Naughty Knowledge – Undiscipling Boundaries

For the most part, when I write this blog, I am thinking about physical objects, tangible things such as buildings, or other objects. I don’t really consider the way in which people write about these things, even though it is a vital part of how we use evidence. When a scientist looks through a microscope she sets the magnification strength to a particular level, sees something, makes notes, analyses the material and comes to some conclusion. Through another magnification, or type of microscope, she could come to another entirely different set of conclusions even if looking at exactly the same material or thing. She hasn’t changed, the object of study hasn’t changed, but the bit in between has, and this fact has possibly led to some differences to any conclusions. History and architectural history is the same…although sometimes it seems slightly more difficult to explain why, how, and what we should do to cope with that.

In September I will move to the University of York for a one year post in the History of Art Department. During my DPhil I met many very brilliant people who went to York and I generally knew it to be a place that strongly encouraged interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary….it sounds like a buzzword, doesn’t it? As an approach it has been very much encouraged across the spectrum of academic departments, with some success. With its top-down implementation it is quite easy to be cynical about interdisciplinarity and how it might be applied to one’s research (let along to one’s teaching). Indeed, in my experience ‘interdisciplinarity’ has been accused of being nothing more than filler for funding application, a convenient buzzword to be included if one wants to stand a chance of being successful. I don’t believe that, I think it to be the most important way of approaching the past and reflecting on that analysis. It allows our scientist to take a number of different materials and microscopes, a large Hadron collider and some sticky tape to make something new.

So, how do we apply interdisciplinarity to the study of the past? Do we take aspects of religious history, throw a bit of Marxism in to it, and then come to some conclusions about a medieval monastery? Maybe, but probably not. An interdisciplinary approach is not just a varied approach to a particular subject, but is an ideological position rooted in how a person gains knowledge. How we think of the division of knowledge is rooted in how we think the world works, the very tenets of the universe and our place in it. Joe Moran[1] had a nice quote in his work on interdisciplinarity:

‘Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos.’[2]

What I find interesting about this quote is the beginning (which Moran doesn’t include), that the division of the disciplines is a means to ‘pass these tests’, they are inflicted (by pedagogues) upon reality so we can communicate and definethat  reality within specific boundaries. Now, this is a blog about medieval architecture, but there is a connection, I swear.

Hugh of Saint Victor (d. 1141) was one of the leading lights of twelfth-century education, and its expansion from a particular elite to a wider group of people, centered at the Augustinian abbey of Saint Victor on the left bank of Paris.[3] I always think of Hugh as a big jolly headmaster, gregarious and welcoming to those who want to learn, but patient with those who struggle (basically the opposite of the Trunchbull). He wrote a text called the Didascalicon which sets out a sort of medieval curriculum, dividing the subjects into their discrete fields: grammar, mathematics, physics, and the like. To help explain the nature of this division, Hugh offers a metaphor to understand the connections between the different subjects:

‘First of all, the student of Sacred Scripture ought to look among history, allegory, and tropology for that order sought in the disciplines; that is, he should ask which of these three precedes the others in the order of study. In this question it is not without value to call to mind what we see happen in the construction of buildings, where first the foundation is laid, then the structure is raised upon it, and finally, when the work is all finished, the house is decorated by the laying on of color’.[4]

So for Hugh, the division of knowledge is a vertical arrangement for the sake of the student, pieces of knowledge that lock together like a large jenga tower, moving up and up with theology at the top.[5] But if we keep with the architectural metaphor, we can see that knowledge is a house, some sort of building encapsulating the man-made division of knowledge. For Hugh, that house could be called philosophy, a vocation that was undisciplined but a better reflection of the actual composition of real knowledge. It was something for man to step towards, using the blocks the disciplines provided. However, it was important to now mistake the blocks for actual knowledge. The house encapsulates knowledge, all these disciplines are just parts of it, some more important than others, but all made to keep the building from falling into ruin.

Having finally finished my DPhil it is nice to be able to think about these wider topics, and look forward to changing my mind.

 

 

[1] Joe Moran, Interdisciplinarity, 2 edn. (London; New York, 2010). A useful book, but the appraisal of education and knowledge before the early modern period is lacking.

[2] William Gaddis, JR (London, 1976), p. 20.

