Notre Dame is Burning:Medieval Futures
It was 15 April and Notre Dame was on fire. A month before that, on 15 March, exactly at the moment that Australian school children were downing tools to join the world-wide climate strike, a gunman opened fire at a Christchurch mosque, slaughtering people at prayer. He had the date 732 emblazoned on his rifle, celebrating a putative defeat of Islamic invaders by the armies of Charles Martel. Our Lady, Christ's Church, France herself, Muslim believers—in the space of the month so much seemed to be in flames, to be on fire, and to be under fire. And, of course, the planet herself is heating. At the climate strike in Sydney a student held up a sign 'Don't burn my future'. As medievalists mourned the loss of Notre Dame, and the myriad historicities which dwelt within her, for the authors this was coupled with sadness and terror about the uses to which the Middle Ages are put in the service of suicidal futures—but also a quickening sense of the spaces of hope that can be opened through radical critiques of the civilizational stories with which many medievalists remain complicit.
The first suicidal future to be contested is that of white pride, in which human civilization is rooted in the raw white masculinity that tamed the medieval forests of Europe, mined the earth to make weapons and ploughs, hunted the animals, and domesticated the women—then did the same thing to the rest of the world. It is by asserting their right to continue carrying out those acts of destruction and domination that white supremacists know themselves. Medievalists have sought to counter this through critical study of the mythologies of medievalism and the production of richer, more diverse, more entangled histories of the global past. Sometimes people listen. But on the whole, white supremacists are not listening to stories about people who are not them, told by people who are not them. They are only listening to the people whom they want to be: the people who rule the world and its resources. They do not realize that their love and their hate is cynically inflamed and instrumentalized against their interests and those of their families. Medievalists have not done much to help with this. Our virtual abandonment of the study of class-based social inequality, of slavery and serfs, and of the 'caging' of the peasantry for the extraction of their labour by lords and incipient states, may have permitted white supremacists to look back to the Middle Ages as a heyday of empowered egalitarian masculinity. Has anyone told them that Western civilisation did not belong to their kind: their kind was tied to the land, and the profits belonged to their lords, then, as now? The dynasty that built Notre Dame had the resources to do so because they extracted them from the rest of the population. To maximize those resources, they drained marshlands, destroyed woodlands, and set the people to growing grains at the expense of local ecologies. A medieval story that connects [End Page 169] social inequality and labour exploitation to the exploitation of natural resources might begin to open people's eyes to the realities that are destroying the earth in the name of civilisation's needs.
The second suicidal future is the one that requires the restoration of Notre Dame. As the cathedral burned, the knee-jerk reaction on the part of many medievalists, and more influentially, various French billionaires, was that it needed to be rebuilt NOW. The gaping wound at the heart of Paris was too much to bear, too visible a sign of brokenness and destruction, and historicity itself. The collective paroxysms of loss and disbelief testified to a bizarre confidence in the building's permanence. As humans, we should know better: ashes to ashes and dust to dust. But as moderns in the West we cling to a story of progress in which this civilization, these empires, this politics, these monuments, will somehow be stable and hold. This is the temporal blind spot of what we might call western civilization, in its modern iteration, that it will hold on when all others have fallen. The fire at Notre Dame threatened to puncture that confidence, and the machismo of luxury-goods magnates François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault as they pledged funds for a rapid restoration offered a case-study of can-do capitalism in response. Pinault declared, 'Faced with this tragedy, everyone wishes to give life back to this jewel of our heritage as soon as possible'.1 These are strong words, 'tragedy', 'everyone', 'jewel', 'heritage', and most strikingly 'our'. Just as Dipesh Chakrabarty has asked in relation to modernity, 'Where is the now?', it might behove us to ask 'Whose is the our?' And why the rush, Pinault? Why the 'as soon as possible'?2
In Australia, as conversations raged around Notre Dame on social media, a number of indigenous activists pointed out that over 260 ancient eucalypts, sacred to the Djap Wurrung peoples of western Victoria, are slated for removal in order to make way for a highway. These trees are approximately 800 years old, the same age as Notre Dame. One of the trees had served as a birthing tree, within whose trunk over fifty generations had been born. Indigenous activists used this example to illuminate the always political question as to what gets saved, and what is sacrificed (or deliberately mutilated) by the exigencies of capital and governance. As Tracey Bamblett-Onus, a Yigar Gunditj, Bindal, and Erab Mur Islander woman declared,
It's an act of terrorism, it's cultural terrorism, it's desecration. […] That'd be like us going to the botanical gardens in Melbourne and chopping down their trees, or bulldozing Captain Cook's cottage, which has only been there a couple of hundred years, if that.3 [End Page 170]
It is a stark comparison. Pinault's call for restoration is urgent, unable to bear the idea of a broken and charred 'jewel'. The birthing tree, on the other hand, is only recognizable through fire. It is from the charred marks inside the trunk that the tree was able to be identified. Pinault's comments reflect the desires of hegemonic elites seeking to save that which they need for their self-fashioning, that which matches their own monumental desire for permanence. Bamblett-Onus's mention of Captain Cook's cottage is apposite. A stone cottage from Yorkshire, it was moved across the globe, deracinated, and stands as a monument to the 'discovery' of the continent in an inviolable position. A birthing tree, on the other hand, an unmonetized place of female experience and a witness to erasure and dispossession, can only remind the powerful of the fragility and stain of their power, and can be discarded.
