The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel

(New York: Harper, 1961/1983), 163

Against the modern myth of a backward, unintelligent, and superstitious Medieval society, Gimpel tells of the cathedral builders who believed in progress, harmony, and God. The majestic cathedrals they left behind bear testament to the heights of human achievement when supported by a stable society and ordered toward an eternal end.

It has taken active study of history and architecture on my part to unravel this myth of Medieval society in my own mind formed through elementary education and cultural osmosis. In one telling, this myth originated in the hubris of the Renaissance with its eager return to classical roots and denigration of everything in the "middle" period separating the two1.

Gimpel, and recent historians, paint a different picture. The monastic orders preserved the flame of faith and learning during the Dark Ages following the Fall of Rome. Improved weather and technological advances before and around the first millennium increased crop yields and fostered a more prosperous and stable society. This new surplus allowed for attention to be turned toward greater and longer-lasting ambitions. There were no lack of competing political and economic interests, but as a whole Medieval society shared a common faith, common imagination, and common vision of the good.

The men and women2 who built the cathedrals viewed the world through a different lens than ours today. Where we value specialization and precise attention to detail, they focused on the harmony of the whole. Instead of a modern focus on theory the Medieval mind was practical and empirical: build until it falls down (as did Beauvais in 1284) and then figure out how to improve the next version. Most foreign given our fragmented view of truth and faith might be the spiritual unity of Medieval society out of which these great churches rose.

Of course it is naive to idolize the past, and Medieval society was far from perfect. But perhaps we can learn something from their unity and harmony; after all their cathedrals still stand and still bring tears of wonder after almost 1,000 years. We can ask ourselves: what are we building that may invoke such wonder a millennium from now?


Chapter 1: The Medieval Miracle

  • An accurate historical representation of the cathedral builders was lacking until recently with historians such as Viollet-le-Duc and Pierre du Colombier (2)
  • There is no real distinction between a Romanesque building and a Gothic building as is usually said, but rather hundreds of small technical innovations over a ~250 year period from the 11th–13th centuries (3-4); the building finally stopped around 1337 with the Hundred Years' War (28)

Chapter 2: Saint Bernard and Suger

  • "The spread of Christianity and the history of the builders are linked to the development of the monastic orders" (7) ....If the great cathedrals are the fruit of St. Benedict, what mighty things will be the fruit of Alasdair MacIntyre's new St. Benedict? (cf. 2020-11-18-After Virtue)
  • The Cluniac reform and resulting demand for 1,400 monasteries advanced the science of construction (7)
  • "The success of Cluny was due to the will of pious and energetic men who wanted to wrench Christian Europe from the barbarism of the tench and eleventh centuries. The success of Cîteaux was due to a group of men who in their desire for austerity wanted to wean the West form the vanity and worldly pleasures that were beginning to predominate." (8)
    • → models for success in today's world
  • Windows: "The history of building is tied to the unceasing attempt of architects to make openings in the walls without compromising the solidity of the buildings." (14)
  • The 19th century safeguarded medieval buildings, the 17th and 18th centuries devastated them: "An inventory of the devastation of the eighteenth century would run to volumes." (22)
  • The medieval cathedrals were originally brightly painted, despite the 20th century decision to restore them with bare stone (25)

Chapter 3: The Creative Impulse

  • Contributors to the cathedral crusade included: merchant's consciences (and subsequent endowments), civic pride, and "world record fever" helped to inspire developments in cathedral construction (32)
  • Medieval workers worked longer hours (dawn to dusk), but only 4-5 days per week given the number of feast days (41)
  • "The fact that the educated man and the people had the same terms of reference, the same picture book, at this time lent a certain harmony to the age. Everyone had received the same education, albeit to a different level." The introduction of the classics in the Renaissance separated the educated from the people, down to this day (45)
  • Medieval builders were not as anonymous as legend says (47)

Chapter 4: The Canon Builders

  • Interesting to the breakdown of income and expenses, which I pulled into an approximate income statement (54-55). For example, see how much they spent on iron relative to stone! (see also not on 137)
Net Income Statement
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspIron (145)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspSalary & Benefits (111)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspOther (62)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspTimber (34)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspTransportation (27)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspStone & Lime (17)
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspReal Estate Rent (3)
------------------- -------

Chapter 5: Working the Stone

  • Medieval society was rather egalitarian: "allowed the humblest of men to fill the highest offices" (59)
  • Generalism: Precision vs Harmony: "This lack of precision, which seems to characterize the Middle Ages and which is even found in building, appears shocking to modern mind which hungers after detail, figures, and statistics. This fault is largely compensated for by the feeling for harmony and synthesis which prevailed at the time. The modern man analyses and specializes and the results of thinking exclusively in this fashion are beginning to be felt." (63)

