The Medieval Stonemason

The Medieval Stonemason
By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Medieval people saw the cathedral as an earthly representation of the heavenly Jerusalem. What
part did the stonemason play in the creation of heaven on earth?
A mason's craft
The medieval mason was not a monk but a highly skilled lay craftsman who combined the roles of
architect, builder, craftsman, designer and engineer. Using only a set of compasses, a set square
and a staff or rope marked off in halves, thirds and fifths, the mason was able to construct some of
the most amazing structures ever built: Gothic cathedrals. Their awesome size combined with their
appearance of lightness and fragility have led people to believe that medieval masons had some
magical secret but this was actually just an understanding of proportion and basic geometry.
Ely Cathedral Contemporary illustrations of master masons show them to have been prosperous
middle class professionals. The men they supervised, who did much of the actual carving and
laying of stone, were like modern skilled tradesmen, and many younger men still learning the
trade worked on the building sites as labourers. Masons shared their secrets openly and many
medieval buildings imitate each other in style and technique. The choir at Lincoln Cathedral, for
instance, is similar to that at Ely, and both copy Westminster Abbey. Designs for the building were
worked out at full scale on tracing floors covered in soft plaster. Such floors survive at Wells
Cathedral and at York Minster. Sometimes drawings on parchment were also made and at
Worcester a carving shows a mason giving a drawing to a monk.
'Building a great cathedral was hard work and often dangerous.'
All the stones were carved on the ground before they were set in place. Larger blocks were carved
at quarries which made them lighter and easier to transport. Individual masons used special
symbols to ensure that they were paid for the blocks they carved.
Building a great cathedral was hard work and often dangerous. At Canterbury Cathedral in 1178
the master mason William of Sens was inspecting the high vaults when he fell from the
scaffolding and was paralysed. Most of the actual construction was done during the spring and
summer months, allowing the mortar to set and the laid stones to settle over the winter. Breaking
during the winter also gave the masons a chance to carve more stones for the following summer.
Soaring monuments
Interior of Salisbury Cathedral Heavy stones were brought to the site by water or cart. The masons
of Laon Cathedral in France, grateful to the oxen that pulled their carts, carved oxen peeking out
of the top of the towers. Scaffolding was used to reach higher parts of the building, and 'put-log'
holes for this are still visible on many cathedrals and castles. Cranes and pulleys also helped lift
materials. Arches were supported using wooden frames called 'centring' which held the stones
steady before the keystone at the top locked the whole thing into place.
Misericorde, Wells Cathedral Gothic cathedrals were usually supported on deep foundations and
had thick walls to make them strong. Sometimes structural problems did appear, especially in the
area of the crossing where the tall central tower was supported on relatively small piers, or pillars.
At Salisbury Cathedral the 13th century tower was made too large, forcing its hasty reinforcement,
whilst at Wells Cathedral, owl-eyed strainer arches had to be inserted to strengthen the crossing.
Reinforcement did not always work, however, and at Ely the Norman crossing tower collapsed in
1322 and destroyed part of the choir. When the tower was rebuilt, light timber was used instead of
heavy stone to create the large octagonal lantern we see today. Amazingly, such extreme measures
were rarely needed.
Many of the apparently frivolous details on a Gothic cathedral have a structural purpose.
Decorative details actually helped to strengthen weak points. The ornate pointed pinnacles at the
corners of the building, for instance, add weight which helps to keep the corner strong, in the same
way that pressing down on a pile of books will prevent them from toppling over. Arched flying
buttresses make the cathedral look like a wedding cake but also keep the walls from falling
Heavenly Jerusalem
Naturalistic foliage was a popular decorative detail in the Gothic period, and small animals, birds
and people frolic amongst the leaves and flowers. Sometimes the foliage grew into something else:
the leaves at Wells Cathedral grow into the head of a man with toothache. English masons
specialised in carving heads, which they often positioned so that the head supported something
heavy, although the expression on the face rarely seems pleased about this.
'Medieval people thought that the cathedral was an earthly representation of the heavenly
Grotesque, semi-human figures like the Lincoln Imp were also very popular and appear not only
in the stone carvings but also in wood and around the margins of manuscripts. Such images were
requested by the monks and bishops who paid the masons to represent the many temptations of the
world, albeit in a charming and humorous way. Other popular images had their origins in a more
pagan past. The best known is the Green Man, a Celtic fertility god wreathed in leaves who was
adopted by the church as a symbol of life, death and rebirth.
However, most of the carvings depict more traditional religious images such as saints and miracles
as related in the Bible. Some of these figures are easy to see, but others are so small and so high
up that it is hard to imagine how anyone except the man who made them could ever have noticed
them. Perhaps that was the point. Medieval people thought that the cathedral was an earthly
representation of the heavenly Jerusalem, and every part of it had to be perfect, even the parts that
only God could see.
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About the author
Carol Davidson Cragoe is Assistant Architectural Editor of the Victoria County History.