Health in Ancient Rome

Alexis Elinkowski

Blog Post #1: Greek Influence

The time period of the Ancient Greeks was around 1000- 400 B.C. They were the first early culture to put an emphasis on disease prevention. They believed in the balance of the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person. Among early Greeks, religion was an important aspect of health care. However, later, the role of a doctor began to take on a clearer shape. Because of this, a more scientific view of medicine emerged. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the Greek god of Medicine. Hippocrates was an important figure in Greek healthcare. He was the first epidemiologist and the father of modern medicine. He distinguished between endemic and epidemic diseases and discovered the theory of disease causation (Cottrell).

Ancient Romans accepted many health ideas, practices, and procedures from the Greeks (“Medicine in ancient Rome”). According to Prioreschi, “The ancient Greeks were the creators and founders of Western Civilization and the Romans were its builders.” Rome started out as a primitive agricultural society and then came in contact with a more sophisticated and advanced society- The Greek civilization. When it comes to medicine, it is commonly accepted that Roman medicine is basically Greek medicine practiced in Rome. However, this does not mean that there were not differences between the two (Prioreschi).

The Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, so this included the Greeks (Cottrell). That is why they received an abundance of medical information from the Greeks. Also, there was one major conquest that led to a lot of Greek information being available to the Romans. This was the conquering of Alexandria, a city in Egypt. The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. (“Library of Alexandria”). Alexandria was known for its incredible libraries and universities. For example, “In ancient times, Alexandria was an important center for learning, and its Great Library held countless volumes of ancient Greek medical information” (“Medicine in ancient Rome”).

Greek symbols and gods also influenced the Romans. The Caduceus was one of those symbols. The Caduceus is “…a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it” (“Medicine in ancient Rome”). It was first associated with a Hermes, the Greek god of commerce. Hermes carried around a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. During the Roman Empire, the caduceus became associated with Mercury, one of the Roman gods (“Medicine in ancient Rome”). Today, the caduceus is technically misused in North America. It is seen as a symbol of healthcare and medicinal practice. This is because of confusion with the original medical symbol, which is called the Rod of Asclepius. The Rod of Asclepius has only one snake wrapped around it and it does not have wings (“Caduceus”). The Rod of Asclepius, or the Staff of Asclepius, was held by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine (“Rod of Asclepius”).


The Caduceus. Image retrieved from

Just like Greek physicians, Roman physicians usually used naturalistic observations over spiritual rituals to heal the sick. However, spiritual belief was still prevalent in ancient Rome. For example, famines and plagues were often thought to have come from divine punishment, with spiritual rituals being the way to relief (“Medicine in ancient Rome”).

The Romans did not build upon everything the Greeks did concerning healthcare, however. They only kept the things they saw as beneficial for their large empire. According to Strabo, a Greek geographer, “The Greeks are famous for their cities and in this they aimed at beauty. The Romans excelled in those things which the Greeks took little interest in such as the building of roads, aqueducts and sewers” (“Medicine in Ancient Rome- History Learning Site”) The details about Roman roads, aqueducts, and sewers will be examined in greater detail in the next blog post, called “Roman Technology and Advancements”.

Works Cited

“Ancient Rome.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Caduceus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Cottrell, Randall R., James T. Girvan, and James F. McKenzie. Principles & Foundations of Health Promotion and Education. San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2009. Print. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Library of Alexandria.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.”Medicine in Ancient Rome.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Medicine in ancient Rome – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Prioreschi, Plinio. A History of Medicine: Roman Medicine. Vol. 3. Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

“Rod of Asclepius.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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by | December 15, 2016 · 11:31 pm

Cavalry through the Middle Ages

Steven Dabb

December 15, 2016

Cavalry Use in the Early Ages

Horses used over time

Long before the ancestors of humanity walked upright, horses could be found roaming the earth. Evolving nearly 55 million years ago, horses did not have the same appearance as what we commonly see when we go to a ranch nowadays. The horses of today range in size, weight, speed, and purpose, while equines originally were about the size of dogs and lived mostly in forests. For more than 30 million years they maintained the same general appearance before mutant groups increased in size and weight, until they developed into a shape very similar to the appearance we associate with the horses of today (The Evolution of Horses).