[3] The abbey is no longer there. There is, however, a café called the ‘Café de Saint Victor’, which in my opinion, is not the best place to have a coffee in Paris (or even in the immediate area). Go further down the road to the Café des Artes instead….

[4] Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York, 1991), p. 135. This is one of the few medieval texts I’ve seen with 5-star reviews across the board on Amazon.

[5] Later in the Middle Ages we get image of the ‘Tower of Wisdom’.

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Other Work

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As I get to grips with finishing my thesis, I just wanted to highlight a parallel program in which I’m involved.  The detail can be found here at the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute.

In essence, a few of us thought it would be both useful and interesting to bring together people working in different fields (Literature, Archaeology, History, Art History) to talk about how representations are used in the material we’ve seen.

I gave a short presentation on Richard of Saint Victor’s sophisticated use of architectural drawings for his work ‘On Exechiel’s Vision.’  It was immensely satisfying and interesting to see just how widespread representations are in medieval works and manuscripts.  The seem to hover on the margins of our research, there, but never really the subject of much study.  That will soon be rectified with a series of publications coming out of the project which will help future researchers, giving them a foundation (I love architectural puns!) for further work.

I really want to talk more about architectural history in Oxford, and I will when this Jabberwocky of a thesis is killed (i.e., submitted).  Bear with me…

New Review: The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century

In the absence of any posts, while I am trying to finish my DPhil. A review I wrote was recently published by the IHR reviews website. It’s a great website, and most historians I know use it to some degree or another.  The main reason being that the reviews are relatively long which means they can begin to say something meaningful about the work under consideration (not that I claim to have written anything meaningful).

The review can be found here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1710

Building the (Incomplete) Picture

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First.  Apologies for the lack of posts, thesis and illness has proven constant companions.  One is less welcome than the other, I will let you figure out which.

A few months ago several people, pretty much at the same time, sent me this link to the exhibition ‘Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’ currently on at the National Gallery in London.   The exhibition aims to ‘increase visitors’ appreciation and understanding of some of the most beautiful and architectonic paintings,’ and ‘to investigate how artists invented imagined spaces that transcended the reality of bricks, mortar and marble.’[1]  Such an aim aligns quite nicely with my own research, although my focus is a few centuries earlier and tend to appear in monastic manuscripts.  In the twisted world of academia finding a whole exhibition which shares your broader aims means two things.  First; maybe your project doesn’t belong in a black hole, bereft of friends and the light of day.  Second; oh my God, what if it says everything I want to say…but better?  In the end, having went to the exhibition I felt good, but slightly disappointed at a lost opportunity.

The first room presents the viewer with a couple of questions, ‘why did artists incorporate architecture in their pictures’ and ‘what does it mean for a painting to be architectural?’  Two fantastic questions, I particularly like the second, as in the past I’ve struggled with the question, what is the difference between ‘architectural drawings,’ and ‘drawings of architecture?’  There’s something more at stake than semantics, and I know the answer involves consideration of the drawer’s intention, as well as a genre’s intention, but at the moment it escapes me.  Overall I think the exhibition’s strong point relates to this and related questions.  The first room contains some sketches after Antonello da Messina, in which the architectural features in the foreground would seem to have been placed first, and formed a vital part of the image itself.  It sets up the exhibition nicely, indicating that from the first iteration of a composition the architectural elements were not unimportant, but formed a vital part in and of themselves.

Costa and Maineri's "Virgin and Child with Saints"

Costa and Maineri’s “Virgin and Child with Saints”

The second room focuses on the types of space which are evoked by the architectural structures the artist has chosen to insert and frame the composition, and the sorts of spatial games which arise as a result.  For example, Lorenzo Costa and Gianfrancesco Maineri, The Virgin and Child with Saints, probably 1499 presents the Virgin set in and against a barrel vaulted roof with a cloth draped behind her.  But the cloth, which at first appearance seems to be placed closely behind the sitting Virgin, actually hangs from the rear of the barrel vault.  So it would seem the architecture rewards repeat viewing, the space becomes unreliable and constantly shifting between the various depths of the picture.  It’s very clever and explained well in the exhibition.

