Building the gothic cathedrals: motor of an industrial and educational revolution

 "Although the Gothic cathedrals were dependent on the availability of finance and the growth of cities, they in their turn produced a massive transformation of the organization of labor, resources, and knowledge. Groups of tradesmen, masons, sculptors, carpenters, glaziers, smiths, and tilers began to develop. The start of an "industrial revolution".

The Gothic cathedrals are the first vast monuments in all history to be built by free, unionized labor. A massive development of resources and trades took place; quarries opened up, roads and transport expanded, and glass making and window making were transformed, as were metal working, stone working, and carpentry. (...) But the biggest transformations were in the organization and integration of all this money, resource, skill, and religious fervor. These were principally changes in the way knowledge was produced, used, and transmitted. 

Along  with the cathedral came not only the emergence of the role of the master mason, the master carpenter, the glazier, and the sculptor but also the lodge or guild and the itinerant tradesman who took the whole of Europe as his workshop. The lodge was originally a temporary building on the construction site to shelter the masons while they carved the stones. Eventually, it became the cooperative institution whereby knowledge and skills were transmitted through apprenticeship, mutual exchange, and accumulation as manifested, for example, in the lodgebooks.

At the same time, cathedral schools and universities began to develop. The close integration of commerce, trade skills, religion, and classical education appears not only in the fabric of Chartres, which has windows and chapels devoted to the guilds and the seven liberal arts as well as the major religious figures, but also in the social institution it housed. It was at Chartres that Bishop Thierry set up the cathedral school that was one of the first in the West to study natural phenomena. It was also where many master masons received their education, in keeping with the school’s policy of bringing together men of the liberal arts and men of the mechanical arts, the intellectuals and the highly skilled workmen, science and technology. (...)

The role of the mason began to change about the middle of the 13th-century. The transition seems to have begun after the completion of Chartres and about the time when the masons’ lodges started up. (...) By the 16th century, a fundamental shift had occurred in the role of the masons’ craft in the art of building. As the social and professional status of the architect rose, the mason dropped gradually into the role of serving merely as a builder for the architect. (...)

As the role of the master mason evolved into that of the architect, theory became divorced from practice, and skill became expertise. Eventually, the structural principles of Gothic architecture were lost, never to be recaptured. In 1568, Philibert de 1’ Orme could still describes the Gothic as "the modern way of vaulting"; but, by 1711, it had been forgotten, when the clock tower that Louis XIV tried to have built collapsed and was abandoned after the efforts of five architects. In the end, de bars and supplementary arches and floors had to be used, exactly the kind of prop the Gothic technique eschewed."

This blog quotes extensively partly rearranged sections from The Ad Hoc Collective Work of Building Gothic Cathedrals with Templates, String, and Geometry by David Turnbull, published in Science, Technology & Human Values · July 1993, source; the illustration shows a cathedral building site, a miniature of ‘The life of the very noble Count Gerard de Rousillon” (1488), source.

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