As I wrote this, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was burning. Begun in 1160, completed a century later, the church survived the Reformation, the French Revolution and the Nazis. Now, its roof has collapsed and much of the interior is damaged.
Perhaps what’s most surprising, though, is that it didn’t burn sooner. Simply put, medieval structures caught fire almost as a matter of course. The majority of Notre Dame’s exterior may be stone, but the roof was wood, as were those of most European structures from the era. In Notre Dame’s case, each beam was carved from a different tree, a feat so spectacular that the interlocking network of beams was nicknamed “the forest.” And wood burns. Medieval churches burned. The cathedral at Canterbury in England caught fire in 1174 when a nearby house fire jumped structures. In Mainz, Germany, the candles used to illuminate the city’s new cathedral accidentally brought the structure to the ground on the very day of its consecration in 1015. The cathedral at Chartres was heavily damaged by fire in 1194 and an inferno allegedly killed about 1,000 people at Vézelay in 1120.
In my own research, I examined the destruction of the cathedral at Orléans in northern France. According to the 11th-century chronicler Ralph Glaber, terrible signs and portents occurred in the year 988, pointing to something terrible on the horizon. An icon of the crucifixion miraculously wept and a wolf burst into the cathedral, seized the bell-rope, and rang the church bells. These fears came to life when a fire swept through the city and the church burned to the ground the following year. There was little that could be done. The citizens could only watch.
There are too many other examples to name them all. As scholar Roger Stalley has written in his “ Early Medieval Architecture,” “once fire caught hold of a wooden roof, it was virtually impossible to stop it destroying the whole building, as burning timbers fell into the church below.”
And here we are back in the present, at Notre Dame, Paris, 2019. But that history may offer a note of hope, if only because in the past, tragic fires often led to later triumphs — both artistic and communal.
As millions in Paris (and around the world via social media) watched this unique structure burn, it was hard not to feel helpless, to despair. This building took 100 years to construct and was undone in less than a day. We long for some reason, some justification, something to help us mourn the loss of a bit of beauty in the world. Glaber found it in wolves and weeping crosses; and today, the far right is finding it in conspiracy theories. There will undoubtedly be an investigation, with some blame laid upon the poor state of the building as a whole, and a discussion of the shoddy workmanship of the “restoration” that occurred in the 19th century.
But what comes next?
A cathedral was a project that took a century to complete, a building of stone with a wooden roof, massive and impenetrable but so susceptible to a single spark. The people who built it accepted catastrophic fires as a way of life, yet still — as we do — mourned their destruction. One author wrote after the destruction of Canterbury Cathedral that this “house of God hitherto delightful as a paradise of pleasures, was now made a despicable heap of ashes, reduced to a dreary wilderness.”
Yet the European Middle Ages sometimes confound us because that mourning rarely gave way to despair. When a cathedral crumbled, it rose again. After the fire at Orléans, Glaber reports that the people of the city immediately began rebuilding upon the ashes of the old church, working together to make the city surpass its former glory. They mourned by building together. The towering cathedrals that dot Europe’s landscape are mostly monuments to resilience, testaments to what you could build after fire claimed what had been built before. The radiant stained glass and soaring vaults that we see today were often direct responses to tragedy and disaster. In the end, Glaber and others who witnessed this destruction looked into the catastrophe and saw a challenge, one they met time and time again with stone and mortar, illuminated by colored glass, that vaulted toward the sky.
Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies in the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech and has published widely on religion and violence in the Middle Ages. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.