The very defensible island in the River Seine upon which the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris stands has been historically important since at least the mid-fifth century, when the Merovingian dynasty made it its capital and when local residents took refuge on it from the ravages of Attila the Hun. Later, during the Viking siege of A.D. 885-886, it was crucial to the successful Frankish defense of Paris.
Still today, the “Island of Paris” (as it is often called in English) is at the heart of the city and, indeed, of France altogether. All French road distances from Paris are calculated from the plaza located before the Cathedral’s western towers and main entrance.
The construction of today’s Notre Dame (“Our Lady of Paris,” consecrated to the Virgin Mary) commenced in 1160, replacing an earlier cathedral dating to the 900s. The building was essentially complete by 1260, a century later, though it has undergone many modifications since. In other words, the building of Notre Dame falls squarely within the era of the “High Middle Ages” or the “High Medieval Period,” which is typically reckoned as extending from roughly A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1250.
This was the time of the so-called Renaissance of the 12th Century, with its rebirth of science and philosophy in Europe. (The greatest medieval Catholic philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, lived 1225-1274.) It was also a time of notable urbanization, with people streaming from rural farms and villages into growing cities, and of major re-organizations among the clergy.
Likewise, it was the era in which many of the great European cathedrals were erected, including not only that of Paris but also those at Rouen (begun in the 12th century), Chartres (1194-1220), Reims (commenced in 1211) and Cologne (from 1248), which became symbols of civic pride. (Notre Dame today is actually owned not by the Catholic Church but by the French Ministry of Culture.)
They also represented episcopal power. The term “cathedral” refers not to a magnificent church as such but, very specifically, to a church that contains the “cathedra” (Latin for "seat" or “throne”) of a Roman Catholic bishop. It is his headquarters church. Thus, Notre-Dame de Paris contains the “cathedra” of the city’s archbishop.
The building is generally counted among the finest examples of the European Gothic, an architectural style that originated in 12th-century France and flourished throughout the High and Late Middle Ages. Characteristic features of Gothic style include pointed arches and rib vaulting, probably derived from Islamic architecture, and “flying buttresses,” which permitted much taller buildings with thinner walls. More windows, often fitted with stained glass, allowed for rich interior light and color.
Thanks to the skill and bravery of Parisian firefighters, the cathedral’s three great 13th-century circular “rose windows” survived the devastating fire of April 15, as did its great organ and a number of its relics, including the “Tunic of Saint Louis,” which belonged to the reformist crusader King Louis IX (1214-1270). Moreover, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris fire department, courageously entered the burning cathedral to recover its most precious relic, which was brought to Paris by Louis IX and which faithful Catholics venerate as the very crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head by his tormentors during his trial.
Sadly, this year’s fire isn’t the first crisis faced by one of the greatest monuments from the medieval “Age of Faith.”
During the French Revolution of the 1790s, for example, Notre Dame was desecrated and many of its statues and other Christian images were either destroyed, damaged or plundered. The cathedral was rededicated first to the “Cult of Reason” and then to the “Cult of the Supreme Being.” At several of its altars, the “Goddess of Liberty” supplanted the Virgin Mary. And, in a manner that sadly foreshadowed the treatment of cathedrals and churches under Soviet communism, Notre Dame became a food warehouse.
The cathedral was still half-ruined in 1831 when Victor Hugo published his classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with its lengthy, loving descriptions of the building and its interior. In French, the book’s title is, simply, “Notre-Dame de Paris,” and it was deliberately intended to generate interest in preserving the cathedral. Hugo’s efforts succeeded, and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc directed a major restoration effort between 1844 and 1864.
Although it’s nearly two centuries old, sales of Victor Hugo’s novel have soared yet again on Amazon.com. The new restoration of Notre Dame can be supported through http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/friends/donate/.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.