The Magic and Majesty of the Middle Ages:
Notre-Dame de Paris

Bill Ranauro

© Copyright 2020 by Bill Ranauro


Photo of Notre-Dame.

In April 1999, I made my first trip to Europe. I was helping three other teachers chaperone forty students on a trip that would take us to Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome over the next two weeks. I was hooked on European travel after visiting Notre-Dame Cathedral on my first day in Paris.
Paris - April 16, 1999

The first stop for us on a four-city tour of France and Italy was the city of light, Paris. After we checked into our hotel on Boulevard de Montparnasse, I fumbled around my room, unpacking clothes, putting away toothbrushes, and taking care of any mindless chore I could think of. I was stalling. Our group had several hours on our own before we would come together for dinner, so I was free to go wherever I wanted. I was excited but felt paralyzed being in a foreign country for the first time in my life; I was unsure of myself, a feeling I had not expected. My imagination ran wild. Would I embarrass myself in front of these sophisticated Parisians? Would I cause an incident that would strain relations between France and the U.S.? What if someone talks to me in French? What if I lose my way and need to ask directions? What if…? Finally, after wasting about twenty minutes by myself in my room, I straightened myself up and thought, “OK, you’re in Paris. Get outside and start walking!” So that is what I did.
I turned left out the hotel door and began walking in the general direction of the Seine until something familiar came into view: the distinctive twin towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral rose above the Paris skyline. I felt better, since I now had a definite destination and would no longer be mistaken for a pathetic lost tourist. I picked up my pace and strode across the Pont Neuf (New Bridge) toward the cathedral.
I was awestruck by the sight of this marvel of engineering, design, and beauty. I knew this was exactly the effect church leaders in the twelfth century wanted the cathedral to have on all those who came within view of it. Abbot Suger, who directed the construction of the first Gothic cathedral at Saint-Denis twenty years before the building of Notre-Dame, envisioned this new style of church as a reflection of the church’s spiritual and political power. The Gothic cathedral is arguably the greatest artistic and engineering accomplishment of the Middle Ages. Because I was a history teacher, I had studied this great landmark, knew something of its over 800 year history, and regularly used the architecture of the Gothic cathedral to help my students better understand the mindset of people at a time in history when theology and religion ruled the lives of ordinary people.
But religion was not the only role of the cathedral in medieval Europe. These huge leviathan-like houses of God, which seemingly reached for the heavens, dominated the skylines of medieval towns and cities and were built as enduring symbols of civic pride and honor. Unofficial competitions to see who could build the largest and highest cathedral cropped up soon after the first Gothic cathedral, the Basilica of Saint-Denis, was completed in 1144. The ensuing mania for building had some amazing, but also tragic, results as builders pushed the limits of technology. A collapse at Beauvais Cathedral in northern France seemed to stop the quest to reach further and further into the skies.
So here I was in the presence of perhaps the most famous cathedral of all, Notre-Dame de Paris. I took the obligatory pictures of the magnificent west towers and went inside. I reflexively looked up into the soaring spaces above the nave created by the ascending vaults of the cathedral. I instantly recalled how, while projecting a view of the interior of another great Gothic church, the cathedral at Reims, I would ask my students to imagine their reaction upon entering such a place. They inevitably agreed that, given the height of the structure, looking up was hardly a choice. The heavens beckoned all who entered to look up.
My presence in the cathedral provoked an emotional response I was hardly prepared for, as a sort of spiritual serenity overtook me. After looking up into the ceiling and stained-glass windows for several minutes, I decided to find a pew away from other people in the cathedral; this was a place to revel in the peace and tranquility it inspired. Most artifacts the age of Notre-Dame are in museums behind glass and are not to be touched, but this great cathedral was a functioning, living object. Though raised Roman Catholic, my own feelings about religion can best be described as ambiguous. However, my presence in this place seemed, at least for the moment, to inspire feelings of ethereal delight. By stepping into this great cathedral, I was stepping back into the Middle Ages. What could be better for a history teacher? If this perceived feeling seems phony or contrived, consider what I wrote in my travel journal that evening:
Friday, April 16

