What fuelled Notre-Dame's workers? 

Building a timeless masterpiece on bare-bones fare

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - food fuel Bread would have been the main food source for workers building the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
  • www.shutterstock.com
  • food fuel Bread would have been the main food source for workers building the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Put up your hand if you've never visited Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, or if you've never even wanted to.

Only one hand popped up amongst a half dozen Whistlerites I straw-polled last week. Everyone else had visited the monumental cathedral at least once, and the recent fiery catastrophe called up memories like a shadow play.

For many of us (me included), our Notre-Dame visits pretty much track our lives.

First, there's the young-hipster-discovers-Europe visit. For me, that was almost 50 years ago! And for Pique's inimitable G. D. "Max" Maxwell, about the same. It was 1977 when he played amongst the gargoyles; marvelled at the buttresses (the flying ones, of course); and got annoyed by the throngs.

"Always thought it would be a great place to drop acid," he notes, "if you could rent it for the night and keep everyone else away."

Then there's the romantic pilgrimage to "Our Lady" with the love of your life. This is often followed by the family visit with ensuing kids and grandkids. I can't tick that last box but many can, including long-time Whistlerites Joan and Marcel Richoz. With teen-aged Marika and Noah in tow, they stumbled upon a heavenly choir singing Bach in Notre-Dame's grand nave. Pure joy.

But the prize for the most outrageous visit goes to another inimitable character with Whistler in his bones. Paul Burrows will happily bend your ear about any number of visits he's made to Notre-Dame. The one that grabbed me, though, was the surprise stop at the grand old cathedral—with Interpol in hot pursuit.

One June day in 1947, Paul, 10, and his brother John, 12, were surprised at their Waterford, Ireland, school by the unexpected arrival of their father, whom the boys hadn't seen in ages. They'd been living with their mom, and dad had travelled from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he had a thriving medical practice.

Paul and John were removed from class and told to get dressed in their Sunday best. Dad was taking them for tea. Once in the car, a grey Chrysler limo replete with uniformed chauffeur, John asked, "Daddy, where are we going for tea?"

"Actually, we aren't going for tea, we're going to Rhodesia!" came the jarring reply. And the limo zoomed toward the airport.

So began an epic, 10-day chase by Interpol agents through France, then North and Central Africa, complete with a stop in Paris and a journey up the dizzying staircases of Notre-Dame.

If anyone in 12th-13th century France who built the cathedral imagined their work would have such indelible impact on so many, I'm sure they wouldn't have believed it. As we all watched the grand old dame burn last week, I wondered if those workers who hauled and stacked the limestone blocks; carved the ogly-bogly gargoyles; levelled the giant oak beams; and formed the iridescent stained-glass windows fully understood what they were making.

I also wondered what they ate.

Notre-Dame took nearly 200 years to build. But the foundation stone was laid in 1163, so that's where I started, and the librarians at Vancouver Public Library were happy to help.

First, people were, for the most part, terribly poor in 12th century France, the early Middle Ages. City and country were quite separate worlds then (aren't they now?). The burden of "acute poverty" complete with frequent fires, episodic plagues and ergotic poisoning—caused by a fungus that infects rye and other cereals—was borne mostly by country dwellers. To escape all this, impoverished souls would flee to cities like Paris and the surrounding suburbs. They would also seek out churches and great cathedrals to pray—and to receive alms.

"The rich were forced to practice charity," writes Georges Duby in France in the Middle Ages, 987-1460. Much of that forced charity was funneled through the church.

The poor also created a ready supply of labour for building those churches, and what mostly fuelled that labour was bread—bread that could easily be poisoned with ergot from the fungus that plagued grain supplies and isn't killed by baking.

"The staple of the French diet, particularly for the poor, was bread. Wheat, semolina, bran, millet, rye, oats and barley all had a role in various types of French bread, which came in all shapes and sizes," states the Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World by Caryn E. Neumann.

Common fare also included lots of leafy greens, root veggies and legumes: Brussels sprouts, watercress and, possibly, turnips. Steamed leeks and cabbages. Boiled and pureed peas, white beans, and other legumes, often flavoured with fried onions, garlic and the like. Yes, they ate some meat, but not often in cities far from farms and wild game.

Hardly hearty dining, but maybe the redemptive factor was all the grape-based products—wine, verjuice and vinegar—commonly used in cooking and no doubt in washing troubles away after building a nave the size of two NHL hockey rinks.

Whether you believe or not, Notre-Dame's fire delivered some miracles, too. The great cross and altar were spared, as were the rose windows. A smaller miracle, perhaps, but one that touched me was how the swarm of bees housed on the cathedral's roof survived, stunned by the smoke as all good bees are.

Something timeless about that, too. Honey was the common sweetener in 1163 Paris as sugar was hundreds of years away, so those bees have an age-old provenance, if we could only understand their stories.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who needs to go back to Notre-Dame to hear the organ play.

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