Notre Dame's long history of adapting to changing times

Notre Dame's long history of adapting to changing times
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The outpouring of grief following this week’s fire at Notre Dame reflects the deep attachment that people in and beyond Paris feel to this historic church. Although the damage is not nearly as great as was initially feared, nevertheless the fire inflicted losses on numerous levels.

Scholars have lost valuable evidence. The great beams that supported the medieval roof, for instance, not only showcased the skill and techniques of medieval architects. They also preserved biological data from Europe’s old growth forests, long since vanished.


People across the globe have lost a symbol of beauty they knew even from afar. Parisians lost the spire at their city’s center, a key element of the backdrop against which their daily lives unfold. France nearly lost a seemingly unchanging emblem of national identity.

Much has, thankfully, been saved: the medieval towers, perhaps the organ and a good deal of the stained glass, the Crown of Thorns brought to Paris by King Louis IX in the 13th century. That relic, ostensibly worn by Jesus on the cross, made Paris a center of Christian veneration and implied that its ruler enjoyed divine favor.

Louis did not place the relic in Notre Dame, however. Napoleon did, centuries later, when he restored the edifice to its function as a church. Some years earlier, during the French Revolution, it had been rededicated to the cult of Reason and the goddess of Liberty displaced the Virgin Mary on its altars. The extensive damage the cathedral suffered then (including the destruction of many medieval statues) was repaired only after Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” drew attention to its beauty and its plight in 1831. Many of the features damaged this week, including the spire, were, in fact, 19th-century versions of the medieval originals.

The cathedral that burned on Monday was thus far from unchanging. Like all medieval churches, it had been evolving constantly since its completion in 1345. Over the centuries, work undertaken to repair damages or keep up with changing styles altered it in various ways: classical elements covered or replaced Gothic features, medieval pipes were incorporated into a more powerful, 19th-century organ (which, the New York Times reports, appears to have survived).

Nor is this the first church to occupy the site. It replaced a relatively new Romanesque cathedral, demolished in 1160 to make way for the much larger structure that the archbishop thought the city’s rapidly growing population required. Several earlier churches and perhaps a pagan Roman temple had already stood on the same site. Notre Dame was never static. It has always been a dynamic monument that changes in response to changing needs, tastes and circumstances.

This process will now continue. French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronWith US sidelined, Macron's hubris and hypocrisy are on full display French prime minister resigns as Macron reshuffles Cabinet Trump insulted UK's May, called Germany's Merkel 'stupid' in calls: report MORE has vowed to rebuild, although just what form the repairs will take remains to be determined. That choice may prove difficult. Should the church be rebuilt exactly as it was? Which moment of its long history should be replicated? Should 12th- and 13th-century materials and methods be used? Is that possible? Would a more modern interpretation be more practical? Would an overtly contemporary structure still have the same power and meaning? What gave Notre Dame its significance in the first place?

One of the most striking refrains of the past week has been that this monument means so much to so many around the world. Numerous French commentators, including the nation’s ambassador to the U.S., have remarked that the cathedral symbolizes what it means to be French. In a country officially committed to public secularism, this is an intriguing notion. Notre Dame is what the historian Pierre Nora termed “a lieu de mémoire,” a site or emblem of shared history and identity.


The Gothic cathedral rose when Paris could claim to be Europe’s intellectual and cultural center, when its budding university trained some of the West’s best minds. It rose at the center of a city from which ambitious kings had been slowly and assiduously expanding their power over a large and often obstreperous realm.

Long before De Gaulle celebrated the liberation of Paris there in 1944 or Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, Notre Dame symbolized — and indeed shaped — France itself. Such symbols always have multiple meanings. They are both eloquent and contested. There is no single version of what it means to be French, just as no single historical moment fully captures Notre Dame, and no single style monopolizes beauty.

Alongside, and indeed within, the debate now beginning, about what and how to rebuild, these other debates will go on. Whatever decisions are made, the restored cathedral will remain a powerful symbol of shared (and contested) identity, of beauty, and, perhaps above all, of the resilience of both historic monuments and those who define their meaning.

Samantha Kahn Herrick is an associate professor with the Department of History at Syracuse University