In 1831, young novelist Victor Hugo published his first masterpiece, Notre-Dame de Paris, better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hunchback is set in 1482, when France was on the cusp of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church, though still powerful, was under attack on several fronts. Faith had been shaken by the recurrent plagues that swept Europe; internal church corruption caused public scandal; and the fires of the Reformation had reached France, greatly aided by the new printing press which enabled “heretical” ideas to spread uncontrolled.
Here are a few things you should know as you dive into the world of The Hunchback of Notre Dame!
Hugo’s novel had a massive influence on the literature of the Romantic Era. It was the first work of fiction to encompass the whole of life, from the King of France to Paris sewer rats, a technique later adopted by Balzac and Dickens. You also may know him as the original author of another much-loved musical theater show—Les Misérables. In Les Misérables, Hugo tried to take a more forgiving view of human nature than he had with Hunchback, written three decades earlier.
Feast of Fools
The Feast of Fools was an especially popular annual event when the haves and the have-nots switched places for a day of “Topsy Turvy.” Hugo chooses this day to start his story, as Quasimodo—the deformed, deaf and half-blind bell-ringer of Notre Dame—ventures for the first time outside the safety of the cathedral and is crowned King of Fools.
The Parisian social structure was strict and, it was believed, ordered by God. At the top were the hereditary nobility. Below them were the clerics, then the university students, then the wealthy merchants and the independent artisans (men who owned their own tools). At the bottom were the poor—70 percent of the population—who led short and precarious lives.
Also present at the Feast of Fools is a nomadic group of “gypsies,” including the beautiful Esmeralda, who takes pity on Quasimodo. Esmeralda and her people were outcasts themselves, looked on with suspicion but also exploited for entertainment. At the time, it was believed that they came originally from Egypt, hence the name “gypsy.” We now know that they actually came from the northern Indian subcontinent, and we no longer use the term “gypsy”; many of the Romani people, as we now call them, consider it an ethnic slur.
Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”)
This Catholic cathedral looms majestically over the Île de la Cité in the river Seine and is currently the most popular tourist site in Paris—but it almost didn’t survive to present day. Completed in 1345, Notre Dame is a stunning example of French Gothic architecture. Perhaps the most recognizable architectural feature—that we can see today and that Quasimodo saw—are the statues around the outside, most especially the famous gargoyles. Hugo believed that it was essential to preserve the irreplaceable examples of medieval architecture, and he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the intention of rallying his countrymen to the cause—and it worked! In 1845, a program was initiated to repair and restore Notre Dame.