Musings on Notre Dame fire


To the Editor:
The recent fire at Notre Dame sent me to my copy of Newsweek’s Wonders of Man, Notre-Dame de Paris. In it
I found a contemporary description of the burning of Canterbury cathedral in 1174 in which they suggest
that vaulted churches may have been subject to greater fire hazards than were earlier churches.
“At Canterbury sparks from burning cottages outside the gates of the cathedral were carried by the wind
between the joints of the lead sheets that covered the roof. There they smoldered undetected until the
whole roof was ablaze and the great tie beams came crashing down into the choir, setting fire to the
monks’ wooden seats. No one had noticed smoke because the fire burned so long between the elaborately
painted vaulted ceiling and the roof above it.”
Was a similar situation in place at Notre Dame, and the sparks came from the renovation activities? The
news articles report that a first alarm sounded at 6:20 p.m. but no fire was found. The second alarm at
6:43 revealed the blaze under way. It’s a theory worth consideration.
For a good understanding of the process of building a medieval cathedral, read Ken Follett’s book,
“Pillars of the Earth.”
Virginia Dean

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