It’s here in the explanatory notes associated with the paintings that I found my frustration however.  Architecture is, I think, a technical subject.  Even representations of architecture in paintings are, in a sense technical because the artist borrows from the built environment around themselves.  Sometimes the representations may not be structurally sound, but the columns, capitals, walls, consoles, arches, and vaults which make up the representations are derived from the real world.  As opposed to being an obstacle in a person’s reading of painting and the architecture within it, I think it is possible that explaining and focusing on these parts enhances both our reading of the painting and the real-world counterparts of buildings.  However, at this exhibition there would seem to be a reluctance to get to grips with Renaissance architecture and the manner it was depicted, and what that tells us about the images and some of the most famous structures both built and unknown.[2]  The cards beside each painting were cursory and were presented in much the same colour as the wall, meaning they were meant to fade into the background.  This seems to be a modern curatorial approach which I think is highly successful in some contexts, but I don’t think it worked here.

Ercole de' Roberti's "Adoration of the Shepherds"

Ercole de’ Roberti’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”

Old St. Peter's

Old St. Peter’s

On the other hand I thought the most successful room was the final one, which looked at “Architecture and Time,” which, coincidently, is strikingly similar to one of my thesis chapters.  It is pointed out that “Time, in the sense of historical period, can be evoked by architectural setting,” but it is also acknowledged that in many cases anachronism in architectural representations are used, using contemporary features to depict the past.  The most common explanation for this is that it presents an historical event, such as the birth of Christ, as being pertinent to the present, even as constantly happening and experienced by those in the present.[3]  Whether you believe this, or not, doesn’t really matter, but at least the exhibition problematizes the set-up, and gets the viewer thinking about what’s going on.  However, it then undermines itself in the image: Ercole de’ Roberti, The Adoration of the Shepherds, about 1490, where we are told that the stable evokes the origins of architecture, signifying the birth of civilization, and also makes a connection to the birth of Christianity.[4]  The architecture, in this case, bears the heavy weight of both religious and humanist origins, groaning and teetering to the extent such an idea cannot be sustained by one structure.  I’m sure the artist has made an important and conscious choice to present a wooden structure, and not an elaborate or more beautiful structure.  Wood implies common origins, and certainly reflects the poverty stricken and desperate circumstances of the holy family.  However, structurally and formally it reminds me more of Old St. Peters, which would have still been standing, but perhaps this idea would take a whole blogpost.

These are curatorial and semantic decisions which, while I disagree with them, I’m sure can be defended by the National Gallery, and I still salute them for an enjoyable day out.[5]  The biggest problem, which I will only briefly mention, is the absolute lack of technical architectural drawings.  The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is when this type of drawing really gets going, with a significant amount of crossover between artists and architects.[6]  Surely it is no coincidence that the development of architectural drawing and the increasingly sophisticated use of architectural representations in public and private work coincide.  But there is no hint of this to suggest this.  Perhaps it was thought that technical drawing has no place beside the high art of the Italian renaissance, but this only denies the importance of technical matters the creation of art, reflecting only our modern sense of what art is and how it is made.  Which is a pity.

Having said all that, I would still encourage the curious to have a look around the exhibition.  It will train your eyes to look at images in a new way, one that encourages you to look at what you thought was insignificant, and see it as telling a story in itself.

 

[1] http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/building-the-picture

[2] There were, understandably, a few representations of Solomon’s Temple, which can be presented in a few different ways.

[3] I’m sure there are other reasons given, but this would seem to be the common one I was given as an undergraduate, and I’ve seen given in other institutions.

[4] This is one of a few bizarre ideas about what the architecture in a particular image ‘means.’

[5] I should mention that the exhibition is free!

[6] Remembering that Alberti wrote on both art and architecture.

Review Published!

For a change I will be going to an exhibition on Thursday, and then writing up my thoughts here.  It’s relevance to this website will become clear.

In the meantime, you can read something else just published here.

Hortulus is an excellent graduate journal, with some fantastic writing, and it’s FREE! Have a look around the website.

Unlimited Lintels Limiting Liminal Lines Linearly

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Have you ever noticed that dogs will stand at the thresholds of doorways if they are unsure as to whether they are allowed into a particular space?  I see it sometimes walking down the high street in Oxford, where a dog is left outside as their owner goes inside to do/buy something.  Some of the dogs stand right at the door, with their heads peering inside, but they’ll never actually step inside, as if they know that would be wrong.  Other animals don’t recognise the changes in space that a doorway signifies.  I was reminded of this thought when reading an excellent article by Éamonn Ó Carragáin discussing the development of the term porticus in the early Middle Ages.  Right ok, I can see some of you switching off already, BUT WAIT…it gets better, I swear, and if I don’t swear, I think…or hope, and even if it doesn’t you can impress your friends with erudite discussion of Latin architectural terms.  If that doesn’t get a party started, nothing will.

