Notre-Dame fire “not the worst chapter in its 850-year history”

Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris has “miraculously” survived a devastating fire thanks to the medieval building techniques used when it was erected in 1163, a leading medieval historian has said

Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, 15 April 2019. Yet despite the devastation, the fire is “not the worst chapter in its 850-year history”, argues Dr Emily Guerry. (Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking to History Extra after the blaze, which over the course of 15 hours overnight on 15/16 April obliterated Notre-Dame’s roof and caused its spire to collapse, Dr Emily Guerry said it was “extraordinary what has survived”.

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As Paris and the wider world were left reeling from the sight of the city’s Notre-Dame cathedral in flames, Dr Guerry, a historian of medieval Europe, said the fact that so much of the famed structure survived is “a testament to medieval craftsmanship”.

She told History Extra: “Gothic cathedrals rarely catch fire. In fact, the Gothic style – with its powerful stone vaults and elegantly pointed arches – developed as a sort of flame-retardant system to protect cathedrals from fire. The Gothic architectural style first appeared in and around Paris in the mid-12th century and it became popular across Europe after a number of Romanesque churches succumbed to incendiary destruction, due in part to the high risk of older barrel vaults made of wood.

“Famously, the entire east end of the Romanesque cathedral at Canterbury collapsed in the fire of 5 September 1174. We know from detailed primary source records that the Canterbury monks invited French masons to rebuild their new church in the Gothic style, complete with a strong stone vault. As a result, Canterbury Cathedral is the earliest cohesive Gothic building project in the British Isles.

“In 1194, the Romanesque fabric of Chartres cathedral also burned down – Gothic masons then spent decades erecting the gigantic, elegant church that visitors see today. However, for parts of Notre-Dame de Paris to burn down in 2019 just does not make sense; this is a terrible, terrible accident.”

Considering the damage, Guerry explained that the flames quickly reached the roof of the cathedral, destroying the forest of oak beams (dating from 1300) that held it up, before toppling the spire. Although the whole of the upper roof was destroyed, only one part of the stone vault was pierced, due to the brilliant technical achievement of its Gothic designers. So, the stone vaults that visitors see when they enter Notre-Dame have survived intact. This, says Guerry, is “a testament to medieval craftsmanship – it’s also a modern miracle”.

She said: “Structurally the cathedral remains mostly intact, as are its three famous rose windows.”

Notre-Dame's south rose window. (Photo by Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
Notre-Dame’s south rose window. (Photo by Godong/UIG via Getty Images)

“Every Parisian; anyone who loves Paris; anyone who loves history, art and architecture, is heartbroken by this fire. But this morning there was some relief – yes, it is likely that it will take decades to rebuild the cathedral, but we’ve lost a lot less than we expected last night, and there is a great sense of hope. This is not the darkest chapter in Notre-Dame’s long history.

“Notre-Dame already survived the targeted iconoclasm of the French Revolution; the violence of the 1871 Commune of Paris (the insurrection of Paris against the French government in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-German War and the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire); the First and Second World War. So while this fire may look devastating, I think we can take solace in the fact that what happened last night was just one terrible chapter in the long and wonderful history of this archetypal church. The cathedral of Notre-Dame will be restored and the community that loves it will continue to thrive, and – thanks to the incredibly brave firefighters who have worked so hard to save it – one day we will have the privilege of seeing this beautiful cathedral rise again to great heights.

“This fire is totally shocking and the damage it caused is absolutely heart-breaking, but this is not the end. Notre-Dame still stands and, as long as it does, this cathedral will continue to embody something truly beautiful about our collective humanity. Notre-Dame is a place where the human spirit takes form in stone, light, and colour. Although some of its parts are now in ashes, it will endure.”

Meanwhile people across the globe have taken to Twitter to share their reaction to the devastating fire:

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Dr Emily Guerry is a senior lecturer in medieval European history at the University of Kent.