Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral

Genre: History
Author:Robert A. Scott
In the middle of the 12th Century a style of construction for abbeys and cathedrals in northern France and England sprang up that created perhaps the most defining architectural movement in medieval Europe.

Although much of European Civilization was united through one institutional church, and centralized monarchies were becoming more powerful, there were friction. The power of the Pope and his bishops and priests vied and jockeyed for influence over land and loyalties against secular figures like the office of the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings and barons of northern Europe.

The cathedral culture, creating sublime yet imposing structures helped hold together the sometimes fragile framework of sacred and secular powerbrokering. The completed structures were masterpieces of careful mathematical arrangement of size and shape. They attested to order, hierarchy and strict adherence to sacred text (at least as determined by the priests.)

But he does not overlook the amazing buldings as art in itself, including the statues and imagery within the abbeys and churches, the incredible craftsmanship and displays of stone saints and sometimes even pre-Christian pagan scientists included in the facades of these monuments to worship and authority.

Today the Gothic style symbolizes Medievalism in a way that is instantaneous to the most casual onlooker versed in Western history . The book covers how the "gothic enterprise" arouse out of the need for both bishops and kings to assert their power and prestige in these often immense structures.

Some of these cathedrals--like the original Gothic edifice, the Abbey of St. Denis in France---took only a few years to complete. Others, like those at Salisbury and Canterbury, took two or three centuries with many lengthy periods of inactivity owing to economic distress, bouts of plague and periods of warfare.

The author has a background in behavioral sciences so this is not a typical art book. Much of his focus is on Salisbury Cathedral, the church which inspired this book. Not much written material is available on how this and other incredible structures were built, but Scott draws on lists of skilled and unskilled workers (the latter mainly farmers working to supplement their meager incomes) to create an idea of what type of ordinary workers and masons it took to hew the lumber, erect the scaffolding, transport the quarry-ed stone, support the walls with buttresses and design the long naves of the central structures without collapses, etc.

The Cathedrals gave greater the church as well as royalty, but it also didn't hurt to to bring in money through crowds of pilgrims, brought there by festivals or displays of relics. This was a taste of early Euro-commercialism that helped out in the continuing cathedral building and locating economies closer to centralized areas in the French and English kingdoms.
(An overview of the French Gothic style in elaborate church facades and porches. The figures themselves even were sculpted in fine workmanship in the back, where no mortal viewer could see them--a testament to the faith the masons and other designers had for the all-discerning eye of God.)

The rapidly expanding commercial centers--where the great structures were the center of---developed along with the rise of skilled urban workers and guildsman in expanding towns places like Salisbury and Amiens and Worcester. To have a cathedral was to honor liturgical tradition and give adherantsa sense of the Sacred and the Divine. The building were as the book put it, "the way the Medieval culture imagined the heavenly kingdom itself, in opposition to older religions that sought divinity in nature.

Cathedral culture incorporated a time for worship in many forms throughout the year: Feast days, Saints Day's, sundry holy days and sacred anniversaries dedicated to martyrs. There were also special masses and much emphasis on grand structures for the choirs as well as spectacles like the Palm Sunday Processionals where a simple cross and the representation of Jesus (the Corpus Christi) would be marched about the grounds and the cloisters as a annual reinactment of The Passion.

The term Gothic in the architecture of abbeys and cathedrals was not used until the 15th Century, three centuries in to the movement. The transformation from the more sturdy-looking, strict arch-designed and bulky from of church architecture, Romanesque, the new form of church-building was known as "new work" or "novum opus".

The major innovation to a Gothic cathedral is the greater sense of inner space that is created by the ribbed vaulting that replaced the older archway design of the nave and other significant areas that provided off-shoot chapels within the main church. The style is more geometric and the emphasis more on emitting as much natural light as possible to bring in fusion of space and light. The exterior, with its flying buttresses and soaring towers is important, but the main aestethic feature is to create a space to bring the believer a sense of being amongst or near Divinity, or, giving Divinity a place to occupy in the realm of material earth.


(above Salisbury Cathedral, where the tallest spire in the UK stands--photo by Jesse K, P)
All in all an excellent book, distilling a great deal of research to give the general reader an appreciation of how a pre-industrial people came together and gave us monuments to both divinity and humanity


  1. Sounds really interesting. I love old architecture and old churches. They just seem so stately, if that's the correct term.
    They're also very beautiful.

  2. They are incredible Jacquie. I toured a couple of them on a visit to England a while back--wish I had taken this book with me now! (Of course it wasn't published until 2003.)

  3. Medieval times are always of great interest to me, most of my poetry is taken from this fascinating past. The photos here are beautiful, Salisbury Cathedral has always been my favorite; ponderous yet such a sense of etherealness about it. I also enjoyed the video~~the bit of humorous 'attitude' of the narrator?

