“Something priceless was dying in front of our eyes. The feeling was bewildering, as if the earth was shaking”, writes Ken Follett about watching the Notre-Dame Cathedral burning on 15 April last year. Not an expert on cathedrals, but known across the world for his The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the construction of a cathedral for which he did an enormous amount of research, he became the media’s go-to person for commentary about the Notre-Dame fire and, together with his French publisher, decided to write Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals to support the reconstruction efforts of the architectural treasure after the catastrophe. All the royalties generated by the book go to the charity La Fondation du Patrimoine.
Follett’s brief account of Notre-Dame’s eight-centuries-long existence is informative and touching. “Notre-Dame had always seemed eternal, and the medieval builders certainly thought it would last until the Judgement Day; but suddenly we saw that it could be destroyed”, he writes in the opening pages of the book. The history of this popular site of pilgrimage is astounding. “How did such majestic beauty arise out of the violence and filth of the Middle Ages?” Follett asks and illuminates the cathedral’s many wonders. It was built before standardised measurements, modern mathematics, efficient tools, and with hardly any safety regulations. Women and foreigners played vital roles in the construction – it was an international effort of note. And literature – novels like Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) – spread the building’s fame across the world. In 1944, it was the backdrop of a “masterpiece of political theatre” as General de Gaulle ended a victory march at the cathedral.
The slim, beautifully produced book conveys Follett’s passion for the subject matter and explains why so many of us wept when we saw Our Lady of Paris burning.
Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals
Review first published in the Cape Times on 27 March 2020.