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The Gothic Enterprise

The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, With a New Preface

Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 2
Pages: 320
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    The Gothic Enterprise
    Book Description:

    The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are among the most astonishing achievements of Western culture. Evoking feelings of awe and humility, they make us want to understand what inspired the people who had the audacity to build them. This engrossing book surveys an era that has fired the historical imagination for centuries. In it Robert A. Scott explores why medieval people built Gothic cathedrals, how they built them, what conception of the divine lay behind their creation, and how religious and secular leaders used cathedrals for social and political purposes. As a traveler's companion or a rich source of knowledge for the armchair enthusiast,The Gothic Enterprisehelps us understand how ordinary people managed such tremendous feats of physical and creative energy at a time when technology was rudimentary, famine and disease were rampant, the climate was often harsh, and communal life was unstable and incessantly violent. While most books about Gothic cathedrals focus on a particular building or on the cathedrals of a specific region,The Gothic Enterpriseconsiders theideaof the cathedral as a humanly created space. Scott discusses why an impoverished people would commit so many social and personal resources to building something so physically stupendous and what this says about their ideas of the sacred, especially the vital role they ascribed to the divine as a protector against the dangers of everyday life. Scott's narrative offers a wealth of fascinating details concerning daily life during medieval times. The author describes the difficulties master-builders faced in scheduling construction that wouldn't be completed during their own lifetimes, how they managed without adequate numeric systems or paper on which to make detailed drawings, and how climate, natural disasters, wars, variations in the hours of daylight throughout the year, and the celebration of holy days affected the pace and timing of work. Scott also explains such things as the role of relics, the quarrying and transporting of stone, and the incessant conflict cathedral-building projects caused within their communities. Finally, by drawing comparisons between Gothic cathedrals and other monumental building projects, such as Stonehenge, Scott expands our understanding of the human impulses that shape our landscape.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94956-0
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the 2011 Edition
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: A Personal Journey
    (pp. 1-8)

    Awe. Inspiration. Humility. These words just hint at the powerful responses evoked by the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The visionaries who dreamed them command our admiration and respect, and the audacity of those who actually built them elicits disbelief. How, we may wonder, did ordinary people manage these feats of tremendous physical and creative effort during a time, to quote Thomas Hobbes’sLeviathan(1651), when life was “nasty, brutish, and short”? Technology in the twelfth to sixteenth centuries was rudimentary, famine and disease were rampant, the climate was often harsh, and communal life was unstable and incessantly violent. Yet...


    • CHAPTER 1 What Is the Gothic Enterprise?
      (pp. 11-16)

      The movement I call the Gothic enterprise began in the first half of the twelfth century in the Greater Paris Basin. In fits and starts, it continued for the next four hundred years throughout Europe. By the mid-fifteenth century Gothic cathedrals could be found from Scandinavia in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from Wales in the west to the far reaches of Central Europe in the east. I know of no comprehensive list of medieval Gothic cathedrals, but the total would surely be in the hundreds. In addition, thousands of abbey churches were built during...

    • CHAPTER 2 How Were the Cathedrals Built?
      (pp. 17-44)

      What feats of human ingenuity and perseverance enabled ordinary human beings, using rudimentary tools and technologies and working under extremely difficult circumstances, to transform blocks of stone, lengths of timber, ingots of lead, pieces of iron, mountains of sand and quicklime, and other commonplace materials into majestic works of art?¹ The process was enormously complex. Before work could begin, an overall plan was needed, identifying the component parts and specifying their appearance and the means of assembling them to form the whole (Figure 3 shows a typical cathedral “footprint”). The builders had to envision the sequence of actions allowing them...


    • CHAPTER 3 Kings, Feudal Lords, and Great Monasteries
      (pp. 47-64)

      Of the many common questions about Gothic cathedrals, the most difficult to answer is, “Why did it happen?” Identifying, much less understanding, the panoply of factors—political, economic, religious, demographic, technological, cultural, and social—involved in producing Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals is a daunting task. Medieval societies were fragmented, disorganized, and chaotic, making it difficult to identify and trace the connections between the constituent elements of these societies and the cathedrals they built.

