Everyone has heard of the legendary hunchback of Nortre Dame and his love for the gypsy Esmerelda, and perhaps that’s why gypsies hang out in front of it, busking and pick-pocketing tourists. The story sounds like a fairy tale, however new research has unveiled what is possibly the real-life inspiration for the Hunchback found in Victor Hugo’s legendary novel. The clues were found in the memoirs of a contractor by the name of Henry Sibson, discovered in an attic in Cornwall England and acquired by the Tate Gallery. Sibson was working on Notre Dame in the 1820’s making repairs and claims to have encountered “Monsieur Trajan”, a “humpbacked” sculptor working on the cathedral. Trajan was quiet and kept to himself, and didn’t socialize with the other sculptors.
What was interesting is that Sibson after finishing his work on Notre Dame took another contract to another project outside Paris. Here he encountered the same sculptor again, who had changed his name now to “Mon. Le Bossu” which translates into English as “hunchback.” This discovery was aided by many clues including the Almanach de Paris from 1833 which listed many workers in the city and mentioned a sculptor named “Trajin” living in Saint Germain-des-Pre, the same neighborhood as Victor Hugo. In early editions of the novel the Hunchback was named Jean Trejean, however for reasons unknown (perhaps to remove resemblance to the real man) Hugo renamed him Jean Valjean. The timing of this discovery lines up, as Hugo started the novel in 1828.
He may have interacted with the sculptors as he had a strong interest in the cathedral’s survival. Victor Hugo preferred the classical gothic design of the cathedral on which the architects and sculptors of his time were laboring. His description of this style in his book resulted in the Gothic restoration of the Cathedral in 1844, along with construction of a new sacristy, designed by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
Tate archivist Adrian Glew is responsible for making the discovery. He said of his findings: “When I saw the references to the humpbacked sculptor at Notre Dame, and saw that the dates matched the time of Hugo’s interest in the Cathedral, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I thought I should look into it”.