In Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (known also as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), there is a chapter called “The Rat Hole.” The term refers to a hermit’s cell in medieval Paris. For twenty years, writes the novelist, a woman lived in that cell—a “premature tomb”—as she prayed for the soul of her father. The city of Paris, Hugo notes, teemed with such cells, as did many other towns in the Middle Ages: “Even in the busiest street, or in the...
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