Notre Dame Fire: Rummaging Through the Relics

By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host

Notre Dame caught fire this week. It took a while for it to hit me, but it hit me hard. I’ve never been there, but I have rattled around a few cathedrals in Germany. I like to climb the towers, if they’ll let me.

Why did it bother me? It’s just an old building. Sure, there’s a religious aspect to it, but I wouldn’t particularly care if my childhood parish were demolished. It looks like a barn anyway. Notre Dame is not my childhood parish, a permanent temporary structure designed and built during a cultural nadir. Rather, it’s the expression in stone, wood, and glass of the high culture of the European middle ages.

It was a very high culture that had pulled itself back together after the legions left and the barbarians came. Truth to tell, it was actually the culture of the barbarians themselves. The Europeans in the middle ages had a distinctive philosophy, a synoptic view of the world from top to bottom that wasn’t ever disproved by modern thinking but was just set aside. After all, how could anything from the “middle ages” be good? It’s in the middle!

Christian Europe was so cultured that these towns would embark on centuries-long expressions of that culture. It seems almost as if every town in Europe has a cathedral, most of them Gothic like Notre Dame. A cathedral in Cologne took seven centuries to complete. Imagine such a project happening now!

Nameless artisans completed the work. The architecture and engineering were ad-hoc and rule of thumb. There was no structural steel or concrete. And yet, out of the bones of the earth they built airy edifices of stone that ushered light in through impossibly delicate windows, since God, in their metaphysics, dwelt in inaccessible light, all made possible by the ingenious trick of flying buttresses.

We couldn’t build anything like it today. The Catholic basilica in Washington, DC, of which I’m fond, is a disjointed mess, combining squatness and height at the same time. We aren’t as good at Beauty as the Europeans who went before us, at least in our places of worship.

Who were these people? The current temptation is to elevate our modern culture and to disrespect those who went before us. We are much more enlightened than they were. I understand; It’s a constant temptation to declare oneself as the culmination of history. Its also true that we have conquered lots of diseases and have I-phones and other technological marvels. But these people were not idiots. The medievals were a force to be reckoned with. They were a people who took their intellectual, moral, and spiritual life very seriously. Whatever we are, we are because of what they were.

If the fire has gotten you down, my recommendation is that you delve into the remnants of the culture that made it. We have lots of their books, art, and poetry left. You can, for now, walk through the cities they planned and rest in the plazas and squares that they left us. If you enjoy bourbon, you can thank medieval Ramon Llull, who invented the distilling process. You can take a look at Dante, Aquinas, Ockham, Chaucer, at the tapestries and frescoes, at the Magna Carta and common law, all the books we read here at Online Great Books that survived because they were copied by medieval monks, and you can see how much of you is a cathedral built from medieval stones.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are not official positions of Online Great Books. They may not even be the opinions of the author. Adopt them at your own risk!