Chapter 6: Freemasons and Sculptors

  • Art: "The Renaissance invented the idea of the artist. The medieval intellectual, for his part, practically never wrote about specifically aesthetic matters. If he discussed what we choose to call 'art' it was from a theological or philosophical point of view." (80)
  • Iconoclasm illustrates the process of clarifying doctrine when heresies present themselves (rather than "invention" of new doctrines): "The extraordinary and passionate quarrel of the Iconoclasts was required for the Church to state what had always been obvious." (84)
  • Medieval sculptors learned from theologians to broaden their work both materially and spiritually (85)

Chapter 7: The Architects

  • Generalism: "The feeling for harmony and synthesis which characterized the Middle Ages, in contrast to our own passion for specialization" (90)
  • They literally used human hamster wheels to lift materials: "Large treadwheels inside which one or two men walked like squirrels were commonly used to raise materials to the tops of buildings." (96)
  • "The remarkable Arab contribution to our culture is often underestimated, and yet it was this that made the full flowering of the Middle Ages possible." (100)
  • Learn by doing: "learning for these builders must have been above all empirical." (101)
  • Medieval architects did not use 3D models (117)

Chapter 8: The Builder Monks

  • Medieval architects were more or less engineers also (124)

Chapter 9: Engineers and Technicians

  • The cathedral builders contributed to the first European industrial revolution
  • Energy was the basis of this industrial power, in the Medieval era energy came from water, wind, and horses (133)
  • "This technological boom was only made possible because medieval society believed in progress and men were not blinded by tradition." (135)
  • Newton's overquoted "standing on the shoulders of giants" may have an earlier precursor in Bernard, Master at Chartres from 1114–1119: "We are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants, so that we can perceive much more than they, not because our vision is clearer, nor because we are taller but because we are lifted higher thanks to their gigantic height." (136)
  • The importance of iron: better iron led to better carpentry and also therefore better stone work (137)
  • "By the twelfth century it was already difficult to find large trees, as the forests had been devastated." (139) → imagine what it would have been like to see those forests several hundred years before!
  • Progress, harmony, and faith: "A certain conception of progress, favorable social and economic conditions and a fruitful spirit of invention were all essential to the building of the cathedrals; equally, certain spiritual conditions were also needed before such miraculous churches could be built...The cathedrals beat witness not only to the ingenuity of science, but to an inspired wisdom." (147)

Chapter 10: The End of a World

  • The religious crisis of our day is nothing new (see that described from 149-150)
  • Religious weakness and waning faith, economic stagnation, the Hundred Years War all contributed to the end of the Cathedral era

Topic: Architecture, Gothic Architecture

Source: The Pillars of the Earth and 2021-08-28-Notre Dame by Ken Follett

Related Books


  • Entretiens sur l'architecture and Dictionnaire by Viollet-le-Duc (2)
  • Les Chantiers des Cathédrales by Pierre du Colombier (2)
  • The Medieval Mason by D. Knoop and G. P. Jones (3)
  • Gold Was the Mortar by H. Kraus (3)

New Words

  • seneschal: An official in a medieval noble household in charge of domestic arrangements and the administration of servants; a steward (10)

Created: 2021-08-29
Updated: 2023-01-23-Mon

  1. For more on this, see Why Are the Middle Ages Often Characterized as Dark or Less Civilized? by Tim O’Neill, M.A:

    &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp "The myth of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” does not lie in the fact that things declined markedly after the fall of Rome—they did. It lies in the idea that this situation persisted until the dawning of something called “the Renaissance,” which somehow rescued Western Europe from the clutches of the Catholic Church, revived ancient Greek and Roman learning, reinvented “good” (i.e. realistic) art and made everything OK again. This is the part of the story that is the myth."

    &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp "The idea of the whole Middle Ages as a “dark age” therefore actually comes from the early modern Renaissance and humanist movements and their denigration of their immediate forebears and idolization and idealization of the Greeks and Romans. Thus, the period between the Romans and this idealization in the early modern era became called the medium aevum—the “ages in the middle,” or the Middle Ages. They became traditionally characterized as a backward step, where art became “primitive” (because only realistic art could be “good” art), architecture was “barbaric” or “gothic,” and innovation was stagnant."

    &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp "These false ideas are still current partly because historians have only begun to revise our understanding of the Middle Ages quite recently and this is taking some time to seep into popular consciousness. But the prejudice against the Middle Ages is also driven by some strong cultural currents in our own time. Those with an animus against Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular like to cling to the old idea of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” because it suits their preconceptions about religion and forms a neat little fable where modernity is “good” and the medieval period is “bad.” Historians avoid these simplistic value judgments and reject the assumptions on which they are made, but simple pseudo historical fairy tales are hard to budge." 

  2. Women certainly contributed to the building of the cathedrals as demonstrated by the female names among the historical records, often in family workshops (64).