A Well Behaved Dog

A Well Behaved Dog

 

Ó Carragáin writes: “[…] popes rested precisely at the threshold of St. Peter, ad limina Sancti Petri.  In their graves, they acted as the gatekeepers to the basilica which preserved the body of the gatekeeper of Heaven.”[1]  Ad limina Sancti Petri literally means “to the thresholds of Saint Peter,” perhaps a better translation would be “at the threshold of Saint Peter’s church.”[2]  At least, this is the meaning Ó Carragáin implies in the article, which, I must add, is quite brilliant.  However, like porticus, limen is a bit of an odd term which seems to change meanings depending on who you are reading.  If we are to take Ó Carragáin’s conclusions though, that there is some rhyme and reason to how medieval authors used their architectural vocabulary, there should be some sense of order behind the appearance of limen as well.

Let’s put this aside for a second, because, tied to the basic notion of the limen, is the word “liminal.”  Unlike a lot of words, I actually remember the first time I came across the term “liminal.”  I argued with its appearance in JC’s thesis, as I read over one of her chapters.[3]  I didn’t know what it meant, and I thought it was just another “wanky” term in the middle of a thesis, which didn’t really mean anything.[4]  I am now big enough to acknowledge that I was wrong.  Liminal performs a very important function, defining the point in space which is not quite one space, but neither is it another, a sort of uncanny, lost space, which I think we sense, but don’t talk about in our everyday conversation.[5]

Now, I haven’t looked it up (why let the truth stand in the way of a good story?), but I take it there is a connection between the Latin word limen, and liminal.  This thing which we translate with some confidence in fact refers to something much less concrete than “at the threshold of Saint Peter’s” implies.  This wonderful term which would seem to originally come from the word for threshold, but perhaps it’s possible to be much more accurate as to what the Latin term means.  The threshold to a space is concept, but not really a thing, there’s nothing I can point to and say “that three-dimensional object” is a threshold.  Despite the abstract nature of this concept of space, one which I found, as I said, “wanky,” it would seem to have been in place before the language used to describe the architectural structures which make up that space.  For example, the word superliminare, describes the lintel of a door.  The lintel is “a horizontal beam or stone bridging an opening,”[6] although it is usually used for the top of the door.

A Lintel, but really a "superliminare"

A Lintel, but really a “superliminare”

The point here is a small one, but I think interesting.  Superliminare is what it sounds like, it’s the thing above the liminare, in this case the threshold.  It would seem then that the concept of the threshold, the limen, and the liminal, came before the structures which surround it.  This abstract non-entity, which it would seem even dogs recognise, was hard-wired into the brain, defining how we think of spaces, and the things we call architecture.  As you walk under a door in your own house, or some grand pile in the country, don’t forget to look up.  Ask yourself about the words you use to describe the building, they may not simply refer to some structure, or some thing, but also to the space, and your experience of that space.  Both while you’re there, and perhaps even more importantly, as you pass through it.

 

 

[1] Éamonn Ó Carragáin, “The Term Porticus and Imitatio Romae in Early Anglo-Saxon England,” in Helen Conrad O’Briain, Anne Marie D’Arcy, John Scattergood (eds.), Text and Gloss: Studies in Insular Learning and Literature Presented to Joseph Donovan Pheifer  (Dublin, 1999), pp. 13-33.  Non-English language words appear in italics in academic works, because that’s the kind of silly things on which they insist.  Although, it does mean the reader can pick out the original sources when they appear in articles and papers.

[2] As always, I’m always open to better translations, so please feel free to offer any alternative forms you can think of.

[3] Which can now be read in the form of: Jane Suzanne Carroll, Landscape in Children’s Literature (London, 2012).

[4] If there was a movement called: “Clear Writing in Academic Work League”, I would be right at the head of it.  If only there was some way to make that last word begin with a “Q” of “K”, we’d have CWACQ, which would be wonderful.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary, ”Characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, esp. by being transitional or intermediate between two states, situations, etc.”

