Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"May the Hatchet and the Hammer Never Damage It!" the Fate of the Cathedral of Chartres during the French Revolution

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"May the Hatchet and the Hammer Never Damage It!" the Fate of the Cathedral of Chartres during the French Revolution

Article excerpt

According to a very dramatic account of Chartres during the French Revolution, the town's Gothic cathedral barely escaped destruction in November 1793 after the local Popular Society lobbied in favor of a proposal to tear it down. An in-depth examination casts some doubt on the veracity of this tale. Some of the sources that may have supported this story have since been destroyed, while the records of the municipal, district, and departmental governments make no mention of any such proposal. Furthermore, the actions of the local government on behalf of the cathedral throughout the Revolution reveal the officials' dedication to preserving its structural stability and sacred character. They could hardly have contemplated destroying a building that they had so painstakingly tried to maintain.

According to a very dramatic account of Chartres during the French Revolution, the town's illustrious Gothic cathedral came close to ending up as a pile of rubble. The tale of its preservation proved every bit as miraculous as the conservation of its sacred relic, the veil of the Virgin, from the fire of 1194. Cochon-Bobus offered a fateful proposal to his fellow members of the commune's Popular Society on 23 brumaire An II (November 13, 1793). Since the cost of maintaining Chartres's famous, Gothic cathedral continued to mount, he reasoned that the municipality should tear it down and erect a smaller monument to the Revolution in its place. With the dechristianization movement well underway throughout France, the members of the Popular Society applauded his recommendation to rid their community of its most obvious beacon of Christian worship. They decided to put pressure on the municipal council to execute this destructive plan, and in apparent compliance the town leaders even went so far as to find a contractor who expressed his willingness to perform the task if the city would allow him to sell the rubble.

At this critical point in the story, the fate of the medieval masterpiece hung in the balance as the city's officials were on the verge of consenting to the demolition. Suddenly, one among them had the foresight to recommend that they consult Laurent Morin. This deus ex machina in the guise of a local architect contrived a pragmatic argument to save the monument. He advised the council to ascertain from the contractor what he intended to do with the debris once the structure had been leveled. A building of this magnitude, he pointed out, would produce thousands of cubic meters of debris, and without an adequate removal strategy, this rubble would obstruct the streets and severely hamper trade and transportation into the heart of the town. Upon being questioned about the removal of debris, the demolitioner could not produce any viable means of satisfying these concerns and so withdrew his offer. No other contractors proffered their services, and after this incident, no more schemes of dismantlement threatened the church.1

At first glance, this story seems entirely plausible since the time frame and description of events correspond to the dechristianization movement that lasted from 1792 to 1794. In order to transfer people's devotions from their religion to the new French Republic, the national government sought to dechristianize the French nation by eradicating all traces of Christian worship and replacing them with religious cults that glorified the Revolution and deified the virtues of reason and liberty. In many instances, dechristianization led to the destruction of Christian symbols, art, and sacred spaces. As a result, religious structures, even those of great renown such as Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, were damaged or even completely razed to the ground.2 Thus, the story of Chartres cathedral's possible destruction seems ostensibly consistent with the dechristianization efforts during the Reign of Terror.

This tale, however, requires greater analysis before the cathedral of Chartres can be classified as one of the near victims of the French Revolution. …

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