Life & Culture

Review: Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

Reviewer Alun David is won over by architectural broiges


By Ben Hopkins
Europa Editions, £16.99
Reviewed by Alun David

An American friend of mine has a thing about cathedrals. For six months in 2018, she went on a secular pilgrimage across the length and breadth of England, visiting more than 40 of these magnificent buildings. Ben Hopkins’s hefty historical novel revolves around the construction of a cathedral in Hagenburg, a fictional Alsatian city, during the 13th and 14th centuries CE. And when I picked up the book, I naively expected it to share my friend’s architectural enthusiasms.

In fact, most of the characters show scant regard for the “Cathedral of Our Lady”. To the Canon-Treasurer, it is a financial liability, the Bishop’s vanity project. For the Barons, it means taxation and political wrangling. Incensed at their lack of influence over the project, local merchants build their own church. Hagenburg’s Jews name it “The Abomination” but are coerced into making cash contributions.

A handful of clerics, architects, and craftsmen appreciate the building’s sublimity, though their views sometimes seem touched by heresy. The characters’ negativity partakes of one of the novel’s broader purposes, which is to dispense with romantic cliché and offer a realistic take on medieval society. “No chivalry, but marks, shillings and pence” says one character – to which Hopkins adds stone, glass, cloth, blood, excrement, and other basic materials.

George R.R. Martin did something similar, of course, but Cathedral is not Game of Thrones minus dragons and zombies. Rather, the novel attempts to present medieval history as the product of socio-economic forces, in particular the rise of the mercantile middle class. We are a long, sobering way from the fantastical adventures of Houses Lannister and Stark.

It is impossible briefly to summarise the plot of Cathedral, which takes in multiple persecutions, wars, episcopal elections, marriages, affairs — and the Black Death. A connecting strand is provided by a family of peasant origins, the Schaeffers, whose members become embroiled in the building of the cathedral, the formation of Hagenburg’s merchant guilds, and the Jewish community.

Jewry is an important dimension of the novel. The special situation of medieval Jews as financial actors is to the fore, but the Jewish characters are as rounded and sympathetic as anyone else in the book. Hopkins writes powerfully about real and fictional instances of antisemitic violence, and the emancipatory Statute of Kalisz, which paved the way for Jewish settlement in Poland, figures prominently.

Most of Cathedral is written in a punchy style which cheerfully mixes archaisms (“thusly”) with anachronisms (“homosexuals”, “financial restructuring”). Hopkins attempts to create a distinctive voice for each member of his chorus of narrators, with varying success. Some passages are particularly gripping, including descriptions of the persecution of heretics and of the Festival of Fools. And I found the coda to the novel deeply poignant.

Hopkins is a renowned screenwriter, and Cathedral seems ripe for TV adaptation, though I expect its complex and sprawling plot would need paring down. Alas, as an appreciation of what medieval architecture could do, it left me wanting. I won’t be advising my American friend to put away her Pevsner just yet.

Alun David is a freelance reviewer

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