Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism (2015)



The Making of a Cathedral

People from all over the world marvel at the beauty of Gothic cathedrals, intrigued by their intricate carvings, stained glass windows, wood and stone sculptures, and well-designed gardens and grounds. This was true in the High Middle Ages as well. We recall how Abbot Suger initially described his own reaction to the new Gothic design at Saint-Denis. He was so overcome by the effect of the shimmering influx of light, he felt as though he were being transported upward into the celestial heavens, the “Heavenly Jerusalem.” (1) People were amazed at how the new Gothic style began and then mushroomed so quickly, and many were awed by the stunning spires and pointed arches. It was a joyous thrill for the community to attend the festive “grand opening” celebrations. The high nave is, even today, described by visitors as “transporting,” altering the consciousness of those in the building, as is its crypt or undercroft, each in its own unique way.

Yet, today we often forget what it actually took to design, implement, and create such extraordinary buildings. The Gothic cathedrals were built from and designed with many types of stone from a variety of quarries, and they display fascinating and intricate carvings.

Who were the medieval stonemasons—those highly skilled and dedicated guild craftsmen who left us evidence of their great skill and vision? Where did they learn and perfect their craft? What is the difference between an “apprentice,” a “journeyman,” and a “Master Mason”? What was meant by a skilled merchant “craftsman” or “craftswoman,” and what did they do?

London Guildhall Engraving by E. Shirt after a drawing by Prattent c. 1805

How did the various guilds do their painstaking work day in and day out? Historical accounts say they often worked late in the night to meet a tight deadline—working by candlelight on very high scaffolding, risking their lives—prompting many today to ask, how did they create these large Gothic cathedrals, those that we can still visit today, hundreds of years later?

What were the “medieval guilds”?

A medieval guild (or “gild”) was an association of craftsmen or merchants formed for mutual aid and protection, and to further professional interests. Major examples are the craft guilds, merchant trade guilds, and various local parish guilds, e.g., those associated with cathedrals and local churches, and who helped put on the guild plays. (2)

The medieval commercial guilds were of two main types: the merchant guilds and the craft guilds. Merchant guilds were associations of nearly all the merchants in a particular town or city—whether they were local or long-distance traders, wholesale or retail sellers—similar to a Chamber of Commerce or city business association today. (3) By the thirteenth century, western European merchant guilds were officially recognized by many town governments, and in the larger towns, a Guildhall would often be built by the merchants' guilds where their meetings and other events would take place. (4) The merchant guilds became intimately involved in regulating and protecting their members' interests, both in long-distance trade and local business. As they eventually controlled the distribution and sale of food, cloth, and other staple goods, they often formed powerful monopolies. (5)

An Italian 15th century lady painter with her assistant mixing the colors. Unknown origin.

Dyeing in a large cauldron, Flemish, mid 15th century. Unknown origin.

The medieval craft guilds were associations of all the artisans and craftsmen in a particular branch of industry or commerce. For example, there were guilds of weavers, bookbinders, stonemasons and architects in the building trade, painters, metal-workers (the “Hammermen”), bakers, dyers, embroiderers, leatherworkers, and so on.

Although its roots were in earlier times, the medieval craft guild system became much more widespread in the eleventh century as towns and cities started to develop. Thus, many of our medieval building records begin at this time. (6) One of the earlier guild statutes comes from Chartres, which not only had its extraordinary cathedral, but was also an important medieval market town. We find that the oldest surviving documentary evidence of a guild in Chartres is, “a charter that Count Tribaut IV issued to the innkeepers in 1147 before he departed on the Second Crusade.” (7)

A guild craftsman was a very skilled person in his specialized area of expertise. Most skilled crafts artisans in medieval guilds were men, although girls and women were certainly involved in highly skilled crafts, too, such as intricate embroidery, the making of tapestries, and weaving. However, opportunities for boys and men were more numerous in the Middle Ages regarding apprenticeships and training. (8)

The skilled craftsmen in a medieval town usually consisted of a number of family workshops in the same neighborhood. The powerful masters of these workshops related to each other as fellow experts in their chosen fields. They would train young people, often sharing apprentices between them. These crafts masters would agree to regulate competition among themselves, promoting their own as well as the entire town's prosperity. (9) The craft guild members would agree on basic policies governing their trade, such as setting quality standards, and so on. From local beginnings, the early craft guilds of the Middle Ages gradually developed into larger, more sophisticated networks and associations. (10) In fact, some towns became renowned far and wide for producing particularly high quality work in their crafts workshops.

