Medievalism and Modernity in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

Alex J. Novikoff

Rhodes College


Set in medieval Paris, Victor Hugo’s classic historical romance The Hunchback of Notre Dame has resonated with succeeding generations of readers since its initial publication in 1831. Published just one year after the July Revolution toppled the restoration monarchy of the Bourbon King Charles X, replacing him with the constitutional monarchy of his cousin Louis-Philippe, Hugo’s tale of France’s most iconic medieval edifice has endured even as monarchies have risen and fallen and as allegiances to the Catholic Church has markedly declined. Leaving aside the tragic love for the beautiful Esmeralda by that most timeless of characters, Quasimodo, the novel is an important gauge of nineteenth-century medievalism and a wonderful point of entry for students coming to the European Middle Ages for the first time. And although Hugo had no formal training in medieval history or literature, he truly ought to be considered something of a medievalist avant la lettre. He served on committees dedicated to the preservation of France’s old buildings and wrote public opinion articles lambasting the architectural “vandals” who were tearing down medieval structures across the country in the name of progress and profit.[1] This review will highlight some of the “medieval moments” that Hugo and the novel evoke and assess their accuracy and relevance for a modern classroom. The availability of multiple screen versions of the novel further make The Hunchback of Notre Dame an eminently teachable text. A few of these will be mentioned below.

Hugo1The plot itself needs little introduction. It tells the story of a beautiful gypsy street dancer who is condemned as a witch by the archdeacon Claude Frollo who simultaneously lusts after her. Quasimodo, the deformed but well-intentioned bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, falls in love with Esmerelda and tries to save her from her fate by hiding her in the cathedral’s tower. When a crowd of Parisian merchants and artisans, misunderstanding Quasimodo’s motives, attacks the cathedral in an attempt to liberate her, the story ends in tragedy. Years later when a gravedigger stumbles across Esmerelda’s remains, he finds the skeleton of a hunchback curled around her.[2]

The historical reconstruction in the book’s first section offers an excellent example of Hugo’s medievalism. The novel opens on the 6th of January 1482 on the occasion of the annual Feast of Fools. The Feast was a popular medieval festival, celebrated by clergy and laity until the sixteenth century in various countries, but principally in France. The central idea of the festival was akin to a mock social revolution, in which power, dignity, and impunity are briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position (a medieval successor to the Roman Saturnalia, which served a similar parodic function). Throughout the opening book, a jeering mob, made up mainly of students, shouts insults at ecclesiastical and university officials. Hugo’s audience would not have missed the revolutionary overtones of this opening scene, and the date assigned for the plot, 1482, fixes the action firmly in the Late Middle Ages; that is, on the cusp of a more humane and enlightened period.[3]

The action of the opening scenes alternates between the Ile de la Cité and the Place de Grève, the public square on the Right Bank where formal announcements and public executions were carried out.[4] The streets leading to the Palace of Justice on the Cité were particularly crowded on this day, we are told, because the Flemish ambassadors who had come to witness the marriage of Louis XI’s son to a Flemish princess planned to attend the performance of a morality play (mystère). The play is by Pierre Gringoire, a struggling playwright whose only true “friend” is philosophy. When a beggar leaps on stage and distracts the actors, the crowd’s desire for spectacle overtakes their short-lived devotion to serious drama. The Feast of Fools commences with the election of Quasimodo as “King” and the drama of the century then gradually unfolds. The two ill-fated social outcasts meet a few days later when the kind-hearted Esmeralda offers Quasimodo water at the pillori to which he has been unjustly condemned. The protagonists’ lack of background is relevant. Quasimodo was brought up by Frollo after being abandoned at birth and Esmeralda was raised as an orphan, only discovering her true mother later in the novel. In this, as well as in the final storming of the cathedral by the mob, the novel again makes oblique reference to the social upheavals that will shake France to its core in 1789 and again in 1830.

