Ph.D candidate Gary Girod tells Notre Dame’s fascinating history from the first stones laid for the Roman temple to Jupiter, up until present and explains why there’s hope for a complete restoration after the April 15, 2019 fire.
Hello everyone. For those of you who have just discovered this podcast, my name is Gary Girod, and I am a historian of modern France currently completing my Ph.D at the University of Houston. This podcast is meant to trace French history from 3 million years ago to present. As I record this it is April 16, the day after Notre Dame de Paris caught fire. While most websites and social media shared images of the cathedral burning and doomsday reports about how everything would be lost and the whole cathedral would burn to the ground I shared words of encouragement. Rather than sharing pictures of Notre Dame burning, I shared images of it in its full glory, and made a number of posts one of which said “I know many of you are crying for Notre-Dame de Paris, but remember she is resilient. Notre-Dame de Paris survived when Prussia bombed Paris with artillery. She survived Two World Wars. If you think one fire will destroy her, then you don’t know Notre-Dame de Paris,” that as of today was shared to roughly 3 million people on Twitter, and another post announcing that the cathedral was saved that was shared to 2 million people on Facebook so far. I understand that yesterday was an emotional time for many people; I know I was too. But my emotions were tempered by my knowledge of its history, and that Notre Dame had survived, inspired and brought people together for 850 years, and that it wasn’t going to go down so easily. While yesterday I tried to share a message of hope, today I would like to tell you about the Cathedral’s long history and what it has meant to France, Europe and the world as a whole. It is a truly incredible story and I hope you enjoy. If you want to lear
Our story begins in the 1st century BC just before Julius Caesar invaded Gaul, that country which would be become France. The Parisii tribe inhabited the area and would use the Ile for security. When Rome conquered this area they founded a city named Lutecia. (Mention Arenes des Luteces in Paris). Then they made a temple to the all-father Jupiter, known as Zeus in Greek mythology, to protect the city.
Christianity came relatively late to Roman Gaul, as it was on the other side of the Mediterranean from Jerusalem and the early teachings of the apostles. Christianity remained a persecuted religion until Constantine the Great in the early fourth century, and Christians who were too open about their faith could be targeted. Despite this there was a sizeable Christian population by the mid-200s.
Lutetia was large enough to have it’s own bishophric, and around 250 a man named Denis became the first bishop. He preached the Gospels too openly for the Romans though and was beheaded. According to Catholic canon he picked up his own head and walked for miles preaching the Bible. Regardless of whether that part is true, St. Denis is probably the most famous cephalophore in history, a cephalophore being one who carries his own head, and today if you go to Notre-Dame de Paris you can see a statue of Saint Denis carrying his own head in his hands, and yes to those of you who are wondering it, along with most if not all statues survived the fire. Whether or not you can see it during the restoration work I don’t know, but after a few years when Notre Dame de Paris is opened up again, be sure to look for a Saint carrying his own head. However, if you do have a vacation planned in Paris and are bummed out about Notre Dame de Paris being closed, there is another fantastic option related to our cephalophoric saint! Just north of Paris itself, accessible by the light blue metro line, is the Basilica of Saint Denis. In many ways the Basilica of Saint Denis is the ‘Westminster Abbey’ to Notre Dame de Paris’ Saint Paul, in that the Basilica of Saint Denis has an absolute treasure trove of historical objects, and is the burial place of most of France’s historical kings, going all the way back to Clovis I, who died in 511! It also houses Charles Martel, who won the famous Battle of Tours against the Moorish invaders in 732, Phillip Augustus, who warred with the papacy and made France a powerful kingdom in the late 12th to early 13th century, Catherine de Medici, the queen ruler of France in the 16th century who was famous for her army of spies, Louis XIV the Sun King who built Versailles, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette and almost every royal figure you can think of. Seriously when I went there in 2011 I was one of maybe 4 people in the whole Cathedral, I cannot believe it isn’t more visited. You can literally see Louis XVII’s heart in a jar, it doesn’t get much better than that. But anyway, enough about my tourist recommendations, this isn’t an episode on the Basilica of Saint Denis, this is about Notre Dame de Paris.
-Anyway, I just told you about how Saint Denis was beheaded for preaching the gospel. According to Catholic tradition, in 375 there was a church on the Ile dedicated to Saint Stephen, and which was completed in 528. At some point the Ile was attacked by the Normans, but the church was successfully defended by Bishop Gozlin, who died in the fighting. Bear in mind that in the early medieval period priests had both religious and secular functions, and so Bishop Gozlin was probably one of the city’s political leaders. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages it wasn’t unheard of to see priests riding into battle as this was a precarious time and they were not as of yet committed to nonviolence.
