Book Review: World Without End – By Ken Follett

Right after reading Pillars of the Earth, I picked up the hardcopy of World Without End. This story takes place in the same fictional town in Southern England, Kingsbridge, where Pillars was staged, only about 200 years later. Not much has changed in terms of society and technology in the 200 years that have passed.

People are still enslaved by their masters, the nobility. The nobility perpetuates by inheritance, for the most part, and by intrigue. A king’s wife takes on a lover and kills the king, only to have her 14 year old son take over the kingdom much earlier than she thought. A corrupt nobleman kills his child wife to get rid of her, so he is eligible to marry the recently widowed countess only so he can be the earl.

Yet, when a peasant family gets wiped out by the plague, and only one 16 year old son remains, and the son asks for the land holdings of his father, about 90 acres, the lord of the village denies him that right and simply gives the land to another peasant who is more in his favor, all based on an excuse. The peasant may have rights, but enforcing those rights is just about impossible, when the lord is not only the owner of everything, but is also appointed by the overlord, as well as the king. The king, being the ultimate judge, will in most cases adjudicate in favor of the lord, as it is the lord who is the knight and collects the army so the king can go to war.

The nobility lives lavishly, albeit dangerously, on the backs of the peasants and the merchants, who are being taxed for the use of the land, the roads and the bridges. The people supply tithes to the church. When a peasant or merchant dies, there is an inheritance tax, a heriot, which is a substantial portion of the value that also gets siphoned off by the lord. Wages for peasants are set. When the labor pool is depleted, and peasants start wandering to other villages for higher wages, parliament passes a law that peasants are not allowed to leave their villages to take on work in other villages.

Of course, parliament is full of land owners and lords. There isn’t a peasant represented. So in essence, the people are imprisoned by their lords, who can tell them what to grow and what not to grow, even though often they don’t have any idea about agriculture. They pay the peasants according to the established customs, but when things get hard, after a bad harvest or other problems, the lord has no scruples about not paying the peasants, while collecting rent anyway, either in cash, if they can, or in livestock or harvested goods.

The plague, which decimated Europe in the 14th century, is depicted in this story. I learned about its devastating effect on the society. The people were helpless. They did not know what caused it, and they didn’t know what to do about it. To make matters worse, the clergy, which also enompassed most of the physicians and nurses, was steeped in superstition and pseudo science, and “medical” practices actually ended up making things worse in some cases. The plague was a great equalizer, as it didn’t care about the difference between the nobility, the clergy, the merchants and the peasantry. It killed equally and efficiently.

Reading Pillars of the Earth and World Without End I learned more about the functioning of medieval monarchies than in my whole life before. World Without End is a 1000 page book, and you follow a cast of characters through a couple of generations in the mid 14th century. The characters become part of your life for a while, and when you turn the last page, you are sad that you have to leave them behind.

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