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The History of Freemasonry
by Wor. Bro. Dennis Stocks, Barron Barnett Lodge.

In the three centuries between 1050 and 1350 several million tons of stone were quarried in France alone to build eighty cathedrals, five hundred large churches and some tens of thousands of parish churches.

More stone was excavated in those three hundred years than at any time in Ancient Egypt (recall that the volume of the Great Pyramid is 2.5 million cubic metres). Foundations were often more than ten metres deep and in some cases there is as much stone below ground as above. The architects of the Gothic cathedrals, like Amiens, knew how to build their great churches so that the tallest parts could stand up to winds of around 90mph.

In the Middle Ages, there was a church or chapel for every two hundred inhabitants. For example in Norwich, Lincoln and York - cities were populations between 5000 and 10,000 - there were respectively 50, 49 and 41 churches and chapels.

Amiens, the cathedral which covered 7700 square metres, made it possible for the entire population of the city of 10,000 to attend one ceremony.

The Beauvais Cathedral had internal vaulting forty-eight metres high - six stories - and the Strasbourg spire reached 142 metres.

This astonishing period was a time of dynamism and ascendancy for Christian Europe; an age of creation when the great spirits of Civilisation glowed - Giotto painted human feelings, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design of human fate and wrote of it in the vernacular, Marco Polo travelled to China, and St Thomas Aquinas set himself to organise knowledge. Universities were established at Toulouse, Valladolid, Salamanca, Montpellier, Paris, Bologna, Padua. Naples, Oxford and Cambridge.

The world was improved by the invention of the compass, mechanical clocks, spinning wheels, treadle looms, water mills and windmills. Yet there was the odd dichotomy of the gentle teachings of St Francis and the barbarity of the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition.

Above all soared the cathedrals, rising arch upon arch, triumphs of creativity, technology and faith.

Yet equally astonishing, for two hundred and fifty years (from the end of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth) no technical progress was made in construction. Two hundred and fifty years of invention were followed by two hundred and fifty years of satisfaction and copying existing techniques of the predecessors.

The Style

Up to this time, Cathedrals had been built in the "Romanesque" style. the problem with all large buildings up to this time was that the weight of the building tended to make the walls bulge; to overcome this weight, massive pillars were used to support the building. This not only decreased the actual useable space, but tended to make these buildings very dark.

It could be argued that this sombre style reflected the concerns of the civilisation in about 1000 AD who had had to cope with the terror of the invasions, mass migrations and by the imposition of Christianity on the old religious beliefs. Drawing on the Roman models of the classical and early Christian periods and on the influences from Byzantium, they built massive stone churches which were castles of the spirit, as opposed to the stone castles of the new feudal lords.

The achievement of the monks and architects who created Romanesque civilisation is nothing short of heroic; it was in many ways greater than that of their successors in the Gothic style because they had to re-invent or discover so many techniques that had been lost. The architect of northern Europe continued this solid wall tradition up to the twelfth century, but, by the end of that century, a revolution had occurred. The age of the Gothic tradition was at hand.

Initially the term "Gothic" was used as a form of derision; the Goths being barbarians, but this was soon to pass.

The builders way to approach a problem was very medieval. One of the techniques of scholastic dialectics was to pose an opinion, to set it against a contrary opinion and out of the ensuing discussion to evolve a synthesis. The posing of opposites and their reconciliation was a cultural trait. 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 design was to express God himself.

The Work

Building techniques did not evolve out of theory alone. Construction is a practical affair. In every organisation where one man relies on others to carry out his ideas, there must be a clear and simple way to pass them on. For thousands of years architects had 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 divider and string. Do not undervalue the string for without it no building can be laid out, even today.

Every new building must have a beginning. In the centre of a cleared space, a peg or rod was driven into the ground (on the centre), and a circle drawn on the ground. Using the circle as a base, a right angle was drawn using simple geometry, and a line drawn east to west. So a start was made. using the centre, the foundation was marked out and the excavation for the foundations were dug.

When the foundation was complete work began on the walls. The walls of a Gothic cathedral consist of piers or columns which support the vault and roof, and the space between the piers is filled, for the most part, with tracery (the stone framework of the windows), and small areas of solid-wall construction. The piers of the choir at Chutreaux are one hundred and sixty feet high, and six to eight feet thick. The tracery; all of which was cut from temples, were cemented into place with iron reinforcing bars as the piers were being built.

Every open section of the church; its arches, windows with their tracery, the flying buttresses, the stone vaulting etc. had to be constructed around a wooden framework known as centering. The accuracy with which each copeing was built depended on the carpenters who made the centering. The centerings also supported the weight of stones while work was undertaken in constructing the arches. These centerings were first built on the ground by the carpenters and then hoisted into place and fastened to the pier at one end and to the buttress at the other. They acted as temporary flying buttresses until the stone arch was complete.

As the walls grew higher, wooden scaffolding became a necessity. The scaffolding was made of poles lashed together with rope. Hoists were attached to it so that the stone and mortar could be lifted. the scaffolds also held work platforms for the masons made of mats of woven twigs. They were called "Hurdles" and could be easily moved.

Since long pieces of wood were both difficult to find and expensive, the scaffolding for the walls above the arcade did not reach the ground. It was hung from the walls and lifted as construction progressed.

The walls of the choir were constructed in three stages. First was the arcade of piers that rose eighty feet from the foundation. Above was the treforium, a row of arches that went up another six metres in front of a narrow passageway. And at the last stage was the clerestory; which consisted of 20 metre windows that reached right up to the roof. Then the walls of the choir and aisle were completed and work began on the roof.

The Technology

In the Middle Ages the three main sources of energy were water, wind and the horse, with hydraulic power as essential to economic life as oil is to us today. The development of the water mill during the early Middle Ages resulted partly from the broader network of regularly flowing rivers and streams to be found in the northern regions, and partly, in the tenth century, from a vastly increased population. The water mill was known in Asia Minor in the first century BC, but for climatic and hydrological reasons it was not developed around the Mediterranean basin - the heart of classical civilisation. The mills at Barbegal in Provence, which cost so much to operate, demonstrate the difficulties which confronted the Romans in their attempts to utilise water power. Yet in 1086 William the Conqueror recorded 5624 water mills in England. By the thirteenth century there were some tens of thousands in France. Enormous works were undertaken in the towns to dig diversion channels for these mills. In the countryside all the rivers were used. The advantage of this sources of energy was that it could be found everywhere.

When water mills were included in the system of feudal rights, the end was in sight for the manually operated mills. By the use of the camshaft, the circular movement could be replaced by a reciprocating movement, and so hydraulic energy could be used not only to grind grain, but to pull cloth, to make beer, to powder oak bark for tanning, to forge iron and to make paper. It is somewhat strange that the word "artisan" should be applied to the men who made use of these machines and who thereby put an end to a considerable amount of manual labour.

From the twelfth century, not only were innumerable windmills built to take advantage of the wind as a source of energy, but mills driven by tidal power were also built.