-Half a millenia passed and the church of Saint Stephen fell into a state of disrepair. In 1163 Pope Alexander III commissioned a new cathedral to be built on the site, which would become Notre Dame de Paris. Building was remarkably fast for a cathedral. In 1185 the Patriarch of Jerusalem Heraclius of Caesara, announced the Third Crusade which saw Richard the Lionheart successfully repulse Saladin, at least for a while.
By all accounts the building of the church wasn’t a purely holy affair. As mentioned before the Middle Ages was a period where secular rulers competed with religious ones for power. This period saw the great wars between the Holy Roman Emperors and the popes. As such, the building of Notre Dame de Paris was in part an attempt by the church to claim the hearts and minds of Paris against the rising power of the French monarchs.
Cathedrals take a long time to build and Notre Dame is no exception despite rapid early work. The reason why they take so long, aside from just being massive, is that each generation wants to add to the work. What began in 1163 took until 1345 to finish, or 178 years. The cathedral became a shining example of Gothic architecture. In the Roman period and early medieval period, Christian houses of worship were built in the Romanesque style. The main difference between the two, is that Romanesque basilicas had round arches while Gothic Cathedrals had pointed arches. The purpose of this was to create a high ceiling, which allowed for stained glass windows. The effect of the vast open space combined with stained glass was to create an otherworldly experience for those who entered. By all accounts this was quite effective, as some theologians argued that when the sun shone through the stained glass the presence of God manifested within the cathedrals. The reason why these churches were called ‘Gothic’ is because Italians detested the outer structures. Since Italians were used to bright brick buildings with curves, these massive stone monoliths covered in sometimes frightening statues, were seen as barbaric, thus the Italians labelled them ‘Gothic’ after the barbarian hordes that brought down the Roman Empire.
And on the note, I think it’s worth pointing out a small piece of trivia related to those statues. It is a common misnomer to call the statues carved into the walls of the cathedrals ‘gargoyles.’ They are actually called ‘grotesques.’ The earliest statues were originally made to look horrifying as a means of driving away evil. The only ‘gargoyles’ in churches are those on the roofs with open mouths. ‘Gargoyle’ has the word ‘garg’ in it, which is Latin for throat, and a gargoyle is a grotesque that is hollow inside and used for draining rainwater.
The Gothic style was pioneered in the Ile de France region, and Notre Dame de Paris was one of the last great Gothic cathedrals created during the 12-14th centuries and helped popularize the Gothic style, which became the most popular style in Christian Europe, and even spread to the Americas. And yes, even Italy eventually came around, and is why Milan has one of the largest cathedrals in the world, the Duomo, although even to this day many Italians bemoan its outward ugliness. Because some things never change.
During the 13th century Notre Dame set fire. According to sources, four thieves climbed the nearby trees, entered through the roof and tried to literally lasso the silver candlesticks on the altar. Rather than lassoing up the candlesticks, this had the very predictable effect of tipping the candles over, and the choir was burned down. Despite this, the choir was rapidly rebuilt and this event allowed the community to come together for the restoration work, as they sought to rebuild what they viewed as their own place of worship, and Notre Dame was quickly restored and by all accounts exceeded its former glory. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.
Shortly after the fire, Notre Dame de Paris received what is perhaps the holiest relic in all of Christianity: the Crown of Thornes. As you may recall from Sunday school, the Gospels note that when Jesus was placed upon the cross, the Romans decided to mock him for being the supposed ‘King of the Jews’ and bent a tangle of thorns together into a makeshift crown which they placed on his head. This later became holy for a number of reasons. First, it represented Christ’s suffering on the cross and was the most visible symbol of that suffering aside from the cross itself. Second, because it pierced his head, it was stained with his blood. In 1238, Baldwin the II was the head of the Latin Empire, a successor to the crumbling Byzantine Empire, which centered around Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. The Byzantine Empire was consistently attacked by migrating Goths, Germans and Slavs in the west and by Muslims in the east, most notably the Turks, who would eventually conquer all of Anatolia. In a desperate bid to gain aid from the Western powers, Baldwin II offered the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX, thereafter known as Saint Louis, for obvious reasons. At the time, Louis IX was overseeing the construction of Saint Chappelle, which is a small chapel which if you haven’t been, you really should…whenever it is open to the public again. Imagine being in a chapel but nearly the entire walls are the purest stained-glass windows in the world, so that the entire place is bathed in a transcendent light. When Saint Chappelle was finished in 1248 Louis IX deposited the Crown of Thornes inside.
