Building in the Middle Ages

March 2, 2011

Cathedrals and Castles
Building in the Middle Ages
Alain Erlande-Brandenburg
(Henry N. Abrams, 1995)
175 p.

I hope that I will never forget my first encounter with the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It was at Notre Dame de Paris, a church that in consequence has a special place in my heart. My first impressions, as with so many others before me, were simple awe, a quiet sense of prayerful repose, and gratitude that I had been granted such a beautiful sight. I stayed for hours, wandering slowly in and around her, gawking and gaping. Only later, on reflection, did the obvious question come crashing into my mind: “How on earth did they build it?!” It is a question that nagged me frequently over the years, and so when I saw this little book I jumped at it.

My main interest was in the practical business of constructing the building: transport of materials, laying of foundations, erection of walls and vaulting. This book addresses these questions, but has a wider scope, taking in also topics such as the relationships between patrons and architects, the organization of craftsmen’s guilds, the development of written contracts, the transition from wood to stone construction, the use of architectural drawings, and even includes a brief history of medieval architecture. It is not a large book, and each page is enlivened by pictures and diagrams, so there is comparatively little text, but what little there is is concise and informative.

The first stage in construction was the creation of an architectural plan. Sometimes this was a drawing, like a blueprint, but often it was a three-dimensional model of the proposed building. If building in stone (as was usually the case with castles and cathedrals in the Gothic period), a quarry would need to be found. Blocks of hewn stone were quarried and transported to the building site, by water if possible, and by oxen-cart if necessary. Stone-cutters, who constituted the most prestigious (and lucrative) of the guilds, shaped the stone into neat blocks that would be suitable for construction. (Erlande-Brandenburg does not explain how they did this, and I wish he had.) Cathedral construction usually began at the apse end, and proceeded upward and backward through the choir, nave, and facade. As the walls rose, scaffolding was erected. Metal was used judiciously to ensure structural integrity. (A fascinating diagram shows the metal skeleton of Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle, in which the walls are tied together through the ceiling with slender metal strands, the weight of each wall section serving as counterweight to its opposite.)

The principal practical difference between construction in the ancient and medieval eras was the use of machines. Without slaves, medieval builders needed to introduce machines into many stages of the work. They built cranes for loading and unloading stone from boats, pulley systems for raising stone, drills for wood-working, and other devices as well. Some of these machines were known from the Greeks and Romans, but medieval engineers made them more reliable and more efficient. One of the more interesting devices was the human treadwheel: several people would walk in the wheel in order to lift heavy weights. (Here is a photo of a surviving treadwheel at Salisbury Cathedral.) Such lifting machines allowed medieval scaffolding to be much lighter and more portable than in the past, which accelerated construction.

I was delighted to learn all of this, but slightly disappointed that not all of my questions were answered. Strangely, the book does not discuss the construction of the cathedral’s roof. That would seem to me to be the most difficult part of the whole enterprise. There is also no mention of the techniques used to make the beautiful medieval stained glass. (Perhaps because we no longer know how they did it.)

At the end of the book there are several excerpts from primary sources that touch on issues related to large-scale construction. There is an amusing account of how the architects of Milan’s enormous Duomo had to call in experts from France when they realized their ambition had outstripped their competence. Another tells of how William of Sens, a man of great energy and vision, rebuilt the choir of Canterbury Cathedral following a major fire in the twelfth century, and of how the beauty of his work astonished the monks. Others relate to the hunt for stone and wood to be used in construction, to the terms of medieval contracts, and other matters.

At the end of the book are listed 31 “great cathedrals”, where what is meant is “great medieval cathedrals”. Of these, I have seen just 9. It is clear that I need to take a good long trip to England, and then another to Germany.

I mentioned above that the book contains many photographs and illustrations. One of these, by an illustrator named Philippe Fix, portrays a medieval cathedral under construction. It is an amazing image which I spent a long time looking at, and since I cannot find it online I thought I would post it here. The illustration straddles the midline of the book, so I am not able to show the entire thing, but here are two details (click to enlarge).



8 Responses to “Building in the Middle Ages”

  1. Lorna Says:

    I happened upon your blog by accident (or perhaps nothing is really an accident)and noticed your Juian of Norwich “All manner of things” quote right away. I’ve recently been drawn to her writings. I also just finished reading Ken Follett’s novel “World Without End” (a sequel to “Pillars of the Earth”). . . historical fiction set in the Middle Ages with the main character a builder of cathedrals.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Oh, don’t worry about the misspelling. I knew who you meant.

    I was interested in Follett’s books, and I even purchased The Pillars of the Earth at one point, but then I read, somewhere, that Follett’s portrait of the medieval era was fictional in more than just one sense — that it was more informed by popular conceptions of the period than by sound historical knowledge.

    I don’t remember where I read that, nor do I really have any grounds for deciding whether the criticism is just or not, but the claim dampened my enthusiasm in any case, and I haven’t made time to read the book. Do you think there is any justice in that criticism?

    A few years ago I read a novel called The Stones of the Abbey, by Fernand Pouillon, which is about a medieval architect and the construction of a Cistercian abbey, and it was enjoyable.

    Thanks very much for your comment.

  3. KathyB Says:

    Just the other day Thomas amazed me by wanting to read one of my medieval architecture books (or at least, wanting to look at all the castles and churches). We had a great time and it reassured me that he has inherited at least some of my DNA. Your book has a lot of great pictures, and in a few years, I imagine Iona will want to look at them too!

    As a nerdy aside, the Milan incident became infamous and Italian renaissance architects considered it the lowest moment of shame in the history of their craft that they, descendants of the great Roman engineers, had to hire foreigners – and Northern ones! – to help them with a building project.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Nerdy asides are always welcome here, Kathy — and I’d not expect anything else from you. (That’s a compliment.)

  5. Christina A. Says:

    Me like pictures!

    Kathy B once lent me a great book on the construction of the Duomo in Florence, which is of course later, but gave good insight into the building techniques.

    Abbot Suger did record his first hand plans for the construction of St. Denis in Paris in case you might be interested in a famous first person account.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Was the book called Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King? I read that one a few years ago, and I agree that it gave a pretty good explanation of how they built the dome. What an amazing building that is.

    Abbot Suger’s plans were also excerpted in the book; I neglected to mention it. What a sweetie.

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