Members of the craft guilds were divided into three distinct categories: those of Master, Journeyman and Apprentice. The master was a highly accomplished craftsman who took on his apprentices very selectively. These were generally teenagers who were provided food, clothing, shelter, and an education by the master, in exchange for working as an apprentice. Their apprenticeship was generally set for a fixed term of service that could last anywhere from five to nine years. After this, an apprentice could become a journeyman, one who was allowed to work for one or another master and was paid with wages for his labor.

Stonemasons had their own set of regulations which were rarely written down. The training of medieval stonemasons was conducted orally. They were a highly secretive brotherhood, especially in France, and did not participate in the general trade guild system nearly as much as the other guilds did. Stonemasons were subject to heavy penalties for violating the secrets of the craft with which they had been entrusted. We must remember that errors in construction of a building could be fatal for both workers and the public. Unlike the consequences of a tailor missing a stitch, for example, a stonemason craftsman was working with truly dangerous information. The Master Mason, understandably, was responsible for those apprentices he had so carefully tested and trained, in addition to being concerned about keeping the guild's monopoly on certain types of trade secrets and information.

In one now-famous case from 1099, “the Bishop of Utrecht was murdered by a Master Mason whose son he had persuaded to reveal the secret of laying out the foundation of a church.” (11) It was not until the mid-fourteenth century that the first surviving guild records of mason's regulations can be found. These important documents come from York, England in 1352. In the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, more ordinances appeared, which codified and controlled the stonemason's trade. (12) Scotland, too, has evidence of early building records. The Bannatyne Club archives in Edinburgh include a record of a 1387 builders' contract of work to be done at St. Giles Church in Edinburgh by three stone masons, “... 1387 Edinburgh, St. Giles' Church: Three masons undertake to build five chapels in the south aisle, with vaults [based] on the design of the vault of St. Stephen's Chapel, Holyrood...” (13)

The 1475 Edinburgh Seal of Cause clearly illustrates that the masons and wrights of Edinburgh were using the Aisle of St. John in the Church of St. Giles [now “St. Giles cathedral”] to conduct a daily service in honor of St. John, and were also bound to carry out certain responsibilities for the maintenance and repair of the altar. (14) Masonic and other scholars continue to research their Order's history and its relationship to the stonemasons guilds; we await further information and discoveries from them.

There are three famous documents that have frequently been cited as sources for medieval building practices: 1) the mid-twelfth century account by Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis of the new choir of his abbey church; 2) the year 1200 account by Gervase, a monk of Canterbury; and 3) the thirteenth century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, which consists of a set of drawings, plans and designs including buildings, moldings, and construction machinery. (15) Some of these drawings were called templates, and have survived the ravages of time. (16)

Once a journeyman could provide direct proof of his technical and artistic skills to the Master by showing his “masterpiece”—an especially demanding final exam—he might then be given permission to rise higher in the guild and finally become a Master Mason himself. (17) Then he could he set up his own workshop and hire and train promising apprentices. The path to becoming a Master was an arduous one, as Masters in any particular medieval craft guild tended to be a highly select inner circle, who possessed not only technical competence, but also proof of their wealth and social position. Masters guarded their trade secrets, special techniques, and initiation rites very closely.

