Monday, January 05, 2009

How Did the Medieval Cosmos Influence the Medieval Builder?

The medieval world picture permeated all facets of life.  The origin of how medieval man thought about the world around him has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy and early Christian scripture.

The world of medieval thought was perfect, immutable, hierarchical, and anthropocentric.  This picture of the cosmos influenced the organization of the builder's trade, and the method and procedure of building.

The building trade was organized hierarchically, with the master mason at the top, the free mason below, and the laborer at the bottom.  It should also be noted that: the truest days of the guilds their aims and purposes were based on the very highest of ideals...and the social and religious aspect of all their relationships were always kept in memory and observance. --Francis B. Andrews

The organization of the medieval world picture is directly analogous to the organization of the stone mason trade guild.  The successive stages of apprentice, fellow, and master were determined in length by the trade guild, as was every other detail of construction, including templates and moulds.  It has been suggested from these guilds arose the architectural developments of the medieval period, and given that very little construction was determined before work began, this may be true.  Innovation was left to evolution of revered tradition.

I wish to show that during the medieval period building was a sacred act, and accordingly the rendering of stone was revealing the presence of God.  The medieval society whose cosmology and treatment of the material world was interwoven with theology also arranged the trades according to closeness to God.  Those master masons with more skill understood the cosmos and God through masonry better than those below him in the hierarchy.

The historical treatment of medieval stone construction has not always acknowledged the religious context.  Even when historians such as F. Andrews notes that medieval builders approached their work in a fundamentally different manner i.e. for the love of it, they do not conclude that the men were doing anything but ordinary work.  The lack of personal ambition and obedience to tradition is mistaken as acceptance of lack of note worthiness.  This very argument -- that the work was ordinary, and unworthy of chronicling -- is cited as a reason for the absence of record of building.

While I do not want to specifically argue the reasons for absence of building records, I do want to argue that what we do know of masonry building procedure we can see in it the medieval world picture.  

Building procedure was often
commenced frequently—if not usually—before anything more than a general idea of the ultimate end had been foreseen, and constructive problems were attempted in the early days with but little knowledge of what would probably be the final statical result.
and guided by 
The motives of their craft-guilds and trade confraternities were inspired by far higher ideals than those of the trade unions of to-day...This was indubitably a great love of the work in those days : love of it for its own sake, and a still greater love of it for its ultimate purpose. In this the Church was very largely involved and very fully participated—too fully at times and so much so that its leaders occasionally felt forced to intervene with the firmest of interdict ions. The better class of workers were actuated by high ideals in their craft, and conflicts between capital and labour were practically absent in the earlier years and comparatively little known in the later, at least in anything like the bitterness of form in which they have been expressed in days of current experience. Good workmanship dominated everything else; the good work¬man was paid, clothed, and honoured, and has left behind him —if not his name—at least the glory of true and loving service, and in so much it is all far removed from even the best work of to-day. Of the mere competition of prices of modern idea there was none. ' To build with beauty and design with truth' and in obedience to tradition, were the great purposes of their efforts, and they built as it never has been done since and probably never will be done again.

Such a man [architect] was not necessary—the idea of design was already existent when the mason took up his tools.

The source of the medieval world picture as so far defined belongs within the Scholastic tradition, and if the church is to have an influence on building construction then the connection between monks and builders must be noted.  The building affairs of medieval times were often dealt with by monks who knew the masonry craft, and by master masons who lie somewhere between the clergy and the laymen.  The evidence of monks taking part in the building process is documented on different occasions, so to argue that guilds and builders were isolated from theology is untenable.  Indeed, the master mason was closest to ecclesiastic authorities, and was answerable to them for the work of the laborers.  Not only did the master mason work with his own hands, but he also superintended the work of others in accordance with the trade craft and guild rules.

It is not necessary to show the direct influence of theology upon the building craft when we consider the ubiquitous nature of the medieval world picture that was inherently theistic.  The builders craft was inherently sacred via the cosmology at the time.

Furthermore, we can be certain of the favorable position given to master masons by the church.  The term 'master' is almost exclusively attributed to churchmen.  The work of the master masons allowed for a special recognition by the church, despite learning the masonry craft outside the church in a craft guild.  These masons were no less part of God's creation, and doing the will of God than the clergy.

