Most people are familiar with Victor Hugo's masterpiece The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Various versions have been made, one of the most famous is the 1939 movie in which Charles Laughton plays Quasimodo. Even Disney produced a cartoon, sanitized for young viewers.
Contrary to the stories appearing on film, in Hugo's novel Quasimodo is a gypsy changeling who is exorcised and then left as a deformed foundling at Notre-Dame. The gypsy Esmeralda is ultimately executed by hanging at Montfaucon, Paris' most famous gibbet which was usually covered in carrion crows who pecked at the various corpses left there to rot.
In 1999, the discovery of a diary in Cornwall appears to reveal the real-life inspiration behind the character of Quasimodo the deaf bell-ringer of Notre Dame, and his tragic, unrequited love for the gypsy girl Esmeralda.
Clues suggesting that Quasimodo is based on a historical figure have been uncovered in the memoirs of Henry Sibson, a 19th-century British sculptor who was employed at the cathedral at around the time the book was written and who describes a hunched back stonemason also working there.
The documents were acquired by the Tate Archive in 1999 after they were discovered in the attic of a house in Penzance, Cornwall, as the owner prepared to move out.
However, the references to a "hunchback sculptor" working at Notre Dame have only just been discovered, as the memoirs are catalogued ahead of the archive's 40th anniversary this year.
The seven-volume memoirs document Sibson's time in Paris during the 1820s, when he was employed by contractors to work on repairs to Notre Dame Cathedral.
In one entry, he writes: "the [French] government had given orders for the repairing of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and it was now in progress ... I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures [for Notre Dame] and here I met with a Mons. Trajan, a most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed – he was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers."
In a later entry, Sibson writes about working with the same group of sculptors on another project outside Paris, where he again mentions the reclusive government sculptor, this time recalling his name as "Mon. Le Bossu". Le Bossu is French for "the hunchback".
He writes: "Mon Le Bossu (the Hunchback) a nickname given to him and I scarcely ever heard any other ... the Chief of the gang for there were a number of us, M. Le Bossu was pleased to tell Mon Trajan that he must be sure to take the little Englishman."
Adrian Glew, the Tate archivist, who made the discovery, said: "When I saw the references to the humpbacked sculptor at Notre Dame, and saw that the dates matched the time of Hugo's interest in the Cathedral, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I thought I should look into it."
Hugo began writing The Hunch Back of Notre Dame in 1828 and the book was published three years later. He had a strong interest in the restoration of the cathedral, with architecture featuring as a major theme in the book.
Hugo publicly opposed the original neoclassical scheme for Notre Dame's restoration led by the architect Etienne-Hippolyte Godde – the same scheme which Sibson describes Le Bossu and Trajan working on – favoring a more Gothic style for the cathedral.
The publication of The Hunch Back of Notre Dame in 1831, which made Hugo one of France's most acclaimed authors, is widely credited with prompting the Gothic restoration of the cathedral in 1844, designed by the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, which Hugo had championed.
His close links with the cathedral make it likely that he would have known Le Bossu and Trajan, and further research undertaken by Mr. Glew in the national archives of France has uncovered additional links between Hugo and the characters described by Sibson.
The Almanach de Paris from 1833 – which gives a list of all professionals working in the city – names a sculptor "Trajin" as living in Saint Germain-des-Pres, where Hugo also lived at the time.
An early draft of Les Misérables, another of Hugo's acclaimed novels, holds another clue indicating that Hugo drew on the Government sculptors described by Sibson for inspiration.
The lead character in an early version of the novel is named as "Jean Trejean" which Hugo later changed to "Jean Valjean".
Professor Sean Hand, the head of the Department of French Studies at the University of Warwick, and an expert on Hugo, said: "It is a fascinating discovery. Many scholars have tried to link Quasimodo's deformities with certain medical conditions, but I have never seen any reference to a historical character that he may have been based upon.
"It sounds entirely plausible, and if Hugo was indeed inspired by this deformed stonemason at Notre Dame, it further renews our appreciation of his amazing imaginative powers to take details from real life and weave them into magical literature."
Gerry Croydon, a distant relative of Sibson's, said: "Henry's diaries are fascinating, as he traveled the length and breadth of Europe and came across some amazing characters. The discovery that his diary may reveal the inspiration behind one of literature's great characters, is quite amazing."
The Marriage of Quasimodo
"We have already said that Quasimodo disappeared from Notre Dame on the day of the death of the gypsy girl and the Archdeacon. He was never seen again, nor was it known what became of him.
In the night following the execution of Esmeralda, the hangman’s assistants took down her body from the gibbet and carried it, according to custom, to the great charnel vault of Montfaucon.
Montfaucon, to use the words of Sauval, was 'the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom'.
It was connected at the top by heavy beams, from which hung chains at regular intervals; at each of these chains, skeletons; close by, in the plain, a stone cross and two secondary gibbets, rising like shoots of the great central tree; in the sky, hovering over the whole, a perpetual crowd of carrion crows.
