Tourists and residents alike watched yesterday as a blaze ravaged one of Paris’ most prominent landmarks, the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Firefighters managed to extinguish the last of the flames by early Tuesday morning, and the process of ensuring the fire is completely put out and ensuring the building’s structural stability has begun. While the damage was mostly limited to the cathedral’s iconic spire and roof, the fire revealed the place that the Catholic archdiocese occupies as a symbol of French religious and cultural heritage. In a country where weekly church attendance falls below 10 percent, President Emmanuel Macron nevertheless addressed the nation saying the Catholic cathedral “is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations … I’m telling you all tonight — we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny.”
These remarks underscore the often ambivalent relationship that France has with its medieval past. When construction began on the cathedral in 1160, it was a material representation of the hegemonic power the Catholic church enjoyed in France. That power waned following the French Revolution in 1789 as the newly formed republic sought to limit the influence of the Church in state affairs, and following periods of French history bore witness to conflicts between anticlerical secularists and Catholics that shaped the modern French notion of secularism, or laïcité. The applicability of laïcité and the question of what constitutes French culture are under debate especially following the second world war as waves of immigration from many of the country’s former colonies, such as Algeria and Morocco, have complicated the narrative of French identity. Joining us to unpack the cathedral’s place in French culture is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame Sarah Shortall, who has written about the modern history of religion in France, as well as Valerie L. Garver, an associate professor of history and department chair at Northern Illinois University.