May 23, 2019

The People's Cathedral

“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.”

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