Chaucer and Notre-Dame de Paris

by Candace Barrington

NotreDame15c
When Geoffrey Chaucer traveled to Paris in the 1370s on diplomatic missions for the English crown, he would have seen the city’s cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, situated on the Île de la Cité. Its Gothic renovations complete, the cathedral would have looked much as it does in this 15c miniature. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10509064d/f372

Paris does not loom large in Chaucer’s biography.[1] From a cluster of documents (Life-Records 46-61), we know he took the month-long trip from England to Paris (as well as Flanders and Montreuil) multiple times in the 1370s. Part of the ceaseless back-and-forth of merchants, diplomats, soldiers, and pilgrims crossing the channel, Chaucer’s series of trips to France and Flanders were made on behalf of the English crown to negotiate for peace and to broker a marriage between Richard and a French princess. Modern biographies that speculate on Chaucer’s encounters on these trips tend to consider the poets and diplomats he met (or might have met), not what Parisian architecture or music he could have seen or heard.

The paucity of Parisian references in Chaucer’s verse helps contribute to why no scholar has titled an essay “Chaucer in Paris.” Among the Canterbury tales, Paris figures in only The Shipman’s Tale, which three times mentions Paris as where daun John lives and where the merchant borrows money, suggesting that Chaucer knew the city as both a religious and a financial hub, knowledge he could have acquired by its reputation without ever visiting it. More telling evidence of his visits to Paris appears in his description of the House of Fame palace; its row of poets standing on pillars might draw on the royal palace in Paris (HF 1319-1519).[2] The only other cases are interestingly negative: Paris is the source of the sophisticated French that the Prioress does not speak (CT 1.126), and it is the place where Heloise is not the abbess in Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves (CT 3.678).

While Paris is nearly absent in The Canterbury Tales, the city’s cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, is completely absent. That absence should not suggest Chaucer was unaware of the legendary cathedral. Though nestled among many other churches sharing the city’s vertical skyline comprising towers, belfries, and high-pitched roofs, the cathedral rose above them all. Its two towers reached over 225 feet—about 16 stories—and were the tallest structures in Paris, making the cathedral visible from throughout the city. As we learn from contemporary travel literature, the cathedral would have been immediately visible to anyone approaching the city, whether from the north or the south. [3] Notre-Dame would not have escaped his notice.

Inside, Chaucer would have marked Notre-Dame’s soaring interior height.  Unlike Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral—three of England’s great churches that emphasized length rather than height—Notre-Dame’s nave vaults rose 108 feet. Its three rose windows would have been in place, each still glowing with its original glass. The original thirteenth-century spire would have still been in place, not to be removed until 1786. He would not have seen, however, the 16 prophets painted on glass beneath the South Rose window; those are Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s nineteenth-century additions. Nor could he have found there such relics as the Crown of Thorns and part of the True Cross, both in the custody of Sainte Chapelle since the mid-thirteenth century. And he could not have listened to an organ concert; none was yet installed. Nevertheless, despite some different elements, Notre-Dame de Paris would have inspired awe in a fourteenth-century visitor.

If Chaucer had traveled as extensively as his fictional Wife of Bath, he might have heard about the stained-glass windows and “gothic” arches at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, an eleventh-century mosque that was also damaged by fire on 15 April 2019.  Elsewhere in the Levant, he would have witnessed other Muslim and Middle Eastern innovations, such as the twin towers, the ribbed vaulting, and spires—all of which had been incorporated into Notre-Dame de Paris (as well as Europe’s other grand church buildings).

If he could had peered 650 years into the future, Chaucer would not have been surprised by the Holy Week 2019 fire that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris. In England, the Canterbury Cathedral received its Gothic look after a 1174 fire required the choir to be rebuilt. In Chaucer’s lifetime, it had been damaged in 1382 by an earthquake. Even today, Canterbury Cathedral’s lead roof is held up by an intricate latticework of wooden beams similar to those that held up Notre-Dame’s roof. These extravagant buildings that took centuries to build have always been and remain vulnerable to destruction, whether by forces natural or those man-made.

Nor would Chaucer have been surprised by the rush of wealthy individuals and global conglomerates pledging to restore the cathedral by promising $1 billion within a week of the fire. We have Erasmus’s story that when he visited Thomas á Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in the 1510s, the prior opened, with great theatrical flourish, the box containing Becket’s remains as well as jewels, with each jewel’s monetary value and donating monarch carefully enumerated for the gathered crowd. Attaching one’s name and future to glorious religious foundations has long been the sport of the rich.

Chaucer probably would have been surprised, however, by calls to restore the cathedral to its “original condition.” In the fourteenth century, fires and other calamities were opportunities to upgrade and modernize. In his frequent trips through Canterbury on his continental travels, he would have witnessed how that cathedral was being rebuilt to conform to the more au courant Gothic style, with large portions of the original Romanesque elements removed and replaced. Most likely, his visits to French Gothic cathedrals such as Notre-Dame de Paris would have given him a sense how Canterbury Cathedral would look and feel after its renovations were completed in 1400. Recreating what had already failed might have seemed a curious enterprise to him.

At the same time, Chaucer would have understood our collective grief. He repeatedly returns to images of the walled city of Troy, burned and forever lost, as inciting great sorrow and mourning.[4]  As he well knew, powerful kingdoms, even empires, might be built by those who escape the ashes, yet remembrance of the loss always provokes “tendre wepyng for pitee” (CT 2.292).

 

[1] See, for instance, Marion Turner’s 2019 Chaucer: A European Life.

[2] Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, page 117, citing Laura Kendrick’s 1984 Studies in the Age of Chaucer article.

[3]Stephen G. Nichols, “Paris,” in Europe, A Literary History, edited by David Wallace, 1.22.

[4] Most poignantly, HF 151-211.

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