Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction Analysis

David Macaulay

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

David Macaulay’s Cathedral explains and shows the construction of a Gothic cathedral during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The time span is idealized, since most cathedrals took two hundred years to be constructed instead of the eighty-six years in the book. The only other imaginary aspects are the name of the community and its inhabitants; they did not exist. In all other parts, faithful adherence to cathedral construction is followed.

The reasons for construction include people’s desire to give thanks for God’s kindness or to ask for God’s mercy. In the thirteenth century, there were no wars to fight and the plague was gone. Crops flourished and business was good, so the city of Chutreaux planned to build God a new cathedral. The relics of Saint Germain, a knight of the First Crusade, included his skull and forefinger; these relics were sent from Constantinople by Louis IX and needed a worthy resting place. The people of Amiens, Beauvais, and Rouen were building new cathedrals, and Chutreaux did not wish to be outdone. All these factors led to the construction, but the final factor was when their existing cathedral was damaged by lightning. Thus, work began on the longest, widest, highest, and most beautiful cathedral in all of France.

Clergymen hired William of Planz, a Flemish architect, to design and supervise the construction of the new cathedral. William hired master craftsmen to quarry, cut stone, sculpt,...

(The entire section is 531 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story begins in 1252 in Chutreaux, a fictional French city, and ends eighty-six years later, upon completion of the cathedral. It is the era of the late Crusades, a time of relative peace and prosperity in France, and civic and religious leaders are cosmopolitan enough to know what is going on throughout Europe and beyond. The Flemish architect and master builder hired for the Chutreaux cathedral has built cathedrals in England and Germany as well as France.

This is a time when structures of soaring imagination and sophisticated design are put together with relatively simple tools and chiefly with the labor of many hands. As the narrative progresses, one of the most magnificent buildings in the world rises in the midst of thatched-roof cottages crowded within the walls of this typical medieval city.

(The entire section is 133 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In building a cathedral, medieval society constructed a symbolic narrative of its religious history, telling the story of Christian salvation through its walls, portals, and stained glass windows. In writing Cathedral, Macaulay constructs his own historical narrative, objectively chronicling the architectural and artistic achievement of a fictitious medieval community. Through simple prose and detailed drawings he reveals the goals and motivations of this community. He shows, for example, that those who first undertake the project of building the cathedral realize they will not live to see its completion. But because they believe that their work is a sacrificial act— glorifying God and earning them access to heaven—they willingly participate. For young adult readers, then, the value of the literary techniques used in Cathedral lies in the book's straightforward narration and fascinating illustrations, which provide a glimpse into the complex social structure and philosophy of the Middle Ages.

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

It would be difficult to describe the building of a cathedral without reference to Christianity, but Macaulay does not focus on the religious motivation of the people of Chutreaux. He balances the idealism of building to glorify God with the universal and more human desire "to build the longest, widest, highest, and most beautiful cathedral" in the country. The text introduces the bishop and the clergymen in charge of the construction, but the book sticks to the business of building thereafter. The references to medieval religious beliefs are presented matter-of-factly and non-judgmentally. For example, when the chapter runs out of money and decides to raise some by displaying "the remains of Saint Germain," Macaulay simply states, The people of northern France and southern England would gladly pay to see such relics." Macaulay neither belittles nor ignores the religious inspiration, though his book concentrates on the social and artistic effects of such inspiration.

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why would the people of Chutreaux begin a project that none of them would live to see finished? Can you understand and explain their motivation?

2. Consider the tools that were used in building the cathedral. What machines were used, and how did these increase the power that the workers could exert? How would the same tasks be done today?

3. Can you think of any modem building projects that require the widespread cooperation and dedication in a community that a cathedral did in the past? Do you know of any projects where you live that have stirred up widespread enthusiasm?

4. Gothic cathedrals were the first buildings to use enormous amounts of glass in the walls. What architectural advances made this possible?

5. What have you learned about the structure of society in the Middle Ages? In what ways was it like contemporary European society? In what ways was it different?

6. If the windows of your classroom were to have stained-glass pictures to last for all time, what do you think should be shown in the pictures? How do you think such a decision should be made?

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Visit a large church in or near your hometown. How many features of a Gothic cathedral can you find and identify? Use the glossary on the final page of Cathedral and the drawings on pages 12 and 13 as guides.

2. Choose a real Gothic cathedral and write a research paper about it. Examine its history and its special architectural features.

3. Write a report or research paper on one of the crafts mentioned on page 9 of Cathedral See the books by Gimpel, James, and Murray listed in the next section.

4. Macaulay suggests a religious significance for the maze pattern in the floor. Many other features of religious architecture are given such significance also. Write a paper on architectural symbolism. See Georges Duby's book listed in the next section.

5. A medieval cathedral was much larger than it needed to be for ordinary worship services. For what other purposes was all that space used? What would a typical day in the life of the finished cathedral be like?

(The entire section is 163 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Branner, Robert. Gothic Architecture. Great Ages of World Architecture Series. New York: George Braziller, 1961. A good basic reference for students. Well illustrated.

Burger, Nash K. "Cathedral" New York Times Book Review (December 16, 1973): 10. This is the best of the short reviews that followed publication of the book.

Duby, Georges. The Europe of the Cathedrals, 1140-1280. Geneva: Skira, 1966. The particular value of this book lies in the way it connects architectural features with theological ideas. It also has the loveliest color photographs of any books listed here.

Gimpel, Jean. The Cathedral Builders. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Relatively accessible to younger readers, this book is helpful for student reports on the different types of workers employed in building a cathedral.

Harvey, John. The Gothic World, 1100- 1600. London: Batsford, 1950. This book provides social background for the Gothic era.

Horizon Magazine. Master Builders of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper, 1968. An excellent resource for high school students, this book focuses on European cathedrals, describing Chartres in particularly rich detail.

James, John. The Contractors of Chartres. 2 vols. Wyong, Australia: Mandorla, 1981. James has paralleled Macaulay's purpose almost precisely but in much greater detail.

Jantzen, Hans. High Gothic: The Classic...

(The entire section is 269 words.)