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Notre Dame de Paris was never the preferred cathedral of kings. French monarchs avoided it, preferring to be crowned at Reims, about 80 miles northeast of Paris, and buried at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which is now a Parisian suburb.
Notre Dame was instead the cathedral of ordinary Parisians. Since the Middle Ages, it’s been the backdrop against which the city’s inhabitants have lived their lives. The building, which stands on a small island in the Seine River, was a constant amid the upheaval of the French Revolution and the terrors of the Nazi occupation. As one 14th century scholar wrote, the cathedral was “like the sun among stars.”
It’s why the fire which engulfed Notre Dame Monday felt so devastating for Parisians — it meant watching one of the great symbols of their city come so near to utter destruction. As a historian of medieval France, I too found myself getting emotional. I couldn’t stop watching my computer as the building collapsed into flames likely caused by restoration work.
The people’s cathedral
In a sense, Paris and its cathedral came of age together. There’s been a church on the site now occupied by Notre Dame since at least the sixth century. In 1163, Bishop Maurice de Sully launched an ambitious project to build a new cathedral for the city’s growing population. It was constructed in the style we’ve since come to know as Gothic, characterized by an emphasis on height, light, and color. This opulence represented the growing confidence, population, and prosperity of northern French cities during this time.
Yet Notre Dame is a memorial not only to the power of bishops, but to the back-breaking work and quiet ingenuity of craftspeople whose names are now largely forgotten. Think of the tremendous logistical effort that would be needed, even today, to identify the 1,300 old-growth oaks (that’s more than 50 acres’ worth of trees) needed to hold up the cathedral’s massive roof.
Now imagine the effort needed to find, cut down, and transport those trees in an age when horsepower was a very literal measurement. Laborers cut and hauled stone to the site, mixed mortar, forged iron, and carved wood. The very island on which Notre Dame sits had to be enlarged to make room for the vast new church by workers who drove piles into the river bed and moved mounds of rubble.
Every time I have visited Notre Dame and looked up at its facade, one thing has struck me: the amount of faith and civic pride needed for so many to work on a project that they’d never see completed in their lifetime. They worked to eat, of course, but for many of the laborers on the site, their real reward was spiritual. An inscription left in 1258 by Jean de Chelles, one of many master masons who worked on Notre Dame, reflects this: He “commenced this work for the Glory of the Mother of Christ.”
For centuries, the cathedral has been a tourist draw, a meeting spot, a place of refuge in times of crisis. It fostered both the beginnings of the University of Paris and, quite literally, the city’s abandoned children in the orphan home it ran. Ordinary Parisians went to the cathedral to hear Mass, to light candles during solitary prayer, and to bear witness to baptisms, marriages, and funerals. In a largely preliterate age, Notre Dame’s sculptures and paintings were sources of religious education. Right to the present, they’ve provided spiritual comfort to countless people.
Notre Dame has always survived destruction
Great churches have always suffered destruction. But so many have been rebuilt too. Reims Cathedral in the north of France caught fire during the First World War and the Frauenkirche in Munich was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. It took decades of work, but both have been reconstructed.
Notre Dame has its own track record of resilience. Much of its exterior sculpture was destroyed during the French Revolution, while almost all of its bells were melted down to make cannons. For a time, it served as a food warehouse. Yet Paris’s cathedral recovered to witness the beatification of national heroine Joan of Arc in 1909, and the celebratory Mass which was sung to celebrate the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944.
Monday’s fire was not the first and won’t be the last destructive force to batter Notre Dame. French President Emmanuel Macron has promised that the cathedral will be rebuilt. We don’t yet know what form that reconstruction will take, but there are some things that are certain: It won’t replace what was lost, particularly those magnificent wooden roof structure affectionately known to historians as “the forest.” That was the largely anonymous work of generations past.
But whatever is built will be a symbol of resilience. And it will be proof that now, just as in 1163, it is people who make a cathedral.
Yvonne Seale is an assistant professor of history at SUNY Geneseo, where she teaches courses in medieval and digital history. Her research focuses on the involvement of women with the development of religious institutions in medieval France. Find her on Twitter at @yvonneseale.
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