    I love the language best, and I've done my more than fair share of playing with it, to the extent that people often don't understand me at all. ):~/}

    Just wondered~how many color plates are in the book?

  4. I'm guessing you would find this book most interesting, Sigurd, especially as your poetry has likely put you in touch with the inspiration such churches can bring forth.

    I had a similar sense of ethereal when I walked through Westminster Abbey and, in retrospect, an all too brief visit to Winchester Cathedral . There began a major restoration and cleaning of these great structures the year after I saw them (1985) and one hopes they will last forever.

    Glad you liked the video by the way. I picked it because it had a bit of humor there rather than the dry overview of a "tour" you get on some video presentations.

    There aren't any color plates in the book, sadly. About 30 b/w photos and original illustrations are helpful are contained here. The book is only a few years old and is available on Amazon.

  5. As is so often the case, I am guilty of taking these great buildings for granted given how many we have in relative close proximity. They are indeed magnificent examples of the 'art' and are a wonderful tribute to their builders.

    The socio/politico stories behind them are also fascinating, so often more to do with earthly power broking than heavenly awe.

    Coincidentally Jen and I visited Salisbury last year during our honeymoon, more pictures and information about it here - http://jazzmanic.multiply.com/journal/item/409/A_story_that_seems_to_have_eluded_The_Times

  6. That's easy to do, Jim, overlooking what is in our own backyards so to speak. It sometimes takes a friend visiting to bring me to the full realization of the wonders we have around this part of America, either natural or manmade.

    Some of that power-brokering you mention is covered in this book, and I'm sure quite a few others I haven't got to yet.

    Thanks for including that honeymoon link. Great photos. I gather next month you and Jennifer will be having your first anniversary!

  7. Quite so. No plans at the moment, she who must be obeyed is in charge of planning the festivities!

  8. You too have a style of marriage I am familiar with, Jim. ;-)

  9. As you know Doug I have an interest in cathedral (and more modest church) history and symbolism and have visited some of the locations mentioned in your post and the video.

    It is of course true that the 'gothic' style originated in France and was the Norman calling card, but what the narrator in the film calls 'local variations' were in fact major innovations in style that divided the English Middle Ages into distinct eras.
    These innovations differentiate cathedrals in England from those found in other parts of Europe. Many English cathedrals include all the styles as they evolved over centuries from the Early English Gothic that lasted from the late 12th century until midway through the 13th century.

    The three styles of Gothic cathedral found in England are

    * Early English (c. 1180−1275)
    * Decorated (c. 1275−1380)
    * Perpendicular (c. 1380−1520)

    There are however subdivisions of these styles the Decorated Period for example is a name given specifically to a division of English Gothic architecture however, this period is broken into two periods: the "Geometric" style (1250–90) and the "Curvilinear" style (1290–1350).

    The Perpendicular style began to emerge c. 1350. Harvey (1978) puts the earliest example of a fully formed Perpendicular style at the chapter house of Old St Paul's Cathedral, built by William Ramsey in 1332. This late Gothic English style is characterised by its vertical lines and is sometimes also called the Rectilinear style.

    So reading cathedrals is not only deciphering the theological textbook, but also the evolution of fashions in cathedral building that sets the English cathedrals apart from their European relatives.

    A great deal of "Christian" symbolism refers to earlier pagan and local 'folk' beliefs which in England can include unicorns, dragons (Laily worms), trolls and a whole host of fabulous beasts from the imaginations of the stonemasons and often their witty touches.

    Of course other secular buildings like castles and universities for example also are Gothic edifices.

    I do agree with the narrator when he makes the point that a Christian faith is not necessary to appreciate these incredible buildings which represent to me at least, multi faceted time capsules that embody the socio-political realities of the Medieval period as well as the architectural and theological underpinnings of nation building at that time.

    The book sounds very interesting thanks for reviewing it here Doug....I will look out for it.

  10. Thanks for adding so much background to this blog, AA. My "review" of course can't do this book real justice. As it was written by someone with a background in behavioral science, I thought you might have come across a lot of Scott's information in it already or certainly have a keen interest in same.

    Good point that the Gothic style was not confined to cathedrals but to all centers of power, both clerical and academic. This incredible and long era of building did indeed come in those delineated styles (as well as a intermediate from the Romanesque) that only a lengthy review here would be possible to cite clearly.

    It's interesting to see this tip-of-the-cap to the pagan background of English folk art and symbolism , of course, and local local folk art in the incredibly detailed work of the masons.

    The sheer audacity of all these structures, great and small, and decades-long span of time in activity especially for cathedral building had many purposes of course, but they stand as a measure of great human endeavour in an period where available engineering tools were quite primitive by our modern standards

    Thanks again.