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In the third of Joanathan Foyle's monthly series exploring the history of architecture and architects, we look at the assimilative Normans, c1050-1200 AD Norman architecture is one of the most distinctive of the compendium of styles that surrounds us. Everyone responds to the thrilling massiveness, structural clarity and characteristic roundness of Durham, Gloucester and Peterborough cathedrals; the might of London's White Tower and Colchester and Norwich Castles; and the simple forms, imaginative geometric sculpture and spiritual gloom of Norman parish churches. But, as usual, the names of most of the architects who created these works are lost and the period that their buildings epitomise is anything but a precise entity: it's exceptionally, wonderfully complex.

For a start, how did the Norsemen - ultimately a bunch of displaced log-hut dwelling Vikings - manage to contrive a European culture of massive masonry in a Neo-Classical guise of columns and arches that gave us the term 'Romanesque'?

How did these wandering raiders come to build castles for their own defence? Why did worshippers of Odin build churches for Christ? Why was Kirkwall abbey in the Orkneys built in the Norman style when it was not under Norman occupation, while the contemporary Cappella Palatina in Palermo was built for the Norman kings of Sicily in an Arabic style? How come Edward the Confessor, the last great king of Anglo-Saxon England, built England's first Norman building at Westminster Abbey more than a decade before the Norman invasion? Moreover, if the rotund style we associate with Normans takes us up to 1200, how does that fit with the demise of the Norman dynasty with the death of Henry I in 1135, when the Angevins took over?

Problems galore, then, but there are some reasonable answers. In 1976, RHC Davis wrote a book called The Normans and their Myth. It clarifies some aspects of the way Norman culture integrated into French ways of life. The Norse chieftain, Count Rollo, arrived in northern France in 911, a century and a half before the Battle of Hastings, by which time his people had come to speak French and created the Duchy of Normandy, but had lost their Viking roots. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says of the Battle of Stamford Bridge that Harold fought his brother Tostig's Normen, but at the Battle of Hastings, three weeks later, they faced Duke William of Normandy's Frencyscan. As Frenchmen, they had adopted the Christianity that had been established there for four centuries and, unlike the Danes in England, they retained the original place-names of the towns and villages they occupied.

So the Normans were masters of adaptation, and when they took to building great churches in France in the early 11th century, at Mont-Saint-Michel, Bernay and Jumièges, they looked to the great tradition of basilican abbeys that had developed from Roman precedents in Carolingian and Ottonian Germany (c780-1000 AD). The architects of Normandy applied their own structural logic of visual floor-to-roof shaft supports to the old skeleton of bare walls, and it was these buildings that Edward the Confessor knew as a lad when living in exile in Normandy. The borrowing of a Neo-Classical idiom is telling, for when William I was crowned in 1066, it was on Christmas Day, the same day that his idol Charlemagne was created first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Imperial attitudes, the power of ecclesiastical authority and the defence of dominions were all important.

Eric Fernie's book The Architecture of Norman England (2000) establishes that, of Norman architects, 'we know almost nothing about them'. It would be too easy to assign an architectural role to those builders whose names survive because they were usually patrons or surveyors of sorts. The most famous practical hand was Gundulf, William I's Bishop of Rochester, who was responsible for supervising Rochester Castle and Cathedral.

The latter sports an oddly defensive turret off the north transept, suggesting he might have planned to scarper upstairs should the Saxons decide to revolt.

Gundulf was also the planner of the White Tower, closely modelled on Ivry-la-Bataille Castle in Normandy, but superseded in scale by Colchester Castle. Do its 9m-thick foundations suggest he was versed in military planning as well as buildings of worship?

In reality, we don't know if he was a financial, aesthetic or constructional administrator, and this is Fernie's point. Flattering terms recorded in Latin, like ingeniosus artifex, tell us too little.

There is one way that we can understand more about architects from 1,000 years ago. AJ readers might admit that today's architects leave traces of their thoughts strewn throughout their buildings: unit measurements, shapes, details, materials and so on all speak to us about the motives and aspirations of the originator's hand. In a similar way, listening to the historic traces is how we can best learn about the methods of the Norman designers, regardless of their names.

The first means of identifying the aims of Norman builders is in planning. In 1942, Richard Krautheimer wrote a very influential article, entitled Introduction to an 'Iconography of Medieval Architecture', which showed how the basis of influence - the obsession of art historians - lay in schematic plan shapes of a certain geometry and number. For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a round martyrium form which placed the relic (Christ's body) at the focal point, surrounded by an ambulatory to manage the flow of pilgrims. After Pope Urban II rallied the First Crusade to Jerusalem in 1095, many of those who returned - such as the Knights Hospitallers at Clerkenwell and Knights Templars at Dover, the Abbot of Ramsey at Cambridge and Simon de Senlis at Northampton - built churches in emulation of the Holy Sepulchre in that they were round.

To sharp modern eyes, they look only a little like their model, which would hardly suggest any concerted copy. But to get closer to their intentions, we must do without instantaneous photographic reproductions of plans and views, and we must forget how to write and draw well. Then we have to imagine how we might remember a few key aspects of a complex building over a 2,000-mile, two-month hike across desert and mountains.

