Tag Archives: Guedelon

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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The Medieval Hall

 

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Save for the lowliest, all fourteenth century houses and castles had a hall. This was the largest space in the house and, in larger houses and castles, was built to impress. They were high and long. The walls would often be painted with secular or religious images. In richer buildings they would be covered in tapestries, which served to decorate the room, to keep it warm and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth. Although built much later, Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court is a wonderful example of this. Amazingly, Henry’s hall was for his household, not for him.

The hall was the heart of the house and served many purposes. Meals were eaten there. In great houses the lord, his family and the most important members of his household would sit at table on a raised platform with everyone else arranged on lower tables in order of precedence.

Meals were taken at what were essentially trestle tables and the household sat on benches. These were easily put away after meals and the servants slept on the floor of the hall. Most fourteenth century furniture was capable of being taken apart and moved.

In many houses the floors were made of beaten earth covered in rushes. Much thought has been given by historians and archaeologists to how the rushes were arranged, since they were probably not just strewn about on the floor. There is an interesting discussion about it in the Secrets of the Castle DVD which I reviewed here. I’m not sure how the solution posited by Ruth Goodman would work in a large hall, though. She tied the rushes together in bundles, which seemed to work well in a tiny, single-roomed dwelling. It’s difficult to see how effective it would have been when people were walking over them every day. Another theory is that the rushes were woven into mats and placed on the floor. In the homes of the wealthy, the floors would be made of stone or tiles, depending on which materials were available locally. The Secrets of the Castle DVD also has an informative section about making tiles.

The hall was also the place where the evening’s entertainment took place. Once it was dark, very little work could take place outside, so everyone was more or less confined to the house. Tales would be told, usually well-remembered stories or tales of people’s own experiences from wars, travels and pilgrimages. In wealthier houses the stories would be read aloud from books. Other forms of entertainment were singing, music, dancing, table-top games and gambling, depending on the season of the year.

In houses where there was no solar, the family would use the hall for their daytime occupations. For women this would mean sewing, spinning or weaving. The men were more likely to be outside during the day, training to fight, hunting or attending to their business.

The photograph at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s a fairly modest house and includes a shop, but at its centre it has a hall. The hall takes up both stories of the house and a gallery runs between the front and back bedrooms on the first floor. Halls were high because, in the days before fireplaces became common, there would be an open fire in the middle of the room, and the height allowed the smoke to rise away from the occupants.

The owner’s wealth would be on display in the hall. This could take the form of expensive furniture or furnishings, but was usually made up of plate.

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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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