Uncovering the myth behind the real Quasimodo.
The name Quasimodo instantly conjures images in our minds of the lonely hunchbacked bell-ringer trapped in the beautiful Notre Dame, yet is there any truth behind the story? If there was a hunchback who lived in Notre Dame, who was he and what would his life have been like?
Victor Hugo’s 1831 master-piece Notre Dame de Paris has been retold, rewritten and transformed more than sixteen times through various TV and film adaptations, most famously with Disney’s 1996 animated version. While every adaptation seems to steer further from Hugo’s original storyline, changing the importance of, and even the very essence of the Hunchbacked bell ringer’s character, it seems the real Quasimodo belonged neither to Hugo’s imagination nor Disney’s but was in fact based on a real man closely affiliated with the cathedral.
The memoirs of Henry Sibson, a British stonemason employed to work at the Cathedral during the buildings restoration period in the early 19th century, were recently required by the Tate archives after being discovered in a dusty attic of a house in Penzance, England.
Sibson’s memoirs mention encounters with fellow contracted workers on the building. Sibson describes two men in particular, firstly a Monsieur Trajan who was a “most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed” and secondly a sculptor who worked under Trajan and went by the nickname Monsieur Bossu (Mr Hunchback). Sibson mentions that this mysterious “hunchbacked sculptor…did not like to mix with other sculptors”
It is unsurprising that Monsieur Bossu is described as withdrawn and kept largely to himself, given the fact that 19th century negative attitudes to deformity, which had progressed very little despite advances in medical knowledge. Hugo in his novel describes this belief that physical appearances shaped peoples’ characteristics when describing Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris
“He was, in truth, bad because he was wild; he was wild because he was ugly”
Despite Monsieur Bossu’s reclusive nature, his deformities clearly made him a recognisable figure, as Sibson mentions in detail encountering the sculptor again on an entirely different project outside of Paris.
Also in the 19th Century on the other side of the pond in Victorian London, John Merrick was using his deformity to his advantage by convincing a showman to use him as an exhibit. It must have been a bleak existence to have to earn money as a human curiosity. This hardship has been imprinted in the public imagination with Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of The Elephant Man in the 1980 film and Bradley Cooper’s in the recent stage play. Our Paris hunchback, on the other hand, maintained a good position as a head sculpture so it seems his difficulty did not prevent him from physical labour or from gaining such a relatively prestigious job.
Doctors have tried now to use modern medicine to diagnosis both the hunchback (before the recent evidence of his actual existence came to light) and the Elephant Man. It was largely attributed that both men suffered from Neurofibramatosis type I, but lately the Elephant Man is thought to have also had Proteus syndrome.
Not only was there a hunchbacked man that worked in Notre Dame but it is very likely that the he was the real life inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. Hugo was a man with strong links to the Cathedrals and its restoration process, he went to great levels to research in great detail the subject for his medieval epic and would have been familiar with the team at work responsible for the restoration of the Gothic masterpiece. Thus, far from being a figment of his imagination, Hugo used the real-life characters he encountered in day-to-day life and spun them into legends.
The story of the hunchback is not only a story of triumph such as the Elephant Man, but also a classic love story. Along similar lines to Beauty and the Beast, the love of Esmeralda and Quasimodo endures and she sees past his deformity to the loving caring man he is. This story belongs to the historical fiction genre, much like Alexandre Dumas’ Three Muskateers. Victor Hugo decided to export the hunchback back in time to 1482. By doing so, the hunchback has an experience more like The Elephant Man and less like the real hunchback who was more accepted by society. The 15th Century was a less accepting time and the hunchback loses his fantastic job and his reclusive element is intensified to the extreme.
When examining Hugo’s other novels, this tendency to draw inspiration for his characters from real people he met becomes apparent, in particular it seems those contracted to work in Notre Dame. The Monsieur Trajan mentioned afore in Sibon’s memoirs is a potential influence on a character in another of Hugo’s novels Les Miserables. In early drafts on Les Miserables Hugo writes the protagonists name as Jean Trajan, the same Jean Trajan listed in the Paris Almanach of 1833 as a contracted sculptor and as living in the same neighbourhood as Hugo at the time (Saint Germain des Prés). In later final editions of Les Miserables the name can be seen changed to Jean Valjean.