The horse, too, because of the part it played in land reclamation and in carrying materials to the sites, contributed to the boom in the Western world. Horses were used a great deal on the cathedral sites. For the first time in history, due to a series of inventions, the horse's maximum strength was put to the test. Horseshoes were invented to protect the animal's hooves; the old Roman roads were replaced by roads with better paving; harnessing was altered and horses no longer took the weight of a load on a strap around the neck, but on a shoulder collars which meant their strength could be used to greater advantage.

Furthermore, they could be hitched up to form teams and more often than not they replaced oxen, which were slower and less manageable.

Alongside these sources of energy, human activities developed. Advances were made in weaving, the spinning wheel was invented, iron was made harder. Lathes were improved and the mechanical clock was invented. The experimental method in agriculture was used and artesian wells were dug. There was intensified rearing of livestock and vineyards were improved, the compass and the stern rudder were introduced. Chimneys were built, coal burnt, wax candles were used for lighting, forks, spectacles and mirrors appeared and paper was made.

Extant sources indicate that people were very much aware of the advantages of technology. The technological boom was only made possible because medieval society believed in progress and men were not blinded by tradition. The past could and should be improved.

Medieval miniatures show winches and capstans worked by men which must have been similar to those used by the Romans. It is known that the inclined plane system used by the Egyptians was practically never used in cathedral building. The houses which surrounded the church building sites made the method impossible.

Large treadwheels inside on which one or two men walked were commonly used to raise materials to the tops of buildings. The muscular effort needed to make these wheels turn and the system work was not excessive. They were occasionally left in position when the sites were closed so that materials for repairs could brought up later. The master carpenters were in charge of inventing and making the hoisting machines. As these were expensive to assemble they were not dismantled when the work was finished and the chapters could then hire them out.

For purposes of maintenance, passages were built at different levels and spiral staircases were improved. This also made it possible to move around the building in case of fire. Partly in order to lessen the risk of fire, architects took to building church vaults in stone, and to build these vaults they used methods which had been known in classical times; in Byzantium and the Orient, and produced barrel vaulting, groined vaulting and pendentives and squinches to support domes. (Pendentives are the triangular segments of the lower part of a hemispherical dome between two penetrating arches and Squinches are small arches built across the interior angle of two walls, as in a square tower, for supporting the sides of a superimposed octagonal spire). The builders gradually improved their skills so that greater areas could by covered. They also thought of strengthening the groined vaulting by means of intersecting ribs which seem to have supported the weak spots along the joints and the highest points. We know now that intersecting rib vaulting, which the architects put to such good use, was a technological advance, but it did not have the prime importance which had so long been attributed to it. The experience of stonecutters, a better choice of materials and better mortar all contributed to the building of this type of vaulting which became common around the middle of the twelfth century.

The flying buttress was a revolutionary invention of the twelfth century which was used to support rib vaulting, thus making it possible to build taller and taller buildings. Flying buttresses were also used to prevent old churches from collapse. Forces and lines could be reduced by abstraction of a line, or even a point. The mass of piers and buttresses were designed out from these centres and though they appeared to concentrate the loads in the ribs and shafts inside, they actually transferred them laterally beyond the walls to the flyers outside. The solid masonry that had once defined the envelope of all earlier buildings was transformed into a thin skin or screen, often filled with glass, between which rose bundles of vertical shafts, thin flying arches and webs of ribbing that appeared to be taking all the strain.

The traditional use of blocks of stone had for thousands of years conditioned builders to think of mass in relation to size. Now these concepts of solidarity and thickness were overthrown and though the masters always concealed enough masonry behind the shafts to carry the weights, the new style was a sublime statement of this revolutionary idea. They saw that these solid and heavy realities could be expressed as one-dimensional lines having neither thickness or weight. It was an extraordinary achievement. It made the great glass-walled cathedrals possible, and produced a dynamic architecture in which the equilibrium was maintained only because one part was kept in balance against another. Remove something, and the whole could collapse. It was secure only in its entirety.

The design of Norman Buttresses, which were broad rather than deep, meant that they could not "catch" the dangerous outward thrust and so prop up tall walls. When the buttresses were changed to narrow, but deep additions to the walls, the building was stable. It was also quickly realised that the pointed arch resulted in a great increase in strength because the thrust from the weight above was led downwards and because of this the walls could be thinner than before. In Gothic cathedrals, the arched vault tended to push the piers outwards. This force was transferred through flying buttresses to the buttress itself and down to the foundation. In this way, the main piers could remain quite thin in proportion to their height, allowing for space for the windows between them.

Quite a few of the cathedrals did not have solid stone walls. Even though the walls appear to be six to eight foot thick of solid stone they are actually in three parts. The inner and outer surfaces are of stone blocks, while the centre cavity, using wood and chain as reinforcement, was filled with a mixture of mortar and small stones.

The Building "Secrets"

In 1486 a work entitled ON THE CORRECT BUILDING OF PINNACLES was published in Regensburg. It was the work of one Wenzel Roriczer, a thirteenth century architect who gave detailed and explicit instructions to anyone who may have been unfamiliar with the problems of building. The work is particularly interesting since it claims to be revealing the secrets of masonry.

But a closer examination will show that Roriczer believed those secrets to be only involved in the art of taking an elevation from a diagram. In 1459 master stonecutters from such cities as Strasbourg, Vienna and Salzburg met at Regensburg to standardise the statutes of their lodges. Among other things, they declared that no one ("no workman, no master, no journeyman") should reveal to the outside world the art of taking an elevation from a plan.

But what was a secret in the fifteenth century was not necessarily one in the thirteenth. Extant documents show architects of the thirteenth century knew how to take an elevation from a plan but did not regard it as a secret. Professional organisations changed dramatically and profoundly between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From the end of the thirteenth century architects organised themselves professionally and gradually came to agreements not to disclose technical and scientific knowledge which they had learnt through outside contacts during the ascendant period of building in the Middle Ages.

Yet twelfth and thirteenth century craftsmen did consider trade secrets to exist. Masons, stonecutters, plasterers and mortar-makers were allowed to "have as many assistants and valets as they please to help them in their work, provided they teach them nothing about their trade."

But this is only one of 101 registered statues and the only one that refers to trade secrets. It must be pointed out that the relevant paragraph is addressed not to the overseers or stonecutters, but to the humbler workmen such as masons, mortar-makers and plasterers. The guild master was certainly not asking his workmen to conceal from their assistants such complicated techniques as the building of a pinnacle from a plan, for the simple reason that these workmen did not know enough to be able to understand geometry of such complicated plans.

Presumably the guild master was asking his men not to reveal, for instance, the proportions of the ingredients needed to make mortar or plaster; or how to recognise the grain of the stone. "Tricks of the trade" in other words; not genuine secrets.

If we turn to those two famous manuscripts of Freemasonry, the Regius (about 1390) and the Cooke (from about 1430) we will find that they, too, call for discretion.

