I was in a meeting with my fellow graduate deans when I first saw the pictures. My colleague just handed me his phone. He said something, but I don’t remember his words as the image drowned out everything else.
The small screen connected me to people all over the world and we watched, together, in silence and shock, as fire ravaged Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is the “heart of faith” in Europe, said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster in England.
Constructed across two centuries, from 1163 to 1345, Notre Dame has sat in the heart of Paris for more than 800 years. Flying buttresses help its 140-foot ceiling soar while sunlight streams through the 13th-century glass of the rose windows.
History and faith, as in so much of medieval Europe, intertwine within its Gothic stone walls. Almost 600 years after Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, her statue stands tall and proud in the cathedral where she was beatified as the patron saint of France.
Henry VI of England was crowned also king of France here, a mostly empty title for him in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. More than 300 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte would crown himself emperor of France here, a title which meant a bit more, at least for a short while. Here, the bells would ring the end of World War I and World War II.
As I watched the flames engulf the 19th-century spire, I could almost see the medieval world. Fire was an ever-present reality for both the timber frames of medieval towns and the inner frames of buildings like cathedrals.
Just this past summer I was studying a manuscript at the Weston Library in Oxford, a medieval liturgical book belonging to St. Chad’s, one of the four parish churches in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. A small note written on the bottom of one of the folios describes a 14th-century tragedy: “a fire burnt the whole parish of St. Alkmund’s starting at daybreak on the eve of Pentecost….anno. 1312.”
The comment was written without much fanfare, but as I watched the fiery spire of Notre Dame crumble and collapse into the burning building, my thoughts strayed to the desperate medieval bodies who would have worked tirelessly on that holy night in 14th-century Shrewsbury. They would have struggled to bring water from the River Severn, snaking silver around their town, trying to contain a fire quickly consuming the heart of their town and endangering the lives of their families and friends. Just like the fire of Notre Dame, they would only be partially successful. They would save the town at the cost of a parish.
Stories of catastrophic fires fill the pages of medieval and early modern history.
In 1174, a fire spread from a nearby cottage in Canterbury, England, to the wooden roof of Canterbury Cathedral. The heat was so intense that it melted the roof and caused significant damage to parts of the cathedral. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London burned at least three times in its long history, the most famous of which was the Great Fire of 1666.
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Source: Religion News Service