In the fictional 13th century Alsatian town of Hagenburg, a great edifice is slowly changing the skyline: the magnificent Cathedral (with a capital C) that is being built “to the glory of God” and the worldly legacy of the Bishop. Not everyone regards it as a blessing: Eugenius von Zabern, the treasurer, is particularly cynical: “a constant river of silver and gold flows into that damned hole, providing the wages of the idle, and paying quarrymen, foresters and glaziers for their so-called labour.” Yet he is the one with the responsibility to raise the monies to realise the bishop’s plan. This he does by increasing taxes and raiding monasteries, now deemed heretical. Like many so-called Christians in this book, von Zabern is quick to dismiss his religious qualms to satisfy earthly objectives.
Neither are the citizens of Hagenburg enamoured of the project. While it provides work for many, it is a burden for others, particularly the mercantile classes, who finally decide to build their own church. The Jewish community, for whom the Cathedral is the Abomination, are coerced into financing the project too. This Cathedral affects everyone, regardless of class or faith. Hopkins shows exactly how by honing in on representative families and charting their stories through the following decades: the Schäffers, a shepherding family from Lenzenbach, who rise from being serfs to wealthy ennobled landowners and merchants; the Rosheimers, Jewish money-lenders who become inextricably bound with the Schäffers, when they loan Rettich Schäffer the money needed to buy his freedom; the Gerbers, related to the Schäffers by marriage. Manfred Gerber, von Zabern’s enforcer, if you will.
With a huge cast of subsidiary characters, I’m going to suggest that listening to the audio book is perhaps not the best way to approach this novel, because keeping track is impossible. The chapters, alternating between perspectives of several characters, are each divided into short, sharp sections which read very quickly. However, the actor’s voice does not differentiate sufficiently between characters, so there were many times, when I wasn’t sure who exactly was talking. (I eventually abandoned the audio book and reverted to hard copy.)
Hopkin’s is a scriptwriter and it shows. Amidst the politics and intrigue, and the fighting over worldly goods are several high definition episodes indelibly etched on my mind: the inquisition of alleged heretics, the burning of those found guilty, the attack of the river pirates on the Rhine, the excommunication of the entire city of Hagenburg by a young, foolish bishop, who is no longer getting his way. There are moments of absolute horror, but the most chilling moment for me is when Grete Gerber, Manfred’s widow, justifies the action she is about to take to raise funds for her latest political battle. It will constitute a heinous betrayal of Yudl ben Yitzhak, the de facto though not on paper owner of the business Schäffer and Associates, and will lead to him emigrating to Poland, where Jews were able to live and work, unhindered by legal restriction and sporadic outbreaks of brutal persecution.
A final word about the appropriateness of the paperback cover. While stained-glass lettering is an obvious nod to the edifice which overshadows this novel, it also mirrors the way in which small chunks of episodic narrative coalesce over 618 pages into a colourful kaleidoscopic image of the turbulent, earthy and frequently unholy middle ages.