Regius: "The third point must be stressed with the apprentice, therefore know it well. He keeps and guards his master's teachings and those of his fellows. He tells no man what he learns in the privacy of his chamber, nor does he reveal anything which he sees or hears in the lodge or anything which happens there. Disclose to no man, no matter where you go, the discussions held in the hall or in the dormitory; keep them well, for your greatest honour, lest in being free with them you bring reproach upon yourself and great shame upon your profession".

Cooke: "The third point is [the worker] keep secret the counsels of his fellows, whether given in the lodge, in the chamber, or any other place where masons be."

There is absolutely no reason to believe that these secrets referred to are anything more than technical, trade secrets concerning, for example, the design of an arch or the manner of placing a stone so that as much of its grain as possible followed the position it had had in the quarry bed.

We arrive at the concept of special signs (handshakes or otherwise) by which masons or building crew could recognise each other. Knoop and Jones have pointed out that the practice began in Scotland where particular conditions pertaining to stonemasonry led highly qualified workers to adopt secret ways of introducing themselves. These particular conditions were, on the one hand, the existence of the "entered apprentice", who was to be found nowhere else, and the absence of freestone in Scotland. Workers capable of cutting this particular stone were unable to prove their skill and had to contend with competition from barely qualified men, the cowans, who originally built stone walls. In order to prevent the cowans from being employed to do work for which they were not qualified, the stonecutters decided to adopt secret signs of recognition among themselves.

The Workmen


The cathedral builders paid taxes and an examination of the tax registers for 1292 in Paris alone shows the names and addresses of 15,200 people who were neither noblemen, nor ecclesiastics and who were not exempt for any other reason. The tax roll is full of elementary mathematical mistakes, but there can be no suspicion of fraud as the mistakes are sometimes in favour of the auditor and sometimes not. There are 192 people whose business concerns stonework on this roll. there consist of 104 masons, 12 stone cutters, 36 plasterers, 8 mortar makers, 2 dressers, 18 quarrymen, 7 mason's assistants, 3 pickmen, 2 pavers.

The Labourers

In the hierarchy of cathedral builders, the labourer was clearly at the bottom of the ladder, but, so long as the Middle Ages were in the ascendancy, he had every opportunity to better himself. By his work and his intelligence he could become a specialised craftsman; or could save a little money and set himself up on his own as a contractor.

Labourers were mainly recruited from among the rootless, often serfs fleeing from their feudal lords who came to find shelter in towns far away from their birthplaces. If they were not found by their masters before a year and a day had elapsed, they became freemen and citizens of the town. Labourers also came from peasant families with large numbers of children, some of whom left home in search of freedom and adventure in the towns. They could find immediate employment in any of the numerous workshops in the town or on the construction sites.

The work given to the labourers varied. Records show they helped the carpenters to transport the cask wood, they dug to open up the quarries, they dug the foundations and took the tiles to the roofs. Records of payment show they carried a variety of materials in baskets (panniers) on their backs.

Living conditions for labourers must have been quite hard as the wages were not very high and, above all, the work was intermittent.

It is hard to reconcile the presence of these labourers on the site with the legend of voluntary work. This can only have been episodic and can have accounted for only a tiny part of the construction force. The unpaid workman was in effect taking the bread from the mouths of men in search of paid work. The only jobs which could be done by an unskilled labourer were carrying and digging, and labourers must have looked askance at anyone who offered his services free of charge.

Specialised workers such as stonecutters and masons had a certain number of labourers to help them at their jobs. These were called servants or assistants. Some of these labourers specialised in the making of mortar and plaster. Other accounts referred to these men as plasterers. It should be noted in passing that too much attention should not be paid to the names given to different workmen, since precision of words or indeed of figures did not have the importance it has today.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, masters of guilds were concerned with the moral and professional qualifications of labourers, who attained a relative degree of specialisation. In 1268 the Provost of Merchants, Etienne Boileau, called the masters of the guilds to the Chatelet and asked them to dictate the "usages and customs" of their professions. In this way Boileau registered 101 trades. The forty-eighth statute refers to "masons, stonecutters and plasterers" and was probably dictated by the King's Master Mason. The King made his own architect, Guillaume de Saint-Patu, master of the guild.

And the Guild Master took advantage of such an occasion to safeguard his privileges: "The master who, looks after the craft for the King is exempt from keeping the watch in return for the services he renders in looking after the craft." The statement goes on to allow the master two apprentices instead of the usual one.

The Plasterers

But interestingly, the statement makes an attempt to guarantee the quality of the building: "If plasterers send plaster for the use of any man, the mason who works for this man to whom the paster is sent must be careful, on his oath, that the measure of plaster is good and true and if he has any doubts about the measure, he must weigh it himself or have it weighed in front of him, and if he finds that the measure is false, the plasterer must pay a fine... to the man who has measured the plaster."

Once again, the Guild Master did not forget himself but stating that only the plasterer of all "trades" had to pay an entrance fee to his guild in Paris:

"No one can be a plasterer in Paris unless he pays 5 Parisian sous to the master who kept the guild for the King. When he has paid the 5 sous, he must swear by the saints that he will put nothing except lime in the plaster and that he will deliver a true and honest measure.

"If a plasterer puts anything which he should not into his plaster, he must be fined 5 sous which are to be paid to the master each time he is found out. If the plasterer habitually cheats and if he will not mend his ways, the master can deprive him of his craftsman's status; and if the plasterer will not leave the guild, the master must inform the Provost of Paris, and the provost must make the plasterer forswear his craft in his presence."

There were large deposits of gypsum around Paris, particularly near Montmartre. Parisian plaster was much sought after and it was even exported to England. Indeed, the gypsum is still referred to today as Plaster of Paris.


Several women's names crop up among the plasterers and even, although most rarely, among the masons, as these crafts were relatively speaking, not too arduous. In the thirteenth century women had more legal rights than later women, who were handicapped by Roman Law. Even married women paid taxes on their own incomes in their own names.

The wife was included in contracts signed by her husband and, on his death, she could deal directly with the Church in affairs concerning real estate.

Preachers and moralists of the Middle Ages slandered women and denied their active role in society. but we should recognise that women, too, contributed to the success of the Cathedral Crusade.

Mortar Maker

Mortar makers, like plasterers, paid varying taxes. But it should be pointed out that these people probably did two jobs. Near the Seine, in Paris, there was a street called Rue de la Mortellerie where mortars and perfect polished vases were made from lias, a blue limestone from the Paris region. It was delicate work, requiring a long apprenticeship, and it was sometimes stipulated that mortar makers take on apprentices for no less than six years.

Mortar makers were exempt from the watch and all stonecutting "since the time of Charles Martel, as men of integrity have heard it passed from father to son."

Exemption from the watch was an important privilege. It cannot be logically supposed that men who simply made mortar needed a six-year apprenticeship or that they would be granted the rarely accorded favour of exemption from the watch. Therefore, mortar makers who actually fashioned stone mortars from lias should be distinguished from simple labourers who made mortar from the same stone.

