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20 April 2014
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The Early Church: Towards Gothic Splendour

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Building a cathedral

Image of arches and columns at Durham Cathedral's Galilee Chapel
Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral ©
The construction of cathedrals was time-consuming, dangerous for the workmen, labour-intensive and highly expensive. Structures such as Durham Cathedral, for example, took decades to complete, and were built with the loss of many labourers’ lives.

Stone had to be quarried or imported, and wood cut down, to build elaborate scaffolding, winch systems, gantries and all the labourers' huts that accompanied a medieval building site. None but the foremost architects, craftsmen and sculptors in western Europe were employed to work on these projects.

'... a shortage of cash often meant that work stopped for months, if not years.'

The design process was primarily carried out in advance between patron and master mason, and no architect’s drawings, as such, were drawn up. The geometry of the building site was passed down from mason to mason, generation after generation, by word of mouth and by example.

The unskilled labourers, who undertook the bulk of hauling the stones onto the site and into place, were often unpaid and drawn from the local community as part of the manorial service to their ecclesiastical lords. Work was seasonal. Coverings were put up during the winter to permit progress to continue, albeit at a slow rate, and work would increase during the summer as weather permitted faster and safer work. An equally important factor in the pace of the work was the amount of money available. A shortage of cash often meant that work stopped for months, if not years.

In most cases (aside from showpiece buildings such as Westminster Abbey), cathedrals and monasteries paid for their own rebuilding work. The largest source of revenue was from rent due on land that the Church had accumulated through gifts and donations from the laity. This provided significant sums of money, as by the later Middle Ages the Church controlled or owned about one third of all land in Britain.

In addition, cathedrals and monasteries received revenue from associated churches or shrine offerings. Churches who owned the relics or shrines of popular saints widely reported miracles that were associated with them to attract more visitors.

At Durham, the construction of the Galilee Chapel came at a time when the popularity of St Cuthbert, whose relics were buried in the cathedral, was being challenged by St Thomas at Canterbury. This somewhat dispels the thought that the link between the Church and the benefits of tourism are a modern creation.

Published: 2005-02-02

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