During the Hundred Years War, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, Notre Dame was a symbol of power that English and French kings used to get the people of France on their side. In sometime after the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V of England held a mass there, in 1431 his son Henry VI was crowned king inside Notre Dame. When the English were expelled from France, Charles VII of France held celebrations in the cathedral to legitimize his reign.
In 1455 Joan of Arc’s mother went to Notre Dame and appealed to a papal delegation to overturn the accusations of heresy that saw her burned at the stake. The delegation agreed with her, and Joan of Arc was made a martyr for her work in leading the French people to victory against the English. It wasn’t until 1920 that Joan was declared a saint, and has since been one of the two patron saints of France, alongside Saint Denis, and she has a famous statue in the cathedral.
The early modern period saw Notre Dame come under attack symbolically and literally due to divisions within Christianity across Europe. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the wall of the University of Wittenburg, challenging the church’s practice of selling indulgences. During the Renaissance, the papacy gained a reputation for corruption which reached a high point under Alexander VI, formerly known as Rodrigo de Borgias, of which there have been a number of salacious films and television programs about, my favorite guilty pleasure being the one that stars Jeremy Irons. During the early 16th century the Catholic church was selling what were known as indulgences; basically if a good faithful Christian died it was Catholic dogma that the soul would go to purgatory for potentially millions of years until they had been cleansed of sin and could be admitted into heaven. Indulgences were essentially Disney fast passes as they allowed deceased Christians to skip the line and go directly into heaven. Martin Luther viewed this as antithetical to Christian dogma and that the Catholic Church had become corrupted and materialistic. While Martin Luther didn’t originally plan on splitting the church, events took a course of their own and soon Europe was split between Catholics and Protestants. There were many different sects of Protestantism but the overarching belief was a rejection of intermediaries between God and individuals. Protestants believed that priests, while useful, were not necessary for salvation. Confession, absolving of sins, none of this was necessary as Protestants believed that one’s acceptance of the Gospel message was the true determinant of salvation. This schism divided Europe and caused widespread violence between and within nations. In 1548, a group of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, attacked Notre Dame, destroying many of the grotesques, which they viewed as idolatrous.
The latter 16th century was dominated by the French Wars of Religion as Catholics and Protestants waged a bloody and often merciless fight against each other. This divide tied into politics as noble French houses would either convert to Protestantism to develop political alliances with other Protestants, or would remain Catholic to develop their own political ties. In the middle of this, was the French monarchy, which tried to keep its head above water as the country was tearing itself apart. What made this even more complex was that the powerful King Henry of Navarre who would become King Henry IV of France converted to Protestantism, which led to multiple assassination attempts as Catholics did not want a Protestant ruler. On August 18 1572, Henry was married to Margaret of Valois, though symbolically he was married outside of the church, due to his Protestant beliefs. His honeymoon was short-lived as on the 24th was the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which saw thousands of Protestants killed in coordinated attacks that were rumored to have been organized by Catherine de Medici to protect her own son King Charles IX from being supplanted by Henry. Religion and politics; it’s complicated stuff and a whole lot of people got killed.
By 1593 France was tired of the constant fighting and destruction caused by the wars of religion. Henry IV had consolidated his power and conquered much of France, but he still needed to get the capital on his side. On 25 July he rode to Paris and supposedly said Paris vaut bien une messe, or “Paris is worth a mass.” He converted to Catholicism, though in 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes which espoused tolerance for Protestants, and largely calmed tensions within France.
In the early 1700s Louis XIV, known as the Sun King for his incredible wealth, power, and his domination of Europe from his palace at Versailles, wanted to cement his legacy in France by adding a new altar to Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Louis XIV fought so many expensive wars that building took a long time and when it was finished did quite a bit of damage to the cathedral due to its shoddy workmanship.