The Stoneworkers (Quarrymen and Stonecutters)

One important contributor to the Cathedral Crusade was the often forgotten quarryman. He was not present on the site and seems to have lived outside the community of workers. Very few writers even mention him. He is often forgotten in the statutes of the various builders' guilds. But the quarryman spent his youth and lost his health down in the quarries. His life was hard as he often worked in bad conditions. He suffered from humidity in many quarries and silicosis struck if he worked underground. He was badly paid, barely better than a labourer.

Medieval man learnt about stone in the quarries, and it was there that they did their apprenticeship. No tradition had survived from antiquity to teach them about the qualities and defects of the material. They had to teach themselves to recognise the bedding layers and the quality and grain of the stone.

The quarryman was particularly important in the first phase of each new building. He had to excavate millions of cubic metres of stone essential to the foundations. Besides, the quarryman's work often began before the site had even opened. Thus, when Edward I founded, at the Crown's expense, the last Cistercian abbey, vale Royal in Cheshire, Walter of Hereford, who was responsible for the work, sent workmen to the quarries before the site itself was opened.

Quarrymen worked in groups of eight, each group being supervised by a master quarryman. In three years, from 1278 to 1281, precisely 35,448 cartloads of stone were taken from the quarry to the site, over a distance of five miles. If each cartload is estimated to weigh about a ton, then 35,000 tons of stone were excavated by the quarrymen. One cartload must have left the quarry about every quarter of an hour of the working day.

The two Masonic historians D Knoop and G P Jones, have analysed in the minutest detail the accounts for these three years, and found that although only 5%-10% of the masons and stonecutters came from the area, 85% of the quarrymen were local people.

Head quarrymen earned 50% more than the men under them. Master quarrymen were usually paid per stone excavated.

Some people described as "quarrymen" in the accounts were really contractors who had bought or hired quarries which they operated. These were men of standing. According to the 1292 register, Asce the quarryman paid 6 pounds in tax, that is 120 times more than his fellow "quarrymen". Asce was clearly not a workman but a quarry contractor.

The cost of transporting stones in the Middle Ages was so high that there was considerable advantage to be gained from dressing the stones in the quarry. In fact it has been estimated that it cost as much to transport a cartload of stones from the quarry to a site a little over ten miles away as to buy it in the quarry. The man in charge of the site therefore often sent stonecutters to the quarry to square the stones off according to certain measurements.

In those days measurements were taken in TOISES (1.949 metres), in FEET (0.324 metres) and in INCHES (0.027 metres). Attempts were made to standardise the size of stones. So in 1264 the municipality of Douai proclaimed that all carreaux - rectangular blocks of stone - coming into the town must measure 8" x 6" x 8".

The workmen were paid by the toise after they had been told the depth and thickness. But stonecutters were sometimes paid by the day or by the week. It is not known exactly why some workers were paid by the piece and others by the day. but it seems that when an unknown workman came to the site for employment, he was paid by the piece so that his aptitude and willingness to work could be put to the test, after which he might be paid by the day - which he naturally preferred.

There was no universal "foot" units in the middle ages, at least not standards as we know them. There was no one unit for each country, or even for each region. There were hundreds and each town had its own, often maintained in a metal replica set up in some public place so that strangers could equate the "foot" of their own region with the local one.

In Vienna, the two-foot units were attached to the wall of the cathedral doorway, and in Dunkeld, the local Ell is still fixed to one of the houses which overlooks the markets.

Part of the problem was that there was a unit of length for the cloth makers, and another for the customs officer and the timber merchant etc. Standards encompassing more than a single trade or place were non-existent. Every merchant in coming into the market had to discount his own measure, and his money as well, against the locally-used units. he was constantly adapting one to the other, and was daily using ratios in trade, just as the masons were in the building. To think in ratios was an essential aspect of medieval life.

The "foot" outlasted the Master. It was the unit of the crew, and was passed from one generation to the next. there are wills in which the master left his "foot" to his successor, specifically mentioning it as a precious object.

From the many marks engraved by pieceworkers on cathedrals, monasteries, fortified castles and city walls throughout France, it seems that piecework was more common in the twelfth than in the thirteenth century, and more widely spread in Alsace, to the south of the Loire and especially in Provence. It was also more usual on small sites than on larger sites.

Some sixty different pieceworkers' marks have been found on the walls of Aigues-Mortes.


Every stonecutter had a distinguishing sign which he had to engrave on every stone he cut in order that the quality of his work could be checked at the end of the week and so that the number of stones he had squared off could be counted before he was paid . The variety of these marks was considerable. They might be geometric figures such as triangles or pentagons, or depict tools such as a pick of hammer; they could be crosses or the workman's own initials. Some workmen engraved the first three letters of their names, or more exceptionally their whole name. These marks were roughly engraved in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but became more refined in the thirteenth century.

Fathers handed their own marks down to their sons, but in the father's lifetime the son would add a mark of his own, like a dash. Gradually, these signs acquired a sentimental value, and some of them which can be found on, for instance, the pillars in the nave of Notre-Dame de Paris, or on the pillars in the south transept at Chatres, were put there out of personal pride by stonecutters employed by the day or the week. The pieceworkers' marks came to be like signatures. A systematic study of the signs in any one region makes it possible, in exceptional cases, to trace workmen from one site to another.

The large numbers of marks found in monasteries enable us to gauge the number of outside workers brought in to build abbeys. Many of them are on the inner side of the stone and can only be seen when the wall is pulled down. Inside the churches the marks engraved on the facing of the stone could not be seen in the Middle Ages because the walls were covered with frescoes. The mason who built the wall did not have to pay any attention to the marks and they can sometimes be seen upside down on the facing.

Some marks were engraved by the quarrymen, since it was necessary to be able to tell the provenance of the stones if two quarries were supplying one site. But it was, in fact, important for the regularity and the future stability of the church to build a wall with stones from one place. The quarrymen's marks also made it possible to repair walls with the appropriate stone. The Romans seem to have used the same method, for quarrymen's marks can still be seen on Roman buildings.

The quarrymen's and pieceworkers' marks should not be confused with position marks. When something rather complicated had to be built, the overseer gave the stonecutters specific instructions on how to cut the required blocks. Thus the masons, when the time came, could position the stones correctly before embedding them. The Romans had already used this method using "FS" to indicate fronte sinistra (front, left side) and "FD" for fronte dextra (front, right). These were abbreviated to "FR.S.II", "FR.S .III", "FR.D.V" etc.

Furthermore, position marks are still used today in modern stone buildings.

Medieval position marks could usually not be seen unless the stones were taken down again. then it becomes apparent, in the arches for instance, that the stones were marked on one side so that they could be laid as they were cut. When several arches were similarly shaped, each one had a particular mark to distinguish it from the next.