[6] Pevsner, Dictionary, p. 348.

Bag End and the History Vault

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I have been busy at the end of term writing for another website (does that make me a traitor to myself?).  If you’re interested in learning about Hobbits, the Arts and Crafts movement, and a strange drawing concerned with Victorian holiday making, please go onto: http://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/unlocking-bag-end-tolkien-and-the-victorian-arts-and-crafts-movement/ – where you’ll satisfy your curiosity.

Hawksmoor Returns to Oxford (in Bronze Form)

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One of the problems of writing a blog as a graduate student is that the subjects I can discuss are quite restricted.  There isn’t any Big Brother institute watching over me, but the by the terms of submitting by doctorate the content within it cannot have been published elsewhere, such as on a blog.  This post however looks at some of the work I’ve done before which certainly will not make it into my thesis.  Onwards.

I was recently very honoured to receive the Hawksmoor medal for the best essay on architectural history from the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.[1]  I had been able to submit my work for the medal because the main content of the essay was done a number of years ago (when I was at Trinity College, Dublin), and I realised that it wouldn’t make an appearance in my doctoral work.

The piece, I hope will be published next year, and in it, I hope you will be able to discover the first appearance of the word “plan” to describe an image which depicts a building from above, so the viewer is able to grasp the footprint of the building.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term to the seventeenth century, where is arrives from French.  In my own work I have looked at various examples of architectural drawings from the twelfth century, and identified the term’s appearance in texts from that period, where is used in Latin.  It’s a small point, but it is one I enjoyed making. If people have questions on the subject I would be happy to discuss it.

 


[1] Alex Bremner was also honoured for his work: Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870. I’ve since had a look over it, and can highly recommend it.  It really is a wonderful idea for study, and it is treated quite brilliantly by the author.  Also, Irit Katz Feigis was awarded the James Morris Prize for her work on post-colonial architecture.

Putting Augustinians in their Place

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A new academic year has begun, and as usual, no matter how much I convince myself that I will do absolutely everything over the summer vacation, I fail, fail miserably.  Much thesis was done, which is a good thing, as well other aspects of any graduate’s desperate chase to fill out a CV.  However, I have neglected the blog, but I seem to get much of it written during term anyway, when I’m busiest…yes, I don’t understand it either.

Despite living in Oxford, I rarely talk about the buildings around the city, which was never intentional, but it’s easy to forget how special they are when complacency kicks in caused by an easy familiarity.  I went into Christ Church Cathedral today however to take a couple of notes, and took a short walk around.

ChristChurch_Nave

It’s a strange one.  The original building was an Augustinian abbey established around 1120, part of a rush of Augustinian foundations established at the beginning of the twelfth century.[1]  At this point the church was founded in the name of St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford.[2]  For the next four decades or so the canons probably functioned in some sort of temporary buildings, before work was begun on the abbey church, and the monastery proper around 1160-1190.[3]  Fernie goes on to mention that there is probably some influences from Reading Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.  One of the distinguishing elements of Christ Church is the alternating piers, running in the nave west of the transept, switching between round and polygonal.  Fernie links this facet of the building with Reading abbey in particular, but I haven’t been able to find these links (which simply means I haven’t been able to get to Reading).

My trip to Christ Church brought up some thoughts on the links between the Augustinian abbeys and their placement in relation to their nearest city.  Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine a single building, as it would have existed when it was first constructed, but conceiving of its placement in relation to any number of other buildings I find almost impossible.

Senangue in Provence, France (I have some of that lavender on my desk!)

Senangue in Provence, France (I have some of that lavender on my desk!)

The Augustinian order found its catalyst in the rediscovery of Augustine’s letter to his sister outlining the manner in which a community of women could live together.  The letter was discovered in the eleventh century, and seems to have been slightly modified in order to define a community for men.[4]  Lawrence writes: “its impact was rather like that of the discovery of America on the people of a later age.”[5]  Perhaps this is slightly overstating it, but does get across the importance of an innovative form of monasticism which challenged the monopoly of the Benedictine rule.[6]  One of the differences between the Augustinian and Benedictine rule was the former’s emphasis on preaching to people.  In terms of architecture, this required the Augustinians to be situated relatively close to an urban population.  When we think of the medieval monastery, it is always tempting to consider it in isolation, as a place for contemplation and quiet study, a cloistered existence only infrequently violated by the violence of the period (for example Sénanque in Provence).

