God & Mammon: Ben Hopkins’s Cathedral

WRITTEN BY SARAH BOWER

There is money in Ben Hopkins’ family, academically speaking at least. His grandfather was an economic historian and his brother is a professor of economics. Just as William Golding’s fictionalised account of the building of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral in his novel, The Spire, betrays his background as an engineer, Hopkins’ new novel, Cathedral, reveals the economist in the author’s blood. The big question at the heart of the novel is not so much the how or why of cathedral building per se, but how and why is such a colossal undertaking financed and paid for?

This may suggest a dry tome on the subject of medieval economics rather than the well-paced, eminently readable novel which is Cathedral, until one thinks about the place of economics in society. As I write, the gist of all our news is the effects on the global economy of Covid-19. Reporters frame this in terms of individual human narratives – shortages of protective equipment for care workers, giveaways of beer before unused stocks go bad – but underlying all these stories is economics. In Cathedral, Ben Hopkins successfully taps into this intimate relationship between people and economics to tell the story of the building of a cathedral in the fictional Alsatian city of Hagenburg and, through the lives of the people who help or hinder its progress over a fifty-year period, of the foundation of mercantile capitalism in Europe. It is a novel of big ideas seen through the alluring prism of small lives.

There is an argument which posits the Black Death as creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism by sweeping away the feudal system, but Hopkins’ novel begins a good hundred years before this, in 1229, with the arrival in Hagenburg of a boy with a talent for carving and an ambition to purchase his family’s freedom, a combination which leads him into a complex set of relationships and obligations that are the novel’s foundations. When I ask Hopkins about this decision, he replies, “It seems to me that the roots of mercantile capitalism in the Rhineland had been well placed before the plague. The plague then – by killing so many working people – created a new set of conditions for mercantilism to develop in new and unexpected ways… In short, the plague was some kind of ‘reset’ button that changed some aspects of economic relations, but not their basics.” Hagenburg, he explains, is modelled on Strasbourg because the history of Strasbourg Cathedral afforded the “best” building narrative for his purposes.

From this sturdy root, the novel grows and spreads to encompass the foundation of merchant guilds, the Cathar heresy, the wrangling of Guelph and Ghibelline, the rise of the Hapsburgs and the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe. Using multiple narrative voices and a rich cast of characters from visionary rabbis to venal bishops, aristocratic bandits to crooked accountants and wheeler-dealing widows, Hopkins weaves his story around the seemingly interminable building of the cathedral with immense skill and verve. One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its multiple voices, which are clearly and surely differentiated, enrich the characterisation and carry a complex set of plots and sub-plots in a way which ensures the novel is never confusing. Hopkins is bold with his chronology, alternately picking his way minute by minute or leaping ahead by decades, building almost unbearable tension only to release it when you least expect it. There is nothing predictable in this novel except death and taxes.

This is at least partly a consequence of the fact that there are no clear-cut heroes and villains in this story. Everyone has their fair share of good luck and ill luck, everyone behaves well sometimes and unspeakably at others. At no point, however, are we left wondering about their motives. Everyone, from prince bishop to shepherd, is trying to get on. Their aspirations may make them wise or foolish, shrewd, reckless, romantic or cruel, but their aspirations are not much different to our own. Some we love, some we’d give a wide berth, but all we understand and, understanding, usually forgive.

I asked Hopkins how he thinks his work as a filmmaker influenced his writing:

“I love ensemble films with intertwined narratives – often these take place in cities, where one character in one strand passes another in another strand and the ‘narrative baton’ is then passed from one character or strand to another… So when I started planning Cathedral I immediately thought of this structure…In the writing of it, the structure became less ‘structuralist’ and less rigid, more flowing.”

As I read, I thought I could also see the influence of the filmmaker in another significant aspect of the novel, and that is in Hopkins’ commendably light touch with description. He spares us the freight of scene-setting which can weigh down historical novels and offers sketches, often almost in note form with a sparing use of pronouns, verbs or prepositions. This is a style which respects the reader’s imagination and cuts to the chase when what we want to know is not so much how the pub smells at the end of a long hot night but what’s going to happen when the drunk leaving the pub encounters the cutpurse in the shadows. It redeems long novels by ensuring that no words, however many of them there may be, are wasted.

Hopkins admits to having enjoyed writing Cathedral immensely, and this is evident in the compassion, humour, pathos and sheer vivacity of a novel which signals the arrival of a bright new talent on the historical fiction stage.

Cathedral was scheduled for publication by Europa Editions in August 2020 but is now postponed to January 2021 due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

About the contributor: Sarah Bower edited HNR from 2005-2006. The Needle in the Blood won the Susan Hill Award 2007 and The Book of Love was a Toronto Globe and Mail bestseller. Having taught creative writing widely, she starts a creative and critical writing PhD in October 2020.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)


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