Built on a True Dream: The Medieval Church and Its Representation in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth
By Daniël M. de Witte
Master’s Thesis, Leiden University, 2018
Introduction: Corruption is a major theme in Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. The novel, which depicts the process leading to the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge cathedral in the twelfth century, presents a medieval world rife with corruption. Although medieval culture plays a central role in both the plot and the atmosphere of Follett’s work, there has not yet been a sustained investigation of whether the novel’s portrayal of the medieval world is accurate—that is, whether its depiction of the medieval world is grounded in historical facts delivered to us through sources.
The popularity of Follett’s work makes it worthy of further research; The Pillars of the Earth quickly became one of Britain’s best-loved books in 2003 and remains a bestseller to this day, spawning a TV-series in 2010 and even a video game, which was released in 2017. After the novel became successful, Follett declared in interviews that he had based his vision of Kingsbridge Cathedral on medieval models, such as the Cathedral of Salisbury and Wells Cathedral. This thesis aims to illustrate the way in which Follett has depicted the medieval Church of the twelfth century and answer the question of whether this depiction is a historical accurate representation.
Historical accuracy is an important concept in this thesis, and one which must be treated with caution. The notion of historical accuracy, as this research will point out, is somewhat fraught when applied to the medieval period, because much of the information about the period is provided through sources which have been coloured by events that took place at the time of composition.
Moreover, the historiographical vision that the scholarly world has of the medieval world is based on a limited number of fragmentary sources. These sources, which vary from law texts to religious texts, form the corpus of cultural residue that is known to present-day literary historians. The fragmentary nature of these sources makes it hard to determine whether a novel that is set in the medieval world is actually fully representative of the time period, as our views of the time period itself are determined by the sources that have been delivered to us.
Top Image: The Pillars of the Earth (2010) – IMDB