How Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame: “a thought written in stone … it is the freedom of architecture.” Plus a few words from a wise medievalist.


“This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.” (Wikimedia Commons)


“The church of Notre-Dame of Paris is without doubt, even today, a sublime and majestic building … a vast symphony in stone, as it were; the colossal handiwork of a man and a people.” So opens Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It began as Notre-Dame de Paris in 1829 – he had an axe to grind. He was tired of seeing France’s magnificent heritage of Gothic architecture neglected, defaced, destroyed, or “improved” by subsequent eras. It had just survived the depredations of the French Revolution, where its statues and artwork had been broken, plundered, mutilated, and destroyed. Twenty-eight statues of Biblical kings were mistaken for statues of French monarchs and so beheaded. The cathedral was eventually used as a warehouse for for storage of food and other non-religious purposes. In 1801, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the Church “as is.”

Twenty years later, Gothic was simply out of fashion. Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture. “A universal cry must finally go up to call the new France to the aid of the old,” he had written. He declared war on the “demolishers.”

The repairs and “improvements” had made the cathedral uglier. Medieval stained glass panels had been swapped for clear glass to let in more light. “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows” and “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds,” he asked.

Notre-Dame de Paris would later become The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and his preoccupations with the Gothic survived the transition. “There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture,” he wrote in praise of these medieval builders and what they wrought.

He won, of course. He triggered a national effort to restore the cathedral. The Notre Dame we saw until yesterday was in part the result of his labors. Now we face an even greater challenge to restore the building that barely survived a catastrophic fire.


From Sara L. Uckelman, assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University and editor in chief at Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, in a public post on Facebook:

While what has happened to Notre Dame today has shocked me and moved me to tears more than once over the course of the evening, I’m finding that my background and training as a medievalist means I’m, overall, finding it a lot less devastating than many people.


Because I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.

The spire that fell, that beautiful iconic spire? Not even 200 years old. A new spire can be built, the next stage in the evolution of the cathedral.

The rose windows? Reproductions of the originals. We can reproduce them again.

Notre Dame is one of the best documented cathedrals in the world. We have the knowledge we need to rebuild it.

But more than that: We have the skill. There may not be as many ecclesiastical stone masons nowadays as there were in the height of the Middle Ages, but there are still plenty, and I bet masons from all over Europe, if not further, will be standing ready to contribute to rebuilding. Same with glaziers, carpenters, etc.

Precious artworks and relics may have been lost. There is report of one fireman seriously injured, but so far, from what I’ve read, no one else, and no deaths.

This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.

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One Response to “How Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame: “a thought written in stone … it is the freedom of architecture.” Plus a few words from a wise medievalist.”

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    I completely agree with Professor Uckelman. (I wrote a blog post along the exact same lines earlier today.) Notre-Dame isn’t just a great medieval edifice; it’s a great work of 19th-century medievalism, probably one of the most convincing attempts in all of Europe to recapture some aspect of the spirit of the Middle Ages. We may not live to see the complete restoration, but I have little doubt it will be rebuilt, because it can be, and because it previously has been.