Looking at Buildings

Styles & Traditions


Medieval Traditions

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Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Buildings from the middle ages, the thousand years between the end of the RomanGlossary Term empire and the 16th century, demonstrate the skills of mason and carpenter before the age of industrial technology. Many still make a significant impact on the English landscape. Cathedrals and great churches, made possible by the wealth of the church as an international organisation, are still the dominant buildings in many towns; ambitious castles, even when ruined, vividly reflect the power of secular lords in an unsettled and often violent society. The evidence of surviving medieval houses provides glimpses of a way of life very different from our own; while public monuments revealGlossary Term aspects of the medieval world which fascinated later centuries, such as its preoccupation with the afterlife, and its command of fine craftsmanship.

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Carlisle Cathedral, Cumberland

Different building types required the development of special techniques to satisfy their needs, which had to be developed with simple technology and with the materials available. Sturdy walls were needed for defensive buildings, while the need to roof large internal spaces of churches and great halls led to the development of different types of timber roofs and stone vaults. The challenge of combining these with large windows, and accommodating decoration and ornament as part of the structure, led to a succession of inventive solutions between the 12th and the early 16th century.

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Bowhill, Exeter, Devon

Medieval buildings continued to intrigue and inspire later generations, and the styles of different periods were given names by later historians: RomanesqueGlossary Term (or NormanGlossary Term, from the reigning monarchs) for the round-archedGlossary Term buildings of the 11th and 12th centuries, GothicGlossary Term for the architecture that developed from it, making use of the pointed archGlossary Term, stone vaultGlossary Term, and elaborate window traceryGlossary Term.

Detailed examination, often undertaken during repair and conservation work, has increased our understanding of the process of building, and our respect for the achievementGlossary Term of those responsible for designs of great complexity and sophistication.

The principal components of the great medieval church were developed and refined from the 11th to the 13th century to provide for a complex mixture of activities: services of worship, processions and ceremonies on special occasions, and more informal visits to shrines and chapels. The east arm with the choirGlossary Term for the clergy, focused on the High Altar, provided a place for regular worship; the surrounding choirGlossary Term aisles and retrochoirGlossary Term allowed for efficient circulation to the shrines and chapels at the east end of the church. Transepts stabilised the large open space below the crossingGlossary Term tower and offered space for additional chapels, while the long aisled naveGlossary Term own altar was (with the exception of certain monasteries) available for lay people. The west front was often elaborated by towers and sculpture to provide a public showpiece.
Adjacent to the church, the chapter houseGlossary Term was the place for the business meetings of the clergy, while the cloister walks linked this and the church to other buildings used by the clergy. In great churches which were also monasteries these included a communal dormitory and refectoryGlossary Term.

The medieval castle developed from the 11th century as a defensive structure for the household and followers of a monarch, his representative or member of the aristocracy. Early castles were earthworks protecting timber buildings. After the NormanGlossary Term Conquest the stone keepGlossary Term was introduced as a more permanent last resort within the castle enclosure, its access at first floor level protected by a forebuilding. From the 13th century a stone curtain wallGlossary Term and mural towers commanding an outer ditch provided additional defence, strengthened by an increasingly sophisticated gatehouse, crossed by a drawbridge across the ditch, and sometimes given additional protection by an outer barbicanGlossary Term. Within the walls was domestic accommodation providing Great Hall, kitchen and lodgings. In the later Middle Ages these were often rebuilt and improved. By this time, as much of the country became more settled, except on the borderland with Scotland and on the coast, castles were more significant as status symbols than for purely defensive purposes.

The core of the medieval house was the Great Hall, a large heated room open to the roof. At first it had an open hearth with a smoke opening or louvreGlossary Term in the roof; from the 14th century fireplaces became common, although not universal. From early times a traditional plan was established: the entrance, often through a porch, led into a passage screened off from the 'low' end of the hall, providing access to service rooms and kitchen, the latter often kept separate to avoid danger of fire. The 'high' end of the hall was the place where the lord presided. From here there was access to the solarGlossary Term beyond, a more private upper room, often in a separately roofed wing; in the later Middle Ages the private rooms became more significant as communal dining in the hall declined. In larger establishments lodgings provided self-contained apartments for the lord's followers, and a gatehouse presented an opportunity for display as well as security. Other informally grouped outbuildings such as stables, dovecote and barn provided for the needs of the household. Simpler versions of the basic plan of hall, private rooms wing and service end were adopted for lesser establishments and for more constricted urban sites.


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