Hugo2There are, of course, a number of complications with Hugo’s scenario. Gringoire, another figure on the margins of society in Hugo’s version, was indeed a satirical playwright of the period, but he was active during the reigns of Louis XII (1498-1515) and Francis I (1515-1547) and was probably too young to have been writing in 1482. And while dates for the celebration of Feast of Fools varied, it was more often held between Christmas and the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1) than on the Epiphany (January 6). More importantly, the carnival-like elements of the Feast were the source of perpetual consternation to authorities from the late twelfth century onward. It was forbidden under the severest of penalties at the Council of Basel in 1431 and again by the theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1444. King Charles VII of France condemned it outright in 1445. While there are scattered instances of the event as late as the sixteenth century, there is little likelihood of a Feast of Fools taking place in the heart of Paris in 1482. Finally, Hugo does not distinguish, as most scholars today would, between mystery plays and morality plays. Mystery plays originated in the twelfth century and staged stories from the Bible, accompanying them with antiphonal song. Morality plays grew out of mystery plays but were somewhat more secular and allegorical in nature and predominated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. But Hugo freely admits that he strives for imaginative reconstruction rather than historical accuracy. “If we could, mortals living in this year of 1830, imagine ourselves mixed up with those fifteenth-century Parisians…the sight would not be lacking in interest or in charm; and all that we should see around us would be so ancient as to appear absolutely new.”[5] Hugo bids us to learn from the past and interpret current events in historical perspective.

One of the novel’s notable accomplishments is the lively evocation and indeed inclusion of multiple strata of medieval society within a single panorama. Hugo does this while recognizing the tensions that exist among the different classes. This is presented both implicitly and explicitly, such as when the narrator notes that the allegorical figures of Gringoire’s play (clergy, nobility, merchants) represent the same class differences that inspired the recent revolution. Hugo was determined to trace current social and political problems back to their medieval roots, and to achieve the maximum effect he must carefully embed his tale within a painstaking reconstruction of medieval Paris, its buildings and its public. As with an urban landscape painting, we are introduced not only to the imposing cathedral and the Place de Grève, but also the different quarters and streets that formed the hub of intellectual life: the Cité, the University, and the Palace of Justice. Minute details of the buildings, their arches and stained glass, are carefully described, all while the mob (in the fifteenth century as in the nineteenth) remains hopelessly oblivious to them.

Victor_Hugo-HunchbackThe epicenter of the novel, of course, is the Gothic cathedral itself. It is easy to forget that significant portions of the novel are in fact lengthy digressions on the neglected marvels of Paris’s forgotten past. “Our fathers had a Paris of stone; our children will have a Paris of plaster,” Hugo says in one of his characteristic cri de coeur. The original French title was Notre-Dame de Paris, with no special reference to the protagonist. In fact, Hugo rebuked the first English translation of the title (1833); he felt it detracted from the cathedral and placed too much emphasis on the morbidity of Quasimodo. In some sense, however, the original title and the English translation reflect the relative fixations of Francophone and Anglophone audiences on the novel’s central tensions: the unexamined beauty of a dark and somber cathedral versus the purity and goodness of a hideous hunchback. Both ideals are beautifully conveyed in Luc-Olivier Merson’s nineteenth-century engraving of Quasimodo slumbering on a gargoyle, towering over the houses of Paris. From up high he sees the city, but its denizens do not see him; He is a symbol of the gargoyles just as they are symbolic of him. One is tempted to compare the image of Quasimodo perched on the Gothic cathedral with the iconic 1932 photo of eleven anonymous construction workers, dirtied and tired, having lunch sitting atop a skyscraper girder in New York City.