We must remember that while the horse collar was invented during the 3rd and 4th century BCE it was not widely used in Europe until nearly the 12th century (Horse Collar). This means that for the majority of the western world, horses were not particularly useful in pulling large amounts of weight because the collars would choke them. As such, horses were most often used for moving people around, or for pulling relatively light chariots. For most early societies, cavalry as it is generally imagined was impractical because of many factors around that time. Although there is debate regarding when saddles were invented, some say as early as 700 BCE while others say around 300 C.E., if they were used at all. They were very primitive, they provided very little support and they were mainly used as a seat. Stirrups were not commonly found nor widely used in the west until about the 8th century C.E. (Stirrup), though they had been developed in Asia much earlier. As such, for many civilizations, the use of mounted soldiers was often a serious tradeoff: in many societies, firing a bow from a horse was not unheard of, but that particular maneuver often required a second horseman to grab the reigns so that the first could fire (Cavalry)

As the use of cavalry increased, and the tactical importance of it became recognized, it wasn’t long before horses began to be bred for war. This typically meant that larger, stronger breeds of horse became desirable because of their weight carrying capacity, as well as their natural aptitudes for dealing with the exhausting nature of warfare.

Weaponry used from horseback over time

The weaponry that has been used over time when making war has ranged depending on what was available at specific times of development and in specific geographical areas. Since the invention of the stirrup came so much later than that of the saddle or the domestication of horses, the weaponry used by mounted soldiers over time has evolved to accommodate the needs of warfare. The earliest mounted fighters were typically nomads and they were primarily armed with bows. Their primary purpose in being armed was to defend herds and livestock. A perfect example of a mounted archer who would have defended livestock is shown in the picture below:


There are some important distinctions between ancient mounted archers and the one pictured here, especially because the stirrups and the bow are easily visible. As previously mentioned, stirrups would have appeared in Asia much earlier than in Europe, but the earliest nomadic mounted archers would not have had these. The bow depicted in the picture above has similarities to the modern recurve bow, which was originally developed in the east, nomadic archers of the past would likely have been armed with some version of its predecessor. Something that could be assumed is that the relative size of the archer to the horse is similar to what would have been seen in the beginnings of the mounted archery forces. Although horses have increased in size through the ages, far eastern breeds of horses are usually smaller than western breeds.

Over time, some cultures like the Greeks moved away from the bow in favor of the javelin of the time. By the time of the Greek empire, horses were a bit larger, and could therefore carry more weight as well as armor for both the horse and the rider. In accordance with the change in size, weapons changed as well. The Greeks preferred the javelin over the bow used in far east cultures. The use of javelin had some pros and cons, for instance, javelin use on horseback did not require a second rider to hold onto the reins, and javelins hit harder than arrows, but because of the nature of javelin-driven combat, ammunition loss was great. To counter the decrease in ammunition available to the riders who used their javelins, the Greeks armed their cavalry riders with a short sword as a secondary weapon, the use of the sword by cavalry riders would continue through the ages up until the “phasing out” of cavalry from mainstream military roles altogether (Cavalry).

While spears and lances were used by the Greek cavalry, it was Alexander the Great that truly popularized them with his application of the xyston. The xyston was in essence a long spear. This spear, however, was equipped with a point on both ends. This allowed the weapon to be used even after it had been broken on first contact, by flipping it over and using the other end (Companion Cavalry). Cavalry played a much larger role in Alexander the Great’s conquests than it did during Greek campaigns, for reasons that will be discussed in the tactical usage of cavalry post. For the Romans, spears transitioned into the Spatha as the primary weapon.

The Spatha replaced the gladius as the main sword used by the Romans. While the gladius was much shorter and more suited for stabbing, the Spatha was closer in appearance to the swords than can be seen in modern times: it was long and straight, allowed for far better reach on horseback than the gladius, and lacked the ammunition constraints of bows and javelins.

As the cavalry evolved into the Middle Ages, it is important to remember that all aspects of warfare were also evolving. Larger horses became more desirable for war, because of the perception that the bigger they were, the more weapons and armor they could carry. Stirrups were becoming increasingly more widespread, which encouraged the increases in the weight that was carried on horseback. Thus, we see that the knight started to become the primary cavalry unit. Those cavalry officers known as knights wore heavy armor and were often armed in the stereotypical way, although not always all at once. The lance had its time in the sun, enhanced by the use of stirrups and the cantle saddle. Unlike the spears of the past, the lance had little to no thrusting use—its length and weight also made it unwieldy in melee (close quarters) combat. That being said, the stirrups and the cantle saddle used in conjunction allowed for a knight to apply all of his force, as well as the full momentum of the horse through the lance and the point, making it a powerful and dangerous weapon on horseback. There is some debate, however, about the efficacy of the lance in warfare. It often broke from its impacts, and when it didn’t, it was difficult to set up for another run at the adversary. During combats, knights were typically equipped with swords or maces for close quarter fights as well. The swords used by the knights were very similar to the Spatha used by the Romans, with only superficial alterations.

