Robert Scott

The Gothic Enterprise

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De Volkskrant, The Netherlands
31 October 2003

Thank the dead for our cathedrals
by Kees Fens

Milan Cathedral

Brevity remains the mark of a master. Accordingly, it takes the most time. Verbosity is for those who like to take it easy. Robert A. Scott has a profession in which brevity is usually eschewed. He is a sociologist, but was also associate director of a study center at his university, Stanford. That brought him into contact with scholars of many different disciplines. He was humble enough to learn much from them regarding what had fascinated him for a long time: the gothic cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral in England became the main object of his love. With the charming naivete characteristic of some amateurs, he even formed a club of Salisbury lovers. In the meantime, he studied and read everything about the gothic and the period in general. Now, undoubtedly after many years, he has written a short masterpiece that is called The Gothic Enterprise. Everything is in it.

The setting is what Duby called “the Age of the Cathedrals.” Scott often quotes Duby, Le Goff and other experts; he always gives lets the masters lead the way. His book is an excellent synthesis of the state of various disciplines.

The book describes the time of the cathedrals from the political, societal and religious point of view. The cathedral is not left in a vacuum. The spiritual and physical aspects of the genesis of cathedrals receive ample attention.  Of course he owes much to Jean Gimpel and his Les batisseurs des cathedrales, similarly a small masterpiece. Originality is clearly not his goal.

And that is exactly what makes it a masterpiece. He manages to write about the most central element in the history of the cathedrals, i.e. faith, in such a manner that no prior knowledge, let alone prior faith, is required. The community of the faithful, of the living and the dead, the sacred space of the church, the perspective of the hereafter, the role of the priests as mediators, the hierarchy - all are described succinctly and with convincing simplicity. Scott must be an outstanding teacher. As a result, the cathedral is situated in its world. It becomes a historical, rather than art-historical, monument. Scott fills the vacuum around the building, and the increasing vacuum within.

Interior of Milan Cathedral
Interior of Milan Cathedral

The monastic orders and churches are not portrayed as clearly. It seems that he wants to demonstrate the luster of the gothic in their churches too. (He uses only the church of York as an example). He fails to notice the uniqueness and consequences of Cistercian architecture. Too much of his material is English, not enough is French. The relationship he draws in the final chapter between Stonehenge and the cathedrals seems strained. This is the first time he walks on thin ice. Too thin.
Here is a short example of his succinct style. It is from the beginning of the very good twelfth chapter, “Honoring the Dead”: "Of all the different groups involved in building Gothic cathedrals - from prelates, monarchs, and pious laypeople, through master builders, craftsmen and vendors, to ordinary wage laborers and peasants - the group most often overlooked is the dead. The dead were at least as important as the living in making cathedral building possible. … The dead proved to be effective fund-raisers."

An excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the subject and a beautiful book for those who know the subject as well, since repetition can be the hallmark of a happy reader.

Translated from the Dutch by
Marjan Burggraaff Wilkes
& Mariam Nayiny