I have always wanted to know what it feels like to pick up chisel and mallet and create stone carvings like a medieval mason. Fortunately, a few weeks ago I took a long-overdue stonemasonry course which allowed me to indulge this passion for all things practical and petrological.
When I lived in York, German masons clad in black-trimmed waistcoats, aprons and flares would crowd into wooden shelters in the Minster stoneyard to ply their trade. Sometimes I would strike up a conversation while they worked, particularly with one woman who liked to stand at the fence to chat. As a large part of my doctoral research examined different ways of working stone, I would pester her with a multitude of questions.
As I grew to learn more about ecclesiastical architecture, my understanding of the craft deepened. I loved to visit the great but ruined monastic houses of North Yorkshire, and time and time again I would return to ponder over different questions of construction, planning, and the skills of medieval masons in assembling such magnificent structures. While in York, it was my hope to see the unveiling of the great East window of the minster, currently covered in scaffolding for repairs. Imagine my dismay when in 2009, I was told it wouldn’t be finished for another ten years!
Hence I found myself one Saturday morning at the Fremantle Arts Centre, a nineteenth-century psychiatric hospital now masquerading as a hub for cultural and educational events. In a medieval vein, I decided to carve a ‘foliate head’, or what most people would recognise as a Green Man. I agonised for hours over my choice of model. (Its just as well that I didn’t carve an example from existing medieval architecture, as I would not have done it justice… though I did notice an improvement in my carving skill over the course of the day).
What struck me most about the day-long course was that many of the academic questions relating to tooling and physical malleability I’ve been harbouring for years were answered simply by working the stone. Many and loud are those who praise the perks of experimental archaeology and kinaesthetic learning, and I’m glad I joined their ranks.
In particular, though we worked a man-made stone, it was easy to see how porosity, texture and mineral composition would invariably lead to different purposes and outcomes. After a few hours I found myself wanting a rock with harder geological features than the replica sandstone or limestone, simply to see how it changed the effort required to work or the level of detail it could provide.
It was also easy to see that the sounds we generated — the monotonous tinkings and hammerings in the clear sea air — would not have been any different from a medieval stone yard. Masonry is one of the crafts that has survived in roughly the same form since the Middle Ages, mainly due to the materials and tools required for the upkeep and maintenance of stone structures. Despite this, we were all relieved to have access to modern microfibre masks, as the dust quickly crept into our lungs and had us dry coughing by lunchtime.
I must say, I was also relieved not to have to carve plain ashlar blocks like a medieval mason would have done for the first two years of his apprenticeship. While these men would have received complex instructions from the Masonic lodge floor, they still may have found themselves carving austere, unadorned blocks for years. Indeed, if apprentices showed no aptitude for figural carving or the work of a master mason upon graduating to the rank of journeyman (literally, one who journeys in search of work), they might have been stuck with such boring work for life!
During the long hours of chipping I also pondered the difficulties of quarrying and transporting stone, something which is grossly overlooked in modern scholarship, given the intense focus on cathedral building or Masonic guild social structures. Quarrying (much like salvaging building material) is sadly the piece of the stonemasonry puzzle which removes traces of itself. I have only visited one medieval quarry site in my life, and all that was apparent at the site were exposed cliff faces, much less imposing than I was expecting, where it was not easy to tell if the banding in the sandstone was metamorphic erosion or deliberate removal of stone with a desirable bedding plane.
My lasting memory of the day was the pleasure of working with my classmates in the autumnal sunshine. As only very privileged medieval masons were allowed to linger indoors over intricate carvings or building plans at any site during the winter months, the camaraderie of the whole class reminded me of what it must have been like during the height of summer cathedral construction.
Now I only have to rewind eight hundred years and imagine doing it all without an angle grinder….