Apprentices would flock to be trained by certain masters, hoping to be fortunate enough to be chosen for a place in a specific apprenticeship program. But many apprenticeships were hereditary, and masters might only accept two or three apprentices a year, so it was a highly selective process. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these guilds in trade and commerce prior to the industrial revolution. As history has shown, in many areas in the Middle Ages, they literally were the economy. (18) The medieval building trades have been credited with the introduction of inventions, processes, and aesthetic ideas, especially during the first decades of the twelfth century. (19)

A 19th century Scottish Hammerman, a skilled metalworker, presenting his journeyman's Green Man “masterpiece,” presented for his final exam. (The Brydon Collection)

In England and in certain other areas of the British Isles, the guilds had grown mighty in power, wealth, and influence. But once the challenges and changing political and religious climate of the Reformation came to a head in the 16th century, they largely began to decline. In Scotland, the operative stonemasons lodges gradually became non-operative, as they did in other places. In other words, from a trade association of working stonemasons (operative), such lodges are believed to have evolved into civic and philosophical organizations of non-stonemasons (speculative). This is said to have been the historical root of Freemasonry.

But while there were many different types of medieval guilds—the brewers, smiths, dyers, shipbuilders, carpenters, metalworkers, vintners, weavers and so on—the stonemasons' guilds are of specific interest to us here because of their role in the designing and building the Gothic cathedrals. So what were they like?

On a cathedral building site: A day in the life of a medieval stonemason

The stonemason's guild consisted of a variety of skilled craftsmen. These specialized, highly-trained men would undergo years of difficult, demanding education on the job, and would then travel widely from site to site to gain experience and additional specialist expertise as money became available to build other cathedrals. (20) The stonemasons were the focal point of the cathedral building site. But they worked as part of a larger network of other crafts guilds, with whom they usually got on with fairly well. Building a cathedral was by necessity a joint enterprise with deadlines, and therefore called for diplomatic cooperation between various groups and people.

The mason's lodge, the hut attached to the building site where the stonemasons did their indoor work, stored their tools and ate their lunch, (21) was the hub of every cathedral building project. The lodge had to be large enough for each skilled mason to have a place at the “banker,” the specific place where the more intricately molded stones were cut. The stonecutters—less skilled workers—were responsible for carefully cutting large blocks of stone. There were the stone “setters,” who are frequently referred to in the medieval sources yet often forgotten today; they were “engaged more in the placing of the stones in position rather than in the shaping of them. It is from these men, the “Setters,” that masonic aprons and gloves are derived...” (22) And then, of course, there were the most highly skilled and best compensated stone craftsmen of all—the stonemasons—who could intricately sculpt and ornately carve the stones and statues. Tools were sharpened at the forge.

Attached to the on-site mason's lodge, or close by, was the tracing house where the designs were drawn. At Wells Cathedral today, we can still see the original designs on the floor of the tracing house—one of the few that remain from medieval times. (23) Wells and Salisbury were built during what is called the Early English Period (1150–1270), the first of the three main subdivisions of the Gothic period in England. It was followed by Decorated (1270–1370) and Perpendicular (1370–1650). (24)

Despite their extraordinary achievements and great expertise, the actual day-to-day life of a medieval stonemason would include rather mundane matters—like haggling over money, complaining about working conditions, or sharing the latest gossip about those who visited the site on a daily basis—especially the clergy! Most medieval building sites did not provide on-site housing for the stonemasons, but some did. At Exeter, the masons lived at the edge of the site; they were housed near the tracing house and the carpenter's store. At Strasbourg, they even had a paid cook. Such arrangements varied greatly, depending on the circumstances at each location.

The stonemasons usually brought their own food, except on the feast days when it was provided for them. Sometimes masons fought certain restrictions imposed on them, such as in the contentious situation in Siena in 1337. Here, masons won a thirty-year battle to be given wine from the cathedral vineyards on the grounds. Efficient to the core, they cleverly argued that they were forced to waste too much time queuing in the city's taverns when they could have been working!

While we have around eight official public holidays a year today, back in the High Middle Ages, the Church had many more feast days that everyone was expected to honor. (25) In fact, a medieval stonemason might have up to sixty feast days off a year. However, but not all of these were paid holidays! The rest of the time, they would have to work very hard: starting early and working late each day to meet various urgent building deadlines.

