Part 3: Methods, Monies and Manpower

NOTE: Removed blog post 5, and doubled the length of this one.

What is an ambition so grand as a Gothic cathedral without the workers to complete it? An effort as large as this took hundreds to thousands of people, working between the stone quarries and the work sites. In the quarries, skilled stonecutters plied their mallets and chisels to cut down limestone blocks as much as possible. Even in the middle ages, efficiency was key. The less they had to transport from the quarry to the build site, the easier it would be for them in the long run. For this reason, cathedrals were often built a short distance from a quarry. Given the number of limestone pits that existed in Europe at the time, this was not a difficult task. There were so many cathedrals constructed during this period, in fact, that “More stone was quarried in France [from 1050-1350] than in ancient Egypt during its whole history” (Gimpel).

In addition to shaping the stone, stonecutters would often make a mark on it indicating that they were the ones to cut the stone. Being paid by the piece, this was a convenient way to both show off one’s workmanship and tally your payment. When the stonecutters finished cutting their stone in the quarry, they would usually move on to another job. Being skilled labor, these masons could find work elsewhere, since there were usually several construction projects going on at one time.


Mason’s mark on a stone in the Durham Cathedral.

Of course, the stone needed to get to the build site somehow. Some construction crews had horses or other animals to lug the cut stone up the roads, but the church would also hire average citizens to pick up the slack in transportation. Because the church funds were always tied up in the skilled labor and build costs, they would offer indulgences- forgiveness of sins- for those laborers who participated willingly in this work of the Lord.

The other group, those at the building site, was much more occupationally diverse. Unskilled laborers dug out foundations and removed other detritus around the site, while the skilled plaster-men, masons, glaziers and others laid the actual stones. These men used many tools in their work, including plumb lines and levels to ensure complete accuracy. In addition, based on recent research, they would also have been reinforcing walls and pillars with iron, perhaps laying stones in place in or around iron supports.


Gothic illuminated rendition of the construction of the Tower of Babel. Workers include the stonecutter, the mortar carrier and the masons laying stones.

As for lifting the heavy stones into place, any manner of windlass would do this job. Smaller stones could take a simple pulley, while larger ones worked with a setup at the top of the vault, where one person would walk inside a wooden treadmill. In this instance, they themselves were the pulleys. Everyone in the build site had a vested interest in working quickly, whatever their job, for while the stone quarry functioned year-round, the build site shut down in the winter as the all-important mortar froze and would not adhere to the stones.


Another example of Gothic construction. There is a windlass in the upper left lifting stones up to the masons. In the lower right, a stonecutter utilizes a c-square for exact corners on his stones.

Finally, once the frame of the building was nearing completion, only then would the sculptors and glassmakers do their parts. Broken statues and shattered glass do nobody any good. Their processes are covered in the section on integration of art.

While every worker had their role, hundreds of disparate workers do not a cathedral make. They needed a leader, whether they liked it or not. The master masons were those leaders. Very highly respected in the community, they were revered to the point that in some Gothic art, God was depicted as a master mason, complete with cap, gown and measuring tools. However, despite their status and mastery, early medieval master masons were also described as typical overbearing, micro managing bosses. Jacques de Vitry and Nicolas de Biard, French writers and critics are quoted as complaining that master masons did nothing but order their workers around, receiving a ludicrously high salary in exchange for no real labor.

These criticisms are not unfounded. The master masons certainly knew what they were talking about. They were the designers, rather than the builders. Your average master mason, of which there were only a couple hundred, had an average education. They knew how to read and write, but more importantly, they had an innate grasp of math and geometry and the know-how and experience to apply it. They dealt practically, most often by rule of thumb, since they had none of our modern engineering training to utilize. They designed the cathedrals on the tracing floor with nothing but their c-squares, their compasses and their minds to guide them.

Now, given all these unskilled workers, plus masons, stonecutters, glassworkers, sculptors, and master masons, and the colossal amounts of stone, glass, iron and other materials, where does all this money come from? The short answer is the church. The longer answer, of course, is much more complicated. The laws in the Catholic Church varied during the middle ages, and at first required that “all clerical beneficiaries had to give support commensurate with their means” (Scholler), when a church needed renovation or rebuilding. However, this changed with the advent of a specific fund designated for building, the ‘bona fabricae’, and only had to provide from their own salary when absolutely necessary.

Where did they get the money for the bona fabricae? Besides the obvious tithes and offerings, the Catholic Church had many methods to make money. In many cases, people would pay well to see ancient relics. Sometimes the church could elicit extra donations to build a fitting home for a relic belonging in the area, or sometimes they would even send their relics ‘on tour’, so to speak, and bring income from other regions paying to see the marvelous item. In addition, the churches brought in money from several other widespread sources, from food produced by monks to rent money off of a piece of land.

As incredible as the cathedrals are, some believe that the overwhelming political power of the Catholic Church had an economically detrimental effect on the middle ages. In her thesis on the costs of Gothic cathedrals, Amy Denning discovers that “over this 150-year period [in the high Middle Ages], on average, 21.5 percent of the regional economy was devoted to the construction of these Gothic churches, 1.5 percent of which is directly related to the implicit cost of labor… during the period known as the High Middle Ages, between 1100-1250, the Catholic Church built over 1400 Gothic churches in the Paris Basin alone.” This is certainly a colossal investment, and Denning argues that sinking such incredible amounts of money into these projects had an economic impact that prolonged the Middle Ages by several hundred years.

Whether this is true or not, it is unarguable that the Catholic Church had highly effective methods at its disposal to pay for everything they needed, be it materials or skilled labor, and these monies were not carelessly spent- the countless Gothic cathedrals still standing after over 500 years are a testament to that.

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