Alternatively, it is quite easy to translate a few key dimensions into yard-long strides and this may explain how nine great Norman churches in England were built to the seminal dimensions of the old St Peter's in Rome.

Geometry was widely used for its repetitive facility in planning: drawing a hexagon with compasses of a fixed aperture is child's play, and the standard mason's kit of T-square and dividers enabled a large variety of simple shapes to be rendered with accuracy. Conventions grew around the way buildings should be set out, and, for churches, the focus was the square cloister. The typical geometry (see sketch 3 above) might go something like this:

Take a square: this is the cloister garth (a); rotate the square to create the width of the cloister walk (b); then take the diagonal of the whole cloister and draw a 45° arc: this is the west wall of the church (c); take the alternative diagonal and scribe to the east: this is the length of the church to the presbytery (d); divide the church's west-to-east dimension into a handy number of units (e); let each one of those units be an aisle bay of the church (f ); four units gives the width of the church (g); two for the crossing beneath the square tower (h); and several might do for the transepts (i); expand into the presbytery (j). Even by this stage, the measurements need not have been fixed, but the scale now needs agreement - why not match St. Peter's? The recipe continues: draw details; contract the supply and cutting of stone and timber and lead for the roofs; map out the plan with cords and pegs; dig trenches along those lines; construct over several decades and serve mass.

In planning the construction phase, the master mason established the placement of the walls, piers, columns and arches.

Probably on parchment, he would set the dimensions down and calculate the radii, heights and shapes of each element so that they stood a chance of fitting upon assembly. Those kit parts were made into templates that were taken to quarries. It would be foolish to pay for the transportation of too much inevitably wasted material, so most of the cutting was done by 'banker masons'(giving us the root of the modern money-lenders' establishments). Several documents record this process: for Archbishop Lanfranc's rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral of the 1070s, he had 'transported by sea from Caen, where he had been abbot, squared stones for building'. The Normans loved the fine limestone of their homeland - the payments stayed in the Duchy and transporting the stuff 40 miles across the Channel in boats cost far less than moving it 10 miles over hills by a fleet of horses and carts.

So prevalent was the Norman use of fine-cut masonry that several Anglo-Saxon habits died out. Among them was the abandonment of constructing corners with 'long-and-short work' of vertical monoliths and horizontal ties. Masonry was now more regular and, as the Norman period progressed, stones became more smoothly chiselled and the bonding much tighter with slimmer mortar courses - voussoirs replaced the Saxon habit of turning arches with recycled Roman bricks.

Another key feature of Norman design was the relationship of the block of stone to the decorative detail it carried.

Look at the famously zigzagged and criss-crossed piers of Durham Cathedral: each stone has one of just two motifs incised - a diagonal line or a 'V' - and the reason that the piers have variations on a theme of diagonals is that the design can be repeated if it is regulated. A 'V' zig can be turned upside-down to become a zag.

Zigzags lead us to another aspect of Norman designers:

exoticism. Their empire straddled central Europe from Lindisfarne to Sicily, and when they travelled into the Holy Land in the early 12th century, a combination of influences inspired them.

As saffron and dried fruits were imported to add Persian flavour to meat, so the arrival of zigzags and pointed arches irresistibly suggest the influence of Levantine architecture on England. The earliest major pointed arches in England belong to Temple Church in London (built c1160), a round 'sepulchre' form building. Here the earliest known use of Purbeck marble shafts achieves a polychromatic effect, creating a fashion for the next century. An inscription above the Temple Church's west door tells of its eventual consecration in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, possibly in the presence of Henry II. In the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral is a five-aisled array of zigzag arches on a grid of columns, which has suggested the influence of mosques to many scholars: though why, on a Christian church in County Durham, remains an open question.

But the reach of architects in the Norman empire is without question. For the curious architect abroad, a copy of the Mirabilia Urbis Romae (The Marvels of the City of Rome) was available as the first recorded scholarly account of the built environment.

Written by Benedict in around 1143 to explain Rome's famous Classical ruins, much like an ancient Pevsner guide, one section offered a 'perambulation', but the descriptions are often fabulously inaccurate and all the more engaging because of it.

The Normans also made some impressive developments in domestic building, not least in building legislation. The 12thcentury London Assizes made clear that, 'When two neighbours shall have agreed to build between themselves a wall of stone, each shall give a foot and a half of land, and so they shall construct, at their joint cost, a stone wall three feet thick and sixteen feet in height [?much advice on installing gutters, the un-neighbourliness of window obstruction and the need for whitewashing and plastering cookshops?] Whosoever wishes to build, let him take care, as he loveth himself and his goods, that he roof not with reeds, nor rush, nor with any manner of litter, but with tile only, or shingle, or boards, or, if it may be, with lead, within the city and Portsoken. Also all houses which till now are covered with reed or rush, which can be plastered, let them be plastered within eight days, and let those which shall not be so plastered within the term be demolished by the aldermen and lawful men of the venue.' Five hundred years later, such foresight might have saved some of the City's last Norman buildings.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter

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