Armor on horseback over time

For many people, the knights in shining armor and on horseback seem to be the epitome of cavalry. However, for most of the effective life of cavalry, armor was either nonexistent or quite minimal. This was mostly due to the size of horses, and what their intended use was when they were bred. Large horses were uncommon before the middle ages, and not many cultures would have attempted to breed horses for size. The seeming lack of interest in breeding big horses would have been mostly related to the amount of food that those horses would have required, as well as the amount of waste they would have produced. When smaller horses were bred, an unintended consequence was the fact that they had a diminished capacity to carry large amounts of weight.

The earliest nomadic cavalrymen would likely have worn whatever their daily garb was on their horses. In times of war, lightweight armor constructed out of leather was possible, but there is no definitive answer as to its use.


As this relief carving shows, armor at this time (circa 860 BCE) was basically nonexistent for those on horseback. Around 490 BCE, a larger breed of horse began be used more often (Cavalry). This larger breed could carry men with some armor, but not much, as they were still not the size we think of when we generally imagine horses. The Greeks used this larger breed, as we can see here:


As we can see on this amphora, the Greek cavalryman carried a shield on his back, and appeared to be wearing some form of chest armor or tunic, possibly a jerkin. Although this armor might seem rather lacking to us in protective capabilities, we can see by looking at his compatriot, that it was only slightly less than the typical armor of the time.

Under Alexander the Great, cavalrymen had greater protection. His Companion Cavalry, as they were called, wore Boeotian helmets (what you see in the photograph), as well as a cuirass, which was a chest piece with a muscled physique cast into it. This would have provided more protection than that afforded by the Greek armor, which may have played a role in the nearly unprecedented success that they had in battle (Companion Cavalry).



By Mediatus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Romans continued in the footsteps of the Companion Cavalry. We can see on the graphic above that the subject of the photo was armed in a very similar manner to those in the Companion Cavalry, and any differences are more superficial than actual modifications. It is possible that we would have seen an increase in armor on horses at the end of the Roman Empire, but only as a build up to the middle ages.

Armoring on horseback was drastically different from that found on its predecessors for one main reason, the advent of stirrups. Thanks to the invention, the need for absolute control and communion between rider and steed was not so critical, balance could now be maintained through both the feet and the knees. This meant that suits of full armor could be used on horseback. As an unintended result of the fact that knights often engaged each other in battle, horses quickly became targets in battle as well, and therefore the need to armor them quickly became crucial. This was not the first-time horses had been armored: cataphracts had been seen possibly as early as 550 BCE under Persian control, and were beginning to see increased use near the middle of the Roman Empire, armoring however still remained a rather small proportion of the overall cavalry forces (Cataphract).


The picture shown above is a modern representation of an ancient cataphract. Completely enshrouded with armor, these units were the predecessor to the modern tank, and required large, strong horses. They also lacked stirrups, so maneuverability was also extremely poor. With the advent of stirrups, heavy armor suddenly didn’t mean that all maneuverability was gone, and horses were able to gain armor as well. Shaffron armor, pictured below:



Shaffrons were typically placed around the head and neck. It provided some protection from lance and sword blows, and it also looked menacing.

Tactical usage of cavalry

            For ancient nomadic tribes, cavalry was primarily desired because of its speed and range. A group of archers on horseback at a time when most warfare was fought hand to hand suddenly made the battlefield much smaller. However, their use cost many of them their control. Without the widespread use of saddles, the reins controlled the horses and this presented a problem when archers where on horses in the battlefield. Bows required two hands to fire, so during a firing sequence, the horse had to be left to its own devices, or a second horseman had to grab the archer’s reins to control his/her horse. Not being able to control a horse while firing was a rather inefficient battle tactic and was a serious drawback for ancient cavalry, which is why for a very long time horses were preferred for pulling chariots, rather than for carrying individual soldiers. Chariots fell by the wayside in warfare near 84 A.D, mostly due to their limited functions. For nomadic groups, cavalry use was often multirole. They were well suited for herding animals and scouting, but inefficient for most other jobs. An important tactic of the nomads fighters was the Parthian shot. This tactic was generally used when the horsemen were retreating, at that point they would turn their bodies so that they were facing to the rear, and fire behind them. While it seems simplistic, if a shield were raised above one’s head to defend themselves, they would assume that they were momentarily safe while the enemy was retreating or regrouping. However, this Parthian shot caught many unaware, and could easily cause chaos and casualties if the enemy wasn’t prepared for it (Parthian Shot).