Still another factor arises, and that is in the instances where a skilled lay-master was, in honour to his ability, received into the Church spiritual after he had laboured on the Church physical.4 Cases of this procedure are on record of which William of Wykeham (above mentioned), a most celebrated ' master', had certain benefices conferred on him by the Crown and afterwards was made a bishop; 5 or Abbot Boyfield of Gloucester, who was a lay-master builder in his earlier years, or Alcock of Worcester, also made a bishop at a later date, may be cited as examples.  -- Andrews, p. 17.
What specific ability could the master mason posses?  How could he be accepted into an ecclesiastic position from starting as a laborer or apprentice within a trade guild?

This specific ability was none other than laying of stone, and forming stone.  This craft of forming stone revealed eternal worth, and ultimately the presence of God within the cosmos.  Laying stone upon stone in a providential form revealed the essence of the material itself.  Through his craft, the master mason reinforced the medieval cosmology where nature was unfailing in it's reflection of God's supreme order and wisdom.  Stone was understood as sacred, and as one part of creation that revealed God through the craft of the stone mason.

It is no surprise then of the close relationship between the 'lay' masons of the guilds, and the church.  Both shared in a common sacred cosmology.  

The stone mason partook in the medieval cosmology through the use of geometry.  

An inestimably useful tool, it is no wonder that over the centuries geometry acquired a certain mystery. It was the technique that made the cathedrals possible. It allowed one man to control and direct the work of hundreds successfully towards one common goal. Also, through the analogies that numbers and shapes have always had to abstract ideas, it became the method for translating important theological concepts into stone. Without geometry great and laborious building works are inconceivable.  --John James, Master Masons of Chartres p. 84
The perfect, and immutable geometry was the tool for allowing the stone to manifest God.  Geometry fit into the world picture in many ways.  Two of which are important for the master mason; allowed for simultaneously an hierarchical and proportional order.  Hierarchy is established within a building by maintaining the basic unit of measure from which all units of measure follow, and proportion is established in multiplicity of the basic unit.

To gain a better understanding of how the master mason used geometry, we look to John James again.

They believed that as God had created the world, every part of it would reflect his Essence. This was extended to buildings in which every detail and element had to reflect the whole, just as the whole in the numbers and forms used in the design was to express God himself. This was done through geometry, which was applied to every part, no matter how small. No moulding or window or plinth was arranged without it. Geometry totally pervaded the building...For thousands of years architects have issued instructions to masons and carpenters, and these proven techniques were inherited by the contractors of the middle ages. The techniques were essentially geometric. Their geometry was not theoretical, like Euclid's theorems, but practical. Their tools were the compass, straight-edge and ruler, angles, proportional dividers and string. Do not undervalue the string, for without it no building can be laid out, even today...Also, through the analogies that numbers and shapes have always had to abstract ideas, it became the method for translating important theological concepts into stone. Without geometry great and laborious building works are inconceivable...I will give examples of this later on, but as I investigated the masters' ways of handling geometry, I found that each had his own rules. Almost none was universally accepted. Even at the end of the middle ages Gil de Hotendon was sent from Seville to the north to find the correct rules for building buttresses, and returned complaining that no two authorities could give him the same answers. --John James, p 34

The absence of universally accepted rules for using geometry sheds a bit of light on the notion that a master mason could be accepted into the priesthood.  Had the master mason developed his understanding of the cosmos through masonry and his use of geometry to a certain extent, then he could be recognized as coming to know God, and hence be recognized with a position within the priesthood.

Furthermore, the use of geometry was not systematized by any one master mason.  Templates would not be used indefinitely to fit every problem.  Instead geometry was used to formulate a solution in each individual situation.  No standardized, pre-determined solution was used across the board, and as James notes, not how we would do it today.  

The specific tools and procedures of working are thus:

See how simple the tools are. There is string, a rule, a square or right angle, compass and proportional dividers. What more? Everything can be constructed from them alone. And this will be so with all the geometry found in the cathedral. The masters seldom used really complex figures, so the setting out and the cutting of the templates could be kept as simple as possible. Each had his own foot measure. He carried it with him from place to place, and maintained its accuracy to the millimetre. It was probably engraved in the metal rule or square, along with its subdivisions.  -- John James p.40
So how did the master mason use string, a rule, a square, compass, and proportional dividers in a way that could be described as practical theology?

