Cathedral by Ben Hopkins
A weighty multi-generational epic of 13th century Germany played out upon the backdrop of a massive cathedral and the machinations behind its construction. Plenty of blood and thunder along with some insightful commentary on the human condition.
I have a few favorite books that are about cathedrals. They are Elizabeth Pargeter’s Heaven Tree Trilogy (other masonry – walls, castles, etc. in there, too), Ken Follett’s Pillars of Heaven and Edward Rutherford’s Sarum. I’m adding this to that list. It is less about the engineering aspects of the buildings and more about the people in and around the financing, construction and purpose of them, but it fits the mold quite well. For one thing, it’s more than 600 pages long. To a dedicated historical fiction reader, that’s heaven. It has much of the feel of a James Michener tome. Lots of time elapsed, a lot of history and vividly portrayed characters threaded through the length.
There are some themes that recur and bind together the narrative in interesting ways. The evolution of the importance of numbers, numbering systems, calculation and even weights and measures find their way into the story. Finances, engineering decisions, even notions of taxation, investment and return are included, but woven into the story in easily digestible ways that do not weigh down the excitement of the action. Spirituality of several types becomes part of the whole, with the interaction of Jewish merchants, heretics of several stripes and officials of the Church of Rome as well as gentile traders and craftsmen setting the table for a display of differences and similarities. The social and cultural divides are front and center, with a current of religious threat to both the Jewish community and the so-called heretics recurring throughout. Burnings, executions, appropriation of property and forced conversion drive much of the activity. The trio of politics, trade and religion provide the dynamic for much of the book.
And more as a backdrop for the flow of the story than an active participant is the cathedral. The difficulties in securing funds for its construction, the near impossibility of obtaining desired materials, mostly colored glass, disputes over the design and decoration and completion times pepper the progress of what is the most important building in the city, and an anchor to the faith of the people. It is a rich tapestry with a satisfying substance full of historical detail, personal insight, individual tragedy and triumph.
Any reader of historical fiction should greatly enjoy this book, but anyone who loves a multi-generational saga with plenty of sex and violence will also find it gratifying. It’s rich, full, replete with multiple languages, cultural details and a brooding sense of portentousness that makes it a compelling read.