In 1789 the French Revolution came and toppled much of the existing French order. The First Estate of the clergy was abolished along with the Second Estate of the nobility as the Third Estate, the masses assumed control. Since the Middle Ages this three-part society between those who pray, those who fight and those who work, had dominated society, but the Revolution brought an end to it as the masses sought to free themselves from aristocratic rule. The middle-class lawyers who dominated the French Revolution were largely influenced by Enlightenment works which were enormously critical of religion, particularly Catholicism. Famous French philosopher Denis Diderot, who made the original encyclopedia once said that man shall not be free until the last king is hanged with the entrails of the last priest. Even Enlightenment thinkers who believed God might exist, such as Voltaire, were critical of religious institutions. During the early years of the French Revolution, the new national government seized all church property which it planned to sell off in order to pay off the debt accumulated from Louis XIV’s wars. Then on November 10 1793, a law was passed ordering priests to renounce their faith. In place of Catholicism, which was banned in 1792, the national government proposed a ‘Religion of Reason;’ you’ll often find it the ‘cult’ of reason, but in French ‘cult’ can refer to a religion as well. Notre-Dame became one of the many cathedrals transformed into a Temple of Reason and on November 10, 1793 the largest of the state-sponsored ‘Festivals of Reason’ took place. The altar was symbolically dismantled and replaced with an altar to Liberty. The Catholic candles were removed and a single flame representing truth burned on the altar, and women dressed in Roman robes impersonated the goddess of reason. Finally, the words ‘To Philosophy’ was carved over the entrance door. Much of the gold and silver ornamentation was seized, and according to some sources not by the state but by drunken revelers.
As the Revolutionaries wanted to make Notre Dame de Paris the center of a new Religion of Reason they removed Notre Dame’s spire. Next, they chiseled off the heads of the statues of Kings on the grotesques outside the cathedral, as they wanted to symbolically behead monarchy. Finally, the statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced with one dedicated to Lady Liberty. The Religion of Reason didn’t catch on, so Notre Dame was turned into a storage house in 1794. In 1795 as conservatives took over the Revolution, Catholicism was unbanned and Notre Dame resumed Catholic services. To this day, Notre Dame remains the property of the French state, not the Catholic Church, though it allows the Catholic Church to manage the building.
Notre Dame de Paris was in bad shape during the French Revolution. In a manner that was symbolic of France herself, it was battered, much of its ornamentation destroyed. But its fortunes changed with the rise of Napoleon. In 1800, Napoleon seized power and turned France’s first republic into the First French Empire, winning a number of stunning victories that would culminate in him controlling most of Europe outside of Britain and Russia. It’s unclear if Napoleon himself was religious but he understood the need for pageantry. On 2 December 1804, Napoleon held a ceremony in Notre Dame de Paris to crown himself Emperor of France. Notably, he had the Pope present him with the crown, but before the Pope could place the crown on his head, as was tradition, Napoleon took the crown and crowned himself, symbolically showing that he did not rule by divine right or religious approval but by his own work.
The fall of Napoleon and the French Empire meant a fall for France’s prestige, wealth and glory. Notre Dame was still used by the kings of the 19th century but it was quickly falling apart due to violence against it over the past few centuries, poor construction efforts and lack of restorative work. Its fortunes then turned around when author Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ The book became a global best-seller in 1831 and then-king Louis Phillippe ordered renovations for the cathedral. The book and the restorative work made Notre Dame a symbol of Paris, perhaps it’s most well-known symbol until the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame de Paris became again the center of French religious activity, and housed its largest festivals and celebrations. However, while the restorative work was largely a success, it was done so quickly that it ended up causing damage to the Cathedral, which would have to be corrected in the late 20th century. Most notably, the spire, which had been destroyed during the Revolution, was replaced by a larger one.
The next hundred years was a tumultuous one for France, its capital, and Notre Dame. In 1870, Emperor Napoleon III made the disastrous decision to launch a war against Prussia, perfectly falling into Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck’s trap. Bismarck assembled the German states to war against France and won a crushing victory. From 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871 Prussian attacked the city, including using heavy artillery to blast the buildings apart so the Germans didn’t have to engage in street fighting. Despite heavy shelling, Notre Dame was undamaged. In World War I Paris was threatened again as German airplanes and zeppelins dropped bombs over Paris, though the flying balloons were easy to pop, so the Germans quickly stopped using them. On 12, October 1914 an airplane dropped four bombs around the Cathedral, one of which landed on the roof and lighted…but then failed to explode. Another bomb landed outside the Bishop’s house though this too failed to explode, because apparently bombs were pretty unreliable back then.