Position marks were also used to prevent statues from being put in the wrong place. Statues symbolising the months of the year had been put in the wrong order in Notre-Dame de Paris. The overseer at Rheims was anxious not to make the same mistakes with his 3000 statues, and he worked out a system of engraved marks so that the mason knew exactly where to place each statue. These marks indicated the side of the cathedral, the doorway where the statue had to go and its exact position in that doorway.

The Masons

Makers of stone mortars and stonecutters constituted one branch of the family of stone workers. Plasterers, makers of mortar and masons made up the other branch. Contemporary statutes confirm this.

The mason is, above all, a stone setter or layer.

A stained-glass window was given to the cathedral at Bouges by the masons, and another was given by the stonecutters. Masons often appear in medallions, usually working on the walls with their trowels, vertical level and the plumb line, while at the bottom of the walls mortar makers mix mortar and labourers lift the mortar or the stones up to the masons.

Conscious of the problems caused if insufficient time was given to allow the walls to settle, and for the mortar to dry out, the medieval master mason were rarely build more than ten feet vertically in any season. In winter Masons no longer feature in the accounts, as fear of frost prevented stone-laying. Before leaving the site, the masons took care to cover the tops of the walls with straw or manure to protect the stones and the joints from rain-water. Some of the better stonecutters were employed in the workshop, or lodge, at the foot of the building; others went to work in quarries and, finally, some of the married ones returned to their wives who might be running a smallholding. Sometimes they hired their farm carts to the chapter to carry stones from the quarries to the site.

Although the mason's annual wage was less than that of a stonecutter, who was employed all the year round, his wage by the day was about the same.

Also, masons were given certain privileges. The overseer provided them with gloves to protect their hands from burning by lime; they were given a bonus when they completed something or when the keystone was placed in position. Some of the better-off masons were employed to supervise small sites.

The 104 masons listed in the 1292 Paris tax roll lived a long way from each other and were spread out all over Paris.

The 1253 accounts for Westminster Abbey show the irregularity of work for labourers. The maximum number of workmen employed was 428 in the weeks beginning 23 June, and the minimum was 100 during the week beginning 10 November. The average over the whole year is 300 which is an extraordinarily large number for a church building project.

On a lay site figures could be considerably higher since military interests may play a part. When Beaumaris Castle was built in Wales between 1278 and 1280, 1630 workmen were employed: 400 masons, 30 smiths and carpenters, 1000 labourers and 200 carters. The number of specialised workmen on this site was comparatively low (25%) whereas on a church site, such as Westminster Abbey, there would be as high as 50% specialists among the workforce.

But the work on a cathedral could be episodic. For Westminster Abbey, during the week beginning 14 July, 215 labourers were engaged on the site: the following week 65 were sent away, and in the week beginning 28 July, a further 10 were not employed. With the coming of winter the number of labourers on the site fell spectacularly to 37 and even to 30 in the week beginning 19 November. The number of masons was also drastically reduced as winter approached. There were 33 in the week beginning 27 October and only 5 two weeks later. It is interesting to note that that number of smiths hardly varied throughout the year.

The Smiths

The cathedral builders, in a society which believed in progress, were able to innovate, and the cathedrals built at the end of the thirteenth century result from hundreds of innovations and improvements created by the builders' spirit of discovery. Most crafts progressed side by side, and often advanced in the one helping the other. For instance, the progress made by smiths helped architects, sculptors and stonecutters. These smiths were cathedral builders in so far as they made stronger steel tools, which in turn could cut harder stone which had previously been impossible to cut. Sculptors were able to work the stone more delicately, and the use of harder stone led architects to design slenderer columns and thinner walls.

Being harder, tools needs less sharpening. A smith's team would be made up of a smith, an assistant, an axe-bearer, a labourer to take the tools to and from the sharpener, and another workman to stoke the forge with charcoal. Unfortunately little is known of the origins and social position of these men who were in a group apart from the other builders. there was a forge on every site and at every quarry and, for example at Autun, about 10% of the expenses went towards the forge.

Smiths not only made tools, iron claws (for lifting heavy stones) all types of nails, horseshoes and tie-rods, like those in Westminster Abbey to prevent the walls from separating, but also iron chains, which architects decided to have sealed inside the walls for reinforcement.

Thanks to the smiths greatly improved carpentry tools were available. This meant that timberwork, shoring and scaffolding were more reliable.

The main doors of the cathedrals; in many instances, are magnificent examples of the woodcarvers' and metalsmiths' art. the main doors on the Chutreaux Cathedral are twenty five feet high - a fitting monument to the blacksmith's art.

The Carpenters

Unlike stonecutting techniques, carpentry techniques were not lost during the early Middle Ages, but carpenters adapted their frameworks as vaulting developed and changed. The framework for the ribbed vaulting of a thirteenth century cathedral is a marvel in itself and is the result of endless improvements in technique.

By the twelfth century it was already difficult to find large trees, as the forests had been devastated. The carpenters were able to adapt to the lack of large pieces of timber. Much time was spent in explaining to apprentices how to build a tower, a house or a bridge from small pieces of timber.

Medieval carpenters supported their buildings in a number of very clever ways. They strengthened them with underpinning, and, when altering the original plans, they also knew how to adapt the scaffolding most skilfully to the particular needs of the building. So when building the circular keep at Coucy with a diameter of 31.25 metres, they had the ingenious idea of building a spiral pathway with a very gentle slope around the wall. Little cartloads of materials could then be pulled up along this ramp.

Thirteenth-century miniatures show diminutive wheelbarrows of simple design which the carpenters made and which enabled one man to do the work of two labourers. This invention which was for a long time attributed to Pascal but may well have been conceived by a humble carpenter during this "Cathedral Crusade".

The Roofers and The Tilers

As carpenters had to adapt themselves to new developments in vaulting, so the tilers had to adapt to the changing framework. The roofers and tilers, who worked in close collaboration with the carpenters, were men of considerable importance and some were lodged at the cathedral's expense. Roofing of large buildings was not habitual in classical times, but as the Middle Ages attained their fullest development in northern countries, adequate protection from rain and snow was imperative. Depending, therefore, on the region, churches were covered with tiles, lead or slate. Roman tiles were replaced by large flat tiles, and the lead roofing used in the early Middle Ages was made so that it was always possible to replace a damaged piece. At the end of the twelfth century, strong, solid slate was used in Western and Northern France. The ridges of the roofs, too, were beautifully decorated by the tilers. Paintings were applied to the metal by means of powerful fixatives, and the tilers took advantage of the fact that slate reflects light differently according to the way it is laid, to make two-tone mosaic patterns.

The roof was made up of a series of triangular frames or trusses. The carpenters first assembled each individual frame on the ground. The timbers were fastened together by the mortice-and-tenon method. After test assembling every part of the truss, it was dismantled and hoisted piece by piece to the top of the walls. There they were reassembled and the entire frame was locked together with oak pegs. Nails were not used by the carpenters in the construction of the roof frame.

The first few beams were hoisted to the top of the walls using pulleys hung from the scaffolding. Once the beams were in place a windlass was set on top of them to hoist the rest of the timber and to help in setting up the trusses.

