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“No Single Regulating Power” – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

June 19, 2012

Set in Paris in 1482, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame contains startlingly succinct and powerful summaries of history and political philosophy.  Here’s an example from Book VIII (of IX), as the story rushes to its climax with characters—from the King of France to the lowliest Parisian street dwellers—in motion all across the city:

“In the large cities, in the capitals especially, there was no single regulating power.  The feudal system had constructed these great communities in a strange fashion.  A city was an assemblage of countless feudal domains which divided it into compartments of all shapes and sizes.  There were therefore countless conflicting police forces; in other words, no police at all.  In Paris, for example, besides the one hundred and forty-one lords who claimed manorial rights, there were twenty-five who had the right to administer justice, from the Bishop of Paris, who had one hundred and five streets under his jurisdiction, to the Prior of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, who had four.  None of these feudal justiciaries gave more than nominal recognition to the sovereign authority of the king.  Each of them was the undisputed master of his own domain.

Louis XI, that indefatigable worker who so largely began the demolition of the feudal edifice—continued by Richelieu and Louis XIV in the interest of the royalty and finished by Mirabeau in the interest of the people—had tried to break this web of feudal domains spread out over Paris….”

Louis XI was in fact King of France in 1482, and I’m going to take Hugo at his word for the other historical claims in this excerpt.  Aside from its literary qualities, it’s an illuminating gem of writing that shines a light on how different medieval Europe was from 19th century Europe—and even more so from 21st century America.  Imagine the cardinal-archbishop of New York making and enforcing laws for hundreds of blocks of the city.  Now imagine that the Rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral has the same power for the East Side of Manhattan from 49th to 51st streets.

At almost exactly the same time (1831) Georg Hegel was delivering the lectures that became The Philosophy Of History, Hugo (in less than a full sentence!) summarizes and applies that philosophy to interpret 350 years of French history.

I understand why educators have young students read “the classics”, but there’s a richness to great novels like The Hunchback Of Notre Dame that young intellectual palates can’t fully taste.  It’s one of the pleasures of returning to these books later in life.

  1. Man oh man, now I want to add that to my gotta-read list. So there’s already 30 to 40 books on the to-be-read table — what’s one more, eh?

    • Exactly! One of the nice things about books is the way they’ll just wait there on the table (or on the library shelves) until you’re ready for them.

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