Incredible first day. Went to Notre-Dame, which was spectacular. The place is truly awe-inspiring with its soaring piers and stained-glass windows. I think everybody, including a few Asians I saw, were Catholic while inside.
Apparently, I had concluded that Asian people could not be Catholic. However, it’s no secret that the architecture of the Gothic cathedral was specifically designed to take over the minds, bodies, and souls of those who venture inside. Indeed, the architecture was designed to advance the spiritual agenda of the medieval church.
Among the most important advancements was the development and use of vaults in combination with a system of exterior buttresses. This allowed churches to acquire great height while opening up the exterior walls, which no longer bore the weight of the roof. These vast walls were then filled with exquisite stained glass, which visually tell the stories of Jesus and the saints. In an age when ordinary people were rarely literate and books were scarce, pictures were the most practical way to tell the stories of the Gospels. The numerous rose windows, both in the west facing facade as well as the north and south transepts, evoked the most powerful symbol of Notre-Dame, the Virgin Mary. The very name “Notre-Dame” summons Mary, the translation being “Our Lady,” the rose her well-known symbol.
All this colored glass enables the nave to fill with filtered light. Abbot Suger called this light flooding the interior of the cathedral “the light of God,” representing mystery and divinity. Suger meant to convey that those experiencing this mystical light were in the presence of God. I’m not sure I felt God, but I was in some way under the spell of this marvel of the Middle Ages. A sense of well-being coupled with feelings of peacefulness while sitting in the nave of Notre-Dame Cathedral had made me a believer in the power of this place. Believer in the Almighty or not, one’s presence in Notre-Dame is enough to provoke even a skeptic to meditate on the possibilities. Despite the photo-taking tourists all around me, I just sat and enjoyed the feelings brought about by this setting. I’m certain this was also the experience of the medieval church goer.

Twenty Years Later, April 2019

By now virtually everyone is aware of the tragic fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral in April 2019. Author Ken Follett’s research for his best-selling novel The Pillars of the Earth made him an authority on the construction of the Gothic cathedral. Follett has done his best to answer perhaps the most commonly asked question in the wake of the fire: How does a great church constructed of stone catch fire? In his recent work Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, Follett writes:
The rafters consist of hundreds of tons of wood, old and very dry. When that burns the roof collapses,  then the falling debris destroys the vaulted ceiling,  which also falls and destroys the mighty stone pillars that are holding the whole thing up.
As someone who has such a profoundly personal relationship with Notre-Dame, Follett was asked if he resented all the tourists who show up in their shorts and t-shirts with their obnoxious cameras and loud voices. His response was measured and philosophical. Said Follett, “No. Cathedrals have always been full of tourists. In the Middle Ages they were not called tourists, they were pilgrims, but they traveled for many of the same reasons: to see the world and its marvels, to broaden their minds, to educate themselves, and perhaps to come in touch with something miraculous, otherworldly, eternal.”
Hmm. Sounds something like my experience at Notre-Dame twenty years ago.
For Follett, as well as for Parisians, France, and all who care about this great monument to the history of  architecture, the Middle Ages, and the Catholic Church, the sight of Notre-Dame burning was a shock. This great monument has touched many people in many ways, spiritually and otherwise. People come from around the world to see it and feel it work its magic on them. I had my time. Only time will tell if others will be so lucky.
Bill Ranauro is a retired high school history teacher. Bill has had several articles published in the Forum, a publication of the New England History Teacher’s Association, and Scholastic Coach magazine. Bill has also self-published two books, a memoir, West of Boston: Growing Up Red Sox in in a Yankee Householdand Frontier Elegance: The Early Architecture of Walpole, New Hampshire 1750-1850Bill lives in New Hampshire with his wife Lisa.

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