Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sometimes You might be Amazed...

Most people have pre-conceived notions about many topics; the Middle Ages is one of those topics that many of them share the same basic prejudices about. We have been over them before, but for the sake of a refresher, they are the notions of "crude, primitive, simple, rudimentary" etc. being applied to almost every aspect of medieval life. One only need watch a modern movie related to anything pre-14th century to get a sense of the "average" persons notion of the level of craft and creativity of this period in history. Almost every single object is portrayed as being about two steps removed from what one might expect of Neanderthal Man. (though he was probably more sophisticated than we give him credit for as well!)

Because of our collective mentality of what things must have been like for most of the Middle Ages, sometimes one comes across something that completely astonishes these pre-conceived notion. Perhaps such is the case with something that I have been 'tripping' over for a couple years, but have not taken the time to do much research on yet. This topic which I am referring to is that of lathe turned stone columns and balusters which were apparently made throughout most of the medieval period.

7th century lathe-turned baluster fragment, Durham Cathedral

I have no intention of going into depth on the extent of this art, nor the particulars of the methods employed in its execution in this post. As already stated, I have not even done much research on the topic. What I wish to share here are some of the images which have come to my attention and to point out that this practice completely flies in the face of the "crude" and "primitive" nature of early workmanship and industry. I have no idea how this type of work was accomplished, but I think it safe to say that it would require quite some level of mechanical sophistication.  I will go one step further and point out that although there may be almost no turned wooden work surviving  from the early Middle Ages, (There are many turned objects which have been recovered from grave sites of the 6th-8th century in Trossingen, Germany which include ornamentally turned parts) one can deduce some of the forms they might have taken by observing these turned stone pieces.

7th century turned stone balusters

I first came across a picture of these 7th century turned balusters through the website of Durham University, which is dedicated to the research of Anglo-Saxon stonework, It seems that these fragments were discovered around 1830 walled up inside of a small niche in a tower and had remained there for hundreds of years. Because of their relative lack of exposure to the elements, the original surface is fairly well preserved and one can see that they were well made. These pieces are made of dolomite which is slightly harder then limestone, (MOHS 3.5-4 vs 3) so this is not a stone that can be carved with a pocket knife.

Many are fascinated with the Far Eastern 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat and other such places; they marvel at the ingenuity of the craftsmen who created these structures. (rightly so) but fail to realise that most of the same stone working techniques were used in Europe as well. Many windows of these Asian temples have turned stone balusters in them, demonstrating that the practice must have been very ancient and universal.

Lathe turned work of the Late Anglo-Saxon period from Kent, 10th-11thc

There are other turned balusters from other parts of the UK, of various dates, such as these (apparently) from the former St Augustine abbey of Canterbury, which I found through a very detailed website dedicated to the architectural details of Anglo-Saxon England. They demonstrate a fine sense of proportion and balance in their design, and show that the practice was widespread over the English Isles.(Durham is in the far north-east of the England, whilst Canterbury is in the extreme southeast)

There are many other turned shafts and columns throughout England including these from Monkwearmouth. Notice how weathered they are from exposure, yet for half of their lives, (7th-14th centuries) they were completely inside of a building.

Monkwearmouth Church balusters 7th-8thc

I mention this because I want you to compare them to other similar balusters of the same date which have had much less exposure to the elements. This is important to note when one is considering the "crudeness" or lack thereof, in stonework of medieval origin. Perhaps much of what made it "crude" was 1200 years of weathering.

Notice how crisp and clean the details of these turnings are

This craft was in no way limited to the UK either, as this 14th century balustrade from San Zeno, Italy, demonstrates.

14th century balusters from San Zeno Cathedral

I am sure there are hundreds more examples in existence throughout Europe, and thousands more which have been destroyed over the long wear of history since they were created. For me, their study serves in two capacities. The first, to reinforce the truth of the fact that in all periods of history men have been clever and skillful craftsmen and have produced untold thousands of wonderfully beautiful objects in every form of art. The second, by comparing durable objects, such as these stone items, with medieval manuscript and mural images depicting such elements, one can draw a tentative analysis of the actual details which must have been applied to wooden objects as well.

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