A month or so ago, I checked out a book called The Biography of a Cathedral by Robert Gordon Anderson. Published in 1944, and as far as I can find, not printed long after that, it doesn’t have an ISBN. An oddly common trait among the books I find myself reading, which makes them hard to look up or input into GoodReads.com.
Oh, and this is the book the card in “Book Sniffing” came from.
Biography is rare among the older library books in that it still has the original jacket flaps pasted just inside the first cover. Mr. Anderson also published such works as Those Quarrelsome Bonapartes, An American Family Abroad, and Leader of Men. Plus a few others. I don’t know much about how well those have lasted either, but I rather hope so since he does have a way with words.
But first, what is a “biography” of a cathedral? Well, the (possible) subtitle, “The Living Story of Man’s Most Beautiful Creation and of the Pageant that Led to Notre Dame,” sums it up just fine. By “pageant, Anderson means “history”, starting with the Romans and so far I’m up to the chapter on 550 A.D. Which is only half way through.
And Anderson loves Notre Dame. And France. And Gothic architecture. And he’s throughly entrenched his history into the history of the Church and Christian religion before Notre Dame was built.
The fall of Rome had been postponed. And this, in the study of the great drama, general and Church history, and, indeed, the whole pageant and forward march of man, must ever be kept in mind: before he fall Rome was to split into two , the Empires of the East and West. This division came in 364, the final fall in 474; and from that fall , Rome was never to come back, for all the misfit and miscalled “Holly Roman Empire” of the Middle Ages….But the Church would not, like the Empire, fall. The Church of the West would take over the old political capital on the Seven Hills and turn it into one sacred. It was indestructible. And the bishops who from all over the known world had attended his council had, in critical time, helped to save it.
I have to look up again which council this is supposed to be, and he seems to refer to one called by Constantine at Nicaea. This doesn’t help me much, since I don’t actually know much about this period of history, other than the overall change of countries, etc. I’d hoped this book would help, but nothing is cited and for all I know Anderson is making it up.
Which I doubt he is. And for all his rhetoric, Anderson is just viewing history though his filter of religion (Catholicism, I think) and “French are awesome! and blonde!” Considering the time period, rather understandable, although a little odd to my modern ears, especially when starts bashing the Germans and all German history. Anyway, he does seem to know history fairly well, especially the history of the Church, and though he does get a little too generous in interpreting everything to the pinnacle of the creation of the cathedral of Notre Dame
Beyond that though, he is rather fun to read. Yes, it’s a little elaborate and more than slightly purple, but there’s so much passion behind it. Anderson truly believes in this history, he loves France, Notre Dame, and God. While I may not agree with his beliefs or sometimes even his conclusions, I can admire his sincerity.
In modern texts, historians try to investigate everything going on behind the scenes of published history, without the lens of religious belief. Fair enough. But when people do believe that strongly, I think it might be a little irresponsible to doubt how much belief does affect people and, subsequently, their decisions.
You may not be able to understand the situation from their perspective, but to discount the influence? Careless. Because belief that strong affects everything. And makes a difference in interpretation.
But honestly? The Notre Dame Cathedral is not my favorite example of Gothic architecture. Or at least, not from the front.