      To grapple with this question, I organized my reading around two issues. First, building any cathedral requires the basic wherewithal to do so. There must be enough...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Age of Cathedral-Building
      (pp. 65-75)

      During the height of feudalism, when local lords and abbots of great monastic orders were in the ascendancy, kings and bishops had not simply dropped out of sight. Both remained important actors in the medieval social drama and survived intact enough to be able to challenge those who had preempted their authority. In fact, as feudalism began to wane during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the monarchy and the episcopate found themselves strategically positioned.

      The gradual weakening of the power of great feudal lords had many causes, but two in particular stand out. First, given their relentless spending, they...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Initial Vision
      (pp. 76-90)

      Though Gothic cathedrals may have come into being partly to avert heresy, the first Gothic church was not a cathedral, nor was it built with heresy in mind. It was an abbey church, and its aim was state-building. The Gothic enterprise began with the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its famous leader, Abbot Suger. Until recently, most medievalists attributed to Abbot Suger the leading role in inventing and introducing Gothic architecture into Europe. Recent studies and interpretations assign him a more modest role.¹ All agree, however, that Abbot Suger was at the center of the development of the Gothic...

    • CHAPTER 6 “The Cathedral Crusade”
      (pp. 91-100)

      On the heels of the renovation of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, work began on renovating and rebuilding in the new Gothic style dozens of cathedrals and great monastic churches throughout the greater Paris Basin. The great Gothic enterprise had been launched. Good evidence suggests that St. Denis strongly influenced these subsequent developments. The guest list of prelates from northern France and elsewhere who attended the dedication of the choir at St. Denis includes seventeen leading bishops and archbishops. If we correlate their names with the starting dates for construction of Gothic portions of the cathedrals and other great...


    • CHAPTER 7 What Is the Gothic Look?
      (pp. 103-120)

      Cathedrals have been part of Christianity from the time of Constantine (306–337). Their design and architectural styles have varied from one historical era to another, but in one important respect they are alike: all cathedrals display a distinctive geometric regularity in their design. This quality reached a high point in the Gothic style, reflecting an effort to achieve a rational, harmonious, and proportional result. Appreciating the role of geometry in their design is fundamental to understanding Gothic cathedrals.

      In Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, the total height from ground level to the tip of the spire approximates the overall length...

    • CHAPTER 8 An Image of Heaven
      (pp. 121-133)

      In 1144 a ceremony was held to dedicate the newly completed Gothic choir of the Abbey Church of St. Denis. Otto von Simson writes that, for Abbot Suger, the renovated choir was an embodiment of the “mystical vision of harmony that divine reason has established through out the cosmos.”¹ Suger portrayed the choir as a place where heaven touched earth, a space where the living could glimpse heaven. This description expresses the conception that gave rise to the Gothic style of architecture. The Gothic cathedral was intended as a space where people could get a taste of heaven (see Figure...

    • CHAPTER 9 A Pragmatic View of Cathedral-Building
      (pp. 134-144)

      The explanation for the elements of the Gothic style given in the preceding chapter has much to commend it. However, this approach is highly deductive, starting with basic theological principles and deriving from them the fundamentals of Gothic design. It underplays the fact that cathedral-building is very much a hands-on, empirical activity. If, instead, we approach cathedral-building inductively, we might ask how the basic conditions under which cathedral-building projects were carried out affected their design. Three features of Gothic cathedral-building projects strike me as particularly significant: (1) their complexity, (2) the inordinately long period of time it took to complete...