Trees also matter in the story of Notre Dame. The cathedral's frame was constructed from enormous oak beams, which had been harvested during the twelfth century. As the dust literally settled from the fire, preservationists and architects assessed the damage and noted that it would not be possible to find beams of the same size and quality in France. The 'jewel' will have to be reinvented, the natural resources that enabled the church's magnificence are no longer with us. We have exhausted them and have lost the capacity and imagination to plant great trees for the future. The same can be said of the workers who built Notre Dame, the artisans and labourers whose names we do not know, and whose ingenuity and capacity was put to the service of glorifying elites and their institutions. We no longer have the expertise, the techniques and the craft that built that building: this forgetting, we call 'progress'. Notre Dame cannot be restored to herself. Even with meticulous reconstruction, she will be something else. She will be a kitsch monument to modernity's inability to sit with scars, and to reckon with loss.
From Christchurch to Notre Dame, in that month, those in the West were confronted by loss, and naively bewildered by violence. Both events, tragically, offered evidence of the terror felt in the Western world by the idea of racial and cultural decline. The story that modernity tells itself is one of progress and of priority. Notre Dame is considered more important than a birthing tree, because it is through Notre Dame that we can tell stories of monarchy and revolution, Christianity and France. With a birthing tree we can merely bear witness to the anonymous feminine labours that give life. Both stories could be about trees, but in one, ancient trees are felled and landscapes tamed in pursuit of Capetian power; in the other, ancient trees stand and give shelter to women making life. White supremacists tell stories of the incipient end of the type of priority symbolized by Notre Dame, and urge action against the bereavement that they anticipate.
As interpreters of the Middle Ages, we do not own it, and we should not pastiche its otherness into alluring tableaux. If we have learnt anything from that month, may we all finally see the stakes involved in the stories we tell, and move together to birth a new set of medieval futures combining the critical and the [End Page 171] compassionate, and taking us somewhere new. Notre Dame means. Birthing trees mean. Mosques and their worshippers mean. And all of that meaning is contingent on caring for our planet, and recognizing the labour of those who nurture life. [End Page 172]
Clare Monagle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. Clare received her doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University in 2007. Prior to working at Macquarie, Clare spent a number of years working at Monash. Clare is a scholar of medieval intellectual history, having published especially on the work and legacy of Peter Lombard. She is also interested in the role played by medieval thought in the political and religious cultures of modernity. In 2017 she published The Scholastic Project, a short monograph for ARC Medieval Press. In 2019, her article ''Gyn/Ecology: Mysticism, Difference, and, Feminist History'' appeared in Signs. Currently, she is completing a book for Cambridge University Press, titled Scholastic Affect.
Amanda Power is an historian of religion, power and intellectual life in medieval Europe. She has been involved in developing the field of global medieval history, and new approaches to historical study that speak to the concerns of the mounting climate and environmental crisis. She is currently working on a monograph, Medieval Histories of the Anthropocene, which explores questions concerning the relations between religion, power, and the construction of public rationality in the building of medieval states across Eurasia. A related, partly collaborative, series of projects ask about the future of our discipline, and of Humanities and Social Sciences more generally, in the politically, economically, and ecologically unstable period that we are now entering.
1. Steff Yotka, 'Fashion Luxury Groups Kering and LVMH Pledge Combined 300 Million Euros to Repair Notre-Dame', Vogue, 16 April 2019 <https://www.vogue.com/article/kering-lvmh-pledge-300-million-euros-to-repair-notre-dame> [accessed 26 July 2019].
2. Dipesh Chakrabarty, 'Where is the Now?', Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 458–62 (p. 458).
3. Madeline Hayman-Reber, 'Removal of Sacred Djap Wurrung an "act of cultural terrorism"', NITV, 19 June 2019 <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2018/06/18/removal-sacred-djap-wurrung-trees-act-cultural-terrorism> [accessed 26 July 2019].