Stonemasons were regularly given work clothes. At the Westminster site, they were given hoods, gloves, boots for wet weather, straw hats for the summer, and a robe. The Master Mason got a special furred, ermine robe, a mark of his high status. Building was arduous work and seasonal. Outdoor work stopped from around Michaelmas (29 September) until Easter, or in years of warmer weather, from All Saints (1 November) until the Purification of the Virgin (2 February). During the long, dark winter months, masons worked indoors, designing and cutting the stone, tasks which required great attention and concentration.

They made careful use of geometry as they focused on certain designs. The Ad quadratum, was based mainly on interlocking squares and vesica piscis designs; the Ad Triangulum was primarily based on hexagrams and interlocking triangles, and a third style was based on either pentagrams or decagrams. The intricate complexity of the great Gothic building projects and their carvings, statues, and windows showcase the dedication of thesecraftsmen.

A fair day's wage for a fair day's work: conditions of stonemasons' employment

The Master Mason worked to his own contract of employment and conditions. A skilled journeymen was paid when he did a particular task, or he received a daily wage paid weekly (less in winter, and with no pay for feast days). It is difficult to determine a medieval mason's pay for an apprentice in modern-day terms. Individual stonemasons were paid according to their skills. They learned their trade “on site,” and in stages. However, records from medieval England reveal that a skilled journeyman earned about 4 pence a day, before the catastrophic Black Death (1349–51). After that, the rate increased to about 6 pence because of the incredible shortage of skilled labor. (26)

Various categories of mason existed: the two main categories were roughmasons (unskilled stonecutters) and freemasons (skilled stonemasons and stone carvers). But a huge project, like Westminster, would also employ hewers, layers, wallers, marblers, and image-makers, in addition to stonemasons—and all at a different rates of pay. Many contracts were especially concerned with sickness and old age, with careful pension arrangements.(27)

The highly renowned architect, the medieval French Master Mason William of Sens, was asked to direct the work on a number of Gothic cathedrals—including Canterbury in England. Competition between cathedrals for him to direct their building process was very high. At the time, Gothic architecture was still very experimental. The Master Mason and his team frequently tried new arrangements and measurements to improve or perfect overall structural stability, especially because of the problem of the high nave in Gothic designs. At Canterbury, Master Sens was five years into the project, when he suffered the unfortunate fate of many a medieval mason—the high scaffolding gave way, he fell, and was very badly injured. (28) Yet, resilient as ever, he still managed to direct the building of the cathedral from his bed, before he had to return to France.

Although it was fortunately rare, there were times a cathedral-in-progress would collapse during the building process, as a result of trying to build “too high” without enough structural support. We witness how, in 1107, Winchester Cathedral's tower collapsed; and at Gloucester Abbey, built in 1100, the southern tower of the west front fell over in 1170. (29) Perhaps the most famous cathedral structural failure occurred at Beauvais cathedral. (30) Here the high vault itself dramatically collapsed in 1284. (31)

The tremendous heights attempted by the architects could also put the foundation at risk of collapse. The situation at Salisbury in England is a case in point. As Robert Scott informs us in The Gothic Enterprise: because the water table in Salisbury was extremely close to the surface, the foundation trench could be excavated:

only to a depth of perhaps four feet. The trench was filled with flint gravel and chunks of chalk mixed with straw. (Retired Clerk of the Works Roy Spring reminds us that the gravel and chalk pieces had to be flat rather than round, or else the foundation would act like a bed of ball bearings!) The foundation stones laid at the ceremony of dedication in April 1220 were placed on this bed. The entire foundation was then built up above ground level to a height of twenty or twenty-five feet. Once it was finished, construction on the rest of the building could proceed. (32)

The Master Mason: the most powerful man on site

Unlike most building sites today, in the High Middle Ages the relationship between the patron and Master Mason of a cathedral was quite close on an everyday level—very “hands on.” There are many examples of a patron being shown around the building site by the Master Mason himself. As the chief architect of the entire project, he was in an excellent position to answer questions and display progress. Although royalty are sometimes recorded making empty gestures—such as Edward I wheeling a barrow, or Louis IX carrying stone in the Holy Land—the patron's actions were not always merely symbolic. The patron would often interact with and question the stonemasons directly.