    • CHAPTER 10 Sacred Force and Sacred Space
      (pp. 147-170)

      My colleague William Mahrt, a professor of music at Stanford University, specializes in medieval church music and liturgy. I once asked him what a cathedral is for. A cathedral, he replied, exists for the performance of liturgy. He then explained that liturgy refers to the language, gestures, and actions that members of a religious body use to commune with and venerate God. TheOxford English Dictionarydefinesliturgysimilarly, as the authorized forms of rites, observances, and procedures prescribed by the church for public worship. Communication with God is engaged in as an end in itself and also in the...

    • CHAPTER 11 Imagining the Cathedral
      (pp. 171-182)

      We have seen how the physical form of the Gothic cathedral, its geometric regularity and emphasis on light, related to medieval theological ideas. So it may be astonishing to learn that some of the first cathedral spaces humans conceived were never meant to be built. Only later were these visualizations translated into actual spaces. Here I am not talking about tangible “plans” for cathedrals. Rather, I am referring to a way of thinking about the divine. To explain this, I need to describe a technique for remembering known in ancient times as “the art of memory.”

      The art of memory...

    • CHAPTER 12 Honoring the Dead
      (pp. 183-208)

      Of all of the different groups involved in building Gothic cathedrals—from prelates, monarchs, and pious laypeople, through master builders, craftsmen, and vendors, to ordinary wage laborers and peasants—the group most often overlooked is the dead.¹ The dead were at least as important as the living in making cathedral building possible. For one thing, the dead proved to be effective fund-raisers. Their departure from this world became the basis for an entire industry involving endowed masses celebrated on their behalf by clergy, who often performed them in special chapels, built with gifts from the deceased. In addition, shrines dedicated...


    • CHAPTER 13 Medieval Living Conditions
      (pp. 211-218)

      In a book originally published in 1922, the sociologist Max Weber wrote, “The most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious . . . factors are oriented to this world,” and as an example he quoted the prayer at Deuteronomy 4:40, “that it may go well with thee . . . and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth.”¹ To understand religious practice in any society, including the building of magnificent sacred spaces, we need to know something about people’s everyday lives, their “days upon the earth.”

      Citizens of modern, developed countries can never fully understand and appreciate...

    • CHAPTER 14 The Spiritual Brokers—Priests and Monarchs
      (pp. 219-232)

      In any society where people thirst for the protection of religion from the harshness of life, anyone who can claim special access to the sacred and special relationships to sacred places has an important basis for political and cultural power. In the medieval world, two elements of society—prelates and monarchs—made these claims, at times competing for primacy, each claiming the ability to secure for the community God’s benevolent and protective powers. Because cathedrals and great abbey churches were considered to be the best settings for engaging the sacred, this competition naturally focused attention on them.

      Like other important...

    • CHAPTER 15 Cathedrals and Community
      (pp. 233-236)

      Cathedral-building by medieval bishops often threatened the power, economic resources, and social standing of local nobility, fostering conflict, violence, and even murder, as we saw in Chapter 6. But it seems to me that a more powerful and enduring effect of cathedral-building was to bring people together. Durkheim portrays religion as constitutive of community—participating in religious rituals, he claims, makes the social happen. This insight could be extended not only to the religious ceremonies in which worshippers participate directly, but to the act of building a cathedral itself.

      Initiating and bringing to completion a project of such scope and...

  11. CONCLUSION: Learning from Stonehenge
    (pp. 237-250)

    Our story began with the great cathedral church in Salisbury, England. Eight miles away, at the north end of the Woodford Valley, stands another grand monument, the famous Neolithic stone circle of Stonehenge. When Julia and I lead tours to Salisbury and neighboring cathedrals, we often include a visit to Stonehenge. The more I have learned about Stonehenge, the more I have been struck by the similarities between it and cathedral-building projects.¹

    A good deal of the scholarship about cathedrals on which I have drawn is suffused with discussions of the religious dogmas of the people who built them. The...

  12. APPENDIX: Terminology
    (pp. 251-254)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 255-268)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-280)
  15. List of Illustrations and Credits
    (pp. 281-284)
  16. Index
    (pp. 285-294)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-296)