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In the fourth in our series on the history of architects, Jonathan Foyle explores the Gothic Age (c.1140-1500) and goes behind the tracery to uncover the Masonic tradition.

There is no recorded contemporary English term for the Western architecture of 500-800 or so years ago. It's a pity, because those we use are all slightly cranky. 'Gothic' was a Renaissance term of abuse aimed at those who trashed the Classical inheritance, one which missed its true target by more than seven centuries. The 'German Manner' was the more sober Italian reference for 'Medieval' building. Even that term - the 'between age' separating Classical from Renaissance - is redolent of a stroppy, pre-pubescent teenager.

The English work of c.1350-1550 that is regarded as our national style (that which dresses Barry and Pugin's Houses of Parliament) has been called 'Perpendicular' only since Thomas Rickman created the label in 1816. It refers to uncompromising verticality - not spatial or proportional verticality, as the tallest and slenderest of cathedrals were a century old by then, but to the unwillingness of window mullions to bend to an arch.

Can the output of 200 years really be characterised by mullions? Imagine some historian in 300 years' time calling our entire output 'The Cladding Style' for posterity. The issue, of course, is that we like our history with pigeonholes and clear rules, and retrospectively applied categories help to simplify the myriad past.

So, unless we accept 'German Manner' (which is authentic but imprecise), or adopt an alternative 19th-centuryism in 'Pointed Style' (more accurate but less catchy) we're stuck with 'Gothic', and the burden of its confusion with Dracula et al. The V&A's recent 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1540' exhibition drew mascara-heavy Goths who displayed little obvious interest in master masons. So, 'Gothic period' it is, but suggestions to the contrary are welcome.

Now to another problem with Gothic architecture - the idea that its creators were working to an entirely new programme and that it all started with Abbot Suger's remodelling of St Denis, just north of Paris, in 1140-44. As for many 'Eureka!' moments, a combination of quietly evolving experiments, serendipity and lumbering traditions were really at play.

So what was the point of the pointed arches? At St Denis, Suger basically held a mistaken belief that the martyr Saint Denis was the author of a treatise on transcendent light, a misunderstanding that inspired the replacement of masonry in the building with glass. Occasionally, early attitudes to Gothic architecture are illuminated by a body of surviving documents, but these were often pieces of promotional rhetoric for patrons or institutions that have, by chance, survived into the age of printing. Works accounts are piecemeal. This scant evidential bias naturally draws attention to a select few monuments or particular phases of buildings and more often than not we have hardly any biographical information about those who conceived Europe's seminal houses of God.

Documents or not, fully formed Gothic is certainly visually distinctive - but also diverse. In France - particularly Burgundy and the Ile de France - thin walls, skeletal flying buttresses and tracery were first developed and soared to the heavens. Rarely did French methods emerge in England undiluted, but Durham Cathedral's pioneering rib vaults of c.1110 augmented the long-standing native refusal to budge from the horizontality of long, low, thick-walled Norman construction, offering a way into an English manner. Wells Cathedral's nave is Canterbury's contemporary, but it's typically English; the clerestory windows are all hidden behind walls solid enough to have passages carved through them. It's the same story for those 13th-century cathedral masterpieces at Salisbury and Lincoln, the latter introducing a long native tradition of intricate vaulting.

So to the designers of Gothic architecture, those who realised the Heavenly City on Earth. Lest the achievements of French cathedral architects be regarded as being in keeping with the spirit of their age, it must be remembered they didn't meet with universal approval. In 1180, Pierre le Chantre called 'this everpresent passion for building? a sickness? it is a sin to build the kind of churches which are being built nowadays'. But in France, two of the court and cathedral architects of the Paris region, a few generations after St Denis, are celebrated by memorial slabs and their achievements enjoy a vast catalogue of earnest studies.

Robert Luzarches was the designer of Amiens Cathedral in 1221, a giant at 140 feet to the vaults. Luzarches perfected the geometrical tracery invented at Rheims by c.1211, a method of stone scaffolding to support vast fields of glass which infused Europe. It reached England by c.1240, spreading like wildfire to Westminster, Lincoln and Hereford.

Villard d'Honnecourt is an enigmatic character, whose early 13th-century sketchbook shows Rheims when the stonework was fresh. But he was no architect (his sketches of flying buttresses propping hollow wall-passages promised impending collapse. ) The difference between a skilled architect and an industrious dilettante like Villard is what the guild system is all about. I use the term 'architect' quite liberally, as it was certainly recognised during the Middle Ages, even if it changed its meaning during the Renaissance. Whether or not we use the commoner medieval terms 'devisor' ('deviseur' in France), 'ingeniator' (until c. 1300) or 'master mason' (before and after that time), we need to isolate the imaginative and technically competent designer rather than the literate supervisors who were surveyor, clerk, or controller of works. Sometimes the sacrist - or holy furniture warden - was responsible for monitoring works on a great church, such as Alan of Walsingham at Ely.

