The Men Who Built the Cathedals

The Men Who Built the Cathedals

A Full House at the Museum

Jean Floyd

Imogen Corrigan is known to be an outstanding speaker which meant there were no vacant seats at our East Street Museum on Thursday evening, 14th February – and the hour of fascinating information imparted with excitement and humour (and accompanied by stunning photos taken at scores of cathedrals throughout Europe) not only fulfilled the high expectations of the audience but – to judge by post-talk questions and enthusiastic comments — exceeded them.  Many who attended confessed to having stood in a cathedral and wondered how such a magnificent building could have been produced during the medieval period given the materials, tools, construction techniques and the means of communication, financing, record keeping and workforce control of the times. Photos of paintings, carvings and models presented sights such as a man perched on a razor thin point dizzily high in the sky with no visible means of support, and sites with scaffolding, human-powered treadmills attached to cranes,   wheelbarrows and workers busy with stone carving, carpentry, tiling and a wide range of other special tasks.

Certainly the presentation gave us a new appreciation of the realities of medieval times. For example, the initiators of a building did not expect to see the final result – which for varied  reasons — improved materials and techniques, changes in fashion and finances and who was in control — was invariably quite different from what the original master mason (we would call him an architect perhaps) – would have imagined.  Cathedrals evolved. Many were works  in progress for centuries.   The projects involved workers in many different trades, speaking many different languages,  demonstrating ingenuity as well as skills, often moving from one project to another.

Many of the questions today’s cathedral visitors wonder about were tackled. Some much abbreviated examples::  Who was a master mason?   Someone who had proved they had real skills – deserving to be called a ‘master’ and a character commanding respect.   Who was in charge?  Typically a master mason working to a brief often coming from a bishop – who might also be the chief source of finance.  What about pay for the workers?   Skilled workers were often paid quite well.   Why were the cathedrals built?  Partly to attract money, partly for the glory of God.  What is the significance of the marks often found on stones.  Not what many think; rather they simply indicated who was to be paid for carving the stone.   

Amidst all the answers to questions most of us have wondered about during our cathedral visits – How did they do that? – there were surprises and new perspectives on bits of history we thought be knew about.  For example, have you too always thought of Henry III as weak and inefficient, a tyrant and spendthrift whose long reign consisted mostly of failing politically and militarily on this island and on the continent and fighting the  barons over the Magna Carta and royal rights until he was eventually forced to call the first “parliament” in 1264?  Our speaker spoke instead of a singular achievement: and referred to him (as have others) as ‘the builder king’.. He was  the king responsible for the rebuilding and expansion of Westminster Abbey, advancing the design of Gothic architecture in particular and  making Westminster the seat of his government..    

There is much more to the Master Masons story than the quick examples above – and the fuller story is now available in print:  Google for Stone on Stone: The Men Who Built the Cathedrals by Imogen Corrigan and published by Robert Hale.  And you can now make a note in your diary of the second Museum Talk of 2019 by another favourite speaker:   Come to the East Street Museum on Thursday 14th  March  to hear Dr Andrew Bamji, another favourite speaker,  on: The Wrong Sex::  A Strange St0ry of Surgical Success and Unrequited Love .   





First posted in Featured, Past Talks, Talks Summaries on 1st March 2019
Last updated: 2nd March 2019