Gothic Builders

Richard H. Ryder, 2017

In this installment of the ongoing Architecture and Freemasonry series I will provide a broader understanding of why Gothic structures were built, who called for their construction, who led the work, and how workers were organized.

Gothic Cathedrals

A spike in cathedral construction coincided with the millennium, a period of great fear. It was commonly believed the millennium marked the end of man’s existence. When the world did not end, according to H.L. Haywood and James E. Craig, in their book A History of Freemasonry, “popular thanksgiving was manifest in an almost universal desire to perform notable works of piety.  Bishops and abbots expended the offerings of the faithful in erecting cathedrals, churches, and monasteries. Feudal lords and ladies found admirable means of atonement for sundry misdeeds by setting aside sums for building or adorning temples.  A knight hard pressed in battle might vow a gift of gold to the shrine of a favored saint. Occasionally, some secular dignitary might desire a castle or palace befitting his dignity.”

The Master Builder

Though there were no architects by today’s standards, master builders were responsible for designing and supervising construction.  This was not just a management job; master builders helped with the physical labor.

The master builder was carefully selected by bishops, abbots, princes, and barons.  Those master builders who were more experienced and could commit to finishing the work as inexpensively as possible were selected to construct the building.  Once selected, according to Haywood and Craig, an “agreement was made with the ecclesiastical powers for a definite wage undertook to carry out the stipulated construction. Only in exceptional cases was there anything approaching a contract.” The master builder, like the workers beneath him, received a regular salary.

The master builder’s first step was to create detailed drawings. Plain and not overly detailed, the drawings were for practical use, not for general display.  Sometimes models were created to aid the builders.  To properly supervise all aspects of the work, master builders lived near the construction site and were close to those they supervised, even working alongside them.  As time went on, master builders did less hands-on work and spent more time directing the construction. They also developed more architectural skills.

Watching over the master builder and the workers, in the case of a cathedral construction, was the abbot or bishop. They not only provided material, but also advised with architectural and artistic decisions.  The master builder’s role was to execute the desires of the abbot or bishop and assist with technical aspects of the construction.  At the end of the day, the ecclesiastical authorities were in charge.

The Workers (A.K.A. freemasons)

Little is known of the men who built the majestic Gothic structures during the middle ages.  Despite conflicting theories there is still enough evidence to provide some indication about the lives of the men who built them.

Workers were called masons. Sometimes they were called freemasons, although not in the sense of today’s Freemason.  Haywood and Craig tell us that some were “capable of working without plans, free handedly like painters, and were called ‘freemasons’ in consequence. A more popular theory holds that masons were exempted by papal bulls from certain of the usual feudal restraints.”  Lucy Baxter, who wrote under the pseudonym of Leader Scott, said that “They were freemasons because they were builders of a privileged class, absolved from taxes and servitude, and free to travel about in times of feudal bondage.”  Another theory argues that freemasons were thus called because they worked in freestone, hewn from the quarry.  Others believe freemasons got their name because they were not restricted by their apprenticeship or their guild; that they were emancipated and able to travel in search of work wherever it may be.  Regardless of the theory, it is safe to say that freemasons of the day experienced a certain level of freedom to work, and applied their trade in the preparation and construction of freestone.

It is not clear if workers were divided into different grades according to experience. It is also not clear how many of the average workers traveled from site to site, although it would seem reasonable that workers migrated to those places where work and good pay was available. This was especially true during times when work on a church was not in progress.  When this occurred, it was common for wives and families to follow.

Thomas Hope, in his 1835 Historical Essay on Architecture, provides a hint of life as a gothic builder:

“ Wherever they came in the suite of missionaries or were called by the natives, or arrived of their own accord to seek employment, they appeared headed by a chief surveyor, who governed the whole troop and named one man out of ten under the name warden to overlook the nine others, wet themselves to building temporary huts for their habitation, around the spot where the work was to be carried on…and when all was finished, again raised their encampment and went elsewhere to undertake other jobs.” 

The Birth of Guilds

Free and self-governing cities grew out of the Dark Ages, which were politically different than the feudal system of the day. Within these pockets of self-government, craftsmen gathered into societies.  As these societies grew they acquired more say in the affairs of the town, became known as guilds, and grew into local trade monopolies.  As the need for grand and ornate structures grew, the guilds supplied proficient workers for the task and most of the skilled and semi-skilled workers came from these guilds. 

Men of like trades banded together, where membership qualifications developed, officers were selected, and members followed a code of ethics. Sometimes, charters or writs of incorporation were requested from local authorities. Members of the guild usually resided in the same quarter of the town or on the same street.  In some cases membership was restricted to sons of existing members.  The new member might have to serve long periods of apprenticeship, sometimes for six years, and a master could only have one apprentice at a time.

Thomas Hope provides a profile of early lodges:

“Even in England, as late as the reign of Henry VI, in an indenture of covenants made between the churchwardens of a parish in Suffolk and a company of freemasons, the latter stipulate that every man should be provided with a pair of white leather gloves and a white apron, and that a lodge, properly tiled, should be erected at the expense of the parish in which to hold their meetings.” Haywood and Craig observe that “If the guilds of the Gothic builders did not give origin to Freemasonry, it is at least certain that Freemasonry first appears in recognizable form among the guilds”.

To this day there is no real proof of a large, organized fraternity beyond the local guild.  If there was, one would expect to see written reference to it, but none exists even in literature or public records.  Haywood and Craig tell us that “Gothic art was not confined to cathedrals and churches” and “It is natural to doubt that a society of such magnitude could have existed for more than 300 years without leaving a definitive record of itself.  No such records have been found”.

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