Many historians believe that cavalry was basically worthless to the Greeks because of the common usage of the phalanx. Existing as basically a shield wall and roof with spears sticking out, the phalanx was thought to outdo cavalry because “Few men wanted to risk impaling their expensive horse on a hoplite’s nine-foot spear.” (Weekley). Aside from the fact that the horsemen did not want to risk their horses, most horses were also not willing to run into spears voluntarily. This maneuver, would also assume that a general would just throw cavalry at the front of the phalanx in the hopes of breaking it. While it is possible that this did occur, it is much more likely that at that time the cavalry would have used their greater speed and maneuverability to harass the enemy from the sides or rear, thus causing disorder in the fray as the phalanx scrambled to attempt to adjust. Whichever method was used, however, cavalry had a definite secondary role, one which was easily optional as well. Most Grecian conflicts tended to be either infantry or naval based, and cavalry didn’t seem to have a major role in land conflicts for the Greeks.

During the time of Alexander the Great, the cavalry really came into its own and became a force to be reckoned with. Alexander worked very closely with his Companion Cavalry. In addition to their armor and weaponry, Alexander employed them very differently from previous generals. First, his cavalry moved in wedges. This allowed them to turn much easier while maintaining their formation, simply having to follow the leader. Next, he used them in a secondary role, but one much more involved than the Greeks. When his phalanx disrupted the enemy’s, the Companion Cavalry would plunge into the hole created in the enemy’s line. This maximized the disruption and chaos, while removing the primary danger to his cavalry, the unbroken phalanx. Using this tactic brought Alexander and his cavalry unprecedented success (Companion Cavalry).

Under Roman rule, cavalry declined in success. It had come to be a social class rather than a fighting force, leading to significant losses. As such, the Romans began hiring mercenaries to be their cavalry, especially Germanic tribes. These groups were used primarily for longer distance operations, spanning the width of the empire, they were also used in skirmishes or scouting expeditions, but they lacked the usage we saw during Alexander the Great’s reign. During the Middle Ages, cavalry was used primarily in warfare as shock troops. These divisions would be typically used separately from the main fighting force, either to attack enemy cavalry or defend or secure areas or high profile targets. The sentiment felt during Roman times of cavalrymen being elite evolved into the class of knights that we see, and likely contributed to the rise of feudalism during these times (Cavalry).

The use of horses over time has varied depending on the leadership of the period, what has been made clear has been the fact that horses have been a crucial part of the development of civilizations and warfare through the ages and human have been dependent on horses for one purpose or another.

Works Cited

Wikipedia contributors. “Cavalry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Weekley, David J., and Patrick H. College. “The Role of Greek Cavalry on the Battlefield: A       Study of Greek Cavalry from the Peloponnesian Wars to the Second Battle of Mantinea.”    Vexillum Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Horse collar.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2016. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Parthian shot.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 4 Sep. 2016. Web. 4 Sep. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Ancient Macedonian army.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.            Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cavalry tactics.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The     Free Encyclopedia, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Saddle.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Companion cavalry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia,    The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Stirrup.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

“The Chariot.” The Chariot in Ancient Egypt. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

West, Gene. “Confederate Bridle Cutter Pike, Louis Froelich.” Civil War Arsenal. N.p.,   07 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

“The Evolution of Horses.” American Museum of Natural History. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.             <;.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cataphract.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 2 Nov. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.



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Part 1: Significance of Gothic Architecture

Josiah Oldham

HNRS 2210: Final Project

Gothic Cathedral Architecture


“Ugh, look at those ugly spires, those pointed ceilings. Not classical in the slightest.”

“I have to agree. It’s all because of the Goths. Those barbarians ruined everything good about architecture when they ended the Empire and its culture!”

