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Sun, 24 Oct 2010

Why I Hate Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is (at least inside - the outside is grey and dreary like the rest of the north) a staggeringly beautiful building. And yet I hate it. I hate it because of the reasons it was built, what it has been used for, and how it is still being embellished.

The current building was started in 1093, replacing a previous building on roughly the same site. Most of the present structure either dates from that time or is at least built roughly to the 1093 design. The building was largely complete by 1135. The towers date from the 1200s, and since then various smaller changes have been made as well as substantial repairs, particularly in the 16th and 18th centuries.

In 1093, Durham was a tiny settlement. We don't know exactly how tiny, but the far more important city of London had only 15,000-ish inhabitants at the time, and the whole of northern England (including Durham) had only a few years before been subject to the Harrying of the North. This involved the utter destruction of many settlements, burning of granaries, stored food, and livestock, the salting of the land to prevent crops from growing for years, and the death of over 100,000 people. Some of the remaining population were reduced to cannibalism according to some chroniclers. All of that because a handful of lords rebelled - the vast majority of the peasant victims had done nothing wrong.

So the cathedral was built to be far bigger than was needed at the time - these days, when it is filled with chairs and there are fire regulations, it can comfortably seat 3000 - and is also far bigger than any reasonable contemporary projection of population growth would make necessary. Cathedrals and churches are, of course, utterly unproductive, being mere consumers of wealth produced by others. To build the cathedral was very expensive, and that money could only come from the local population, who paid taxes to the "prince bishops" and tithes to their parishes. That money was used partly to buy skilled labour which would have otherwise been used more productively rebuilding towns and villages and mills and other useful things. And it was partly used to buy gold and silver and all kinds of other useless things that don't exist in the north so "had to" be imported to embellish the cathedral.

The cathedral was a staggering waste of resources at the time. It was built to, according to its own website, "testify to the power of Norman overlords establishing their authority in the land they had conquered". Sure, it does have a religious function too, but that function could just as easily be carried out by a far smaller, more humble building. One rather like the one that was destroyed to make room for the current monstrosity. Remember, in the 11th and 12th centuries, England was just like the poorest most backward parts of the third world are today (only colder). And when the rulers of places like Liberia or the Congo build massive monuments to their own egos, funding them through extortion and corruption, we condemn them. For the same reasons, we must condemn the rulers who built Durham cathedral and condemn the cathedral as being a monument to man's greed, his lust for power, and to brutal dictatorship.

And that pious waste of resources continues to this day. The north is still a poor area, especially now that its heavy industries have collapsed. And yet, instead of using their money to do good, some of those northerners who are well off and christian prefer to spend it on decorating the cathedral. It contains statues of recent bishops, despite a certain book saying quite clearly "you shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth", made out of marble. It even has a brand new stained glass window "celebrating" all those industries that are dead and gone. Although, given the context of the rest of the building it seems to me that it could equally be mocking all those thrown out of work, or be a warning from those rich enough to afford such windows that if the remaining workers get uppity, this is what will happen to them.

Posted at 16:54 by David Cantrell
keywords: art | politics | rant | religion
Permalink | 2 Comments

I think you should read The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel, for a more complex view of the role of cathedrals. Building a cathedral stimulated the local economy, markets and industry, and of itself would have produced a rise in population, growth of the town and a betterment of people's living conditions.But in addition, Durham was connected to a Benedictine monastery which represented the height of technological sophistication at the time and provided the medieval equivalent of welfare provision. You could regard cathedral building as a kind of medieval Keynsianism.

Posted by Jane Leaper on Sun, 24 Oct 2010 at 19:44:10


"despite a certain book saying .." Which book? I must read it. Is it The Philosopher's Stone" by Harry Potter.

Posted by Geeklawyer on Mon, 25 Oct 2010 at 09:32:32


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