Europa Editions | 2021 ( 21 January) | 619p | Bought copy | Buy the book
In 1229 Rettich and his brother Emmerich arrive, penniless, in the (fictional) German city of Hagenburg. Rettich has a talent – he can build with stone, sculpt it – and Hagenburg would be the perfect place to settle with its cathedral under construction. But first Rettich must buy his freedom from the Bishop because in this time and in this place people are rarely born free. The cathedral is constructed with the soaring ambition of Eugenius von Zabern, the Bishop’s treasurer. It is designed by Achim von Esinbach, an architect who has visions. He loves Odile, a daughter of a family of mystics. The city is protected by Manfred, a soldier who learns that business has more to offer and marries Grete, a weaver. Funds for all come from the city’s Jews. Everyone is connected, joined together against attack from outside, but, for some, the enemy is within the town’s walls, represented by those who are different – mystics, Jews, women, the poor – to be feared and destroyed in the shadow of the cathedral.
Cathedral is a beautifully written and ambitious novel that on one level chronicles the construction of the cathedral in the Germany city of Hagenburg but, on another, presents the lives of Hagenburg’s people through the 13th century, a time of unrest, war, river piracy, heresy and suspicion. Several generations of people pass through the story, although some characters remain central to the life of the city. We meet the masons, the merchants, the local churchmen and nobles, the mystics, the soldiers, the Jews, their wives and children, their husbands and lovers. This is a novel full of life, a snapshot of a particular place at a particular time in medieval Europe. It is indeed engrossing.
This is a novel about life but it also, not surprisingly considering the period in which it is set, about death. Death takes many forms in a place where life is short but sometimes it can be absolutely shocking and there are scenes here involving the Church’s crusade against the mysticism of the Cathars that are horrifying in their cruelty and hypocrisy. There are also moments of brutality, ambition that soars and then is crushed due to the nature of this world and society.
Ben Hopkins does such an astonishing job of revealing medieval European life by focusing on specific examples, drawn from across society, religions and wealth, gender and status. The mutual relationship between the classes is essential but it is also fragile and vulnerable to assault. This is a city in which pirates and bandits flourish, and not all of them are as they first appear.
Cathedral is an engrossing and compelling novel, especially during the first two thirds of the book when I felt heartily involved with the characters. I did find it a dark and troubling read (this is not an ‘easy’ period of history) but it is a memorable one. It’s difficult to imagine a more convincing portrayal of life and death in 13th-century Europe.