Category Archives: DVD Review

The Medieval Mason

 

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Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.

 

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Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton

 

Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.

 

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Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.

 

 

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Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball – DVD Review

Having a ball

Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met at the Netherton ball. The preparations and the ball itself are recreated at Chawton House for this DVD.

Chawton house, now home to The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830, was one of the houses of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. When he inherited it he was able to provide a home for his mother and sisters in the nearby village of Chawton.

The DVD is a wealth of information about how people of different ages, classes and gender dressed for a ball and what their expectations were. Some of the many things I learned from the DVD are that the dances were long, usually about twenty minutes; the length of the candles in the chandeliers told the guests how long the ball was going to be; ballrooms were very hot places; and being able to dance well was one of the necessities for finding a marriage partner if you were a member of certain social classes.

The DVD is ably presented by Amanda Vickery, professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary College London and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and The Gentleman’s Daughter, and Alastair Sooke, art critic and broadcaster. They are assisted by specialists: John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and author of What Matters in Jane Austen, expert in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century novel; Ivan Day, an expert in historic food; and Stuart Marsden, an expert in historical dance.

The DVD is hugely informative. If you want to know what it took to put on a Regency ball, this is the place to go. It’s also entertaining and the clothes, when we eventually get to the ball, are lovely to look at.

The first half of the DVD shows the preparations for the ball: the dancing lessons; the fittings for clothes; the planning of the menu. Then we’re into the ball itself, watching the invited guests turn up on foot and in carriages on a snowy evening. They dance in a small room and people are pressed together far more than you would imagine. There’s plenty of opportunity to flirt in a twenty minute dance. There’s also a lot more touching than I was expecting.

Interestingly there’s a look at one of the Austen family’s music books, kept in the archives at the University of Southampton. The music was copied out by hand, to be played on a piano. Some of it was copied by Austen herself, in very neat handwriting. A piece from this book is arranged for musicians to play at the ball.

Watching this DVD you begin to understand why it would be noticed if a man danced with the same woman twice, something Mrs Bennet makes a great deal of when Mr Bingley dances with Jane. At twenty minutes each, there weren’t many dances in an evening and two would show a marked preference for a woman.

Supper also took up a lot of time. Here the guests sit down to sixty-three dishes, providing plenty of opportunities for more flirting, as the men helped their neighbours to food.

In my imagination, and probably in that of other readers of Jane Austen and historical romances, ballrooms were huge and those sitting out were a long way from the dancers, but here we can see how close they were to one another, with those watching paying close attention to who was dancing with whom and how well.

This is a very interesting DVD. The experts are articulate and have plenty to say and suggest. The dancers and other guests put the theory into practice. Watching the DVD has transformed the way I read and think about balls.

 

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The Secrets of the Castle DVD: A review

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The Secrets of the Castle is the latest in the TV series about everyday (mainly farming) life in previous centuries presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold (replacing Alex Langlands who has been studying for a doctorate). I’ve been watching them since the first series, Tales from the Green Valley in 2006, which was about running a farm the Jacobean way and which remains my favourite of the farming ones. The other series are A Tudor Feast at Christmas (2006), Victorian Farm (2009), Edwardian Farm (2010), Wartime Farm (2012) and Tudor Monastery Farm (2013).

This time they are not farming, but building a castle and they’re not doing it on their own. Guédelon is the world’s biggest archaeological experiment. It is a twenty-five year project to build a castle in Burgundy using thirteenth century methods. It is staffed by craftsmen and craftswomen and students. They work in seasons, March to September, as their thirteenth century counterparts would have done. As Peter says, the castle is the by-product; it’s the ‘chantier’, the building site, that is the reason for the project as those working there rediscover medieval methods.

It’s a lengthy project, taking longer to build the modern castle than it would have taken in the thirteenth century. This is partly because there are very few written records about how castles were built, so many of the early days were spent working out how things were done.

The team joined the project in its seventeenth season, so much of the castle has already been built. It would not have made such good television if they had gone much earlier, for they were able to take part in some very interesting work, such as making the parts for and putting together a tracery window, painting one of the private rooms and cooking in the kitchen. They were also there when the water mill was first put into use.

The craftsmen and women that we see are carpenters, masons, woodcutters, wood turners, rope makers, builders, potters, blacksmiths, bowyers, tilers, quarrymen, miller and dyers. The overall effect is to show the amount of physical labour required for even the simplest of tasks. There are many surprises: only two quarrymen are required to support the site and everything is designed on the wooden floor of the tracing room and there’s not a sheet of paper in sight.

On the domestic front Ruth shows how to turn a hovel into a home. Lesson one is to cover the earth floor with rushes so that you don’t sleep on a damp floor and lesson two is to hang your food in a net from the ceiling so that the mice don’t get it. Then the potter has to make her some pots, both to cook with and to eat and drink from. Then the carpenter has to make her a grain ark for storing grain and for making bread. We later see it being put to this use by Tom, rather unsuccessfully. We also learn that pig fat keeps your hands smooth when you’re working with lime, but makes every dog on the site your friend.

There is an expedition to see a trebuchet being fired – truly terrifying- and another to glimpse the interior of St Mary Magdalene, Vézelay, the inspiration for a black and white arch in the castle. This visit also includes a very brief examination of the medieval idea of pilgrimage, which is a bit of an obsession of mine at the moment.

The animals around the site also get a look in. There are pigs, horses, chickens, ducks and some very sleek and handsome cockerels.

There were two great revelations in this DVD for me. The first is rather obvious, so it should not have been a revelation. Most castles we see today are ruins and open to the elements and have bare interior walls. When they were first built, the walls would have been plastered and painted. This would have had the effect of making the rooms lighter. The second, more surprising revelation, was that the outsides of the castles were lime washed so that they would be white and therefore more visible, thus impressing, or striking terror, into anyone who saw it. Everything about a castle was designed to impress, either because its function was to cow those around it into submission or to defend part of the realm, or because it was demonstrating the wealth and ambition of the lord who built it.

I have enjoyed this DVD very much. It’s informative and quite cosy, although clearly some of the participants are a bit overwhelmed by Ruth’s enthusiasm. I watched the series when it was on television at the end of last year and enjoyed it just as much watching it again in the last month. I shall doubtless watch it again my times in the future.

The DVD was released in January and is made up of five one hour episodes, with a short discussion between the producer and the site administrator at Guédelon as the special feature. It’s narrated by Paul McGann, which is a huge bonus if you like his voice, as I do.

The site at Guédelon is open to visitors between March and September. The website is here. There are tours in English in July and August.

You can follow the project on Twitter @GuedelonCastle

This is a link to an amusing animation showing how the project came into being here.

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