New York Construction Workers Lunching on a CrossbeamRecreating medieval Paris required careful reading on Hugo’s part. The principal source for his description of the city was Henri Sauval’s Histoires et recherches des Antiquités de la Ville de Paris, published posthumously in 3 volumes in 1724 and still consulted by experts today. He also drew on P. Jacques du Breul’s Le Théatre des Antiquités de Paris (1622) as well as Pierre Matthieu’s Histoire de Louys XI, roy de France (1610), having become fascinated with King Louis XI after reading Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward (1823), which centers on the rivalry between Louis XI and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. For students wanting more up-to-date plans of the urban geography of medieval Paris, the areas in question city can best be appreciated in the recent and superbly illustrated volume by Philippe Lorentz and Dany Sandron, Atlas de Paris au Moyen Âge: Espace urbain, habitat, societé, religion, lieux de pouvoir (Paris: Parigramme, 2006). This can be supplemented with the decidedly un-illustrated, but very well informed, narrative portrait of the city by Simone Roux, Paris in the Middle Ages, trans. Jo Ann McNamara (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Pres, 2009).

There have been numerous film and television adaptations of Hugo’s classic, beginning in 1905 with a ten-minute silent film simply entitled Esmeralda.

Students might be interested to learn the differences between the novel and the films. A recurring tendency in adapting the novel for the screen is the perceived need to change the ending in order to better suit modern audiences. In the classic 1939 Hollywood version of the novel, which required some of the most extravagant sets yet built, Frollo is no longer an archdeacon but a judge and close advisor of the king. At the end, Esmeralda (played by Maureen O’Hara) is pardoned and leaves with Gringoire, and there is no mention made of the death of either Esmeralda or Quasimodo. In the 1982 British-American TV version of the novel (starring Anthony Hopkins as Quasimodo and Derek Jacobi as Frollo), Esmeralda not only survives, but she recognizes Quasimodo’s kindness toward her and kisses him goodbye before she departs in safety with the poet. In the 1996 Disney version, the only version students today are likely to have seen, the poet Gringoire is omitted altogether, Esmeralda survives, and she encourages Quasimodo to leave the cloistered world of the cathedral for the outside world, where the citizens hail him as a hero and accept him into society. Students looking for a more detailed description of the historical changes that have been introduced by the various screen adaptations of the novel should consult the 1996 A&E/Biography Channel documentary on these different versions.[6] Victor Hugo would doubtless have found it a challenge to recognize his novel in any of the recent on-screen adaptations. The dominant twentieth-century interpretation of the novel has been to focus on the beauty and beast qualities of the plot rather than the impassioned search for the medieval origins of modern sensibilities, which so inspired Victor Hugo and Romanticism more generally.  For teaching purposes, there is no better insight into Hugo’s medievalism and his Romanticism than to ask students to read selections from the novel itself.

Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1831

  1. Years later when Napoleon III and Baron von Haussmann began a massive rebuilding program throughout Paris, tearing down old quarters and widening streets into boulevards, Hugo moved into self-imposed exile on the isle of Guernsey. He returned a hero’s welcome in 1870, and by his death in 1885 was revered not only as France’s greatest literary talent, but as a statesman who helped to shape the Third Republic.
  2. One might note that the putative remains of Abelard and Heloise were transferred to the cemetery of Père Lachaise in 1817, a symbolic move that also contributed to the Romanticist revival of interest in the medieval mystique.
  3. King Louis XI is portrayed as a heartless monarch who lives in the Bastille rather than the Louvre. His unenlightened reign is encapsulated by his relationship to two of the main characters: he pardons Gringoire for attacking Notre Dame and orders Esmerelda’s execution
  4. The Place de Grève remained a site of public executions in Hugo’s day, but was most strongly remembered for being one of the locations of the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, which the narrator invokes in Book 2. It was Hugo’s explicit aim to give his readers the historical context to understand what the square represented in the Middle Ages, while simultaneously sound the warning about contemporary revolutionary fervor.
  5. Translations are taken from Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, rev. transl. by Catherine Liu (New York: The Modern Library, 2002).
  6. Info at
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One thought on “Medievalism and Modernity in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

  1. “purity and goodness of a hideous hunchback”? really?
    Are you aware of the fact that Quasimodo is involved in an erotic relationship with the church bells?
    No mention of Frollo, the protagonist? No?

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