When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called the Plymouth Brethren. For us, a church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe's wealth of gorgeous church architecture.
I started trying to write novels in my middle 20s, while working as a reporter on London's Evening News. I realized then that I had never taken much interest in the cityscape around me, and I had no vocabulary to describe the buildings in which my characters had their adventures. So I bought An Outline of European Architecture by Nikolaus Pevsner. That book gave me eyes with which to look at buildings in general and churches in particular. Pevsner got really passionate when he wrote about Gothic cathedrals. The invention of the pointed arch, he wrote, was a rare event in history, when the solution to a technical problem—how to build a taller church—was also sublimely beautiful.
Use this floor plan and glossary to gain a better understanding of cathedrals.
Soon after I read Pevsner's book, my newspaper sent me to the East Anglican city of Peterborough. I have long forgotten what story I was covering, but I shall always remember what I did after filing it. I had to wait an hour for a train back to London, so, remembering Pevsner's fascinating and passionate descriptions of medieval architecture, I went to see Peterborough Cathedral.
It was one of those moments.
The west front of Peterborough has three huge Gothic arches, like doorways for giants. The inside is older than the façade, with arcades of regular round Norman arches in stately procession up the aisle. Like all great churches, it is both tranquil and beautiful. But it was more than that. Because of Pevsner's book, I had some inkling of the effort that had gone into this. I knew the story of humankind's attempts to build ever taller and more beautiful churches. I understood the place of this building in history, my history.
I was enraptured by the Peterborough Cathedral…
Read Ken Follett's biography to find out more his European upbringing and experience a reporter.
More from the complete reader's guide to The Pillars of the Earth.