Like millions of people across the world yesterday, we at UC Press were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Notre-Dame’s construction began in 1163, and has stood as a testament to humanity’s artistic and engineering capabilities for more than 850 years.

The following is an excerpt from The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, and as its author Robert A. Scott shows us, fire is by no means a new encounter for the world’s cathedrals.

As debilitating and traumatic as this experience has been, it is worth recognizing the opportunity for growth and for renewal: a phoenix is always reborn from its ashes, fertile ground lies beneath every volcano, and so too shall Notre-Dame rise once again.

On the heels of the renovation of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, work began on renovating and rebuilding in the new Gothic style dozens of cathedrals and great monastic churches throughout the greater Paris Basin. The great Gothic enterprise had been launched. Good evidence suggests that St. Denis strongly influenced these subsequent developments. The guest list of prelates from northern France and elsewhere who attended the dedication of the choir at St. Denis includes seventeen leading bishops and archbishops. If we correlate their names with the starting dates for construction of Gothic portions of the cathedrals and other great churches of northern France, a strong relationship appears. One student of the topic, Christopher Wilson, refers to Suger’s guest list as a “roll-call of the cathedrals which would be rebuilt in the next 100 years.” Specifically, renovations of existing Romanesque churches in the Gothic style immediately got under way at Sens in the late 1140s, Senlis in 1151, Reims in the early 1150s, and at Noyon and Notre Dame de Paris in 1160. Most of these projects involved interior renovations, principally of the choir areas, but there were also significant examples of new Gothic exterior facades like the one erected at St. Denis in 1140, including new west fronts at Chartres (1140s), Senlis (c. 1170), and Laon (1190).The work at St.Denis seems to have initiated the Gothic cathedral-building movement that would continue for more than four hundred years.

The new style first developed at St. Denis quickly inspired
the redesign of great churches all over northern France,
including here at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

What was the character and spirit of this movement? German historian and sociologist Martin Warnke has termed it “a great cultural competition.” Former Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral Ian Dunlop describes it as “the cathedrals’ crusade.” Without question, the movement was a status competition of staggering proportions involving bishops, kings, and abbots who vied with one another to erect Gothic cathedrals and abbey churches of grander and grander design. Georges Duby imparts a sense of its character when he writes, “The bishop was a great lord, a prince, and as such, demanded that people take notice of him. For him, a new cathedral was a feat, a victory, a battle won by a military leader. . . . It was this urge to acquire personal prestige that accounts for the wave of emulation which, in the space of a quarter century, swept over each and every bishop of the royal [French] domain.” Duby recounts an episode involving the archbishop of Reims, who not only had his own image created in his cathedral’s stained glass windows, complete with an entourage of suffragan bishops worshipping at his feet, but actually arranged to have a recently completed entry porch demolished and rebuilt to make it larger and grander than one that had just been built by his great rival, the bishop of Amiens.

Bishops thus compared what they had built or planned to build with what other bishops had done or planned to do. It became a sign of one ’s place in the church and society to claim that the height of the nave of one ’s cathedral, the magnificence of its tower or spire, the grandeur and beauty of its stained glass, the length of its nave, its overall mass—whatever—was greater, bigger, better, more audacious than any that had preceded it. Indeed, as a practical matter, it would have been impossible to raise the money needed to undertake building a new cathedral unless it was to be more impressive than any already planned, under construction, or completed.

To call this competition a mere status contest diminishes its true nature. As later chapters explain, Gothic cathedrals and great monastic churches were vital elements in the larger social project of managing the relations between the society and the sacred. Questions of a cathedral’s grandeur were central to the most fundamental issues of social power. A particularly revealing example of the character of this cultural competition comes from a contemporary chronicler’s account of the building of the cathedral at Auxerre, southeast of Paris:

Seeing that his church was suffering from the age of its construction
and badly put together . . . whereas all the bishops around him were
raising cathedrals of a new and most splendid beauty, [the bishop] did
resolve to order a new edifice with the help of specialists skilled in the
art of building, so that it might not be so wholly different from the
others in its appearance.

The initial plan called for renovating the original cathedral, but apparently the project was not going well. The attempt to merge the newly fashionable Gothic style with the older Romanesque style was not succeeding, and signs of structural failure began to appear. The Bishop of Auxerre despaired that his renovations would ever result in a structure of any note. And then, the chronicler tells us, “fate intervened.” On May 6, 1210, the Feast Day of St. John, the old cathedral caught fire and burned, leading one observer to describe the fire as “timely, not to say opportune.” Immediately, the bishop set out to build a new cathedral along far more ambitious lines, using new Gothic forms. One year to the day after the fire, the first stone was laid.

In cathedrals and other kinds of great churches being built in France during this period, the quest was to achieve ever greater interior height. Table 2 shows the increasing interior nave height for selected French cathedrals and the date when construction began. In England the competition more often took the form of building interior spaces of astonishing length. Salisbury achieved an overall length of 452 feet, 8 inches; Canterbury, 540 feet; Winchester, 554 feet; and St. Paul’s, London ( [original structure] destroyed by fire in 1666), 600 feet.