In the High Middle Ages, the multi-skilled Master Mason necessarily had to act as contractor, engineer, and designer, combining all the jobs into one, as well as acting as a diplomat between the Church, the patrons, guilds, and the craftsmen. (33) The situation is quite different today, where work is far more specialized in one sphere.

A professional layman, the Master Mason rose from the ranks of the skilled journeymen. Even after he was promoted, he never became detached from his roots. “The separation of art of design from the knowledge of how to build is a post-medieval development, and it is crucial to the understanding of how medieval buildings were designed and constructed to realize that the whole process was rooted in the practical tradition of the masons' craft.” (34)

On a medieval cathedral building site, no one was immune no matter what his level. If there was a shortage of skilled labor, the Master Mason was expected to contribute his efforts no matter how demeaning. He was, after all, in possession of the highest level of practical skill. The work of the Gothic cathedral was meant to “glorify God” rather than the egos of individual builders. Thus, the Master Mason did not expect to “act independently of either the administration or the professional requirements of his fellow craftsmen.” (35) He was expected to “pitch in,” whether it be a huge cathedral or a simple baptismal font carving. He was part of a team whose goal was precision and accuracy. Everyone was expected to assist for the good of the whole project.

The medieval “architect”: a different concept than ours today

Today, we have more than a few “myth-conceptions” about a medieval building site, what stonemasons did, and especially, who medieval architects were. Modern culture has an often highly inaccurate idea of who these medieval geniuses really were, especially when compared to our current idea of an “architect”:

.... medieval buildings were the work of monks, inspired amateurs driven by faith, or, that so sophisticated a building as a Gothic cathedral could not have been designed by an anonymous, uneducated stonemason, but must have been the work of the scholarly clerical patrons. Such confusions arise from the modern idea of an architect—promulgated from the 15th century Renaissance—as a scholar-designer, who draws up his design according to accepted principles and theories... By contrast, the medieval architect, or master mason, was a very different being; he got his hands dirty. It was not in a studio that he was trained in design, but on the building site. The word “architect” was rarely used in the Middle Ages, the usual terms, lathomus or caementarius, indicating his association with quarries and the stone industry. In the eyes of the Church (a prominent building patron) the one true architect was God Himself, the architect of the universe, and mere men had to define themselves in other terms. (36)

The Master Mason was the architect; he reigned supreme. But while they were generally connected to one cathedral building site, sometimes the Master Mason would be responsible for two, or even three, major building projects at once. This could certainly strain his energies and availability. Occasionally, construction problems would arise that needed his problem-solving skills. If he were at another job site, conflicts might break out over questions about “where is the Master?” Over time, it became the practice to write into his contract that he would receive extra pay for staying on site to answer important questions, or, that he must remain on site to keep his job. (37)

This statue of Archimedes at Union Square Station in Washington, D.C., depicts the Ancient Greek mathematician as a Master Mason holding Compasses and Gavel. It is the work of renowned sculptor and designer Louis Saint-Gaudens, 1908. (James Wasserman)

Eventually, this problem was solved by creating trained assistants to be his deputies—a logical enough solution, but this wasn't always trouble-free. For example, on several occasions in 1511, the desperate authorities at Troyes Cathedral dispatched messengers to Beauvais with spare horses to “fetch” their Master Mason, one Martin Chambiges, who was refusing to attend to his duties! Some deputies were literally as stretched to the limit as the Master Masons themselves were. Building a major cathedral was a long, difficult, arduous and expensive undertaking, often taking decades.

Stonemason's guilds operated outside the normal medieval craft structure

Stonemasons were often considered “a world apart” from the normal medieval craft guild system. Medieval craftsmen, especially those in the cities, developed their own merchant trade guilds that regulated work and arranged the training of apprentices. But the stonemasons—both owing to the complex nature of their work and the fact that building patronage was largely provided by individuals or independent institutions—could not participate as easily in the general guild system. So their guild tended to operate on its own. The earliest masons' guilds date from the fourteenth century in larger cities like London.

