Along with everyone else, I was saddened by news of a fire engulfing the Notre-Dame de Paris today. My immediate reaction, like most lovers of history, was to look to the past to gain perspective on the modern event. Surely the fire couldn’t be the first disaster suffered by the structure, I reasoned. The building's been around since the 12th century and has survived multiple tumultuous periods of European history (including the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte). A single fire couldn’t be the worst it’s endured. I hoped so, anyway.
My hunch was partially true (though I can’t really be certain of this until the fire’s full damage is quantified). The cathedral has, in fact, seen long periods of disrepair. Its stained glass have been shot out. Its walls have been weathered by air pollution. Its been robbed and ignored.
Of all the stories of Notre Dame’s past, though, one stands out particularly prominently, not merely for the damage associated with it, but also for its pure strangeness. The story I’m referring to involved the damage wrought upon Notre Dame cathedral and its contents in 1793 by the Cult of Reason, a group I’d never previously heard of and one I instantly felt compelled to dig into and write about.
As of this writing, the Notre Dame cathedral has been saved from total ruin, but we likely won’t know the full extent of the damage for a few days at least. So, it may very well have exceeded the damage wrought on it by the Cult of Reason. Regardless, I take some solace in knowing the cathedral has indeed survived destruction in the past.
As all my readers know, I have a soft spot in my heart for the grotesque and the weird—and for weird history in particular. So, while I certainly don’t want to downplay the gravity of the Notre Dame fire, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my discovery of the Cult of Reason didn’t shift my mood from sadness towards something closer to giddy fascination.
So, step into the Weirdery with me, friends, as the ashes of the Notre Dame cathedral still flutter down softly to the streets of Paris. Allow me to regale you with this tale of weird history and ruin at the Notre Dame de Paris.
Straight Out of the French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction to an Event that Reshaped the World
The French Revolution started on May 5th, 1789, and ended on November 9, 1799. Over the course of its decade of existence, the revolution completely upended French society and politics.
Those years were violent and mad, with characters rising up out from every nook and cranny to add their own little touch to the upheaval. Mind you, these events weren’t merely a matter of French concern. The ripples they created altered the shape of the entire world’s political and cultural landscape. The importance of the event really cannot be overstated.
No name to come out of the French Revolution is more famous than that of Napoleon, of course, but both he and the revolution itself are widely known of today by most people likely to read this article, and it’s hardly within the scope of this piece to try to research and write about that whole scenario. For anyone who has managed to remain completely in the dark about this chapter of history, I recommend digging into it through some of the many other available sources.
For this particular piece, I just want to talk about the Cult of Reason. The name itself is endlessly titillating, eh?
A Living Approach With More Wisdom, Rationality—And the Smashing of Things
One of the reasons the French Revolution kicked off was dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church which, before the revolution, was the official French religion and called the shots all over the country.
A group of men became bonded by their opposition to that church, which they deemed morally, intellectually, and politically oppressive (they’d still find many friends in this regard today). These fellows didn’t share all the same philosophies, creeds, or ideas with each other. They were united not by a universal vision of life, but instead by their hatred of Catholicism and religiosity in general, and by the notion that life should be governed by reason and rationality.
This pack of rabid rationalists came to be called the Cult of Reason.
Enter the Cult of Reason
During the chaos of the French Revolution, the Cult of Reason officially replaced Roman Catholicism as the state religion. In French, “culte” doesn’t mean quite the same as it does for Americans. There’s nothing necessarily negative about the term. It’s just a word for worship.
What’s so fascinating about this “cult” is that they were unambiguously atheistic, using only concepts like Reason for their divine inspiration, but not in a theistic sense. Ostensibly, at least, the cult wasn’t about blindly following a leader or any (as they deemed them) superstitious ideas. They were out to reshape France as a nation of rationalists and freethinkers.
This dedication to the intellect sounds all well and good, except that much of the group’s ensuing behavior didn’t much resemble reason or rationality at all.
On November 10, 1793, the Festival of Reason was held all across France, with the cult converting churches to “Temples of Reason.” Notre Dame was the site of the biggest of all these ceremonies. The words “To Philosophy” were carved over buildings’ doors. Its altar was destroyed.
Worse than all that, the Cult of Reason destroyed all of the statues on the outside of Notre Dame. They also stole or smashed countless works of art and treasures and cut the heads off of 28 statues of Biblical kings.
None of this story happened in a vacuum. For the entirety of its existence, the Cult of Reason was opposed by a rival faction called the Cult of the Supreme Being, led by Maximilien Robespierre. Still, the Cult of Reason, while having its detractors, gained followers as time stretched on and wasn’t put out of commission until the aforementioned Napoleon took power and legally forbade all cults from France.
Though the group was disbanded, the fact is that the damage the Cult of Reason did can’t be undone. Those Notre Dame artworks and treasures were permanently lost in 1793. Beyond their artistic value, they were touchstones to their era and previous eras, and were as great or greater a loss than any other historical artifacts.
The cult’s anti-Catholicism is possibly understandable within the framework of their era (hell, many would argue it’s understandable even still in our modern era). Even the group’s general anti-religiosity can be defended intellectually. The Cult of Reason’s treatment of the historically and culturally important works of Notre Dame, on the other hand, is hard to justify on the grounds of “reason.” It’s difficult for me to even grasp, really.
From my vantage point, it’s every bit as sad as the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or ISIS’ attacks on various sites of historic importance. Every bit as sad as the loss of the Library of Alexandria, or the regular looting of Egyptian tombs that occurred over centuries.
I’m certainly not here to cast judgment on a bunch of Frenchmen who lived over two hundred years ago, though. I find their whole story rather fascinating, really, even if I find their destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral’s artifacts repugnant. For all their silly vandalism, what a wonderfully weird movement they represented.
Rather than trying to bash a bunch of dead people, I write about the Cult of Reason’s story for the same reason I dug into it in the first point. The sheer strangeness of it is a salve to my soul, but it’s also reassuring in its way.
The Notre Dame de Paris has suffered before. The 2019 fire is not its first rodeo. The building’s been under a fair share of duress, and it has always rebuilt and regathered new artifacts, artworks, and historical artifacts.
There’s hope in this story, I think.
Bad as the fire was, the Notre Dame cathedral still stands, just as it did after the Cult of Reason’s assault, and just as it has for hundreds of years. I’m not Catholic, but I hope the cathedrals stands for hundreds more, simply and purely as a symbol of history, culture, and beauty — a touchstone to the foundations of Western Civilization.