At 11am on Easter Sunday 1950, Michel Mourre, a disaffected and angry young would-be artist, stepped forward towards the altar at Notre-Dame as High Mass was about to begin. He was disguised as a Dominican friar. His plan was to walk up to the microphone and read a prepared text. As well as the massive congregation in the cathedral, there was an estimated worldwide radio audience of some hundreds of thousands. He approached the rostrum and began reading:
I accuse the Catholic Church of infecting the world with its funereal morality,
Of being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.
Verily I say unto you: God is dead…
Mourre had barely begun his oration when the great organ of Notre-Dame roared into life. Mourre’s anti-clerical comrades had infiltrated the congregation and at this point rushed towards him, trying to smuggle him out of Notre-Dame. The Swiss Guards, custodians of the cathedral, then exploded into action, drawing their swords, which they meant to use in anger against the blasphemer. The gang was captured by a crowd that had pursued them towards the Seine, fully intent on lynching them. They were rescued by the police, who immediately arrested them, almost certainly saving their lives.
The ‘scandal of Notre-Dame’ made headlines across the French-speaking world; the consensus in the newspapers was that this kind of very deliberate blasphemy and hooliganism was an inevitable outgrowth of the amoral world of rebellious youth on the Left Bank. Most damning of all, according to the press, was the fact that Mourre professed to be an admirer of Sartre’s novel La Nausée, then the best-known ‘existentialist’ guide to alienation and loss of faith and a book that, though largely unread, was still notorious in the world beyond the free-living bohemians of the Left Bank.
Agnès Poirier’s last book, a history of the Left Bank in the 1940s, was a celebration of that milieu. Here she takes a much more reverential turn, telling the story of the great cathedral – not as the target of the iconoclastic fury of the proto-punks of the Left Bank but as a national icon. Her starting point is the early evening of 15 April 2019, when Notre-Dame caught fire and looked, for a brief moment, as if it might indeed crumble into ashes and dust. Even to the most sceptical nonbeliever, the sight of Notre-Dame in flames was terrifying. Poirier describes her own response vividly and with raw feeling: ‘Of the night of the fire I remember a kaleidoscope of images, a collision of emotions, in quick succession.’ This pretty much captures the mood of the entire French nation, who watched from the banks of the Seine or on television with disbelief as their most cherished religious symbol burned, truly a scene from a medieval apocalypse painting.
Poirier opens her book by focusing on the bravery, ingenuity and speed with which the Parisian firefighters brought the blaze under control and saved the cathedral. She also places the fire in the very immediate political context of the political discontent and anger, spearheaded by the Gilets Jaunes movement, which had been convulsing France through the winter of 2018–19. This serves as a clever introduction to the rest of the book, in which she sets out to the tell the story of Notre-Dame, from the moment when the first stones were laid in 1161 under the watchful gaze of Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris. The aim of the French monarchs then was to make Paris and not Rome the true religious capital of Europe.
The tale is told in a brisk and entertaining manner, but this is a slim volume and sometimes the pace can be a little too brisk. For example, although Poirier references Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, she might well have dwelled further on its monumental place in French cultural history. She is better when she returns to the present, whether describing the 2013 protest by the feminist group FEMEN, inspired by Pussy Riot (and heirs of Michel Mourre), who staged a mock suicide in the cathedral and were escorted near-naked from the building shouting the slogan ‘Pope, no more’, or how, on 8 January 2015, the bells rang in mourning for the murdered ‘staunch atheists’ of Charlie Hebdo. And then there is the ongoing political battle over what the rebuilt cathedral will look like – a struggle pitting high finance against Christian ethics.
There is much to be learned here. Most important of all is the certainty that, although the great church is currently in crisis, its epic story – like that of France, ‘the Great Nation’ it incarnates – is not yet over.