The Craft of the Mason, by Milica of Varna

He addressed himself in procuring the stone beyond the sea. He constructed ingenious machines for loading and unloading ships, and for drawing cement and stones. He delivered moulds for shaping the stones to the sculptors who were assembled, and diligently prepared other things of the same kind.

William of Sens, master mason of the new choir of Canterbury Cathedral

Anyone who has ever looked at a picture of a great cathedral of the Middle Ages, or better yet, stood beneath the vast arches of one of these marvels must have contemplated how these wonders of archtecture came to be. Whose vision translated the drawings or loose stones into reality? In medieval times, it was the stone mason. The professions of architect, contractor and engineer are modern concepts, for in the medieval world, they were all combined. The stone mason had the vision that brought all of them together.

When a community, a great lord, or the Church decided to build a church, castle or cathedral, one of the most important decisions was the stone mason to hire. Master masons held great status and power in the medieval world. The elaborate tomb of Hughes Libergier, architect of St. Nicaise of Reims, who died in 1263, gives testimony of the status of these men. His efigy shows him in long robes, holding his staff and surrounded by drawing tools. The status was well-founded. Master masons traveled long distances, advising on buildings, studying architecture, sketching ideas, selecting materials and choosing teams of workers who could carry out their vision. They would be required to know about geology to understand stone, while at the same time, having experience and knowledge of different types of plaster and moulding practices. They would be skilled in drafting to be able to put their ideas to paper, sometimes making intricate drawings of how stones must fit together to form the design. It took a great master to build a great cathedral, as modern scholars can see from the surviving sketches of Milan Cathedral and York Minster. Masons must have been engineers, with knowledge of machines for lifting huge stones. Masons must also have been contractors. Since no man could do everything on a building site, it would be the job of the master mason to hire specialists from the many guilds, including sculptors, masons, carpenters, and laborers. It would also be his job to see to their pay and needs, and then provide accountings to the lord, mayor or church official. It was a job of incredible responsibility.

Whether it was to be a small keep used for defense, a comfortable new castle, or a magnificent cathedral, masons were required to plan monuments that, due to their materials, would leave a nearly-permanent mark on the landscape. Because of the skill of these masters, modern students of medieval life can peek into the past and walk the halls of another time.

Source: John Cherry. Medieval Crafts: A Book of Days.

Copyright © 1997 by Katherine Courtney. All Rights Reserved.