Notre Dame Highlights

I can’t say “Notre Dame” in Paris. The problem is much like my first few months in South Bend. Then, I couldn’t pronounce the word in the local argot, and drew strange looks every time I scraped the “r” and said the “a” as in “father.” “Nuht[r]eh Duhme.” On cue, South Benders would steal a glance sideways, or even state the obvious that “you aren’t from around these parts, are you?” Now, after a couple of weeks of intensive study of French, I’m usually able to ape an approximation of Parisian accent–except with the name of the great cathedral which still forms the axle around which all the rest of the Parisian wheel turns. Now, I can only enunciate with a thick—yes, thick–midwestern accent: “Notterr DEyme.” Intellectually, I can figure out the difference, and I can even whisper the correct pronunciation under my breath as I practice for conversation. But when that conversation comes, the word inevitably comes out as I’ve been so well trained by my beloved South Bender friends.

Elora has been wonderfully faithful at keeping everyone informed on our Paris jaunts. I had intended to write more, but find that I’m much busier learning French than I had anticipated! This language is genuinely difficult to speak. It’s rather easy to read, I find, which lulled me into some security; but constructing a sentence is the devil. Then repeating that phrase, perfectly formed in my head, ends up my undoing. Moreover, Parisians (more than most french-speaking locales) tend to drop syllables and vowels out of their phrases, which means that understanding them can be an exercise in humility. However, I’m doing homework every morning, then spending 6 hours at school. Two hours grammar, 1 hour lunch, 1 hour phonetics (which is an enormous help!), and 2 more hours of conversation and exercises. After that I’ve been going to the Bibliothèque nationale for a couple of hours. To do a bit of reading and writing. That has been a mind-saver! Finally, home shortly after 6pm, for an evening of hyper children and some conversation (some in French!) with my beloved Elora. Then we try to get to bed early.

Getting to bed early may change soon. Norah has been enormously disruptive at night, partly because of teething, partly because she’s discovered that piercing shrieks will bring her parents running quickly. That makes morning discipline almost impossible to maintain. And then when I try to rise early in the morning, the same child who was awake most of the night greets me. Her mom (who, to be honest, has borne most of the night-time stress) shouldn’t be disturbed before 8am. So I’m It. The Chosen One. He who will entertain. Sydney sleeps more deeply, but she rises earlier too, when I get up early. The plan, therefore, is to start pulling late nights, and then let them wake us whenever they do. At least in the evening hours we can talk, play music, and read with the lights on, without them waking. I might even start writing a little in the evening! That will probably bode well for my blogging habits, since I’ve less self-discipline in the evening, and my attention tends to stray from work . . .

The pictures that accompany this post are from the wonderful visit Andrew and Yutaro made to our humble abode a few weeks ago. I don’t wander the city with a camera nearly as much as I should, so this was one of the few times I took a significant number of photos, nearly all of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was marvelous to visit the place with Andrew, because he took a guided tour there last time he was in Paris. And he took meticulous, fascinating notes. So he was able to give us a tour–second-hand, in some ways, but probably more enjoyable for that fact. It was an intellectual feast of details about the iconography, history of parts of the Cathedral, and so on. The pictures are not enough to witness his erudition. Props, Andrew.

I had a revelation today, while scrawling down an outline of the things I wanted to say in a French presentation I was required to give to the class today. I wish I had realized this when I was hanging out with Andrew. My topic was to introduce a few basic things about student life at the University of Paris in the middle ages, the idea that all student were officially classified as clerics, the basic course of study, and so on. But as I was thinking about location, and how these things all took place less than 1 km from where I was to give the presentation, I realized what a magnificent sight Parisians had most weekdays, and particularly on feast days (of which each month had several).

In the 15th century, the University and the Parlement of Paris were the two most powerful bodies. The king officially kept apartments and palaces in the Paris area. But he didn’t live there between 1418 and 1515, for various political reasons. So the people with real political power were the major families, some of whom were old nobility, others of whom were new money, profiting from lucrative banking positions, and the various wars between France, England and Italy. These were the people who filled the Parlement of Paris (as well as the bishopric of Paris, from time to time).

In the course of 1350-1500 (think, from the Plague through the 100-year war between France and England), the Parlement managed to gain a lot of pomp and ceremony. Every morning, they would go in procession to mass at 6am. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is on the “Isle de Paris,” an island at the center of the city, in the middle of the Seine. Immediately across from the cathedral, today, stands the Prefecture of Police, the Pompiers (firemen), and the city courts. But before the Revolution, that’s where the Parlement’s buildings were. They met in the old palace of the French kings (who, around 1350, I believe, moved a couple hundred meters north to the mainland). So after mass, they would carefully–still in ceremonial procession–head out of Notre Dame and across the street, still on the island, in a long line of black robes, impressive hats, gold chains, scribes and messenger boys in tow. This demonstration of power would then meet for business, everyday, until noon. Then a long lunch, and more business between 2 and 4, before heading back home to take care of the family business. It was a noisy group of affairs, with plenty of parlementarians complaining about the people who thought they could just piss in the street, or hold chickens while watching parlementary sessions.

Every morning, and certainly every feast day (medieval calendars often had a feast day every two or three days, especially near the end of the middle ages, and especially in a busy metropolis like Paris) the University of Paris would go to the Cathedral at the same time, to officiate mass (many of the theologians were also priests), and to preach. These sermons were a big deal, and a major requirement of theologians belonging to the University. Jean Gerson, who was the Chancellor of the University of Paris at the beginning of the 15th century–a very important position–, weekly used these opportunities to remind king and parlement of their responsibilities to God and his people. My revelation was simply that the procession of Parisian scholars–from rector, chancellor, through dozens of officials, principals of the various colleges which made up the university, and leading masters of arts–occurred at the same time as the procession of parlementarians! There, for the whole city to see, with quotidian regularity, were the two power structures, ranging from greatest to least, side by side, to participate in the liturgy of word and sacrament. There were complex interconnections between the two domains of power–rich parlementarians often funded the burses and arranged the benifices that allowed scholars time away from their villages to stay at work in Paris. Moreover, the scribes and counsellors who filled the administrative chambers of king and chancellor were–you guessed it–University of Paris grads (or fellows who just happened to stay at the university long enough to land a good job, not get a full degree). But the sight nevertheless must have reinforced the division between powers. The city. The university. Fascinating.

Being in Paris certainly is enriching my education, and hopefully will also enrich my work. Location means something, and certainly spurs insights otherwise impossible.

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