It was only in Italy and the German empire that the city authorities themselves largely controlled or had input into important building plans or projects and the stonemasons who worked on them. They functioned like a city council today, issuing specific building permits, regulations, and so forth. By the sixteenth century in Germany, the government control of building in cities was formally organized. There was often a municipal architect. He was a member of the town council that was in charge of building projects.

In England and France, the patrons were mainly the Church, the king, and wealthy individuals—not city officials. Thus, the relationship between the patron of a cathedral and the Master Mason could be quite close and both men were entirely focused on the site.

Medieval guild draftsman at work.

The special tools of a Master Mason were the set square and dividers or compasses, which he would personally carry with him at all times. They were considered to be “sacrosanct” instruments. The square is often referred to in both speculative and operative Masonry. When a Master Mason died, he would often leave his tools to his favored apprentice. Some believe that our modern-day expression “tools of the trade” likely came from the stonemasons' guilds of medieval times.

Once trained, the skilled journeyman practiced his craft for several demanding years at different sites, often far from home. The most talented stonemasons were in great demand, often going from one major cathedral building site to another. For example, one study done in France, published in the Revue de l'Art Chretien, shows that some of the most gifted sculptors who worked on the Portail Royal at Saint-Denis then went directly on to Chartres in 1145. (38) Stonemasons did not move about in strictly organized groups, although there is some evidence of great loyalty to a particular Master. At Troyes in 1392–3, for example, when Henry de Bruisselles left the cathedral site, he took many of his masons with him.

The journeyman period in a stonemason's life was been labeled the Wanderjahr by German scholars—the “wandering year,” where he would learn new skills on various building sites, like a young person's “gap year” in some countries today. To what extent the “wandering year(s)” were formally constituted seems debatable. However, it is certain that a journeyman mason could not become a Master Mason without at least several years of major building experience, often up to a period of seven years. For this, of course, he had to travel quite extensively.

The Compagnons and the “Tour de France”

In medieval France, there was a system with its own unique structure, as we learn from French expert Francois Icher in his informative work The Artisans & Guilds of France. (39) According to the Book of Crafts, there was a branch of the stonemasons called Stonecutters (Les Tailleurs de Pierre), whose statutes indicate they were under the authority of the overseers of the king of France. Their apprenticeships lasted seven years.

However, there were also highly skilled medieval artisans in France, skilled journeymen craftsmen (“compagnons”) who belonged to independent guilds. Thus are the journeymen of the Tour de France, known as the “companions.” These organizations first made their official appearance in the late Middle Ages and were a major force in the building the great Gothic cathedrals. (Many of these same skilled journeymen's organizations still exist in France to this day—stonemasons, plasterers, glass and metalworkers, woodcarvers, weavers, blacksmiths, and so on.) These first journeymen confraternities of the Tour de France were initially relatively clandestine organizations. Defying first the trade guilds, who were ruled by royalty, then the medieval French Church, they had no difficulty attracting young men eager for professional and social advancement.

Let us understand the difference between the general trade guild journeymen and the journeymen of the Tour de France. The trade guild journeyman was a worker who, throughout his life, would stay in the service of the same master craftsman. He might never obtain the status of master with his own workshop. The journeyman of the compagnonnage of the Tour de France was a craftsman who was seeking his independence in the face of the conservatism of the trade guilds. In his view, he was offered no hope of improving his lot, unless he was the son or son-in-law of a master. In the eyes of many young men at the time, the guild system had gradually become “too elistist,” a dead end for many. So, not surprisingly, the more entrepreneurial souls became discontented and founded their own clandestine organizations. (40) The precise word for them, compagnonnage (“Companions”) was not used until the nineteenth century. Many in France feel that it may be more historically accurate to use the term devoir (duty or business) when referring to these early journeymens' associations, yet both terms are used today.

Masons at work in the tenth century, from Albert Mackey, Illustrated History of Freemasonry.