While this work was being completed, the roofers cast lead sheets that would cover the frame, protecting it and the vaults below from the weather.

One of the problems associated with the Romanesque style of building was that it was extremely difficult to design a method of getting the water from the roof; which covered such a large area, clear of the building. The stone used in construction; limestone, wears very quickly with running water and serious damage can be done to the building.

So as to protect the buildings from rain, the architects designed a network of guttering and down pipes which were installed in the flying buttresses. These down spouts through which the water fell to the ground, were carved as gargoyles. The gargoyles were connected to the gutters at the base of the roof by a channel along the top of the flying buttress. Large vats of pitch were hoisted up to the roof and the timber was coated to prevent rotting. Finally sheets of lead were mailed to the frame work, and the edges rolled to prevent water seeping in.

As for the ceilings, there are vast spans of ceilings in some cathedrals. for example, York Minster has a 52 foot (17 metre span). In order to construct ceilings of these dimensions, a wooden scaffold was erected connecting the two walls of the choir one hundred and thirty feet above the ground. On the scaffold wooden centrings like those used for the flying buttresses were installed. They would support the arched stone ribs until the mortar was dry, at which time the ribs would support themselves. The ribs carried the webbing, which was the ceiling itself. The vaults were constructed one bay at a time, a bay being a rectangular area between four piers.

One by one the cut stones of the ribs, called voussoirs, were hoisted onto the centring and mortared into place by the masons. Finally the keystone was lowered into place to lock the ribs together at the crown of the arch.

The carpenters then installed pieces of wood, called lagging, that spanned the space between the centrings. On top of the lagging the masons laid one course or layer of webbing stones. The lagging supported the course of webbing until the mortar was dry. The webbing was constructed of the lightest possible stone to lessen the weight on the ribs. Two teams, each with a mason and carpenter, worked simultaneously from both sides of the vault - installing first the lagging and then the webbing. When they met in the centre the vault was complete. The vaulting over the aisle was constructed in the same way and at the same time.

When the mortar in the webbing had set, a four-inch layer of concrete was poured over the entire vault to prevent any cracking between the stones. Once the concrete was set, the lagging was removed and the centring was lowered and moved onto the scaffolding of the next bay. This was repeated until the entire choir was vaulted.

Of course, the roof was not the only place in the cathedral construction which involved the attentions of the tilers. At ground level, the floor is dominated by what is known as 'The Maze". The name is somewhat incorrect as it is more correctly a labyrinth and is the largest decorative item in the cathedral, and its purpose and obvious importance has never been fully explained. Its design is canonic, in that there are many examples in medieval churches and that nearly all of those that date from that time follow exactly the same pattern. There are eleven rings, containing a path that leads by a circuitous route to the middle. It is generally believed that the labyrinth portrays man's path to God.

The Architects

A close study of the correspondence of 1025 between two ecclesiastical scholars, Ragimbold de Cologne and Radolf de Liege, gives us some insight into the state of geometric knowledge in the eleventh century; and proves that almost all Greek documents had been lost during the early Middle Ages. The correspondence shows that these two scholars were unable to work out any geometric theorem.

They discussed the definition of an outside angle of a triangle (a word they found in one of the few old works in their possession) without coming to any agreement. Neither of them could manage to demonstrate correctly the theorem proving that two right angles equal the sum of the angles of a triangle. A few years after this correspondence, Francon de Liege was still looking for a solution to the same problem, and he reveals in his writings that others were also searching for it. In fact, several generations of scholars attempted in vain to solve the same relatively simple problem.

So, if Greek documents had almost entirely disappeared from Western Europe and medieval scholars did not re-invent Geometry, where did the architects and designers discover their science?

Some of it must have been handed down to them directly from Roman geometers or they may have learnt it from studying the works of Vitruvius, the Roman architect from the time of Augustus whose manuscripts were frequently recopied during the early Middle Ages. But it is likely most medieval architects gained their knowledge from Arab science. In fact, during the ninth and tenth centuries, Muslim scholars had translated into arabic a considerable number of scientific works from classical antiquity, namely the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid and Ptolemy. The Arabs produced a magnificent synthesis of the knowledge of classical antiquity and of India; they assimilated the arithmetic, developed chemistry and algebra and more or less invented trigonometry . This vast culture was taught indiscriminately to Muslims, Christians and Jews in Arab universities in Spain throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Eventually these Greek and Arab texts ware translated into Latin. Especially important was the translation in 1145 by Robert of Chester of Al-Khawarizmi's work on algebra which marks the introduction of algebra into Europe. Gerard of Cremona translated Ptolemy's Almagest and Al-Zarqali's works on trigonometry which proves the importance of sines and tangents.

By the middle of the twelfth century, Greek and Arab science was available to western scholars. But it cannot be claimed that the architects of the Cathedral Crusade had a very thorough comprehension of geometry, trigonometry or algebra; learning for these builders must have been above all empirical.

Of course there were exceptions such as Bishop Thierry, an eminent teacher of the Chartres Cathedral school and known to his students as "Socrates", pursued theological mysteries by way of geometrical constructions and found the analogue of the three-personed Trinity in the equilateral triangle and the interrelation of the Father and Son in the square; since God the Father was the highest Oneness and the Son the Oneness Witnessed by that Oneness, so the square was essentially the multiplication of an entity by itself.

The builders preferred simple ratios (double and half; treble and a third). Since measurements varied from town to town, architects did not put a scale on their plans and they were particularly interested in proportions which could easily be translated without recourse to a conversion table.

The word magister preceding the words cementarius and lathomus sometimes, although not always, designated an architect. This word magister or master has also been borrowed by the mechanical arts from the liberal arts. Thirteenth-century doctors of law were annoyed because carpenters had assumed this honorary title without having any right to it. The expression magister operis, master of works, unlike the word architect, does not designate a profession. In England the master of the works was very often an official nominated by the King to supervise work in progress. Magister operis may on the other hand designate an architect.

The architect drew up the plans and this he did in the tracing house which was a room set aside for that purpose. The tracing-house floor was covered in plaster on which the architect drew in life size the various features of the building under construction. The carpenters were then called for and, using special planks, cut out templates from which the various stone components were then shaped.

The templets (templates) belonged, absolutely, to the master. Thus the master took the templets with him when he left any job. There are letters from frantic clients requesting that the architect return them, and occasional clauses can be found in later medieval contracts defining the ownership of general plans and elevations.

The templets were usually cut from thin wooden boards of birch or oak, though very large ones might be made out of canvas.

The architect was assisted on the larger site by an 'overseer' or foreman whom the Germans called parlier because his role was to talk to the workmen. It was often he who drew the plans with a large compass. The foreman and the architect have, in fact, sometimes been confused, and some medieval illustrations have portrayed the architect holding one of these large compasses.

A tracing house survives to this day, above the chapter house at York's Minster, its floor covered with architectural drawings.

