Once upon a time, there was a time for cathedrals.The Pillars of the Earth invites us to discover the extraordinary construction of one of them by immersing us in England of the 12the century in the grip of wars, famines and incessant power struggles. The Welsh writer Ken Follett, considered one of the masters of suspense, offers us here a large romantic and historical fresco in the heart of the Middle Ages.
Summary of the plot
The plot of Pillars of the Earth cannot be simply summed up. 1050 pages in pocket format to tell us about the construction of a cathedral which spanned more than forty years. It all starts with a hanging, that of a man accused of theft and whose execution seems to have been orchestrated by a knight, a monk and a priest who are soon cursed by a young woman. Twelve years later, we find ourselves following Tom nicknamed the Builder.
A penniless mason, with his pregnant wife and two children, he travels the grim and insecure roads of the English countryside, desperately looking for a job as hunger and the winter cold plague them. However, he dreams of becoming an architect and builder of a cathedral. The first milestones of a formidable historical epic were thus put in place as the breath of civil war gradually made itself felt in the kingdom of the future Plantagenet dynasty.
Medieval life and society.
A first legitimate question: how can such a pavement revolving around the construction of a cathedral fascinate the crowds? There are several answers, starting with the richness of the plot and its many twists and turns which owe a lot to the multitude of characters present, illustrating all facets of medieval society. From the brigand to the count, including the gentry, peasants, artisans, merchants and especially the monastic world, The Pillars of the Earth draw up a fascinating panorama of medieval society by leading the reader into the daily life of each of its layers. To this end, the book conceals a real work of historical research on living conditions at that time.
However, it should not be forgotten that we remain mainly in fiction with the integration of real facts such as the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The book suffers, however, from an omnipresent Manichaeism, characters sometimes very caricatured, the cruel and bloodthirsty nobleman oppressing his peasants is de facto one of the finest examples that cannot be compared to any historical truth.
Loves, honors, pride, betrayals, political intrigues and family conflicts thus make up this fresco that we follow with passion through many and incessant twists, perhaps a little too much elsewhere. Travel through the medieval West, from the English countryside to Toledo and Andalusia via Paris, assault and capture of fortresses, city attacks, etc. are also on the program of this novel, which is nonetheless devoted to medieval architecture.
Ken Follett, history and architecture
And at the level of historical veracity? It must be remembered that the historical events present in the novel are there only to serve the plot and the fictional protagonists. History itself is therefore not in the foreground and the research work appears overshadowed by the recurrent Manichaeism of the novel. However, let's not forget that the main character remains a cathedral and that the main plot revolves around its construction. As such, Ken Follett gives us a real little summary of Gothic architecture which could easily follow the writings of Vitruvius.
The XIIe century indeed corresponds to the birth of the Gothic style and the construction of the first great cathedrals in France, leading the protagonists of the novel to travel throughout this kingdom in search of architectural discoveries. In these passages which are certainly sometimes more difficult to read compared to the simple and light style of the whole of the work, the author thus reveals to us all the art of the builders thus giving a real soul to the book but also to the architecture. medieval to a greater extent.
Exciting dive into the heart of the medieval world, reading the Pillars of the earth will also offer you a new look at these magnificent buildings that are the cathedrals.
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth, Editions Stock, Paris, 1990.
A bestseller, sold to over 90 million readers, The Pillars of the Earth have been adapted into a television series, and aired for on Canal +.