By the end of the fifteenth century, this formidable gibbet, which had stood since 1328, had fallen upon evil days. The beams were worm-eaten, the chains corroded with rust, the pillars green with mold, the blocks of hewn stone gaped away from one another, and grass was growing on the platform on which no human foot ever trod now.
The profile of this edifice upon the sky was a horrible one, especially at night, when the faint moonlight fell upon those bleached skulls, or when the night breeze, shaking the chains and the skeletons, made them rattle in the dark. The presence of this gibbet was sufficient to induce a belief that all environs were haunted.
The mass of masonry that formed the base of the repulsive edifice was hollow, and an immense cavern had been constructed in it, closed by an old battered iron grating, into which were thrown not only the human relics that fell from the chains of Montfaucon itself, but also the bodies of the victims of all the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and the memory of so many crimes have rotted and mingled together, many a great one of the earth, and many an innocent victim have contributed their bones.
As for Quasimodo’s mysterious disappearance, all that we have been able to ascertain on the subject is this:
About a year and a half or two years after the concluding events of this story, when search was being made in the pit of Montfaucon for the body of Olivier le Daim, who had been hanged two days before, and to whom Charles VIII granted the favor of being interred at Saint-Laurent in better company, there were found among these hideous carcasses two skeletons, the one clasped in the arms of the other.
One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, had still about it some tattered remnants of a garment that had once been white, and about its neck was a string of beads together with a small silken bag ornamented with green glass, but open and empty. These objects had been of so little value that the executioner, doubtless, had scorned to take them. The other skeleton, which held this one in so close a clasp, was that of a man. It was observed that the spine was crooked, the skull compressed between the shoulder-blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. There was no rupture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, from which it was evident that the man had not been hanged. He must, therefore, have come of himself and died there. 8
When they attempted to detach this skeleton from the one it was embracing, it fell to dust". — The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Haunting of Montfaucon
Even though the story of the unfortunate Quasimodo is fictional, the existence of the gibbet Montfaucon and the land it stood upon is not.
53, Rue de la Grange aux Belles, Paris, is in an area that was once part of the countryside outside the medieval walls of Paris. Standing there, you would have had a good view of the city since it's situated on an elevated mound. The area now called Montmartre would have been visible towards the northwest. Close by would have been the leper colony of St. Lazare, the Convent of the Filles-Dieu (a home for prostitutes), and it was just north of the original Hôspital Saint-Louis. Clearly, the king did not want any undesirable elements within the walls of his city.
It was here that the Montfaucon Gallows was erected around the late 13th century, and was used until 1629 and finally dismantled in 1760. The structure was used to hang people and to display the bodies of the executed sometimes for as long as three years. Sometimes the bodies stank so badly that when the wind blew from the northeast, the smell could be discerned in what was the far off city at that time.
There are various areas nearby cited as the original location of the Gibet de Montfaucon such as the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont or the area bounded by Avenue Secrétan and Rue de Meaux.
In 1954, the construction of the garage at Rue de la Grange aux Belles revealed the bases of two stone pillars and human bones. It was believed these were remains from the charnel house that sat underneath the gibbet, and that this was evidence enough to support the location of Gibet de Montfaucon.
It is said that if you stand near 53, Rue de la Grange aux Belles late at night and listen carefully, you will hear the rattle of chains and the moans of the gibbet’s victims.
UPDATE April 15, 2019 - Extensive Fire at the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
Conspiracy theories swirl amidst the statement from the French police that the fire that consumed a good portion of this beautiful, Gothic cathedral is believed to be accidental.
Less than a week before Holy Week and Easter, Parisians and tourists present gathered to pray across the river from Notre Dame as a blaze collapsed the cathedral's spire and smoke filled the sky. Notre Dame had been undergoing a $6.8 million renovation project, which surrounded the edifice in scaffolding, and which is potentially linked to the reason for the fire.
The iconic landmark situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river as stood for over 800 years, and took over 100 years to complete.
UPDATE July 2020 - Notre Dame's Spire Following Original Design Contemporary Design Scrubbed
According to an article on Hypebeast:
Drawing much controversy, it now appears that the plan to redesign the spire has fallen through, with Macron withdrawing the plans. When first announced, the redesign was met with much criticism from everyone spanning across architects, academics, conservationists, and just regular Parisians. The outcry led to the French Senate passing a bill that requires reconstruction to the spire’s “last known visual state,” and Notre Dame’s chief architect Philippe Villineuve even threatened to resign if the design of the spire was to be altered. In light of these protests, Macron has now cancelled the competition, vowing to restore the cathedral and its spire to their original designs.
SOUrCES FOR THIS ARTICLE: The Telegraph, Stew Ross Discovers
We want you to feel at home when you post a comment on Stranger Than Fiction Stories. That’s why we reserve the right to delete comments and ban users as needed to keep the comment threads here civil and substantive. So read the guidelines below to make sure you are coloring inside the lines.
Do you have a story to tell?