The Pillars of the Earth

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Now, here’s a thing.  What do you know about medieval cathedrals, and what can we learn from them? Recently, someone kindly gave me an audiobook subscription for my birthday and being thrifty I went for a long book as my first choice.

‘The Pillars of the Earth’ is very long indeed and the first in a trilogy of books by Ken Follett, before that best known as a thriller writer.  Set in the 12th Century (1123-1174 to be precise)  it tells of the building of the fictional ‘Kingsbridge Cathedral’.  It has a memorable cast of characters including a saintly priory Abbott, a wicked Bishop (or two), nobles competing for an Earldom, a witch, master builders, a courageous businesswoman and sundry monks, peasants, outlaws  and knights. Kings, Queens and Archbishops and a ‘weeping Madonna’ have minor roles. Thomas Beckett makes a late appearance.

Much of the book covers the period known as ‘The anarchy’ – a prolonged period of civil war as King Stephen and the Empress Maud (daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II) fight it out.

Mostly it tells the story of the cathedral and the desire of some to build it and others to destroy it before it can be completed. We learn a lot about building techniques and stonemasonry and much about life in a very different time to our own (I think Thomas Hobbes might have had this period in mind when he famously described life as “nasty, brutish and short”).

What I find most fascinating is the position of the Church and the obsession with cathedrals. England was then part of what was called ‘Christendom’ and there was one Church to which everyone was meant to hold allegiance. Very different to the church as established by Christ and what we hold to today, with practices that seem almost beyond belief.  Mostly, ‘The Church’ was held to be the clergy – priests, monks and bishops who collectively and institutionally held sway over the populace. The people were not seen as part of the Church, but rather were subject to it and under its authority and sway. More than once, when listening to it whilst walking the dog I have muttered out loud ‘No you’re not the Church, the people are’.

These were dark times indeed for the common people and for the Gospel and we need to give thanks for the times in which we live, notwithstanding much of what we see around us and our present circumstances (Coronavirus is pretty mild compared to the plague or the black death).

I very much like looking around ancient cathedrals and I have some sense as to why people wanted to build them. In some cases it was out of a genuine desire to glorify God. But more often, I suspect it was to glorify those in power. We saw that with the tower of Babel and we see in the massive skyscrapers being built across the world to project the image and power of emerging states.

For some, of course, it was simply the desire to build something big and glorious, with little regard for the actual purpose beyond soaring towers and vaulted arches that were bigger, grander and filled with more light (oddly, nowadays ‘Gothic’ means dark and mysterious – Gothic architecture was actually all about windows and light).

Personally, I am very happy with a small functional chapel that allows us to meet together to praise God, hear his word and meet as his people. Although now I think about it, the bus station has been moved and maybe there’s plenty of room for a new Transept and a vaulted Nave…