The History of Notre Dame

Rumor has it that the land Notre Dame stands on was once a temple dedicated to Jupiter.  In an effort to bring and maintain Christianity in France, Bishop Maurice de Sulley ordered Notre Dame’s construction in 1160, and the result (finished 100 years later in 1260) became one of France’s finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Notre Dame features the high ceilings, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and enormous windows indicative of the style.  Originally a consecration to the Virgin Mary, Notre Dame has become a staple in political and literary spheres in addition to its religious intent.  

Notre Dame housed many historic events from the beginning--its construction was officially started when a cornerstone was laid in the presence of Louis VII and Pope Alexander III.  After its construction, Philip the Fair opened France’s first États Généraux in the Notre Dame during the year 1302.  It was an advisory body to the king, and only met a handful of times.  Due to its inconsistent schedule, they met at Notre Dame the first time, and afterwards shuffled around to other notable (and noble) landmarks.  During the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings included in the building’s design were thought to be representations of French kings, and were thus beheaded.  Years later, it was the site of Napoléon I’s coronation in 1804.

Throughout the centuries, Notre Dame has seen many artistic and architectural renovations, as styles have come in and out of fashion. 

The Court of Miracles

Though Notre Dame had been a cultural mainstay for centuries, it wasn’t fully appreciated by the French people until the publication of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Most Americans’ first experience with this piece of literature was likely through the Disney animated film released in 1996.  The movie discusses many similar themes as the novel, such as deformity, Romani genocide, lust, and sin. The biggest deviation from the source material comes as the film ends on an optimistic note as the heroes win, romances are requited, and the villains perish under dubious circumstances.

The novel, however, ends more pessimistically, featuring murder, hangings, and starvation.  C’est la vie!


Most notably, Notre Dame is known today for the incredible fires that burned down a large portion of its architecture at 6:18 PM GMT on April 15th, 2019.  Multiple videos and photographs were taken that day, including a now-famous video capturing the fall of the spire. This fire destroyed the “forest”--large oak beams that have been supporting the ceiling since 1160.  The fire raged so strongly that firemen (all 500 of them!) were ordered to back down from the spire, as it dropped 750 tons of lead and stone.  

The fire was finally under control--but not extinguished!--by 9:45 PM.  By this point, much damage had been done. There were small bits of good news: the hives of bees that were in the roof were largely unharmed!  Additionally, the Great Organ, mentioned above, was saved, though it did sustain water damage. And, perhaps most importantly for those of faith, the Crown of Thorns that Jesus reputedly wore at his crucifixion was retrieved during the blaze and will likely remain at the Louvre until the time that it can be safely stored once more in the cathedral.  

Currently, many businessmen, philanthropists, and lovers of Notre Dame have pledged hundreds of thousands of euros to be donated to its reconstruction and renovation, and President Emmanuel Macron called for the re-construction to be completed within 5 years.  Notre Dame has suffered through World Wars, revolutions, pestilence, and coronations. It will continue to survive, and will continue to thrive. Vive la France!

Fun Facts

Hugo’s novel spurred a newfound admiration for not only Notre Dame, but for gothic architecture as well.  It sparked major renovations led by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, resulting in the modern exterior and facade that we all know and love today featuring the re-headed kings mentioned above.

Like many impressive churches, Notre Dame has a pipe organ--the biggest in France, made up of 8,000 pipes. 

Some may remember Philippe Petit’s infamous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City--but did you know that he practiced for this feat with a wire strung between Notre Dame’s towers in 1971?  

Speaking of the Twin Towers, their falling was an event that caused the whole world to mourn, including France.  In fact,the sole surviving bell in Notre Dame from the French revolution (named “Emmanuel”), rang out in mourning after the attacks occured.  Apart from the 9/11 attacks, it also rang out for the coronation of kings, the end of the World Wars, and continues to signal the funerals for French heads of state.  

Notre Dame, having stood for so long, has been a shelter for folks of many different faiths.  It offers mass, prayers, and candles to light for loved ones. In the midst of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, Notre Dame became a landmark not only for its faith and history, but for its swift reactions as well, hosting memorial services that were attended by political figures, religious figures, and locals alike.  But in 2017, its shelter became less of an idea and more of a reality. When a solo extremist attacked a police officer just outside the church’s doors, hundreds of French and foreign visitors were locked inside for safety measures. The doors were apparently so thick that nobody knew what was happening just within arm’s distance of the building.  The situation was settled swiftly, and visitors were allowed to leave after a search.

Works Cited

Climans, Kyle. “42 Ancient Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral, The Jewel of Paris.” Factinate, 9 Aug. 2019,

“Dame De Paris Site Officiel - Cathédrale Notre-Dame De Paris.” Notre, “Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.” The Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,

Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “Notre-Dame Updates: What We Know About the Cathedral Five Months After the Fire.” My Modern Met, 10 Sept. 2019,

Willsher, Kim, et al. “Tourists Shelter in Notre Dame Cathedral as Hammer-Wielding Assailant Attacks Police.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 6 June 2017,

Amy Layton

Library Assistant

Amy grew up in a small rural town in Washington and left home to study French and English literature at Southern Oregon University. This led her to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre to teach high school students English through the TAPIF program. From there, she travelled back to the states and received her Masters of Library and Information Science and Children’s Literature at Simmons University. In her spare time, she practices latte art and watches Danny Phantom.

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