The Medieval Mason
It is hard for us to realise the tremendous effort needed to erect any large building before the invention of the steam engine, and later, the internal combustion engine and. the electric motor. These power the machines that do the hard work – the lifting, the carrying, the digging and so on. But before these power sources came into use, almost all of the work involved in erecting any sort of building was done by human muscle, aided in some cases by horses or oxen. Men dug the foundations with shovels, carrying the spoil away in wheelbarrows. Building material was brought to the site in horse drawn carts, loaded and unloaded by man power. If material had to be lifted, men lifted it with their hands or with a man powered winch. And so on and. so forth.
To erect a major building, such as a cathedral, was a major undertaking. It involved sheer hard. backbreaking work, day after clay, week after week, year after year. Thousands of tons of stone had to be quarried, cut to size, transported to the site, set one on top of another, until at last a magnificent cathedral graced the landscape.
How many thousands of tons of stone? It is difficult to say, but a large tower was added to York Minister in the early 1400s, some years after the completion of the main building, and it is estimated that the tower contains 25,000 tons of stone. In many cases, the work was interrupted, sometimes for years, so that some cathedrals took 150 years or more to build. Salisbury Cathedral is almost unique in that work on it was not interrupted, but went on continuously. Even so, it took 38 years to build, with the spire and some other features being added later.
It was obviously of great importance to ensure an ample supply of the right sort of stone. A soft, easily worked limestone or a soft, fine grained sandstone, both of which would harden on exposure, were the preferred materials. In some cases, a quarry would be opened. just for one building. The cost of transport of the stone was significant, so that transport by boat, being cheaper than transport by horse and cart, was preferred. For this reason, it was often cheaper to import stone from Caen, in France, than to use English stone.
The high cost of transport encouraged the cutting of the stone to size and shape at the quarry, so that very little work on it was needed. at the building site. In fact, marble from the Isle of Purbeck was often even polished at the quarry. Later, carver masons or sculptors established schools at some quarries to produce sculptured figures and interior furnishings. It is recorded that one such carver mason carved an elaborate reredos or altar piece in alabaster and sent it off, ready for erection in the chapel at Windsor castle, in ten carts. In some cases, popular images in convenient sizes were kept in stock for sale as required. There is a record of a 1awsuit in 1491 involving the sale of 58 heads of John the Baptist
The stone was quarried with simple iron tools – picks, axes, wedges, hammers, chisels wedges and so on. ‘After being quarried, the stone was cut and shaped with the same simple iron tools. The iron tools quickly became blunt, so that every mason’s yard, whether at the quarry or the building site, had. a smithie nearby, with a number of men whose job it was to carry the tools to and from the smithie.
The masons themselves were usually divided into two classes. The layers or setters placed the stone in position, using lime mortar, whilst the “banker” mason actually cut the stone to the required size and shape, or carved it as required. Work commenced early in the morning – as early as 5.00 am in the summer. It continued until perhaps 7.00 or 8.0O pm, with a half hour break for breakfast, a break of an hour and a half at midday, and another half hour break during the afternoon. In many cases, building operations ceased during the winter months, that is, from the beginning of November until the end of February. When this happened, the exposed unfinished work was protected from the weather by thatch. But if work did continue through the winter months, a shorter day was worked, and reduced wages paid. The masons and the other workers worked a nominal five and a half day week, work finishing at
noon on Saturday. Thus, in summer time, they probably averaged a 70 hour week. But there were numerous Saints’ Days and holidays when no work was done. Up to forty week day
holidays in a year were not unknown, but it is probable that thirty such holidays was about
average. Generally, the workers were paid on the first such holiday in any one week, with
wages being deducted for the second or third holiday in the week.
Not only was the mason subject to being put off each year during winter, he was also subject to impressment. If the King wanted work done on a castle or some fortification, he would order the appropriate officials to select as many masons as were needed, and send them off to where the work was waiting to be done. Thus, a mason might be forcibly separated from his family for long periods. Because the impressed mason encountered hostility from the local masons on many occasions, desertions were frequent.
