Standard tourist question in Paris: is that Notre Dame? The short answer is usually no. One possible longer answer would be which Notre Dame? There are 37 churches in Paris called Notre Dame (Our Lady) of something or other. According the Wikipedia page listing religious buildings in Paris, there are 197 churches in Paris at the moment. That’s just in the 20 arrondissements of Paris proper. Even without bearing in mind the observation that French society can be aggressively anti-clerical, that’s a lot of churches.
Robert Cole’s explanation: as the year 1000 approached, everyone knew that the world was going to end. Prayer for the sparing of life was widespread, and when the world did not, in fact, end, gratitude was widespread as well. A spate of church-building was the result.
Should we buy this account? Clearly the churches of Paris are not generally anywhere near that old. Parts of Saint-Germain-des-prés go back 1000 years, and Saint-Julien-le-pauvre began construction in the 1100s, but most Parisian churches are at least a hundred years younger than that. So, you could call Cole’s explanation into question because of that. However, it’s also certainly the case that many Parisian churches are built on the sites of earlier churches, or are mostly additions to earlier churches, or are replacements for churches that burnt down, or exploded, or set on fire by Vikings (I’m not kidding about any of this), or what-have-you. So, there’s often some rationale for dating a church as being earlier than the current state of whatever you happen to see on the spot today. For example, the current Saint-Germain-des-prés is dated to 1014, but it replaced another church that went up on the same spot in 542. Saint-Julien-le-pauvre replaced another church built on the same spot in the 500s. Google oldest church in paris and it will suggest both Saint-Germain-des-prés and Saint-Julien-le-pauvre. It’s a difficult question. But, it’s not inconsistent with Cole’s story.
A personal digression: my very boring little residential neighborhood alone contains a Gallic Rite church–the somewhat-Celtic, somewhat Eastern Orthodox–and possibly somewhat Dark Ages French–Gallic Rite was abolished at some point (can anyone tell me when?), but later revived by Russian emigres in Paris in the early 20th century–and a wonderful Art Deco church. I always assumed that Art Deco was totally American–it turns out that Art Deco is short for Arts Décoratifs, and the style had its origin in France. Who knew? Personally, I don’t think that this list of the ten most unusual churches in Paris has anything on my little neighborhood.
For more information on millenialism in medieval France, see:
- Robert Cole’s wonderful A traveller’s history of Paris.
- This article for a discussion of skepticism about the importance of millenialism in understanding medieval France: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/17/nyregion/beliefs-millennial-fears-year-1000-apocalypse-then-apocalypse-now-apocalypse.html
Some good vocabulary for talking about churches in French:
- la voûte: vault.
- voûté (adj.): vaulted, arched.
- voûté: stooped, round-shouldered.
- la clé/clef de voûte: keystone.
- la voûte en ogive: ribbed vault.