Cathedral was seven years in the writing and perhaps even longer in gestation but the fruits of Hopkins labour justify all the effort. This is an epic teeming with humanity. From the struggles of the lowliest serfs to the noble Bishop Berthold, Spanning a century in the life of a medieval city, Hagenburg, and centring on the Cathedral. The story of the people of Hagenburg is inextricably linked to the construction of a vast edifice to the glory of God. Readers will be absorbed in their obsessions, ambitions, desires and hopes, but also their travails and daily struggles, their perversions of faith, their humanity and inhumanity. The Cathedral occupies and drains the whole community, from the local Jewish bankers financing the project, (freely and coerced), to the peasants, the craftsmen and workers and the secular and religious leaders all bent to the task of building the Cathedral.

It’s a long time since I read William Golding’s The Spire but this earthier novel with a more contemporary feel reminds me of it, in its forensic examination of human nature. Aside from the obvious building of a Cathedral, which represents the cutting edge of technology and ambition of the day, this is a representation of the human endeavour and limitations, (to mean well yet do harm or to wilfully abuse, corrupt and be cruel). The creation of a Cathedral to rival Paris or Metz might seem like a worthy ambition but at what cost.

From the first page, a humorous light-hearted opening, Hawkins draws in the reader, we are soon immersed in the medieval world, this tale soon develops the grip of a good thriller. But these are dark times, this is an age that values most human life very cheaply but there are plenty of echoes of twenty-first century life in the issues portrayed. The humour dissipates as events get very dark indeed, from inquisition to the Black Death, events made worse by zealots who do ‘evil’ bidding in a ‘good’ cause. We also see that serfs have dreams and desires as vivid as the rich despite the fact that only obedience and servitude is expected of them.

Rettich, a shepherd serf from the hills near Lenzenbach, is nineteen when his father dies leaving him responsible for the family, soon after, the Bishop’s taxes are due. So Rettich and younger brother Emmle set off for Hagenburg to settle their due. Rettich is ridiculed for naively expecting to pay Bishop Berthold in person, he is directed to the office of Treasurer. Where, in innocence, he tries to barter the ten shillings tax to no avail. Then Rettich asks how much to free his family from serfdom but the sum is huge – twenty-seven marks. Again, in all innocence, Rettich asks how he is to raise so much money. The treasurer scoffs and sends him to the Jewish quarter to see Herr Meir Rosheimer for a loan. Normally Rosheimer would not lend such a sum against no collateral, it is the Treasurer’s joke at Rettich’s expense, but Rosheimer recognises that the boy has an extraordinary talent for figures and he has only just arrived in town and has secured an apprenticeship to a stone mason if free:

“Listen I would never loan twenty-seven marks to a shepherd.” He holds up his hands before Rettich can protest. “Nor to an apprentice! But… He stands, goes over to take the ledger. “You will do well, Country Egg. I’m certain of that…”

Rosheimer not only lends Rettich the money but employs his younger brother Emmle as a servant. Triumphant, Rettich returns to the astonished Treasurer and gives him the twenty-seven marks. In the coming days Rettich will wonder if being free is so different from slavery to the Bishop, the work of a stone mason is backbreaking but, eventually, he will prosper.

Eugenius von Zabern is a trapped man, this job as Treasurer was in his stars long before he studied numbers, an inheritance, not a privilege he welcomes.

‘My smile scares children. Maybe I should call it something else… I am not a bad man, nevertheless no-one likes me.’

While the bishop and the nobles hunt, whore and gamble, Eugenius collects taxes. He marks his days as Chief Treasurer in his mind as a prisoner might score the walls – 2,797 days so far. All because of his rank and the ‘curse of numbers’. Eugenius hates the job, he hates the ungrateful emissaries from Rome demanding their tribute, most of all he hates the Cathedral, the drain on the Bishopric’s wealth. The Bishop’s debtors and creditors are the damned and the saved, the peasants and nobles, the religious institutions, and the Jews but the money is never enough. Eugenius arrives in his office one day to find the Bishop and the architect, Achim von Esinbach, waiting. They have new, grander, plans for Our Lady’s Cathedral. The bishop dismisses Eugenius’s qualms about cost: What price the glory of God? This will be the Bishop’s legacy. Eugenius doesn’t realise the depths he will sink to in the coming years for the Bishop and the Cathedral.

On a trip to collect taxes Eugenius and his men pass Mohrmünster Abbey, the monks and nuns have been declared heretic and acting against them would please Rome. So Eugenius takes the Abbey, loots the building and takes the brothers and sisters for trial and execution. The Cathedral coffers are boosted. It’s a beginning; there are many heretics in the world, witches, Cathars and, don’t forget, the Jews, recalcitrant nobles, river bandits. The beast must be fed.

These are the characters who open the story, there are multiple voices, the people who animate Hagenburg and the medieval world of the novel. Cathedral is also a meditation on art and culture, endeavour and achievement. A battle between higher and lower instincts, the glory of God and the glory of man, better angles and devils, heavenly and earthly desire. A tale rich in emotion – poignant and yet hopeful through all the tragedy.

A panorama of medieval life that resonates and offers more than a few home truths about human nature. From philosophy to the battlefield, it’s all here.

Review by Paul Burke

Europa Editions, hardback, ISBN 9781787702, Out Now
Personal read 4*, group read 4*