A critical factor was the division of labour between materials specialists. On Medieval building sites, master masons were among master carpenters, master plasterers, master glaziers and master plumbers, but a great building is far more likely to have been designed around its fundamental masonry skeleton than its subordinate roof structure. The masonic guilds offered training and trade unionism for native artisans. Youths started as banker masons who worked on tables to shape walling blocks for layer masons to set; some progressed as free masons, who shaped fine grained freestone into interlinking precisely sculpted units according to templates provided by the master. Their lodges held their trade secrets: what is known of them is no more sinister than the recommended means of proportioning pinnacles. The masters were frequently provided with good wages, a fine cloak and a place at the royal table.

The names of architects were increasingly celebrated towards the end of the 'Gothic' age. Arnolfo de Cambio, Giotto di Bondone (the painter) and Filippo Brunelleschi are all indelibly associated with the nave, campanile and dome of Florence Cathedral. One might expect names to echo loudest in Italy thanks to the Florentine Giorgio Vasari championing the native 'Lives of the Eminent Architects [. . . ]', but in Bohemia we meet with the sculpted portrait heads of the first and second architects of Prague Cathedral, Mathieu d'Arras and Peter Parler.

In England we tend to have fewer literary paeans to, and sculpted portraits of, architects. To explain Lincoln Cathedral, one of the most inventive buildings the world has ever seen, the anonymously written Metrical Life of St Hugh attributes the whole of the post-1192 building to the bishop himself:

'With wonderful art he built the work that is the cathedral church.

For in its erection he not only granted means and the labour of his own servants, but the aid of his own sweat.'

In England, we have a singularly lucid account of an architect's circumstances at Canterbury Cathedral. Following the fire of 1174, which curiously burned the east end (at precisely the same time that pilgrimage funds were building up at Becket's shrine inside), a new east end was raised within the old walls during 1174-78 by the Frenchman William of Sens. So it is remarkable that a named French designer appeared in England before we know much about continental architects on their home soil. It transpired that he was one of very few French designers in medieval England; after falling from his scaffolding and being carried home to die, he was superseded by William the Englishman.

Canterbury Cathedral is blessed with the chronicle of Gervase, the monk who recognised the novelty of the new work.

He explains the influence of the monastic community - it was they who wanted the exterior walls retained as a homage to Prior Conrad, who had built his richly painted choir 40 years previously.

It is a salient reminder (from a monk's perspective) that the designs of cathedrals and abbeys were affected both by those who paid for them and those who used them, since liturgy and practical expediency of planning were at least as important considerations as the shape of the tracery.

English historians are grateful for the archival legwork in John Harvey's Dictionary of English Medieval Architects (1984). Harvey tells us more about architects' careers, as the later centuries yield ever-fuller accounts. Some architects cooperated with notable surveyors. William Wynford and William Wykeham were the double act of the 14th century. Wykeham, who was Bishop of Winchester from 1366-1401, began his career as a royal chancellor and was surveyor for the remodelling of Edward III's birthplace - Windsor Castle - in the 1350s. The remarkably symmetrical facade has been the basis of the royal apartments up to the present day.

The tight planning of Windsor was a foretaste of Wykeham's work at New College Oxford after 1379, set out around a quad and cloister, both of which express a neat geometric approach. He rearranged his episcopal palaces and was surveyor for England's last royal castle - Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey - where the castle was set in a singular concentric shape for the benefit of the new-fangled artillery, while the adjacent town was planned as a single broad street from quay to church.

After building Winchester College from scratch, Wykeham and Wynford went on to remodel the nave of Winchester Cathedral.

Much is debated about the way Medieval architects conveyed their designs. It is a marvel that many astonishing structures survive. But the many tragic collapses - the towers of Winchester Cathedral, Beverley Minster and the 48m-high choir of Beauvais, for example - have been cleared away and rebuilt so that we might forget they ever happened.

There was a science to building a structure that would last - and it was usually the science of supersized walls.

In communicating their designs to builders, architects probably had the lot worked out on parchment and some later medieval examples of drawings exist to supplement the famous Carolingian-era plan copy of St Gallen (e. g. a plan version for Eton College and the facade of Strasbourg Cathedral). Models of wood and paper were also made, presumably for presentations, and sculptures often feature saints and patrons holding small models of buildings pertinent to them.

But architects' design processes are better revealed in the archaeological examination of buildings. In the crypt of York Minster and the top of the north stair vice of the Corona Chapel at Canterbury is the graffiti of architectural mouldings and window shapes. Now, these may or may not have been done by building designers. But a second type of archaeological resource is unquestionably revealing of their processes: the scratches in 'tracing houses'. By scratching their design on a poured plaster table or even on the floor - examples that survive above the chapter-house vestibules at Wells and York - their delicately etched computations of window tracery arcs testify to the dependency on compass and square. As the 13th-century Vienna Bible shows God the architect scribing out Earth from primordial chaos with the same tools, it is no wonder they became the indelible Masonic symbols.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter.

He appears in the next series of BBC's Time Team

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