Rebuilding Notre Dame Brings Workers Back to Middle Ages

    01 June 2023

    If time travel was possible, woodworkers from the Middle Ages would be surprised to see their woodworking methods being used to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral today.

    The famous religious center in Paris, France started being built more than 800 years ago in 1163. It was largely completed by 1345. A fire in April 2019 caused extensive damage to the roof and its spire.

    Now, modern-day woodworkers are working with hand tools like workers from the Middle Ages to put together the new roof. It has given them a new appreciation of woodworking methods first used in the 13th century.

    A crane lifts a part of the new roof of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral on May 25, 2023, near Angers, western France. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Schaeffer)
    A crane lifts a part of the new roof of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral on May 25, 2023, near Angers, western France. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Schaeffer)

    "It's a little mind-bending sometimes," said Peter Henrikson, one of the woodworkers. He said sometimes he is thinking about the old workers while using similar hand tools like a mallet and chisel to cut "basically the same joint 900 years ago." And he added, "We probably are in some ways thinking the same things."

    The use of hand tools to rebuild the roof was a choice, especially since power tools would have done the work more quickly. The aim is to remember the skills of the cathedral's builders and to ensure that the centuries-old art of woodworking by hand lives on.

    "We want to restore this cathedral as it was built in the Middle Ages," says Jean-Louis Georgelin. He is the retired French army general who oversees the rebuilding.

    "It is a way to be faithful to the (handiwork) of all the people who built all the extraordinary monuments in France."

    With the goal to reopen the cathedral by December 2024, workers are also using computer designs and other modern technologies to quicken the rebuilding. Computers were used in the drawings of detailed plans for woodworkers, to help ensure that their hand-made wood pieces fit together perfectly.

    Henrikson noted it is something "... to think about how they [the old workers] did this with what they had, the tools and technology that they had at the time."

    The rebuilding of the roof hit an important marker in May. Large parts of the new wooden frame were put together and raised at a workshop in the Loire Valley, in western France.

    The practice run helped workers be sure that the frame is fit for purpose. The next time it is put together will be atop the cathedral. Unlike in the old days, the wood frame will be trucked into Paris and lifted by a machine into position. Some 1,200 trees have been cut for their wood.

    Remi Fromont created detailed drawings of the original frame in 2012. He said the aim was to create "the wooden frame structure that disappeared during the fire of April 15, 2019."

    The rebuilt frame "is the same wooden frame structure of the 13th century," he added. "We have exactly the same material: oak. We have the same tools, with the same axes that were used, exactly the same tools. We have the same know-how. And soon, it will return to its same place."

    I'm Gregory Stachel.

    Jeffrey Schaeffer reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    spire – n. a tall, narrow, pointed structure on the top of a building

    appreciation – n. an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something

    mind-bending adj. very confusing or exciting

    restore – v. to return (something) to an earlier or original condition by repairing it or cleaning it

    faithful – adj. exact and accurate

    handiwork – n. work that is done by using your hands

    monuments n. a building or place that is important because of when it was built or because of something in history that happened there

    frame – n. an arrangement of parts that support and form the basic shape of something