“Exactly. This, fellows, is why we’re returning to the classical styles. We’re making things the way they used to be- good.”

Such, perhaps, was the dialogue between Giorgio Vasari and his fellow Italian renaissance writers, who falsely attributed medieval architecture to the Goths. Colored by their overwhelming admiration for classical Roman culture, they believed that the drastic change from Romanesque to medieval building came from the 5th century barbarian cultural takeover, and not from simple evolution of style. “Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic (dei Gotthi),” said Vasari in his book Lives of the Artists. Unfortunately, this misconception carried on for almost three hundred years from the renaissance era. “The term retained its derogatory overtones until the 19th century; at which time a positive critical revaluation of Gothic architecture took place” (Martindale). Today, we can look back at Gothic style cathedrals with admiration, for these marvels of art and engineering are certainly the pinnacle of their era.


The Reims Cathedral in France.

Before the Gothic style came into full usage, there was that of the Cistercian order. It may appear as if the simpler Cistercian designs evolved into the more grandiose Gothic style, however, the connection is not so simple. St. Bernard Clairvaux firmly believed in a stark contrast between architecture for the monks and for regular citizens. Rooted in the spirituality of the monastic lifestyle, “He readily conceded that [the secular cathedrals], ‘since they cannot excite the devotion of the carnal populace with spiritual ornaments, must employ material ones,’ in other words, that cathedral art had to make concessions to sensuous experience which the mystic no longer required” (von Simson). Rather than one deriving from the other, the Cistercian and Gothic styles ran parallel, connected to different ways of life.


The Fontenay Abbey, an example of Cistercian architecture.

But the Gothic style is, again, grandiose. Abbeys in the Cistercian style are expansive, but not elaborate. They emphasized function, for their inhabitants focused inward and upward in faith, not outward to everyday life. Gothic cathedrals impressed and inspired the general population with their ornate facades, vibrant colored windows and extravagant statuary. As Bernard claimed, the populous would draw closer to God in this atmosphere, full of tangible reminders and projections of glory. Fitting, considering the overwhelming focus on pointed arches as a theme of the Gothic style.

There was, of course, other significance in Gothic architecture aside from the spiritual, particularly in the construction of cathedrals. In the spirit of progress and innovation, masons would indirectly compete for the tallest, most expansive buildings. This competition, naturally, resulted in powerful engineering inventions- discussed in the next section- with incredible successes as well as spectacular failures. “Competition in height akin to that in twentieth-century American skyscraper construction led to a record spire at Strasbourg of 468 feet, equivalent to the height of a modern forty-six-story building, but also to the collapse of the nave at Beauvais in 1284, which put a damper on the competition” (Gies).

Strasbourg (left) and Beauvais (right) Cathedrals.

Gothic architecture is an incredibly significant aspect of art history. Those who built the cathedrals in the middle ages often knew that the work would not be complete in their lifetime. After all, some cathedrals took tens or hundreds of years to finish! Still, at the same time, these workers must have also known that the work was bigger than them, and would last far beyond them. That sentiment, an important trait of humanity, lasts to this day through these cathedrals, a silent reminder of hope.

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Part 2: Efficient Engineering Innovations

There were many specific breakthroughs in the field of architectural engineering during this period of the Middle Ages. These breakthroughs, though some of them did nothing more than increase building efficiency and safety, are also associated with the beauty inherent in the Gothic style. Many of these innovations, in fact, came about as architects and engineers became more and more daring, making ceilings higher and higher, expanses wider and wider, all to evoke feelings of grandness and awe in visitors.

The first of these, and the one most important to this goal is the rib vault, a form of ceiling construction. Now, to understand why the invention of the rib vault is significant, one must compare it to its Romanesque predecessor, the barrel vault or groin vault. Barrel vaults, much like their namesake, are shaped like a barrel. They are nothing more than a domed ceiling, sometimes supported by periodic arches. This is all well and good, but has a severe limitation. Barrel vaults are limited in height and width by simple physics. If the stones are correctly mortared together and the ceiling is in one piece, all that mass in the dome places the walls under high stress, pushing them outwards. The larger the ceiling, the thicker and stronger the walls need to be, adding tremendous expense to the construction.


In a basic barrel vault (left) the forces from the heavy ceiling push the walls outward. It works, but you need very thick walls, like this Romanesque cathedral in Rome (right).

