cover image Cathedral


Ben Hopkins. Europa, $28 (624p) ISBN 978-1-60945-611-5

British filmmaker Hopkins’s ambitious and satisfying debut uses a big story—the century-plus cathedral building project in Hagenburg in the Holy Roman Empire (now Lower Saxony)—to tell an even bigger story—the rise of merchants and the corresponding decline of the church through the 13th century. Characters play roles in the never-ending skirmishes among nobles, burghers, Jews, and the church, but they read like real people. Prominent among them are three siblings: Rettich, who buys his freedom and gets a job helping to build the cathedral; his brother, Emmle, who becomes a Jewish merchant’s gentile right hand; and sister Grete, the ambitious wife of a city trader. Also crucial: Von Rabern, the Bishop’s cranky but honest treasurer; Yudl, a Jewish boy torn between being a scholar or a merchant; and several nobles. What links them all is money, which is loaned, borrowed, stolen, and withheld, as goods, services, and secrets are bought and sold while the cathedral rises or stalls. Six hundred pages sounds long, but this deeply human take on a medieval city and its commerce and aspirations, its violent battles and small intimacies, never feels that way. This sweeping work is as impressive as the cathedral at its center. (Jan.)