No plaster or wood models seem to have been made by architects throughout the whole Cathedral Crusade. This method used in classical antiquity to represent buildings in three dimensions seems to have survived for some time during the early Middle Ages only to disappear for several centuries and to reappear in the Renaissance.

Few architectural drawings survive this period. Those that do were intended not so much as architectural plans, but as inspirational objects for future generations.

It must be realised that there was no particular reason to keep any plans of completed buildings - indeed it is difficult to obtain plans of buildings erected at the turn of this century. No importance was attached to their preservation. Also, these plans must often have been drawn on plaster or on wooden boards - the price of parchment being prohibitive.

The principal master was paid considerably more than the others, since it was only to be expected that men who can direct a site and draw up plans and estimates should be socially superior to and financially better off than masons, and stone cutters. The chapters had to petition these exceptional men. The number of men with these qualities and this knowledge was, after all, fairly limited.

An attempt was made to retain architects under advantageous contracts. They were asked to swear not to work on other sites while their contracts lasted. But they did not always accept this restriction of their liberty, and obviously they took advantage of their privileged position in order to dictate their terms of employment. Sometimes these terms were unique. For example, the architect Raymond, making allowances for a possible fall in monetary values during his employment, demanded of the Archbishop of Lugo in 1129 to be paid mainly in kind - more precisely, in 6 silver marks, 36 metres of cloth, 17 loads of wood and as many pairs of shoes and gaiters as he would need per month, 2 sous for food, 1 measure of salt and a pound of candles.

Architects could be employed for a year, for as long as the site was open, or, in exceptional cases, for life. In the latter case, provision was made for some kind of a pension in case of sickness. materially, they had many advantages, including, as often as not, free lodging. They were given clout: thanks to their contracts, and the valuations they gave, architects became quite rich and could buy houses. They sometimes acquired quarries and sold stone to the cathedral sites where they worked. Little by little, some of them were able to set themselves up as independent contractors, although they could only undertake small works. Contracts for these modest sites were, as they would be today, granted to the lowest bidder.

Life's vagaries lead some of these architects to become town-planners - drawing up designs for circular towns such as Bram in the Languedoc or square ones such as Aigues-Mortes. Some specialised in fortified castles or in bridges.

The Glassmakers

As the architects made ever larger windows so as to give more light, the glassmakers came to be among the most important cathedral builders. The making of stained glass is probably better understood than any other medieval technique.

Glass was made from a mixture of beechwood ash and washed sand that was melted at high temperatures. After different kinds of metals were added to the molten mixture for colour, the glass makers scooped up a ball of molten glass on the end of a hollow pipe and blew it into a balloon shape. By cutting off the end of the balloon and spinning the pipe quickly, the glass opened up into a flat circular shape. This was removed and allowed to cool.

The glass was cut into a square shape with a grozing iron; a steel rod with a sharp point at one end, to the right shape and size for the window. the pattern for the window had ben drawn on a whitewashed bench so that the glass could be cut to the exact size and shape simply by laying it over the pattern.

After several pieces of glass had been cut, they were joined by strips of lead. Single pieces of glass were usually no larger than eight inches by eight inches, but sections as large as thirty inches could be made when held together by the lead. These sections were inserted between stone mullions and the reinforcing bars to create windows as high as sixty feet.

The Sculptors

Latin expressions used in the Middle Ages to describe men who cut stone usually make it impossible to distinguish between those who simply cut the stone into blocks and those who carved ribbed vaulting, rose windows or statues for the porches. Sculptors were submerged in the crowd of stonecutters. This obviously seems extraordinary today, for we see a vast difference between the apparently mechanical job of cutting blocks and the heartfelt sculpting of the magnificent statues around the cathedral. The idea that there was an insuperable barrier between the worker and the artist (in the modern sense of the word) only appeared with the Renaissance and was expressed at that time by intellectuals who judged, classified and stratified manual work of which they had no experience.

For the first time in history, Renaissance writers extolled the personal qualities of authors and painters and this resulted in an excessive deification, the consequences of which can still be felt today. The Renaissance invented the idea of the artist. The medieval intellectual, for his part, practically never wrote about specifically aesthetic matters. If he discussed what we choose to call "art", it was from a theological or philosophical point of view. Certainly, to our knowledge, medieval writers mentioned neither the sculptures which we admire so much, nor their makers - though these were not quite as anonymous as some would have us believe.

With regard to terminology, it must be pointed out that the avoidance here of the word "artist" is entirely deliberate. It adds nothing to the glory of the cathedral builders and its present-day meaning was fundamentally alien to the spirit of the Middle Ages. Besides it was not until 1762 that the Dictionnaire de l'Academie Francaise mentioned the word "artiste" with the meaning which we understand today.

In any consideration of the sculptor's role in medieval society it is natural to be curious about what part he played in the choice and execution of masterpieces. On the whole, since the old texts tell us nothing, the answer can only be found in a few more or less credible hypotheses; and, perhaps one of the best ways of reaching a better understanding of the creators of a given period is to see their craft, whether literary or visual, within its own historical framework.

The sculptures were often made of a different stone from the walls against which they sere set. The stonecutter's frequent journeys across the country made it possible for them to assess stone from many different quarries. Some managed to work with the stone which most suited their own talents, and others managed to order a particular stone for certain difficult pieces of work.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries sculpture was not one of the favoured techniques, in comparison, with, say, frescoes, silverwork or miniatures. When, during the eleventh century, thanks to better knowledge of their craft, stonecutters began to carve small scenes, they were no doubt able to do so without ecclesiastical supervision - little attention can have been paid to their timid and clumsy endeavours. But it seems that their efforts and their improving standards progressively attracted the attention of Christendom to a technique which was new to it; and then monumental sculpture came into being. Born into a society that was steeped in religion, for his earliest childhood, the stonecutter heard, both at home and at church, stories which served as themes for his sculpture. There was a certain communal inspiration which explains why almost identical scenes can be found in very different regions.

Monumental sculpture developed rapidly and from the twelfth century became a major means of expression. Around the middle of the twelfth century stained glass, in its turn, became very important - at the expense of frescoes, which declined as window areas increased and wall surfaces diminished. In the thirteenth century, the fresco became an outdated technique.

It must be pointed out that in an ascendant era creators could not be misunderstood, neither could they disagree with their patrons. There could only be different opinions on points of detail. The sculptors could, within limits, discuss the form with the priests, but not the basic essentials. "The composition of religious pictures is not left to the inspiration of the artists, but depends on the principles laid down by the Catholic Church and religious tradition. Art alone is the painter's province, the composition belongs to the Fathers."

By becoming a sculptor, the stonecutter graduated into the intellectual world. He came into contact with theologians and learnt from them; he had the opportunity of looking through the abbey's precious manuscripts. He learnt to look, to observe and to think. His intellectual horizon broadened, which meant that his carvings benefited both materially and spiritually. Thanks to the miniatures and manuscripts which he had seen and admired in other abbeys, the sculptor could humbly suggest slight variations to themes put forward by the fathers. As the sculptor and the theologian were working towards the same ends, the former could feel free, for within this association there was no compulsion. It could be said that, unlike the modern artist, the medieval sculptor had no individuality, since he laid no claim to personal inspiration.