The specific example I draw upon is of the stairway windows, and window reveals of the transept stairways of Chartres cathedral.  The archaeological evidence detailed by John James illustrates his conclusion of how the medieval master mason used geometry in situ.  James concludes that by designing from established axes, the window and reveal are integrated into a hierarchy with the wall and structure.

We are lucky at Chartres, for we can show how a master came to evolve one of his design concepts. It is a rare privilege, for normally we have only the finished product to look at, and the steps in between have melted away along with the drawings and the master who made them. The two transept porches are identical and symmetrical. The four staircases inside them look out of similar windows set within the reveals between the doorways, one of which is shown in Fig. 25. The archaeological evidence shows that the south-east one was set out first, followed by the south-west, the north-west and lastly the north-east. All were built within the one campaign of 1198. See how the form of the first is fairly simple, half the reveal in width, and made from a mechanical arrangement of 45° triangles. In the next he must have felt dissatisfied with the balance of the south-west one, for he reduced the size of the outer triangle, used a golden mean triangle inside, and saw to it that the slot occupied the central part of the wall. Maybe Bronze had been preoccupied with client meetings or labour troubles when he did the first window, for the second one has a much pleasanter feel, both in plan and from the outside. In it he was also able to draw the line from the middle of the outside triangle, true to the inside wall, and saw that it passed through the corner D of the inner splays.  This was the critical moment. The window was becoming more integrated, and the inside triangle had been located from the point D rather than from the plane of the wall. It was then that he could have noticed that the window had almost fitted between two parallel lines, shown dotted in Fig. 114. Suddenly he was struck with the possibility of working to corners rather than to planes. The thought felt good to him. It touched the artist and resonated. The surfaces would then become less important, while the point was beginning to take its place. It was like designing the wall from the axis, as he was able to do in the sanctuary window walls three years later. So in the third window he formed a box, geometrically of course, placed a 45° triangle outside, a pentagonal triangle inside, and the usual slot in the middle. His second great discovery was to see that the window could be integrated with the structure as well as with the wall in which it sat. The line which joined CD in the second window still appeared in the third, but this time he saw that if he extended it into the interior it would pass through the centre of the wall shaft S. The minor element could now be located from the greater. The window was no longer a self-contained form within the wall, even if it had been located in the centre of the panel, but an expression of an inner and thus more essential function. Bronze saw at once that the shaft was the major item, and the window the minor, and that the window should therefore be dependant on the other, even if the result looked a little weird. For this is what happened in the last window, the north-west. On this side the relationship between the shaft and the reveal was a little different from the others, so that, by setting out the window from the shaft, the centre no longer fell in the middle of the reveal. He could now accept the correctness of this move, for though the observer may have seen something strange, here was a truth that lay behind the obvious. It is in this last window that we see the first statement of the new Bronze. He must have hugged himself as the impact of where he was going dawned on him.  The process was good now, from the axes of the inner structure to the box, then to the corners and lastly to the planes.  --John James p.184
What is sacred about shaping and placing stone with geometry?  What is sacred about geometry?  What does geometry reveal about the potential of stone material to become some form in a providential manner?

Whilst material was not looked at in the same manner as we do today, it was certainly seen to potentially manifest god.  The use of geometry established the work of the medieval master mason within the medieval cosmos.  The basic pattern and structure of the cosmos came to life in stone masonry.  To understand how geometry and proportion were an integral part of the medieval cosmology, we must return to the hierarchy of the medieval cosmos.

The hierarchy of the medieval cosmos was fundamentally determined by the proportion of each element to the whole.  It should be noted that geometry and proportion are essentially the same.  Proportion is simply the division of one line at a certain point.  The medieval notion of proportion established a chain of contingency of being, and this same contingency of being is established within the way in which the medieval master mason worked.  The designing from existing axes to establish elements within an integrated whole is a direct manifestation of the medieval cosmology within the work of the master mason.