John Speed's Map of Oxford

John Speed’s Map of Oxford

Coming back to Christ Church cathedral, and its Augustinian root, it is clear that it is relatively well placed to carry out its mission of preaching and educating the people of the city.  However, as far as I have been able to tell it lies just outside the wall of the city, almost abutting them in fact.  This map from 1643 (taken from here), shows an image of the city where south lies to the top of the picture.  If we follow the wall around from the north (i.e. bottom side) of the castle, running along the southern edge of Broad Street, then turning south toward Magdalen College, before veering west, where it continues until it reaches cathedral.[7]  Comparing this location with magister Hugh of St. Victor’s in Paris, we see something (slightly!) similar.  In this map from 1572 (sourced from here), we see the abbey of Saint Victor situated beside the city walls, towards the bottom of this image.  It retains a notion of the isolated countryside, but still forced to set itself beside the bustling heart of France, a place so vividly brought to life in John de Garlande’s thirteenth-century work Dictionarius.[8]

Saint-Victor_de_Paris_en_1572

The two cities are linked by their educational heritage, as forerunners for the development of the university, and the role of an education provided for those who wished to learn.  The abbeys of Oxford and Paris must have been liminal space, somewhat beholden to the city and its inhabitants, but still striving to contemplate the mystical nature of the Godhead.  This liminality may be reflected in the placement of the abbeys themselves, bold architectural forms, borrowing from contemporary buildings, but placed just outside the bounds of cities.  To be outside the city wall was to be subject to the wilderness, a wilderness which granted the Benedictines isolation; but perhaps only gave the Augustinians a brief reminder of the isolation they could not have.


[1] By 1120 the most famous Augustinian abbey, Saint Victor in Paris, was set up.  There’s plenty of literature on this subject, one is: Paul Rorem, Hugh of Saint Victor (Oxford, 2009).

[2] It was only after the reformation that the church became a cathedral.

[3] Eric Fernie, The Architecture of Norman England  (Oxford, 2000).  This is a wonderful book, but so pricey it is really only accessibly through a library.

[4] C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (New York, 1984).

[5] Ibid., p. 138.

[7] I am just using my eye here, and I have no doubt there has been work done on this, but unfortunately it not available to me at the moment.

Location Location Location…and Some Geometry

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You’re standing in a field, it’s damp, miserable; you’re hungry, but at least there’s something interesting happening.  A team of men are hammering stakes into the ground around the church which has stood there for many generations.  Ropes are attached to the stakes, which are knotted at what seem to be particular lengths and these lengths are used to measure certain distances from each other.  The inquisitive medieval mind which you currently inhabit wants to know what’s going on, so you approach the person doing the knotting.[1]

“What are the ropes for?” you ask, tapping him on the shoulder.

“Well, we need to know the dimensions of the church before we start building,” is the response.  This makes sense to you, there’s no point just digging foundations into the ground hoping it will come together at the end.  These things can take years after all.  You’re not finished.

“How do you know the right length of the rope for each bit?” you ask.  A dark cloud passes over the mason, because our reconstructed image of the inquisitive peasant and the mason breaks down.  How did a medieval mason know the particular dimensions of a church which only exists in his mind (or perhaps in plan)?  The use of geometrical processes for construction during the Middle Ages seems to be a certain bet, or at least as certain as these things get.  However, reconstructing those processes is notoriously fraught; Eric Fernie writes that “much of what has been written on the subject is nonsense,” a state of affairs certainly in the 1990s, but new research has responded to Fernie’s claim.[2]

First, what do I mean by “geometrical processes?”  Particular shapes may be constructed using only a pencil, straight-edge, and a compass, and these shapes in turn may be used when creating primary forms in a medieval building.  For example, the images below (past the footnotes, because including them in the text was beyond my capabilities) show one possible construction process where the main forms of the transept and chancel are created using geometry.[3]  Frequently, however, geometry could be used to create lengths of particular ratios to one another.  Fernie points out that the ratio 1:1.41, or one to the square root of two (1√2), is just such an important ratio used during the Middle Ages.  With this number in mind, when  you look at our masons with their stakes and ropes, they are not measuring the length of one side, and then adding approximately 40% on to the next section to gain that proportion.  However, the ratio is in fact easy to create using only a square, because it is the ratio of the side of a square to its diagonal.[4]  There are other ratio at work in the medieval building, but Fernie is correct to highlight this.[5]