Some starry eyed writers have attempted to show the medieval mason as one who went to work each morning with a song in his heart and as one who worked joyfully all day because he was building a magnificent cathedral. This, of course, is utter nonsense, as a moment’s reflection will show. His thoughts, his feelings were the common place thoughts and feelings of most workers, then and present day. A report dated 1344 shows an appalling state of negligence, idleness and poor discipline at York Minister, then being built. The master mason, the master carpenter and the workmen were all involved. Labourers had gone on strike, timber, stone, lime and mortar had been stolen, and incompetence and negligence had caused damage which had to be repaired at great expense. As a result, new regulations came into being, and were rigidly enforced, and the regulations were enforced by fining those who failed to obey them.
The carpenters were important men on any building site. They built the huts for the masons and others to work in and sometimes to live in. They made the wooden handles for the tools, the wooden wheelbarrows and so on. As the building rose, they erected the necessary scaffolding, shifting it as needed. And they built the roof and other wooden parts of the building. The carpenters tended to be local men, for every village had. skilled carpenters. But the masons tended to be non-locals – perhaps less than five percent of those on any one job were local men. This, together with the usual winter shut down, meant that masons were widely travelled. men – much more so than most members of the community. They were more conscious of their status and rights. Many had travelled and worked abroad. They borrowed organisational concepts from the Church and the clergy for whom they often worked. They came in contact with new ideas more frequently than most. Few could read, but the folklore and the myths of their origin and history was probably well known to them. It was natural that they should turn to their colleagues for companionship, and for the masons’ lodge, originally a place to protect them from the weather as they worked, should become a place for discussion, a place for meeting, a
place more in the nature of a club.
The master (whom we today would call the architect) was generally a mason who had progressed from working with stone to the tracing house, there to draw designs, to learn geometry, to learn to produce plans and so on. Generally, the master was literate. He supervised the master carpenter, the master smith, etc. as well as the masons themselves. He estimated quantities of material and. labour needed. He was much more than a builder’s foreman – he was the man in charge of the entire building operation, and was paid accordingly.
Capable masters were much in demand, and were in a position to bargain. Thus, it was not
unknown for them to receive a wage for life, to have a house provided, to have food and clothing provided, and so on. In some cases, they acted as consultants on other building projects, whilst others had contracts specifically forbidding this. It was not unknown for them to
travel abroad to see and study the latest designs in building. It true that few of the plans and designs they drew have survived, but there is good reason for this. If the plan was drawn on parchment, which was quite expensive, the plan was erased when no longer needed, so that the parchment could be re-used. If the plan was drawn on other material, it was simply discarded when no longer required,
There were, of course, no building codes as we know them in existence then, no tables giving wind loadings or strength of materials, no mathematical formulae or any of the other aids
available to today’s builder. If the master wanted to try something new, it was strictly on a trial and error basis. It was not unknown to find, that portion of the work had fallen down overnight. There was only one thing to do clear away the rubble, try to find out what had gone wrong, and try again. History does not tell, us how often this occurred, but there are records showing that this happened four or five times in some cases, before the master got it right, and. the wall or arch or whatever stayed erect.
To illustrate the skill of these masters, perhaps one of the best examples is Wells Cathedral. This was commenced in about 1190, and consecrated in 1239. It was added to over the years, and in 1320, the crossing tower was raised. to its present height. The piers supporting the tower soon showed signs of buckling under the extra weight, and the building was in imminent danger of collapse. A brilliant master named William Joy was called in, and strengthened the piers with great stone strainer arches, shaped rather like giant scissors. These, of course, are still in place today, and such was the skill of William Joy that almost every one thinks that they are part of the original design, rather than a repair job done over 600 years ago.
Much of the work done by the medieval masons no longer exists. Some structures fell into disuse, and were dismantled so that the stone could be used elsewhere. Some fell victims to the destroying hand. of time. Some were destroyed by fire or other causes. But we can still gaze at the magnificent west front of Wells Cathedral, the soaring splendour of Salisbury Cathedral, the massive Romanesque beauty of Durham Cathedral, and at many others. And as we gaze, we probably feel a little humble as we realise that we would be hard pressed to do today what these men did five, six, seven hundred years ago, working with a few simple hand tools and little else. They were, in their own way, magnificent men, these men who are our forefathers, the operative masons of medieval England.