Notre-Dame de Paris and Medieval Philosophy

Monday night people across the world watched in horror as one of the most iconic buildings in France burned. The scenes of the raging inferno and the toppling steeple were horrifying, and the tragedy was compounded by uncertainty — would the rose windows and the bells survive? How many relics would be lost? Were there any casualties? But as the night drew on, I found many people expressing a view of what happened of it being total destruction, irrecoverable, a loss that could never be repaired, a view that I could not subscribe to knowing what I do of medieval history, and I wrote a post on Facebook about an alternative view, a post that ended up going surprisingly viral.

I’m by no means an expert in cathedrals or in ecclesiastical history, but the study of logic and philosophy is intimately connected to both of these thing, and one cannot do research in medieval logic without rubbing elbows with cathedrals all over Europe. As inquiries and interview requests came pouring in (such is the result of 15 minutes of internet fame!), I found myself reading up on the history of the construction of Notre-Dame de Paris, and realised something that I should probably have realised a decade ago: When historians and philosophers speak of the “cathedral school in Paris”, where William of Champeaux taught in the 12th century, and which was one of the incubators for the 13th-century birth of the University of Paris, the “cathedral” in question was Notre-Dame.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris, June 1999

Well, the Gothic cathedral was we know it wasn’t begun until after William’s time — construction on that edifice began in the 1160s, whereas William became a canon in 1103 (he resigned in 1108 to move to St. Victor). But one of the points that I stressed in my FB post, which seemed to strike such a chord with so many people, is that a church is more than the building it is housed in. Whether it is the Gothic cathedral completed in the 13th century, whether it’s the earlier Romanesque remodeling, whether it’s the 19th C version with the spire constructed after renewed interest in the cathedral due to Victor Hugo, whether it’s the version to come when it’s prepared, Notre-Dame remains.

The photo above is one that I took in June 1999, on my first trip to Europe, shortly after I’d graduated high school. The three weeks I spent in Italy, Austria, and France were transformative, and I went home knowing that one day, I would be going back to Europe for good. Notre-Dame was one of the last sites that we visited, and I remember staring up at the gargoyles until I got a crick in my neck. Little did I dream then that 20 years later I’d be studying and learning from the same masters that taught there so many centuries earlier.

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