Notre-Dame de Paris, the pioneer of the “iron ladies”

Notre-Dame de Paris, the pioneer of the “iron ladies”

On the cathedral site, December 8, 2020. On the left, iron staples attach the stones to an upper wall of Notre-Dame de Paris.

The scientists hoped so but did not dare to formulate it too much. And if the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris April 15 and 16, 2019, creating a shock beyond national borders, offered a unique opportunity to revisit the history of French religious construction? The absence of an audience for several years gave them the opportunity for in-depth studies. Above all, the disappearance of the framework and the collapse of the spire and part of the vaults would expose the construction secrets of the building to the gaze and analysis of the researchers.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers The secrets revealed by the archaeological excavation of Notre-Dame

It is now done. After the discovery by archaeologists of two graves and many pieces of the old rood screen buried under the crossing of the transept, a team of historians, chemists and metallurgists announced in the magazine PLOS Onedated March 15that the cathedral could well constitute “The First Iron Lady”. “If other churches like those of Laon [Aisne] or Noyon [Oise] had made anecdotal use of iron, Notre-Dame presents a truly systemic use of metal, throughout its construction”says Maxime L’Héritier, lecturer in medieval history at the University of Paris-VIII Vincennes-Saint-Denis and first author of the article.

“Thousands of Staples”

From the first detailed observations following the disaster, he and his colleagues had discovered metal staples in the rubble of the cathedral. With a melting temperature of 1,500°C, the iron had easily resisted the 800°C of the blaze. Over the months, they have listed hundreds, unearthed at different levels of the building. “If we extrapolate to the parts that remained inaccessible, the builders used thousands of staples”notes the historian.

“Bourges, Beauvais and Tours also show extensive use of metal reinforcements, but that’s several decades later and with a different technique” – Maxime L’Héritier, historian

It is still necessary to specify here what we are talking about: apart from their shape, these staples have nothing to do with the small pieces of silver metal that hang our bundles of paper. From 20 cm to 98 cm long, weighing up to 4 kg, these parts, sealed with lead, make it possible to fix blocks of stone in sensitive parts. We find these reinforcements in particular in the lower part of the cathedral, under the arches of the stands, above the ambulatory, and above, on the sideboard walls, where the framework rested.

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