Palaces & Workhouses

The writer Jonathan Meades once remarked that cathedrals (in this case Salisbury Cathedral) serve to facilitate « the dessication and snobbery of the clergy ». Thankfully this barbed, typically Meadesian remark does not characterise his overall assessment of the building – he goes on to fawn delightedly over its symmetry and drama. Indeed, cathedrals are wonderful buildings, examples of what humans can do with piles of stone when they believe God is watching them. But Meades has a point – for all their architectural delight and drama, cathedrals exist (or at least existed) in the service of an ideology. Every sweeping arch, every fan vaulted ceiling; such ‘poetry in stone’ has a significance beyond mere ornament. The medieval churchgoer, illiterate and burdened with the weight of ecclesiastical tax after ecclesiastical tax, was supposed to look up at these feats of engineering and recognise explicitly the Church – those learned, Latin speaking men – as rightful and…

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