Pillars of the Earth – Reading questions

Please note that this novel is 983 pages long. Yes, you read that right. I promise you it is worth it. There are a few descriptions of brutal rapes, which are painful to read and I welcome you to skip those sections; please be forewarned. But the rest of it offers a wonderful panorama of England in the 12th century. The plot centers around the building of a cathedral. It is directly relevant to several of the topics we will be discussing in April. If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to order the book immediately and start reading!

There is an 8-part TV series based on the novel. It is fun, and I would never pass up an opportunity to spend time in the company of Rufus Sewell (who plays Tom Builder). But be advised that the show changes many aspects of the plot, and also omits large sections of the story that will be important to our class (eg everything in Spain), so watching the show cannot substitute for reading the book.

Copy this list onto the inside cover of your book so you remember these topics as you read. Highlight relevant passages as you come to them:

  • What are English towns and cities like physically in the 12th century? What are some of their characteristics (eg how streets are laid out, what they look like, what it was like to walk through them, etc.)
  • What are some of the factors that make it difficult to build a church (think in terms of labor, materials, know-how, etc.; be specific)?
  • The disaster on Whitsunday: what were the causes?
  • What is the community like on the pilgrimage road to Compostela?
  • In what ways is the home of the Arab merchant in Toledo different from the homes in England?
  • What is so innovative about the churches in Paris? Pay close attention to the architectural descriptions.
  • What impact does the Weeping Madonna have on Kingsbridge?
  • What exactly is the problem with the additional height of the cathedral, and what is the solution?
  • What is the socio-economic impact of building a cathedral on a town?
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