo’s ability to make the architecture of the cathedral come to life, and to make readers lucky enough to visit Paris see in the actual cathedral events that never happened. Beginning in 1831, Notre Dame became Quasimodo’s home, Esmeralda’s sanctuary, the place from which the Archdeacon Claude Frollo took a horrified, prophetic glimpse at the age of the printed book, and, finally, the labyrinth that conceals Quasimodo and Esmeralda’s mingled skeletal remains.
Wrapped up in Notre-Dame de Paris like a relic in a cathedral was an electrifying essay: “Ceci Tuera Cela” (“This Will Kill That”). Technically, it was a chapter of the novel, but it read, like many of the disquisitions in Hugo’s novels, like a manifesto shoehorned into the plot. The book—the printing press, actually—will kill the cathedral, Hugo’s Frollo realized. “All civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy. This law of liberty following unity is written in architecture.”
According to Hugo, religious societies expressed themselves in architecture. The cathedral exercised the “genius” of the medieval poet, provided he had the wisdom to choose architecture as his mode of expression. There were successful word-poets too, Hugo admitted, mentioning Dante, but he assumed they were the exception. Architectural poetry was the rule.
It even facilitated subversive art. In the art of Notre Dame, Hugo saw “a bacchanalian monk, with ass’s ears and glass in hand, laughing in the face of a whole community, as on the lavatory of the Abbey of Bocherville,” for “there exists at that epoch, for thought written in stone, a privilege exactly comparable to our present liberty of the press.”
The printing press would kill the cathedral because:
The invention of printing was the greatest event in history. It was the mother of revolution. It was the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it was human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it was the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.
Hugo made the invention of printing seem not only revolutionary but populist, and in his time, it was easy to see why: literacy was growing, and serial fiction—of which his friend Alexandre Dumas was a defining master—brought printed stories to multitudes who could not afford books, nor the time to binge-read them.
The people who read Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831, however, didn’t kill the cathedral. Instead, they saved it. Hugo’s novel energized a generation of modern French citizens to understand Notre Dame as the symbol of their city and nation. The public demanded its restoration, and they got their wish. A young architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, led the effort, which formally began in 1843. Viollet-le-Duc’s contributions included the addition of a spire, to replace the medieval spire that had long since vanished. That was the spire that fell this past Tuesday.
Between Viollet-le-Duc’s time and our own, Notre Dame has undergone many more reinventions, as generations of artists from around the world translated Hugo’s novel into new languages and media. In England, Romantic poet and radical essayist William Hazlitt was among the many 19th-century writers who translated it into English. Thereafter, the novel—sometimes titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame—indelibly influenced the 19th-century novel as a seminal example of the urban Gothic mode. Whereas 18th-century British Gothic’s fearsome spaces were the castles and dungeons of exotic continental countries, Victorian urban Gothic explored the metropolis as labyrinth—particularly London and Paris.
On Wednesday morning, April 16, several memes and one French political cartoon depicted the spirit of Notre Dame as Disney’s rendering of Quasimodo, but the adaptation that speaks to me is a Quebecois rock opera: Luc Plamondon (lyricist) and Riccardo Cocciante (composer)’s Notre-Dame de Paris. In the opening song of this 1990s international hit, the cathedral defies time, with gargoyles floating up toward levitating I-beams. “We are the artists of the time, we dream in sculpture; dream in rhyme,” sings Hugo’s narratorial character, Pierre Gringoire. “For you we bring our world alive, so something will survive.”²
That’s what Notre Dame—the building and the book—have always done, and now, thanks in great measure to the Parisian firefighters, will go on doing.
¹Emily Guerry, quoted in Haley Ott, “Why an Expert Says it Could Take 40 Years to Rebuild Notre Dame.” CBS News. 11:35 a.m. www.msn.com 4/16/2019. [4/16/2019]
²If you would like to listen to the opening song of the Quebequois rock opera, “Les Temps de Cathédrales” (“The Age of the Cathedrals”), sung by Bruno Pelletier—who originated the role of Pierre Gringoire in Notre-Dame de Paris—in both English and French, click here for the English version, and click here for the French version.