It is intriguing that the devoirs claim three legendary founders: Solomon, Master Jacques, and Father Soubise. They are allegorical figures that play a prominent part in the texts and stories associated with the compagnonnage. (41) The building of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is the allegorical basis of many of the legends and rituals associated with the compagnonnage.

The three divisions, or devoirs, of early journeymen, relate to these three legendary founders—the devoir of liberte, whose members, even today, are called the “children of Solomon”; the Saint-Devoir de Dieu (“sacred duty to God”), to whom Master Jacques is especially important; and the most esteemed figure of the carpenters, Father Soubise. All three divisions had a role in building cathedrals. But the question has always been, which of the three was primarily responsible for building the Gothic cathedrals? Even modern-day compagnons debate these points.

Of the three, it is the view of some French guild experts as well as esoteric researchers, that the Children of Solomon, in particular, may have played a major role in the building of Chartres, a number of the Gothic Notre Dames, and possibly, those at Reims and Amiens. Why? Because the “Children of Master Jacques” in their earliest days seem to have lived mainly in Aquitaine—at least until they became more clandestine, due to the historical circumstances. Their churches are only come across, with rare exceptions, in the south of France, and their churches are decorated with a cross of Celtic appearance, i.e., enclosed in a circle. The “Children of Father Soubise,” many of whom were Benedictines in earlier times, seem to have been dedicated primarily to the Romanesque churches. (42) The signs or marks of the builders of the Romanesque style differ widely from those of Gothic, even when their work is contemporary.

Many believe that there may have been a specialist subgroup or guild of Gothic builders of some type, yet records are elusive. But some believe that these may have been the “Children of Solomon.” They were known to be experts in geometry and had early connections to the Cistercian monks who were most associated with Gothic buildings. “The craft has adopted several patron saints, notably Blaise, Peter, Roch, Thomas, and Reinhold...The great Germanic lodges venerate the ‘four crowned ones,’ who likewise figure in the symbolism of French journeyman stonecutters. The etrangers stonecutters, children of Solomon known as loups, are reputedly the oldest of all journeymen, for which reason they always appear at the top of the journeyman hierarchy,” according to Francois Icher. (43) The “Children of Solomon” are of interest to many; however, the main question is how to interpret their role in building Gothic cathedrals, and this is where the major differences lie. It seems that the stonecutters within the Children of Solomon were believed to have had their own unique traditions of some type. (44)

Yet there is still debate about the finer points about all of this today among the compagnons themselves—let alone amongst various groups of Freemasons worldwide. We do not know for certain which groups were responsible for what aspects of building the cathedrals in early and medieval France. While they agree on certain points, at other times compagnons vehemently disagree. What is known for sure is that all three groups included highly skilled, gifted craftsmen. Architectural and art historians also continue to appreciate their superb craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail, and dedication in the process.

Rosslyn Chapel. A simple depiction of what some believe to be an example of a late medieval mark showing the numeral “4,” a visual motif often seen in other medieval building sites in Europe.

Mason's Marks

Many types of marks were used in central and northern Europe as a means of indicating ownership of property, a type of medieval “ID” system. Early on, certain types of marks were carved in stone, stamped on timber, or branded on cattle. They were rather commonplace and served a practical purpose in medieval trade. Other marks were used for varying purposes. These appear as various letters, monograms, insignia, sigils, and so forth.

One recurrent motif described as a “mason's mark” in medieval buildings, sacred and secular, in several European countries is a character that resembles the numeral 4, the ancient sigil of Hermes, the deity of design and mathematics. The Greek Hermes is later the Roman Mercury, god of communications, trading, business dealings, and so on. Interestingly, as some Sufis have pointed out, this same symbol has always been important to some of their builders guilds, too.

