Sumptuous and beautifully illustrated as this magnificent book undoubtedly is, it is Jon Cannon`s writing which sets it apart. This is history, told from the point of view, as it were, of the many varied and spectacular cathedrals that were built in England in medieval times, but it`s Cannon`s unexpectedly bewitching style that captivates the reader again and again.
For example, the opening words of the Preface:
An overpass on the A36 is not the most obvious place for an encounter with a vanished world. But Salisbury, through which this road passes, is no ordinary city.
Immediately, he has one`s attention. As the eye is continually diverted by the many gorgeous, well-chosen pictures and photographs adorning the text, so the author manages to engross the reader in the story he has to tell. The cathedrals and churches which dot our landscape have always - even now, in this more secular age - played a vital, pivotal role in the life of the community. At 500 packed pages, Cannon tells the story of England through the life of its cathedrals, peopled by colourful characters, artisans, manipulative monarchs, and the millions of ordinary, and not a few extraordinary, folk who have passed through their doors over the centuries.
After a comprehensive preface and introduction, the book is in two parts: the first half is entitled Life And History, with seven exhaustive chapters detailing such aspects of the subject as Invasion 1066-1170, Workers and Worshippers, Builders and Patrons. The second half of the book is devoted, alphabetically, to chapters on most of the English cathedrals, from Bath to Norwich to York. An extra section on Other English Cathedrals tells us a little about such `also-rans` as Bradford, Chelmsford, Derby, Sheffield and Truro.
There are maps, charts, notes and a glossary. All in all, it really is one of the most glorious books of its kind I have ever come across.
Another example of the author`s winning writing style, which makes this book stand out from the common run of such books. This is the first paragraph of the chapter on Durham cathedral:
The goldsmith stood alone at the top of the ladder. Three men watched him from the church floor: Dr Leigh, Dr Henley and Master Blythman, sober commissioners of King Henry VIII. It was a clear, cold day in the winter or spring of 1539-40, and they were surrounded by piles of jewels, newly prised from the saint`s shrine.
The immediacy is what grabs you. I want to know who Master Blythman is, and what the goldsmith was like. History as storytelling.
Or how about this, from the opening of his section on a wonderful East Anglian cathedral:
One day in 1095, three men stood on a busy Norwich street corner. The market place in front of them was packed and noisy. They were going to cut it in half, and create a cathedral in the process. The faultline survives to this day, embodying the uneasy relationship between a medieval city and its church.
I`m a sucker for good writing, and this superlative (and massive) book is full of just that. You could lose yourself for hours in it.
My copy is in hardcover, but the paperback is equally impressive, and probably somewhat cheaper. Whichever one you buy, it`s a great and good book to have and hold.