The building of cathedrals in Europe was often a multi-generational task, a labor of love and worship that illustrates the tenor of those times. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is its own labor of love and worship, although in a different way. As he explains in his introduction, the book was a huge departure for him. Known as an author of thriller— including Eye of the Needle, one of my favorites —Follett took a risk writing this book, but based on the way readers have embraced it, his risk paid off.
Pillars is the story of one cathedral and the events of the nearly forty years it took to build. It centers around five people: a cleric, two artisans, and two from the ranks of the nobility. (An additional character from the peasantry probably would have made the plot unwieldy, but Follett deals with that problem early on.) During the period he writes about—1123 to 1174—there was an international struggle to determine whether kings ruled with the blessing of the church, or whether the church existed under the protection of the kings. That struggle trickled down to the local level, where philosophy yields to the daily fight for land and money. At the same time, guilds were exercising their economic power by restricting membership, enforcing apprenticeships, and setting fees for specific jobs. Both church and nobility feared the repercussions of a wealthy educated class, but the guilds were also limited by the need for armed protection and desire for religious approval. At various times power shifted among the three, but no single one emerged victorious. But struggles were not limited to the competing factions: clergy maneuvered amongst themselves for power and income, nobles conspired against each other to increase their holdings, and the guilds evolved through trial and error that produced losers and winners.
Follett’s span of the 12th century begins with the tribulations of Tom Builder, a mason whose job is unexpectedly terminated, forcing him to take to the roads with his family, searching for work. Like the peasants of his time, he is helpless in the face of lawlessness and misfortune, until every day becomes a quest for survival against the slow starvation overtaking his family. After his wife dies in childbirth, Tom becomes involved with Ellen, a mysterious woman who lives in the forest with her son Jack. When Tom’s path crosses that of the newly-elected Prior Philip of the Kingsbridge monastery, both their fortunes begin to rise.
Philip is a motivated, intelligent, and inspired man whose dedication to the church manifests itself in his desire to revive the fallen fortunes of the monastery with a plan to eventually build a cathedral. But the opportunity presents itself sooner rather than later, and the project is underway. Philip is an innocent in many ways, but no more so than in his belief that his sincere efforts on God’s behalf are respected and shared by other clergy, including the driven and ambitious Waleran Bigod, who is destined to become his bishop. However, he becomes adept at his own kind of politicking and makes several enemies along the way.
One of them is William Hamleigh, the would-be Earl of Shiring, which encompasses Bishop Bigod’s diocese and Prior Philip’s growing town. Hamleigh’s family rose to the earldom during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud. William is a brute who does not hesitate to use force and treachery, even cold-blooded murder, to achieve his aims. But his inability to think beyond the short term hampers him, and he is easily manipulated by the bishop for his own ends. He’s not a subtle character, but William also serves a valuable role in the story, demonstrating the effort and expense it took to maintain the military force that an earl was required to bring to the king.
When the story begins, William’s anticipated marriage to the Lady Aliena, daughter of the current Earl, is broken off. Her father did not want to force her into a political marriage, and the humiliation leads the Hamleighs to denounce the Earl and seize his holdings. When William gains the upper hand, he rapes Aliena, kills her protector, and scars her younger brother. But Aliena will not accept that as the last word, and her determination, cleverness, and willingness to take risks give her opportunities to rise above the merely social standing she would have had as a noblewoman. Her success also illustrates the power that the trade associations— both among merchants and among skilled craftsmen—could wield.
Finally, there’s Jack, the unusual son of the outlaw woman Ellen, adopted by Tom Builder and put to work on the cathedral site. His intelligence and insight not only make him a valued craftsman, but allow him to develop a friendship with Aliena. They also bring him to the attention of Prior Philip, who is determined to bring Jack into the monastery, but at a high cost to Jack. Jack is also a vehicle for Follett to explore Continental culture from pilgrimages to Moorish influence in Spain to the revolutionary design of French cathedrals. The vision he brings back puts the crowning touch on what ends as a glorious building.
Follett’s description of the various styles and the engineering feats it took to build these enormous buildings is done lovingly and with a real sense of awe. It makes the reader long to turn to an illustrated source that captures in images what Follett has described for us. And my next entry will talk about that very thing.