Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

The cathedral, and the difficulties building it, both physical, financial, and aesthetic, dominate the early parts of the book, and brood over the whole story, so the epigraph from the Book of Job is very fitting:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest?  

This is a big beast: it’s long, complex, has a large cast of characters, covers 40 very turbulent years of German medieval history (with an epilogue 80 years later), and is full of drama, change, institutional and political conflict, military violence – and looming over it all is the cathedral of the title.  Parts of it make you feel that life is “nasty, brutish and short”, with deaths from plague, personal and state violence, and bribery, trickery and corruption everywhere.  But on the other hand, there are fascinating insights into class mobility and the apprenticeships system, the rise of the merchant class, the position of the Jews, and the creation of modern banking in Italy – and some lovely and moving moments of great beauty about designing the cathedral, finding just the perfect glass for the great west window and so on.  But over and above all that, its a compelling story, or really a series of interwoven stories, which is a pleasure to read and follow. It’s a fast moving, rumbustious book which takes a bit of reading but which I would heartily recommend.

The novel is in three main sections, The Cross (1229-1235), The Sword (1241-1255), and The Pen (1260-1273), plus an epilogue, Echoes (1330-1351). Each section is divided into numerous chapters, each with a title, a date, and the name of a key character (and a number to remind you this is the first, third or sixth chapter about him) (for example, The Counting House (Anno 1231. Manfred Gerber I)); this does help following people in particular, and although I didn’t really succeed in keeping track of the dates all the time, it is well written so you are never adrift as can happen in these complex narratives, and – thank goodness – the time flows normally, there are no sudden jumps back 20 or 200 years, an overused and ill-managed device in so many modern books!  This might make it sound formulaic, but it’s not at all – the characters in the chapter titles are only the focus, and the people and the narrative surge strongly seamlessly though the whole structure.

The first two main characters we meet are very different and will be with us for much of the novel (I keep wanting to share some of the plot’s cleverness and excitement with you, but it is so easy to spoil things): Rettich Schäffer, a serf who keeps sheep in a very rural area far from the city, who comes with his brother to Hagenburg to try and buy his freedom, make his fortune, and express his wonderful eye and hand for design and making; and Eugenius von Zabern, the Bishop’s Treasurer, who is worried sick by the need to balance the books, and in particular to fund the bishop’s grandiose plans for the cathedral.  This will give you some sense for who they both are, Rettich first:

… the story starts when his own father dies suddenly, leaving Rettich master of the family with only nineteen summers on his straw coloured head. I have come to pay our taxes .. can we pay our tax this year in coin, not in sheep, and can we buy our freedom from the Bishop? [In the Cathedral] .. The gilt roof, the patterns, the paintings. Waves of different sandstones .. and in the windows above, Red such as he had never seen, Blue that is bluer than the sky at twilight, a Golden Yellow that captures the rays of the sun and makes Light visible.  Statues of the Apostles. Rettich feels a growing shame at his presumption. In his bag, his wooden carvings he had brought here to sell.

I am not a bad man, nevertheless no-one likes me. …whereas other cathedral Canons come and go as they please and spend most of their lives hunting, gambling and whoring, I … am the Bishop’s Treasurer. This is my curse; to know that this is a world made of numbers.  There are many things that I detest in this world, and not many things I love. But I think it is clear that the thing that I detest most of all is that Bottomless Hole that gapes not fifty paces from my Counting Table: The Cathedral.

The story of these two characters, and of many others, develops against the backdrop of local political fighting, the rise of the Hapsburgs, the plague, violent arguments over who should be the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope.  And it is not confined to the Rhine lands; it goes as far afield as Rome and Constantinople, though always routed in the town of Hagenburg, which goes through some turbulent, testing times as wave after wave of local or reginal unrest and change flows over it.  The merchants rise and demand a share of local power; the Jews  are valued but kept apart (‘There are many things we Jews cannot do. One day of the week, it is we who are to blame. The other six, it’s you‘.), then forced out; heresy is invented and hunted; class distinctions are deep but under challenge.  And throughout, there is the need to keep the learning alive, to purify the design of an arch, to find the perfect colour glass for the Rose Window. 

And so this Cathedral that I have looked upon, from this window, every day of my mortal life, will continue to grow. And it is built on such diverse Foundation Stones. On the Fear of God. On stolen Jewish Gold. On the hope of Salvation, a Resurrection and a Life to Come.

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Ben Hopkins, Cathedral  (Europa Editions, 2021). 978-1787702516  618pp., paperback.

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