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How the Cathedral Builders Shaped the Medieval World: A Review of Jean Gimpel's Book

If you are interested in the history and art of medieval architecture, you might want to read Jean Gimpel's book The Cathedral Builders. This book recounts the construction of the great European cathedrals during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, discusses the rise of craftsmen's guilds, and explains why the religious building boom ended.


Who were the cathedral builders?

The cathedral builders were not just architects and masons, but also engineers, technicians, sculptors, painters, glassmakers, carpenters, metalworkers, and many other skilled workers who contributed to the creation of these magnificent structures. They were organized in guilds that regulated their training, wages, working conditions, and quality standards. They also had a strong sense of solidarity and pride in their work, as well as a spiritual motivation to glorify God and honor the saints.

How did they build the cathedrals?

The cathedrals were built with a combination of empirical knowledge, mathematical calculations, artistic intuition, and technological innovations. The builders used various tools and machines to lift, cut, shape, and assemble the stones, such as cranes, pulleys, levers, saws, chisels, hammers, compasses, and plumb lines. They also used geometric patterns and proportions to design the plans and elevations of the cathedrals, such as the golden ratio, the square root of two, and the Fibonacci sequence. They also experimented with new forms and techniques to create vaults, arches, buttresses, spires, stained glass windows, sculptures, and paintings that expressed their vision of beauty and harmony.

Why did they stop building cathedrals?

The cathedral building craze lasted for about three centuries, from 1050 to 1350. During this period, France alone built eighty cathedrals, five hundred large churches, and tens of thousands of parish churches. The cathedrals were not only places of worship, but also symbols of civic pride, economic prosperity, and cultural identity. However, several factors contributed to the decline of the cathedral building activity in the fourteenth century. These include:

  • The Black Death: The plague that swept across Europe in 1348-1350 killed about a third of the population and devastated the economy and society. Many building projects were abandoned or delayed due to lack of funds and labor.

  • The Hundred Years' War: The war that lasted from 1337 to 1453 between France and England caused widespread destruction and insecurity. Many cathedrals were damaged or destroyed by fire or siege. Some were even used as fortresses or prisons by the warring parties.

  • The Great Schism: The split that occurred in 1378-1417 within the Catholic Church when two rival popes claimed authority over Christendom weakened the religious unity and authority that had supported the cathedral building movement. Many people became disillusioned or skeptical about the church and its leaders.

  • The Renaissance: The cultural movement that emerged in Italy in the fourteenth century and spread across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries introduced new ideas and values that challenged or surpassed those of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance artists and thinkers admired the classical art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome more than the Gothic art and literature of medieval Europe. They also developed new forms and styles of expression that reflected their humanist worldview.

These factors combined to create a new historical context that made the cathedral building less relevant or appealing to the people of Europe. The cathedrals became relics of a past era that was seen as dark or barbaric by some or nostalgic or romantic by others.

What is the main message of the book?

The main message of Jean Gimpel's book is that the cathedral builders were not only remarkable artists and craftsmen, but also pioneers of science and technology. He argues that they created a new culture and civilization that was based on rationality, experimentation, innovation, and cooperation. He also shows that they influenced the development of many fields and disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, law, economics, and politics. He claims that they were the precursors of the modern industrial revolution and the scientific method.

How does the book support this message?

The book supports this message by providing a wealth of historical facts, anecdotes, documents, illustrations, and analyses that reveal the achievements and challenges of the cathedral builders. The book is divided into ten chapters that cover different aspects of their work and life, such as:

  • The medieval miracle: The historical context and background of the cathedral building movement.

  • Saint Bernard and Suger: The role of religious leaders and patrons in promoting and supporting the cathedral building movement.

  • The creative impulse: The sources and motivations of the artistic and architectural innovations of the cathedral builders.

  • The canon builders: The organization and regulation of the guilds and corporations of the cathedral builders.

  • Working the stone: The techniques and tools used by the masons and sculptors to shape and assemble the stones.

  • Freemasons and sculptors: The symbolism and meaning of the sculptures and decorations of the cathedrals.

  • The architects: The skills and methods used by the architects to design and plan the cathedrals.

  • The builder monks: The contribution of the monastic orders to the cathedral building movement.

  • Engineers and technicians: The inventions and discoveries made by the engineers and technicians to solve the technical problems of the cathedral building.

  • The end of a world: The causes and consequences of the decline of the cathedral building movement.

The book also includes a chronology of the main events and dates related to the cathedral building movement, a bibliography of sources and references used by the author, and an index of names and terms mentioned in the book. d282676c82


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