In World War II the Nazis conquered France though they largely respected the historic buildings as they wanted to use them for their own means. When the combined American, British, Canadian and Polish troops launched the D-Day assault and took over northern France Germany planned a retreat. It was then that the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler ordered that every major historic building be destroyed before the German armies retreated. No building was exempt from his order, including the Eiffel Tower and ostensibly Notre Dame. As a side note, this order went out to all retreating Germans, and even famous German landmarks were ordered to be destroyed so as not to fall into Allied hands, the most famous of which was the Neuschwanstein Castle, that wonder in southern Germany that later inspired the Disney Castle. And yes, between Neuschwanstein and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, this episode sure has a lot of Disney in it. Despite the Fuhrer’s order, this was almost universally ignored by German troops for a number of reasons. (1) Many of them admired and appreciated these works of art and refused to destroy them. (2) They were worried that if they destroyed these, then the Allies would view them as barbarians and treat them more harshly. (3) They didn’t want to waste explosive materials on buildings and leave themselves with nothing to fight against the massive armies closing in on them. Because of this, the Wehrmacht ignored Hitler’s orders and the only damage the cathedral experienced was a few strikes from bullets on the walls and some broken windows, which were repaired later. On 25 August 1944, Paris was liberated by a combined French and American force under Charles de Gaulle and Raymond Barton, respectively. On 26 August military parades were held throughout Paris which culminated in a mass at Notre Dame de Paris, symbolizing the healing of France as a nation. With Charles de Gaulle leading the procession it became clear to everyone that he was becoming the major figure in French politics, and his place at the head of the mass certainly made him popular with French Catholics.
Notre Dame de Paris experienced a quiet, celebrated existence over the next seventy years, as it became a global icon and major tourist attraction. On 31 May 1980 Pope John Paul II held a mass there, and numerous films about it or including it, increased its fame. However, Notre Dame had suffered quite a bit of damage in its roughly 850 years of existence, and in 1991 the first of many major restorative projects took place.
In the mid-2010s Notre Dame experienced a few brief scares as terrorists linked to the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, otherwise known as ISIS or Daesh, attempted to run a car-bomb into it on 8 September 2016, though this was thwarted by police. On 10 February 2017 four people were arrested in Montpellier who were planning on attacking the Cathedral. With the decline in ISIS’ presence and power there have been no known new threats against it.
As I record this episode it is 16 April 2019. Just yesterday a particularly dramatic event occurred. At 6:50pm Notre Dame de Paris caught fire. While still under investigation it is believed to be because of renovation work. Yesterday was quite a remarkable day, as millions of people from around the world tuned in to watch the cathedral and express hope, worry, fear, and share what the cathedral means to them. As I watched I tried to share hope to everyone watching and encouraged people not to worry too much. I made posts on Facebook and Twitter saying that Notre Dame de Paris survived Prussian artillery and two world wars, and if you think one fire will destroy her, you don’t know Notre-Dame de Paris. This apparently struck a chord, as it was shared to roughly 2 million people on Facebook and up to 4 million people on Twitter; something which astounded me since I only had 140 followers on Facebook that day, and 1,300 on Twitter. Thanks to all of you who shared and made my words of encouragement go viral.
Thankfully, my words largely proved true, though from no effort of my own. Things looked scary for a while. The drama reached its zenith when the spire collapsed, and in response thousands of tearful Parisians lined the streets to sing the Ave Maria. What was worse was that firefighters could only use so much water, as if they drenched it too quickly it would damage the structural integrity of the frame. Thankfully, the French police and firefighters were prepared and managed to save all of the relics and paintings. The fire was finally put out around 4am the following morning. What had begun as horror soon turned to relief as the southern rose window had survived. Since today is literally the day after there are still doomsayers who are bemoaning the damage done to the cathedral. Respectfully I think hope is the rational response here. Hope and gratefulness that the French firefighters, renovators and clergy had prepared for just this sort of thing happening. After all, there have been many Cathedrals across the world that have had to undergo major renovation over the past hundred years, most notably the Cologne Cathedral which was utterly devastated in World War II.
Because of this, all the art and all the relics were saved. The frame of the church remains standing. The only major damage is the collapse of the spire, the burning of the wooden interior and some broken windows. While the pictures are devastating, I want to remind people that Notre Dame has experienced all of these before. Don’t forget, the wooden interior was originally burned by our idiot thieves trying to lasso the candles back in the 1200s. The spire was removed during the French Revolution when the cathedral was made a Temple of Reason. And some windows were broken and replaced during the Liberation of Paris in World War II. As dramatic and heartbreaking as the pictures are, there is nothing that cannot be remade. And each time that these are remade they have brought people together because Notre Dame really is the people’s cathedral. If Saint Denis is the historic cathedral that belongs to the French monarchs and serves as a museum of former French glory, then Notre Dame de Paris is a living community of people, and that isn’t so easily destroyed. Estimates of the damage run around 100-200 million Euros. As of this morning, billionaire François-Henri Pinault pledged €100 million. Not to be outdone, billionaire Bernard Arnault and his family pledged €200 million, while the Bettencourt family, famous for the company L’Oréal, pledged 200 million as well. This, combined with state-allocated funds and donors from around the world, mean that the cathedral will rebuild. It may take a few years, perhaps even decades but everything can be replaced and I know when it does it will help bring people together as it always does.