Reference in Image

Reference in Image

How does this geometric construction combine with both architectural drawings and even large scale buildings, the initial stages of the latter I’ve describe above?  In terms of architectural drawing, the earliest medieval example, the St. Gall plan does seem to use the ratio 1: in the creation of its cloister and church nave.  The figure shown here illustrates the measurements of the plan as described by Walter Horn using a 40’ template provided by a medieval addition attached to the transepts.  The nave is 85’ wide, which is the same length as the dormitory, and the total length of the transept is 120’; 85x = 120.207 (which is pretty close).[6]  If 85’ is taken as the notional length of a square, then it would be easy to construct the width of the nave using this ratio.  Bork highlights that precision is difficult to achieve in these matters, but that Fernie “may well be correct.”[7]

Roger Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, (Oxford, 2005), p. 119.

Roger Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, (Oxford, 2005), p. 119.

The ratio 1√2, or 1.41 is used in the real world as well.  Roger Stalley highlights this with this drawing of the aisle bays at Norwich cathedral, following Fernie’s same diagram (which I couldn’t get a hold of at the moment…).  Here we are looking down directly over a part of an aisle.  The external wall is at the bottom, and the vertical sets of lines represent the vault above.  As you can see the vaulting creates discrete cells along the length of the aisle.  Each cell is a square, and in order to get the position of the pier, towards the interior of the building, a line is cast from the diagonal up upwards.  Roughly, when this diagonal is swung over the vertical line of the vaulting we get the width of the pier.  If, hypothetically, the side of the vault cell is one meter (I’m sure it’s longer), then the width of the pier will be 41cm, because the ratio is 1:1.41.

I hope that makes sense.  Like many things, the best way to learn is to just do it.  While the rope, masons, and space needed to recreate a cathedral may by in short supply, just spend 20 minutes with a ruler and compass; it’s fun, I swear it.  Importantly, I hope you see that the study of this material is quite a dynamic process.  My, rather facile, recreation of medieval masons measuring a cathedral is unclear, but modern research does enlighten us, and importantly brings the masons and their methods into focus bit by bit, rope by rope, and process by process.


[1] Your rather clever medieval mind as reasoned that the person actually doing the job probably knows more about the subject which interests you, rather than the person “supervising.”

[2] Eric Fernie, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Architectural Proportions and Systems of Length,” Medieval Architecture and its Intellectual Context: Studies in Honour of Peter Kidson, (eds.) Paul Crossley, Eric Fernie, Peter Kidson (London, 1990), pp. 229-237.

[3] Thierry Hatot, Batisseurs au Moyen Age (Paris, 2009), pp. 46-47.  This is a wonderful book I picked up while visiting the Saint-Chapelle in Paris, the text, I think, much be taken with a pinch of salt, but no other book explains the geometry better.  And it’s good fun too! Never pass up the opportunity to go to a gift shop when visiting medieval architecture, as frequently there are books there which can be difficult to source elsewhere.  The shop at Winchester cathedral is a good example.

[4] I thought this was a rather nice tool illustrating the changing ratio of a square and its diagonal: http://www.mathopenref.com/squarediagonals.html (accessed 23/06/13)

[5] 1:2, and 1:3, are other popular ratios.  There is quite a lot of literature on this subject. I’ve only been able to take a quick look at: Robert Bork, The Geometry of Creation (Farnham, 2011), but it looks excellent, as is anything by Bork. Bork has a good piece about architectural drawing pp. 30-31.  A slightly different approach is taken in Malcolm Hislop, How to Build a Cathedral (London, 2012), although again I’ve only been able to take a brief look, but it seems like good fun.

[6] Eric Fernie, “The Proportions of the St. Gall Plan,” The Art Bulletin 60 (1978), pp. 583-589, at p. 588.  This is wonderful article and I recommend it.

[7] Robert Bork, The Geometry of Creation (Farnham, 2011), p. 30.

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