Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth – by Ken Follett

Pillars of the EarthPillars of the Earth is a 1,000 page epic novel. The story takes place in southern England between 1120 and 1175. The framework is the building of a new cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The characters and the locales are fictional.

Follett has put a tremendous amount of research into this work. We follow several key families and groups through the decades of their lives.

A highly efficient young monk becomes the prior of a decrepit monastery and turns it around to become a thriving town, mainly by prudent management and application of basic economic principles: where there is vision, work and purpose, people flock and societies are created. An orphan boy is raised in the monastery to eventually become its prior. A family of builders are the driving and creative force behind the cathedral. And there are wicked lords who make every step of the way painful and maddeningly difficult.

I learned about the justice system in the middle ages, where lords, starting with the king and down through the ranks, have absolute power. I learned how the power of the church is interwoven into society and affects every aspect of life, from the king down to the peasant. Bishops can topple kings. Kings have petty quarrels like everyone else, but the quarrels of kings affect every peasant and lord in the land, possibly for decades. Allegiances create fabulous wealth, by simply taking an earldom, a county, from one lord and giving it to another. The entire entourage of  the losing party is abandoned and likely becomes outlaws, unless cunning aligns them with the new regime.

If you where a child, and you grew up at a time when an old king died and succession was not obvious, the ensuing civil war could  affect your entire life, or worse, cut it very short.

The game of chess comes to mind: There are kings and queens, bishops, knights and castles. And there are pawns, many, many pawns. Powerless. Tools only to be used, exploited, taxed, raped, killed, abandoned, controlled and then used again.

I got enough insight into that time of our history that I had never studied before to motivate me to research medieval clothing, learn about the construction of cathedrals and study up on the succession of the monarchy in England. It occurred to me again how much I don’t know.

Thinking about the monarchy, in England and many other places, it is becoming obvious why the founders of America wanted to get away. Also, the claim to royal bloodlines of  current royal families is very suspect. It appears that monarchs through the ages, when succession was not completely obvious due to the presence of a firstborn son, the one that was most conniving and vicious became the new king.

Finally, just the thought that birthright would make an appropriate and efficient leader is ludicrous. Because your dad was a carpenter, you should be a good carpenter? Perhaps. Because your dad was a surgeon, you should be a good surgeon? Not quite. It will take a decade of schooling first. And because your dad was king, you should be a good king? Or your dad was President of the United States? Ok, we will not go there.

At least in this area the church was well ahead of the government. Bishops weren’t normally sons of bishops, priors weren’t sons of priors. Both were elected, kind of, as long as the local lords got to appoint the candidates and as long  as the electorate was smart and elected according to the instructions of the lord. So the leaders in the church were often the most cunning and vicious political operators, for the most part.

When I was done reading this epic, I put the book down and realized that I’d miss the characters. Follett’s sequel, World without End, just came out, after 18 years of waiting. It plays in Kingsbridge, 200 years later. All my friends from the story will be gone.

Rating - Four Stars

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