The advent of the rib vault solved this puzzling ceiling weight problem. The ribs are of stone, arching and crossing back and forth through the ceiling’s expanse. The ceiling itself is composed of much thinner stone plates. No longer do the architects need to lift prohibitively enormous stone bricks so far up. The ribs hold these panels up with little to no trouble, since the weight of the ceiling is now supported along the ribs instead of by the walls. In addition, rib vaults tend to have more pointed inner arches rather than a semicircular dome. This also carries the weight of the ceiling more evenly, in many directions instead of one or two.


The final piece of the puzzle, easily remedied, is the support of the ribs themselves. Piers attached to the walls carry the force from the ribs down through the piers. This architectural choice is twofold: first, it allows for slightly thinner walls, since the piers take the ceiling’s weight, not the whole wall. As discussed later, this is also an important decision where stone transportation is concerned. In addition, since the piers are small relative to the wall’s area, this leaves the wall space open for other ornaments, any kind of art befitting the building.


Rib vault in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris. The columns in the center and against the walls carry the force of the ceiling ribs. Also note the several pointed arches in the ceiling. The columns leave plenty of room for the stained-glass arched windows.

The second primary innovation in Gothic architecture is the flying buttress. Now, buttressing was a common method of support since antiquity and before, but this variation of buttressing solves the specific problems medieval architects faced, correcting the outer-wall equivalents of the inner-wall and ceiling issues.

A buttress supports a wall by arranging material in such a way that a section of wall is leaning partially on it. Buttresses are used for initial support- i.e. knowing that a wall needs them, as well as replacement, if a wall is in danger of collapsing. Flying buttresses are unique in that unlike traditional buttressing, the whole flying buttress is not in contact with the wall. Instead, an arch is attached from the wall to an outside pier. Because the arch is what transfers the outward force of the wall down through the pier, and the arch is suspended in the air between the two points, it appears to be flying. Hence the name ‘flying buttress.’ Just like the rib vault, the flying buttress opened up the walls to allow for increased display of art, and as a result, beautifully ornate facades and pointed, arched windows greet visitors to the many Gothic cathedrals around Europe.

In a basic flying buttress (left), the wall is only supported by a thin, “flying” arch. The force travels down through the arch into a separate column, as in this example from the Chartres Cathedral (right).

Far from being the Dark Ages, the high medieval era was a period of vibrancy and incredible art. As sculptors and artists completed work after work, the masons, a different kind of artist, plied their own trade to build some of the most beautiful buildings ever made, despite little to no knowledge of modern engineering principles. The result of their labor certainly commands our respect today.

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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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Part 4: Spirituality and the Integration of Art

Geometry is at the heart of Gothic architecture. Believing that God is a God of order and logic, the master masons reflected that attribute heavily in their designs. “Only by observing geometrical principles did architecture become a science in Augustine’s sense; by submitting to its laws, the human architect imitated his divine master and in doing so his calling acquired metaphysical significance” (von Simson). The most obvious factor here is the symmetry in construction. While the Romanesque style was symmetrical, the ornate facades and window decorations give the Gothic style many, many more layers of symmetry. In other words, it’s not just the architecture, but also the complex patterns that mirror themselves, providing a beautiful visual experience.

The basic symmetry (left) of a Romanesque window on the Saint Sulpicius Marignac Charente church, contrasted with the multifaceted symmetry of a Gothic window on the Church of St. Mary in Norfolk.

However, geometry and symmetry were not just for show. As with the rib vault and flying buttress, the artistic value of this design has immense practical value as well. “The square- along with the other polygons, such as the famous π/4 triangle, which the medieval architect derived from the square- and the proportion ‘according to true measure’ have determined Gothic design to a remarkable extent… they were practical rather than artistic devices of which the observer usually remains unconscious” (von Simson). Master masons only had access to their special compasses and tools on the tracing floor, not in practice in the building. They had no real measurement tools. To make their buildings as exact as possible, perfect geometry required that they build symmetrically. With each side equal, it is much easier to match a completed side- whatever size- to its opposite without messing anything up.

One of the most iconic images connected with Gothic architecture is its expansive stained glass and rose windows. These windows depict beautiful scenes from the Bible, with Jesus Christ as the centerpiece in the largest of the windows. While stained glass has existed since Roman times, it was only in the Middle Ages that its use as an art form intensified and perfected. We do, in fact, have an accurate extant source describing the process of glass window making: entitled On Diverse Arts, the author, a monk by the name of Theophilus details the processes of glassmakers and glaziers as they worked, in order to complete this ‘manual’ for windows of ‘inestimable beauty,’ as he puts it.