However, a justifiable pride overcame these sculptors from humble origins, and they did not hesitate, particularly in the twelfth century, to engrave their names on the stone.

The sculptor often worked on a stone which had already been embedded in the building. Thus the sculpture is in perfect harmony with the building. the twelfth-century sculptured columns demonstrate this close relationship between the sculptor and the architect. Unfortunately, this harmony did not last long; perhaps the sculptor lost some of his original humility and wanted to work independently and separate his sculpture from the column. He took to carving his piece of stone away from the building, in the lodge. And this is how he can be seen working in the seventeenth-century stained-glass window which he and the other stonecutters gave to Notre-Dame de Chatres.

Drunk with his new independence and his intellectual and material successes, the sculptor now wanted to put statues everywhere. He wanted to cover the churches and smother them with statues. Design became confused; some of the 1,200 sculptures in Notre-Dame de Paris were fixed in the wrong position as mentioned above. In Rheims the 3,000 statues had to be numbered like prefabricated products. Sculptors settled at Tournai and made statues to order.

Having broken with the architect, the sculptor next parted company with the theologians. In 1306 the sculptor Tideman made a figure of Christ for a London church. The figure was not thought to conform to tradition. The bishop himself intervened actively and had the statue removed and insisted that Tideman pay back the amount he had been paid for the commission. But the ascendant era of medieval Christianity was coming to an end.

The independence of the sculptor from tradition was unthinkable a century earlier and coincided with the waning of religious faith. The rich and powerful, who in magnificent bursts of generosity had until now given part of their fortunes to the cathedrals, began to use their money to improve their personal comfort and to satisfy their appetite for pleasure. Large houses and private chapels began to be built. The big building sites were to feel the effects of this. The best sculptors and cathedral builders were tempted away and employed by the great families of the day, to decorate their houses and chapels.


At the introduction to the section above on The Sculptors, reference was made to the difficulty in finding a clear definition to distinguish between the stonecutters and the sculptors on the Continent. In England, however, words used to describe stonecutters make it possible to distinguish between those who cut the blocks and those whose work was of a more delicate nature. This distinction is based on the quality of stone used. Those, for instance, who worked with particularly hard stone, such as the stone in Kent, were called "hard hewers" and were distinguished from "freestone masons" who carved an excellent chalky stone which lent itself to delicate sculpture and which is found in a wide strip of the country, stretching from Dorset to Yorkshire. Freestone masons were also to be distinguished from "rough masons".

The expression "freestone masons" was gradually replaced by the simpler term "freemason". This word then, clearly refers to the quality of the stone and not to some franchise granted to the builders. When freemasonry was brought from England to france in about 1725, the word "freemason" was naturally translated as franc-macon, an expression quite unknown to medieval France. On the other hand, there was in London in 1351 a maitre macon de franche peer which is roughly the Anglo-French equivalent of two Latin expressions: sculptores lapidum liberorum (London, 1212) and magister lathomus liberarum petrerum (Oxford, 1391). The modern translation of this expression would be "a master mason of freestone".

The words franc and franche are used in France today to describe stone.


The stonecutters and masons were part of a basically itinerant population of workmen. There were many reasons for them to move from site to site and from country to country. The younger men wanted to seek new horizons, to learn a new way of life and different techniques.

In those days, of course, there were neither frontiers nor passports and men crossed the Rhine in the east to work in Cologne, or the Channel in the north to work in Canterbury. Others wished to follow celebrated architects who where working in distant places - such as the stonecutters who accompanied Etienne de Bonneuil when he set off to build the cathedral at Uppsala. Clearly bachelors were more tempted by these journeys than married men, who stayed closer to their homes so as to be able to return to them at regular intervals.

The life of these builders contrasted with the lives of other medieval workmen who mostly stayed in the same workshops from one year's end to the next and rarely travelled, and then never for professional reasons. Builders who led a wandering life obviously did not do so merely for the pleasure of seeing the country. Some left a site in the hopes of being better paid elsewhere. And often, for reasons beyond their control, they had to take to the road in search of new work. Perhaps their site had closed, or the overseer, displeased with their work, had dismissed them without warning and without compensation, or perhaps the fabric had run out of money and the work was temporarily interrupted.

Conscription, too, had the effect of putting men on the road against their wishes, particularly in England, where the King had the power to order sherries to recruit twenty-five or forty men for the site of a fortified castle which might be several hundred miles away. Conscription in France did not cause such migrations because no feudal lord in that country, not even the King, had the authority to recruit men from so far afield.

In the interests of the public and for the sake of a town's commercial reputation, municipalities grew concerned about the settled workers and, from the thirteenth century, in agreement with the heads of various industries, they managed to lay down statutes organising the professions and forming what later came to be called corporations. Until the municipalities intervened, workers, with a few exceptions, were only grouped into charitable organisations known as brotherhoods, which might be described today as mutual aid societies.

In England, where many statutes such as those of York and Coventry have been preserved, there is a marked absence of statutes concerning stonecutters and masons. This can be explained by their itinerant way of life, which meant that these people avoided municipal control. Besides, they worked for the Church and for noblemen who had no desire for them to be professionally organised. It would have been against the interests of the Church for workmen to be able to discuss their conditions of employment and their pay, and against those of the noblemen, since organised groups would perhaps oppose the very convenient system of conscription.

The first English town to make an exception was London, where there is evidence of professional organisation of stonecutters and masons in the second half of the fourteenth century. But London was five to ten times larger than York or Coventry, and already had a population of 50,000. There were, predictably, many more builders in London than in a smaller town and they were therefore better prepared to group together and defend their rights. The very size of London made it possible for the municipality to employ these builders regularly which made them less dependent on their two usual patrons, the Church and feudal lords.

The Decline

The opportunity for the sculptors to benefit from private patronage was blighted by the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War in 1337. The economy collapsed, the population was decimated by famine, war and plague. Rich men who could still employ sculptors were few and far between, and in a climate of war sculpture became a luxury. The cathedral sites closed or worked at half strength; most sculptors, who were, after all, first and foremost stonecutters, were impressed into military service and required to build keeps and fortified castles.

These buildings required no delicacy of detail, and stone from local quarries had to be sufficient for them as the transporting of stone over long distances was impracticable because of the dangers on the roads and waterways.

Unable to travel around, new generations of workmen forgot the whereabouts of famous quarries, which had produced stone for monumental carving. The grandchildren of men who built Chatres and Mont-Saint-Michael are hardly recognisable in the unfortunate workmen who were obliged to spend their lives carving out cannon balls.

When the stonecutters began to carve again in the middle of the fifteenth century, despite all their efforts they could not recapture the tradition of the Cathedral Crusade. The world had moved on and stone carving was out of fashion.

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       Press Reports: Star - 31 October 1888