Robert Scott

The Gothic Enterprise

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Wells Cathedral

Robert A. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral (University of California Press, 2003, pp. 292) has a special interest for me. Scott made Salisbury Cathedral his base of operations, while I grew up in the shadow of nearby Winchester Cathedral, whose beauty and grandeur had a formative influence on me. Gothic cathedrals became my great artistic interest, and I traveled all over Europe studying them. Scott did the same thing, with Salisbury as his starting point.

The Stanford Alumni Association has a large travel program.  Years ago I approached the person in charge and proposed a tour of English cathedrals, with the days devoted to studying them, ending with evensong and its beautiful music. The travel lady sniffed and said "Stanford alumni are not interested in cathedrals". Once again, one of my bright ideas was thwarted.  Robert Scott then undertook the same enterprise, but doing it independently, so he was his own master.  He organized a group which went to Salisbury, and since its foundation it has prospered and become an institution. Scott is Associate Director (now Emeritus) of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, which I can see from where I sit. I was delighted at his enterprise and loaned him a film of Salisbury for the lectures he was giving.

The book is special because Scott is not an art historian: He is a sociologist and therefore views cathedrals not just as structures but as part of a vibrant society. The book is divided into five parts: A Grand Undertaking (the title says "enterprise"), History, The Gothic Look, The Religious Experience and The Gothic Community. He freely uses the common term "Gothic", although it was originally a term of derision used in the neo-classical age to suggest barbarity; it has of course nothing to do with the Goths. Part V in particular, which begins with "Medieval Living Conditions", introduces us to the seamy side of the gothic communities, and helps explain the end of the great cathedral-building period. Stonehenge is near Salisbury, and Scott studies it as a prelude to church building.

Ceiling of Wells Cathedral
Ceiling of Wells Cathedral

The book has many illustrations, sketches and maps. Its size is convenient for those who want to use it as a vade-mecum as they do the grand tour of cathedrals. What we need now is a new edition of coffee-table format with large type and colored photographs. The frontispiece would be the painting of Salisbury by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Larger pictures would allow the non-travelers to appreciate better the grandeur of the cathedrals, although that is a poor substitute for standing in awe within their great walls.

Ronald Hilton, Stanford University
Founder of the World Association of International Studies