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5 Things You Don’t Know About… Notre-Dame de Paris

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
April 18, 2019
A view of the main structure and two front towers of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Irinia Doronina/Dreamstime
It’s been called the “beating heart of Paris,” and the iconic cathedral’s history—characterized by creation, destruction, and resurrection—sometimes reads like a Hollywood script.

The April 15, 2019, fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris kept people around the world riveted, mourning the loss of the church’s 19th-century spire and medieval roof and the damage from smoke and flames to the interior. But the world was also relieved that the structure was ultimately spared, important works of art and religious relics (including what many worshippers revere as the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion) were heroically rescued from the fire, and there was no loss of life.

Although some people were surprised to find themselves so captivated by the crisis in the City of Light, in many respects, the worldwide focus on the cathedral was actually just a larger-scale version of the veneration the architectural wonder has enjoyed through most of its existence. After all, during the Middle Ages, cathedrals were specifically built to serve as the center of a community, drawing people not only for religious services but also for news, art, and music. Since its first stone was laid, in 1163, Notre-Dame has been doing just that, playing host to coronations (most famously that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804), royal weddings (including that of Mary, Queen of Scots to her first husband, Francis, the Dauphin of France), and funeral masses for French leaders such as Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterand.

Notre-Dame has also seen its share of mayhem and destruction, some of it brought about by its own king in the early 18th century (more about that below), some the result of anti-monarchy and anti-church rabble-rousing during the French Revolution, and some due to enemy shelling during World War I.

We decided to take a deep dive into the history of Notre-Dame de Paris. Here, five lesser-known pieces of the cathedral’s history we hope will increase your fascination with and appreciation of what some have called the “beating heart of Paris.”

1. The Paris of 1163 Was a Very Different Kind of Town

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Notre-Dame’s first stone was laid in 1163. Louis VII was king of France, and Pope Alexander III was believed to have been in attendance. (By some accounts, the Pontiff himself laid the first stone, though we suspect that tale is perhaps discounting how heavy a cathedral stone can be.) For some historical perspective: Across the English Channel, Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury and would soon find himself in conflict with England’s King Henry II and eventually lose his life. Although it’s not possible to know what the population of Paris was in 1163, an official census of households in 1328 suggests that the population when the original cathedral structure was completed in 1345 (yes, it took a long time to build a cathedral back then) may have been somewhere around 250,000. Today, the population of Paris is around 2,152,000.

2. The Sun King May Have Been Notre-Dame’s Public Enemy No. 1

Although war, plague, and revolution took their toll on Notre-Dame, the most destructive force in its history up until the fire of April 15 may have been King Louis XIV (1638-1715), the self-described Sun King whom Beatles fans may recognize as the inspiration for the inscrutably gorgeous song that appears on side two of Abbey Road. Louis XIV mandated what he termed a “restoration” of the cathedral to bring it in line with changing tastes (“taste” here being, unfortunately, only a figure of speech). What ensued was pretty much an act of vandalism, pulling down sculptures, replacing 12th- and 13th-century stained glass windows with clear glass, and demolishing a pillar in order to allow carriages to pass through the central doorway. In short, the Sun King needed a "no" man.

3. The Cathedral Was Ransacked During the French Revolution

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Sure, some good things resulted from the French Revolution (1787-99), including the eventual abolition of a tyrannical monarchy. But in addition to a period during which beheadings were all the rage, remembered affectionately as the Reign of Terror, some of the hiccups along the way included a ransacking of Notre-Dame, which was considered a symbol of the Ancien Régime. Sculptures were destroyed, lead was taken to make bullets, and many of the cathedral’s bronze bells were melted down to make cannons.

4. It’s Totally Okay That When You Think “Notre-Dame” You Think “Quasimodo”

As we followed the news of the Notre-Dame fire, most of us couldn’t help recalling images and incidents from the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and its many stage and film adaptations. And that’s totally fine: Originally published in 1831 as Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo’s novel about the hunchback bell-ringer Quasimodo and his love for the gypsy Esmeralda was such a hit with readers that it actually inspired a fundraising campaign to repair the damage wrought by the Revolution and years of wear and tear. The restoration officially began in 1844 and took nearly 20 years. One could make the case that Hugo’s novel is responsible for the modern-day cathedral that so captivates us.

5. Most of Notre-Dame’s Bells Are New

If you’ve read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, you’ll recall that the cathedral bells deafen young Quasimodo. It so happens that the 1856 bells that replaced the ones melted down during the French Revolution were considered quite noisy in their own right—discordant and substandard. As the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, in 2013, approached, new bells were commissioned and artisans studied church archives in an attempt to replicate the size and pitch of the originals. The new set of bells was installed in early 2013 and first rang out on Palm Sunday, in perfect harmony with the biggest, and only remaining original, the 1686 bell nicknamed Emmanuel.

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