From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Cathedral Builders
Most people will have wandered into a Gothic cathedral, built hundreds of years ago in the Middle Ages, and marvelled at its size and splendour.
Jean Gimpel starts his book with a few facts: in the 300 years after 1050, 80 cathedrals, 500 churches and thousands of parish churches were built in France alone. By the end of this period there was a church or chapel for every 200 people, and cities like Norwich – with a population of between five and ten thousand – had 50 churches.
The cathedral at Amiens in northern France could accommodate the city’s entire population of 10,000.
Gimpel describes the fervour and enthusiasm with which the cathedral builders set about their constructions, and the competition to build the highest and biggest. He describes the battles between those bishops who wanted to pack their cathedrals with jewels, gold and colourful statues and those who demanded austerity.
But most importantly, he describes how the relative social and economic stability of this period provided the wealth needed to build these huge constructions.
It was a time when often runaway serfs could find work on the sites. There developed a workforce of stone-masons, plasterers, smiths and labourers which shifted not just across a country but over borders to work on different cathedrals.
As time went on, many of these workers – who included a large number of women – became highly skilled and organised themselves into guilds. They standardised measures, building blocks and so on.
Artists as such did not exist. Sculptors emerged from the ranks of stone-cutters and some began to initial their works. People who made the magnificent stained glass also signed their windows. But it was not until the Renaissance, which developed in Italy towards the end of the Middle Ages, that they were identified with their objects.
Architects too emerged from the workforce. Gimpel’s book has fascinating early architectural drawings, not just of bits of cathedral but of practical devices and gadgets for building them.
He also makes the point that much of the vital geometry needed to build the vast constructions had been lost to Europe during the centuries of barbarism. As Gimpel says, most architects gained their knowledge from Arab science of hundreds of years before.
This book is a fresh and unique view of medieval Europe.
Last updated: 4 March 2017