Spanning over a century—from 1229 to 1351—Cathedral doesn’t detail the workings of the humongous construction project at its heart. Nor does it dwell on the high and mighty. While distant emperors and popes serve to support or thwart the rising structure, the men and women who will literally live in its shadow dominate the book.
A bishop’s treasurer, a Jewish moneylender, a visionary architect, a merchant, a girl in a nonconformist religious commune, a stonemason, a depraved baron, a self-made weaver muscling her way up in a man’s world, and more—many more—build, or resist, the cathedral. Their fates depend on how astutely they apply their talents and ambitions to manipulate their place in local society.
Several of the characters, especially the more eccentric of them, may set up in the reader a craving to learn more of them, to follow their story longer. But despite its length, Cathedral’s generous timespan and its sprawling and intricate cast allow each character only a relatively fleeting appearance. The ensemble is what immerses the reader in the town and its interdependent citizens.
Hopkins bestows neither glory nor excessive grit on the Middle Ages. His cathedral town nearly feels familiar. And that is a large part of what makes Cathedral such a gripping read. While weaving our senses skillfully into ordinary medieval life, Hopkins surrounds us with people who share our irresistible attraction to physical beauty and the charisma of power, the often prickly comforts of faith, and greed, lust, hunger, illusion, personal love: all that makes us human, regardless of place and time.