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English Cathedrals: A history

02 November 2006


Hambledon & London  £19.99 (1-85285-453-7)

Help your cathedral by listening to it: This book should be read by every dean and canon, declares Robert Jeffery

PROFESSOR Lehmberg, an American, is a leading authority on English cathedrals, and has an amazingly intimate knowledge of the archive material in the older ones among them. He used all this to great effect in two earlier vol-umes on the cathedrals, 1485-1603 and 1600-1700.

This new book has a broader approach, but gives the impression that he is not so interested in the past 200 years of English cathedral life. After two introductory chapters covering the period 597-1170, he gives us five chapters on the various types of architecture and the contents of the cathedrals. There are useful insights into how the buildings were built and changed. He assumes that his readers are fam-iliar with the buildings that he describes.

There are a few inaccuracies. For instance, he describes the Chapter House at Worcester as built in the 14th century when it is, in fact, Norman. Also, he is inclined to repeat the same material in different places.

There is an excellent chapter on life in a medieval cathedral, and a very good account of events during and after the Reformation. His description of the effects of the Civil War and the Restoration gives new insights.

This is followed by a shrewd assessment of the position of cathedrals in the 16th and 17th centuries. He draws out well their place as centres of education and learning, and shows how the part they played was very different from that of parish churches.

It would have been better if he had stopped at this point. People wanting a good account of cathedrals in the 19th century would be wise to turn to Philip Barrett's Barchester: English cathedral life in the nineteenth century (not listed in Lehmberg's bibliography). Alas, Barrett died before he was able to write his badly needed 20th-century sequel. Lehmberg is brief and anecdotal on this period, and a little eccentric in his examples.

Nevertheless, this book should be required reading for every dean and cathedral canon, because it brings home the rich tradition that is entrusted to them. Great cathedrals have to be cared for and listened to if they are to work effectively; and Lehmberg teaches us that.

His is not the book for those looking for a consideration of the purpose and function of cathedrals today; but he does show not only that cathedrals tell the story of their changing relationship with society, but that they need to avoid being trapped in the passing culture of any age.

The Very Revd Dr Jeffery is Dean Emeritus of Worcester.

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