Rose window in the Reims Cathedral. The ‘rose’ description refers to the round, almost petaled shape of the panels, not the color of the glass.


Undecorated outside portion of a rose window on the Lusanne Cathedral in Switzerland. Rose windows are distinct from wheel windows, due to their intricacy. Wheel windows are characterized by spokes, whereas these two examples have highly complex flowery designs.


Western stained glass windows in the Chartres Cathedral. To assemble a stained glass window, glassmakers had to take great care. The making of the colored glass was simple enough for a skilled craftsman, the difficult part came in setting each individual piece of glass in its lead frame (visible below) called a came, and securing it all by waterproof putty and soldering. Given the height of the windows, setting the group of panels in an iron frame and lifting it up into the window-well must have been a very precarious job.


More stained glass in the Chartres Cathedral. This detailed portion shows scenes from the Passion window, detailing some of Jesus Christ’s actions such as washing His disciples’ feet and eating with them at the Last Supper.

All these factors- the geometry, the symmetry, the stained glass, the statuary, the engineering, and more- they all came together to form a cohesive whole, inspiring awe in parishioners of the time and other visitors today. As the light creeps in, covering the walls and floor in a rainbow of color, as footsteps echo in the vast ceiling expanse sweeping higher and higher upward, the mindset of the designers and the workers is clear. Gothic cathedral architecture is one of the most incredible works of art and science ever produced, and a gift of light and life from the Dark Ages.



Works Cited (Cumulative)

Gies, Frances and Joseph. (1994). Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel. Harper- Collins, New York.

Chapuis, Julien. “Gothic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002). Accessed December 1, 2016.

Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Stained Glass in Medieval Europe.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001). Accessed December 1, 2016.

Von Simson, Otto G. “The Gothic Cathedral: Design and Meaning.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 11.3 (1952): 6-16. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. <;.

Scholler, Wolfgang. “Funding the Construction of Gothic Cathedrals: Financial and Legal Realities of the Middle Ages.” Athena Review 4.2. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <>.

Martindale, Andrew Henry Robert. “A History of the Gothic Period of Art and Architecture.” Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <>.

Denning, Amy. “How Much did the Gothic Churches Cost? An Estimate of Ecclesiastical Building Costs in the Paris Basin between 1100-1250”. Diss. The Wilkes Honors College, 2012. Print.

Clark, Laura. “Europe’s Great Gothic Cathedrals Weren’t Built Just of Concrete.” SmartNews. The Smithsonian, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <;.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Gothic Architecture.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 12 December 2016. Web. 29 November 2016.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Flying Buttress.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 17 November 2016. Web. 30 November 2016.

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Galla Placidia: The Pious Empress

Throughout her life, Placidia was devoted to her religion.  Her father Theodosius I was influential in spreading Christianity and attempting to defeat paganism.  In 380 Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica which declared that the “Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and the only one entitled to call itself Catholic (Wikipedia, 2016).  This is one of the many efforts that Theodosius made to convert the Arians to Christianity.  Growing up in her father’s household, Placidia learned the benefits of promoting and supporting religion in an empire.

One of the first demonstrations of Placidia’s devotion occurred when she arrived back in Ravenna after being held hostage by the Goths.  In 417, Placidia commissioned a church to be built in the northwest section of the city dedicated to the Holy Cross (Salisbury, 2015).  Only a small chapel has survived but it gives beautiful examples of mosaics and images of Christ.  An architectural achievement of this church is the large dome that rests on the square structure; Placidia hired workers to innovate on a solution.  The structure is supported by pendentives, triangular pieces that allow the dome to float above the foundation.  This building is known as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, however we know that she never meant it as a mausoleum and she is also not buried there (Salisbury, 2015).

Wikipedia. (2016). Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

Placidia’s most significant involovment in the religious courts was during the unrest over the pope election.  On December 27, 418, Pope Zosimus died.  While his funeral was taking place, partisans at the Lateran basilica elected Eulalius as the new pope.  However, the next day at a different church, priests elected Boniface, who was an advisor to Pope Zosimus’ predecessor (Salisbury, 2015.  Two different factions of Roman clergy had elected their own popes thus creating chaos in the city (Wikipedia, 2016).

