Friday, January 30, 2009

Fat and Happy Stonecutters

From what I've observed on my slow, long walk, I've concluded that there could have been no one fatter or happier than a 12th-century stonecutter. There must have been a lot of them, too. And if stonecutters are fat and happy, well then, it stands to reason that the butchers, the bakers, and the candlestick makers were surely getting their cut, too.

I conclude this from the preponderence of 12th-century stone structures that exist, both civil and religious, in cities, towns, and the smallest of villages.

I ask myself, looking around me through all of these regions, why the 12th century? Something special must have been going on to prompt the burst of thoughtful, artful, meaningful big things hewn from stone. How did it get started?

In the north, I learned, William the Bastard went abroad looking for a better name for himself and came back from England as William the Conqueror. Bad for the English, maybe, but it brought side benefits... not the least of which was Middle English, which really makes more sense. His control over vast lands eliminated the battle over them and put money in his pocket - then he kicked off the whole 'gothic' thing.

Much further to the south, the king of Genoa took full advantage of the budget problems of the previous Emperor of the Eastern Empire. In the late 11th century, the ready solution to the cashflow situation was to cancel the standing army in order to fund the arts. Rock on. It may have initiated the ultimate demise of the empire, but what a great way to go. Threat of countryside skirmishes thusly eliminated, the Genoan king, faced with a myriad of problems associated with urban overcrowding, sent teams of priests and monks into the countryside, each given compass direction and number of days' walk. Go, build a church, people will follow. Following these orders, the populace displaced themselves willingly resulting in the quaintest of countryside villages today. It's particularly interesting to walk in the hills above the Cinque Terra and stumble on the ruins of a church that for whatever reason never attracted the villagers it was built to serve.

Meanwhile, the successful 8th-century Muslim invaders down in Iberia, settled in with the invaded by exercising broad religious tolerance - use the synogogues and churches already in existance, or join us in the mosque, whatever. They supported education in a big way, allowing the copying of clever scientific manuscripts by anyone with some vellum and a pen. Algebra, anyone? Humanities, philosophy, all sorts of subjects now being copied sure opened the market for scribes and illuminated monks.

In a big chunk of what's now France, Eleanor of Aquitaine married into England for political motivations in the middle of the century and much later her grandchildren began their squabbles over their inheritance in the 100-years'-war between France and England. Bad all around, but how many plays would Shakespeare have written without that family providing the tales?

Sadly, but key to the evolution of European culture, the whole 12th century, and those to follow, was funded by the ridiculous crusades. After centuries of wars and local battles throughout the continents, having an 'away' for a good 100 years allowed for the home fields to be tidied up.

So the stonecutters were pulled from all quarters, and of course, engineers, project managers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, the tile guys, an occasional plumber, let's hope - all hands on deck to create the cathedrals, those massive and those minor, parish churches, abbeys and monasteries, and the massive fortified chateaux of the rich and famous.

Technology advanced by leaps and bounds long before the end of the century. Word got out about the enormous cathedrals of Chartres, Paris, Reims, and other northern cities. Some dude named Armand Picaud wrote what is claimed to be the first tour guide - a pilgrim's guide to Europe from five different footpaths to Santiago de Compostela. Copies still exist; it's quite well quoted even today. The copies were aided by the 12th-century development of papermaking in Europe, hand in hand with wind- and watermills. Technology went wild, like electronic technology today.

Toward the end of the century, the exchange of knowledge was incredible... scholars going all over in search of higher education, universities opening everywhere. Many of the scholars were monks. Francis was preaching 'don't think, just love one another' in Assisi; Dominic, in Spain saying 'learn everything possible'. Pilgrims were on the move - men, women, from all walks of life, to Santiago, Rome, Mont St Michel, Canterbury, loads of other towns with a Saint or a martyr attached to it, many attracted by all relics or trinkets brought back by the crusaders who needed to justify their behavior.

And those stonecutters kept carving their wonderful architectural sculptures creatively depicting biblical stories and mythological allegories for us to enjoy today. Everything unique. The centuries that followed were also full of beautiful art and architecture - that renaissance thing going on in Italy by the 15th century particularly comes to mind - but to wander around and look at the remains of 12th century really highlights those stonecutters' efforts.

1 comment:

Amawalker said...

Ann-e - I am really enjoying your posts. Have you noticed the mason signs in the monuments carved by the stonecutters? Some will become familiar to you as you follow the mason from one town to the next. I followed a bird carving from the Collegiate church in Roncesvalles all the way to Leon! (Wonder where he went to after that?)
Where are you Ann-e??