A modern-day builder mason's bench mark on Rose Street, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Karen Ralls)

An Edinburgh Hammerman, a highly skilled metalworker, in his ritual costume. 1555. (The Brydon Collection)

Defining the different types of mason's marks is complex, and a subject that a number of experts around the world are still researching in-depth today. The French scholar Jean Gimpel informs us that, in general, there were five types of mason's marks that can be distinguished:

  1. 1) The “Pieceworker's Mark,” where a stonecutter would be paid by the piece. To ensure that he got proper credit and payment for his completed work, he had to put his special “mark” on the stone to verify it after it passed inspection.
  2. 2) The “Positioning Marks,” which were generally made up of small engraved squares, crosses, or arrows. These would indicate the direction the stones were to be placed.
  3. 3) The “Mark of Provenance,” that enabled different quarries to be differentiated (and/or paid). Quarry marks also helped the masons to arrange the stones at the building site according to where they came from.
  4. 4) “The Master's Mark” was given to the sculptor or stonecutter by his peers. It was nontransferable and valid for the duration of the stonecutter's life, akin to one's own unique passport or social security number today.
  5. 5) The “Sign of Honor,” which was given to a companion stonecutter who had done truly outstanding work. It would often be transformed into a prestigious crest and became a genuine coat of arms incised on some stones. (45)

Some medieval mason's marks were quite ordinary, like crosses or circles, or letters such as an “A” and a “T.” But others are magnificent, very intricate, forming fine abstract designs. The mason's marks used in Chartres are not particularly outstanding in this regard, but as one stonemason expert on Chartres comments, “I have seen a wolf at Tours, and in Southwell a hooded man and a superb fish, and a fine set of variations on the letter A at Durham.” (46) The situation varied depending on one's guild and location.

Various examples of alleged builder and mason's marks found in Scottish churches, i.e, Melrose, Dunkeld, Rosslyn Chapel, and Glasgow cathedral. (The Brydon Collection)

“While the services of lay-masons were necessary to some of the initial construction and later repair of monasteries, builders, especially specialist sculptors, were often brought in from outside, as the numerous masons marks around many Cistercian monasteries demonstrate.” (47) Sculpting the stone was the work of the medieval freemason, a highly skilled man who had graduated from stone-cutting and who met and worked with his fellows in “lodges.” (48)

Overall, there are many types of medieval mason's marks in Gothic cathedrals. Experts acknowledge that not all of them have yet been catalogued. This is also the case for those symbols carved in many other medieval buildings, streets, or on various objects, as some of the examples here illustrate:

In addition to stonemasons, burghers, untitled nobility, and members of other craft guilds had their own special marks. The smith or carpenter would also “sign” his completed work with his own unique mark.

Coats of Arms of the masons of Scotland.

A variety of enigmatic marks over several centuries can still be viewed at Royston Cave, Hertfordshire, England. Royston was also a place where some of the arrested English Templars were taken for a time in 1308, while awaiting transfer and imprisonment elsewhere. (Simon Brighton)

St. Catherine with her eight-sided wheel, at Royston Cave, Hertfordshire, England. (Simon Brighton)

In many western European countries, earlier guild traditions continue to live on. In York, England, for example, there is an interesting modern-day Quilt Museum and Gallery, one of the few of its kind, at the York Medieval Guildhall. Its collection is certainly worth a visit for anyone traveling to the city of York who enjoys quilting and other related crafts.

The cathedral builders and the guilds of medieval times perfected their craft the best they could, perhaps because, in their view and that of their guilds, they were ultimately performing a spiritual task. When building a cathedral or similar building, they were working with complex measurements, geometric forms, and designs in service to a greater purpose. At each location, masons were aware of the land and its mythic substratum at the site of a particular cathedral. They were thus leaving their enduring “mark” in more ways than one.

A view of the modern-day Quilt Museum and Gallery, one of the few of its kind, at the York Medieval Guildhall, York, England. (Quilt Museum and Gallery, York Medieval Guildhall)

Each of these buildings and their intricate stone carvings and features might be viewed by some as a “labor of Love that lasts forever.” They are a gift for anyone, spiritually inclined or not, from anywhere in the world. They are here for us today, many centuries later, to experience and enjoy. Fine craftsmanship—in any field—is still very much worth celebrating.