A letter was sent to the imperial court asking for help by a prefect in Rome named Symmachus.   History names Placidia as the one who received this message and turned it to Honorius.  Upon hearing that there was two elected popes, Honorius called a meeting with the two parties and some other churchmen on February 8th.  However, this council was ineffective and consequently, Honorius instructed both Eulalius and Boniface to stay out of Rome while he summoned another meeting to be held in June at Spoleto (Salisbury, 2015). It is during the preparation for this council that we see Placidia’s influence.

Placidia wrote two letters to invite African bishops to the council, one was addressed to Aurelius of Carthage and the other to seven additional bishops.  Placidia writes:

“We would have wished for another cause to see you and to benefit from your august presence.  But since unbridled ambition had ushered a battle over the papacy wholly incommensurate with the holy mode of life of such an office, a gathering of bishops, smaller in size than that the number that synodal customs decree, deferred a decision regarding this matter to a larger assembly of the most learned men of whom your sanctity is the foremost.  Nor should the rewards of purity and merit be revealed through anyone other than such men, once the faults that the sacred precept of the divine faith are eschewed.  Although the letters of the emperor, my blood brother, would have sufficed, I have adjoined my own request for the prompt arrival of your sanctity.  I am asking you, holy master and venerable father, that you would grant this double benefit, namely your benediction that we so desire and your much needed opinion, and laying aside all matters deign to exert your effort over confirming the bishop that none would contest.” (Sivan, 2011)

In this letter, we can surmise several things about Placidia.  She does not mention that she is the mother of an heir, or that she is the wife of the master general, but only that she is sister to the reigning emperor which grants her every authority.  Furthermore, the fact that she is writing the bishops after they have already received an invitation from Honorius suggests that Placidia was very much involved in the religious issues of the day (Salisbury, 2015).

Unfortunately, this council never took place in Spoleto.  In March Eulalius entered Rome, in violation of Honorius’ decree, to preside over the Easter ceremonies (Salisbury, 2015; Wikipedia, 2016).  Although both Honorius and Placidia favored Eulalius as pope, since he was elected first, this act of disobedience showed that he was unsuitable for the position.  The summer council was cancelled and Boniface was recognized as the new legitimate pope on April 3, 419 (Salisbury, 2015).  This election crisis demonstrated the power and leadership capability of Placidia in extending her influence over religious leaders as well as her brother.

The final example of Placidia’s devotion to Christianity was during her flight to Constantinople with her children.  After the death of her husband Constantius and an argument with Honorius, Placidia traveled across the Adriatic Sea.  As they sailed before the shipping season begun, they encountered a terrible storm that threatened their safety.  Placidia prayed to John the Evangelist that if he would keep her and her children safe, she would build a church in his honor (Salisbury, 2015).

Years later, when she was safely back in Ravenna, Placidia started construction on the basilica.  Though the structure is all that stands from bombings in 1944, we have records of the beautiful mosaic portraits of Placidia’s family.  Additionally, above these portraits is the inscription, “To the holy and most blessed apostle John the Evangelist, the Empress Galla Placidia with her son the Emperor Placidus Valentinian and her daughter the Empress Justa Grata Honoria fulfill the vow of liberation from the dangers of the sea” (Salisbury, 2015).  The church is now known as the San Giovanni Evangelista (Wikipedia, 2016).  Placidia led her life with the principle of “buildings for blessings”.  Since she was blessed with riches and wealth, Placidia generously supported the Catholic Church by building many churches over her lifetime. 250px-ravenna_1978_037

Wikipedia. (2016). San Giovanni Evangelista

Before she died in 450, Placidia wrote a letter that describes how she thought of her life.  She addressed the letter from “Galla Placidia, most pious and prosperous, perpetual Augusta and mother” (Salisbury, 2015).  By noting her peity to God before her imperial rank demonstrates the importance of religion and church in the empress’ life.  Learning from her father, Placidia led a life of religious devotion that was demonstrated in her church building, constant prayers, and pursuit of a holy life.




Salisbury, J. (2015). Rome’s Christian empress: Galla Placidia rules at the twilight of the empire. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Sivan, H. (2011). Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. (2016). Galla Placidia. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 15, 2016 from

Wikipedia. (2016). Theodosius I. Wikipedia. Retrieved December 15, 2016 from

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