Victor Hugo’s hunchback is fictional, but whole families lived in the church tower in this French town.
he bell tower of Notre Dame de Paris was the home of one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. The deaf hunchback, Quasimodo, who is “adopted” by the evil Archdeacon Frollo and employed (or rather imprisoned) in the bell tower as a bellringer. Whether we’ve read Victor Hugo’s epic or simply seen the animated Disney version (guilty), we’re familiar with the story. Quasimodo falls in love with a girl called Esmeralda, but unfortunately, both Frollo and the handsome Captain Phoebus are into her, too. There are no happy endings in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and of the four main characters, Phoebus is the only survivor at the end (Disney paints a rosier picture).
Notre Dame de Paris may be one of the most famous monuments in the world, but by all accounts, no one ever lived in the cathedral, in the bell tower, or otherwise. However, in Notre Dame de Dole, a collegiate church some 230 miles away in Jura, East France, entire families lived in the bell tower.
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Built in 1509, Notre Dame de Dole is one of the largest churches in Franche-Comté and looks like something out of a dark fairytale. It’s a gothic masterpiece with a 3,500-pipe organ, a 190-foot-long nave, and immense stained glass windows. It’s not hard to picture Quasimodo hanging from the weathervane of the church spire, singing about his unrequited love for Esmeralda (okay, we’re back on the Disney version again).
The first bellringer of Notre Dame de Dole, Monsieur Choblanc, took up his post in 1586, around 100 years after the fictional Quasimodo. Choblanc didn’t officially live in the tower, but he was locked in so he wouldn’t get distracted by visitors as he undertook his duties. He also received a fine if he failed to spot danger coming and ring the bells to alert the townsfolk, and once spent 15 days in prison for “negligence.” Workplace disciplinaries were severe back in the day.
In the 16th century, Dole held much more importance than it does today. It was the capital of Franche-Comté and seat of the wealthy Dukes of Burgundy until 1676 when nearby Besançon took over as capital. It was here that Victor Hugo would be born over 100 years later, in 1802. The walled city of Besançon continued to prosper and is now around six times the size of sleepy little Dole, the latter of which is now best-known for being the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, inventor of the vaccine, and a plethora of PDO cheeses.
The years passed, and bell ringers at Notre Dame de Dole came and went. In times of peace, the bells tolled for daily mass and to announce deaths and burials or to alert the Dolois that their favorite entertainment was about to take place (a public hanging). They’d also alert inhabitants to dangers, such as storms, fires, or even sightings of suspicious strangers. In times of war (of which there were many during the history of Notre Dame de Dole), the collegiate bells became paramount. The way the bells were rung could spell out a code to alert townsfolk to their enemy’s location or call soldiers to protect their city.
The inspiration for Hugo’s Quasimodo is unknown, but many believe the character to be based on Monsieur Trajan, a stonemason with a hunched back who worked on Notre Dame de Paris in the 1820s. He appears in the memoirs of British sculptor Henry Sibson, who wrote of Trajan, “all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers.” Trajan went by the nickname of “Le Bossu” (hunchback). The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or as it was originally called, Our Lady of Paris) was published soon after in 1831. Trajan never lived in Notre Dame de Paris, but later that century, an entire family would follow in the footsteps of Quasimodo, taking up residence in the belfry of Notre Dame de Dole rather than in France’s capital.
Monsieur Eugène Gauby arrived in 1899 with his wife, children, and, as the legend goes, a goat. He was the last town crier and was tasked with the role of lookout, predominantly to spot fires from his vantage point. Shortly before the Gauby family moved in, the heavy bells were lowered from the clock tower to the floor below and placed in a metal belfry. When Gauby spotted smoke, instead of ringing the bells, he alerted the town using an enormous, telescopic megaphone.
Gauby died in 1920, leaving his widow to continue the job of sounding the fire alarm. In 1930, a new family took up residence in the bell tower. Monsieur Scopel was a stonemason tasked with repairing the bell tower and porch of the cathedral. Although displaced temporarily by the military, who took over the bell tower as a watchtower during World War II, the Scopel family stayed for decades. Madame Scopel was still in residence at the beginning of the 1970s.
There are no stories of evil archdeacons plunging to their death from the spires as with Hugo’s Frollo or beautiful women hanged outside the cathedral alongside hunchbacks for suspected witchcraft (although we can imagine that many so-called “witches” in Jura did meet an untimely demise), but in the early 1990s, tragedy struck Notre-Dame de Dole. Ironically, given both the collegiate’s previous inhabitants and the 2019 disaster at Paris’s Notre Dame, it was in the form of a fire.
Unlike Notre Dame de Paris, Dole didn’t receive millions of euros in handouts from wealthy benefactors. Much of the building stayed relatively unscathed, but the bell tower apartment was ravaged. While the rest of the church is open to the public, the firefighter of Notre Dame’s former lodgings remains off-limits.