The Strange Story of the Real Hunchback of Notre Dame

Many legends and myths surround Notre Dame, one of which is the story of the hunchback. But who was the hunchback? Was he a hideous creature with a disfigured face, or was he just an unfortunate victim of circumstance?

This blog post will explore the true story behind this famous legend and explore its history. Most people are familiar with the story, but few know the historical references.

The Hunchback in Literature Throughout the Years

Many believe that Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell ringer from Victor Hugo’s classic novel, was based on a real person. While there may be some truth, Hugo’s take on the hunchback mainly was based on folklore and popular legend. 

While many know the Disney version of the story’s events, Hugo’s story is much more dark and tragic. Quasimodo is born with a deformity and abandoned by his mother in the novel. He is found and raised by Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame. Frollo mistreats Quasimodo and keeps him locked away in the bell tower, hiding him from the outside world. 

Quasimodo is eventually discovered by a group of gypsies, who crown him the “King of Fools” and parade him around town. Esmeralda, a kind-hearted gypsy girl, later rescues him. However, Frollo becomes obsessed with Esmeralda and ultimately drives her to death. In Hugo’s story, Frollo frames Esmerelda for attempted murder, and she is sentenced to be hanged. 

Quasimodo still pushes Frollo from the roof, but it’s due to him laughing at Esmerelda’s hanging. In his grief, the hunchback visits Esmerelda’s grave but never leaves her and ultimately starves to death. Unfortunately, while there have been many literary and cinematic adaptations of the hunchback story, none of them are entirely accurate.

The Real Hunchback of Notre Dame

After the French Revolution, the Cathedral of Notre Dame fell into disrepair. Many of the statues and gargoyles that adorned the cathedral’s exterior were either destroyed or stolen during this time.

In the 1820s, we see historical references to stone carvers coming to renovate the Notre Dame in Paris; among them was a British sculptor named Henry Sibson, who later wrote a handwritten autobiography, including the renovation events of the cathedral. Sibson references an issue with the contractor that hired him; in his words, they had a falling out and forced him to find another job at the government studios.

Upon doing this, Sibson met another carver named Mons. Trajan, who he remarked as a worthy and amiable man that has ever existed. It’s clear that Trajan made an impression on him, but that’s not what’s important here. Sibson continues in his biography that Trajan worked under a government sculptor who they rarely saw because he didn’t like to mix with the carvers.

Sibson could not comment on the sculptor’s real name, only that he was humpbacked and that the only nickname he would hear was the Le Bossu, which is French for “the hunchback.” Furthermore, he writes that M. Le Bossu was more than happy to tell Mon Trajan to be sure to take the little Englishman. Afterward, the team went to Dreux, a city outside of Paris, where the group worked on their projects. By itself, this memoir’s account doesn’t seem all that reliable. But when you compare it to other reports from the time, a pattern begins to emerge.

Further Research Reveals the Likely Truth

Archivists have studied the recovered historical documents detailing Sibson’s time in Paris and the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral. Based on their findings, Sibson most likely referred to the same individuals that Victor Hugo references in his stories. In addition, it’s noted that Sibson was describing known artisans active in the same part of Paris where Hugo and Sibson lived in the 1820s.

More documents support this theory; as M. Le Bossu refers to bringing the Englishman along with them, the Almanach de Paris of 1833 lists all the area’s professional inhabitants, including the carver Mons Trajan. It’s also likely that Trajan continued to work there. The carvers that would have worked on the Notre Dame lived in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and worked out of the atelier of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Coincidentally, Hugo also lived in this area and proposed to his wife in Dreux, where Sibson and the team worked. So, it’s highly likely that Hugo would have seen Trajan, Sibson, and M. Le Bossu during his time there. In one of Hugo’s earlier works Les Misérables, he even mentions that the main character’s name was Jean Trajean before later altering it to Jean Valjean.

This is where the story of the actual hunchback of Notre Dame begins to come together. Victor Hugo was inspired by the real-life events and people around him when he wrote his world-famous novel. To this day, Archivists still don’t know the real name of Le Bossu. While we may never know the identity of the hunchback, he was inevitably a real person who lived in Paris during the early 19th century.

Hugo’s Obsession With Gothic Structures

It’s also possible that Victor Hugo was inspired by the Notre Dame Cathedral itself when he wrote his novel. Many knew the author to be obsessed with Gothic architecture, and he believed that it was a cornerstone of French society. Hugo believed this so strongly that he composed a pamphlet called the War on the Demolishers in 1825. In it, he specifies, “The Hunchback is a Gothic novel about a Gothic building. The story’s moral focus is the Notre-Dame cathedral. Architects set the stage, backdrop the major characters, and forever bind their fates.”

Illustration from Victor Hugo et son temps (1881)

Essentially, Quasimodo, the hunchback character, is a metaphor for the cathedral. He’s malformed and misunderstood, but he’s ultimately good-hearted. This interpretation makes a lot of sense when comparing it to how Hugo described the novel in a letter to his publisher. He wrote, “The principal character is neither Quasimodo nor Claude Frollo, but Notre-Dame de Paris. Everything there is grand, uncommon, extraordinary.”

Conclusion

The Notre Dame Cathedral was a massive inspiration for Victor Hugo when he wrote his novel. But did he take inspiration from the real-life hunchback who worked on its restoration, or was the character purely fictional? Thanks to historical records and memoirs, we now better understand the hunchback’s identity and how he inspired one of literature’s most iconic characters.

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