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. But is there any truth to this story?
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 unrequited love for Esmeralda who fascinated her fellow Parisians with her gypsy dance.
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 were recently cataloged. They are comprised of 7 volumes covering the time Sibson worked on repairs to Notre Dame Cathedral in the 1820s.
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.
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
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer