Designs in Adversity: Architecture and Society in an earlier Age of Pandemics

Endless pages, of course, have been written on the development of Gothic architecture in England, but today I am writing in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic, which has brought to mind the ways in which societies express themselves through the buildings they erect and so I thought: “Why not?” If you’re not seeing the link between the crisis that currently engulfs us and old churches and castles… hopefully you will soon.

The various stages through which Gothic architecture proceeded in medieval England tell us a huge amount about how society itself was developing during the period. The very term “Gothic” itself starts us off, although no-one in the medieval period ever called it “Gothic”. As with so much to do with how we view the past the name was first applied to “buildings with pointy arches” in the 19th Century and means, simply, “Eastern”. There is some conjecture that the structural benefits of the pointed arch, as opposed to the semi-circular “Romanesque” arch then employed in Europe, may have first come to the attentions of Westerners during the Crusades. Islamic architects certainly understood that pointed arches spread the weight of the wall above more effectively than semi-circles, but whether passing, marauding, Christian hordes took much time to stop and appreciate oriental building techniques has never been proven. Nevertheless, the very fact that this knowledge spread throughout Europe tells us one thing: that people were travelling further and exchanging ideas with a greater variety of people.

Ever since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD476, a great regression in building ability had occurred across Europe. Old Roman buildings were left to fall into decay and in England the invading Anglo Saxons preferred to build their towns and villages away from the old, ghost-filled ruins of Roman Britannia – although they made good use of their roads. Many old buildings were plundered for their stone and, it seems, not a huge amount regarding construction was learnt – at least early on.

In the end, the tricks of the Romans were rediscovered. Greater mobility and larger, richer kingdoms in England led to more interaction with their continental counterparts. Christianity was brought back by St Augustine and churches began to be built. Many of these directly aped Roman designs. Even the earlier Saxon buildings combined elements re-learnt from Roman times: although their smaller windows often had triangular arches over them, the double window of two semi-circular arches next to each other, with a turned pillar between them, was often a feature, especially on higher-status buildings – a feature taken straight from the Classical world.

As time went on, Romanesque buildings grew to achieve great size and splendour, but their reliance on semi-circles for support brought problems. To build a tall structure, the walls had to be very thick, or the weight would bring it crashing down. Any windows or doors had to be small, pillars and columns had to be enormous and there was a definite limit on how wide a room could be before a semi-circular, or “barrel”, vault would collapse under its own weight.

But then, in just the same way that Romanesque ideas had spread to England from abroad, so came newer ideas. The pointed arch had, in fact, been seen quite commonly before in England, but almost always as a purely decorative feature – often where semi-circular arches had been overlaid on top of each other to create designs to ornament walls, as seen here at Ely Cathedral.

© Steven Zucker

But then, in the year 1135, or thereabouts, something seismic happened in the northern English town of Durham. A great, Norman (as the Romanesque is often known in England) cathedral was being built, but when it came to the roof, for the first time, pointed arches were used to throw a stone vault across the wide nave. Rather than purely existing for decoration, these arches were structural – and their influence was enormous.

Durham cathedral is not the first Gothic cathedral in Europe – that distinction belongs to the Basilica St Denis in France. Indeed, Durham cathedral is not really a gothic building at all. It is very much Romanesque. Its walls are thick, its columns massive and its windows small. Decoration consists of zig-zag, and dogtooth designs. The overall effect could be called gloomy, or heavy, although certainly impressive…

The rose window at the east end is a later addition. Note how only the ceiling has pointed arches – all the others are semi-circular © Oliver Bonjoch

This discovery – that pointed arches are stronger arches – soon came to be used much more extensively and a style developed in England that we know, inventively enough, as Early English. In fact, it’s a bit off to try to claim it as a purely English invention – the style had been in use in France for some time before we got in on the act – so a more tactful name for it is “Lancelot”, from the shape of the windows. Designers had realised that, by using pointed arches for strength, openings (windows and doors) could be much larger. Windows became wider, columns and piers narrower, walls loftier and what had once been dark, foreboding church buildings became light and elegant. By far the greatest example of this style in England is to be found at Salisbury – a most unusual cathedral in that the main bulk of it was built within a mere forty years, which gives it a highly unusual overall conformity in design. A truly beautiful building, only the tower, spire and cloisters were added later.

Tall and narrow “Lancelot” windows are grouped together to give the impression of larger windows. © Diliff
The interior effect is simple, light and elegant © Diliff

Not only did these new, lighter, airier churches reflect new building techniques; they also showed a new relationship with religion in this period. In the 13th Century people were moving away from the almost other-worldly mystery of the Romanesque period and were finding a new, exultant expression towards God in their buildings. They soar towards the heavens, their tall pointed windows showing the way up to the skies, where the Lord himself was, surely, looking benevolently down on these new, glorious works completed in His name. The people looked upon their beauty and glory and rejoiced.

That wasn’t all when it came to technical innovation, though. Take another look at the exterior of Salisbury and you will see that the windows are grouped together to give the impression of larger windows. Some of them even have a decorative arch over the top. There are groups of three and even five windows together. You can feel the architect yearning to make even bigger, wider windows.

Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t all that complicated. The masons who built Salisbury were almost there. Someone, it appears, must have reasoned that if they could put an arch over all five windows, then maybe that arch could actually be made structural and would be strong enough to support the wall above it. The thin sections of wall between these Lancelot windows could then be reduced to become mullions. If they weren’t needed to hold up the weight of the wall above, then all they had to hold up was glass, so they could be much thinner and part of the design of the window itself, rather than structurally integral to the building.

And if you were grouping lances together, then that left a diamond-shaped area between their pointed tops and the wall-supporting arch above… perhaps a circular opening could be fitted in there? And then… even the areas left by those could be filled in with glass too?

It took a little while – these things mostly happened by evolution, rather than in sudden leaps – but from these thoughts the Decorated period was born.

Firstly, slightly cautiously, the designs of this new period were based on good, strong shapes. Despite the fact that the pointed arch of the whole window was taking the weight, the masons still couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave strength in the shapes they used behind, so circles were employed between the lances where possible. This, initial stage of the Decorated is known as the “Geometric Decorated” and a wonderful example can be seen in the West Window at Exeter

The Great West Window at Exeter © DeFacto

This new, richly ornamental style produced an explosion in inventiveness and it wasn’t too long before people realised that it didn’t matter what shapes you used under the arch – the arch was strong enough on its own. New, extraordinary designs were produced that celebrated nature. The mullions of windows could be extended upwards, above the lances and then split and cross in an exuberant, joyful display that gloried in the Good Lord’s creation. For a period of about fifty years in the first half of the 14th Century the Gothic reached its poetic zenith in England in the Flowing Decorated period.

The two greatest windows of the style were constructed at York and Carlisle, while extra adornments and fiddly bits were added to ceiling vaults in the form of lierne ribs that served no structural purpose, but were purely for decoration, as in the Lady Chapel at Ely. At Southwell Minster the most incredible carvings of leaves were added to the portal to the chapter house. The overall effect is one of excitement, exultation and joy in all that was good in the world.

Carlisle’s East Window is the largest Flowing Decorated window, with a design based on tulips © Diliff
The Great West Window at York Minster, known as the Heart of Yorkshire © Diliff
Decorative lierne vaulting in the ceiling of Ely’s Lady Chapel © Diliff
Extraordinarily delicate naturalistic carving at Southwell Minster © Kognos

But then. Disaster. In June of the year 1348 the Black Death arrived in England. The beautiful, joyful window at Carlisle was unfinished and remained so until the 19th Century, when some of its interior stonework was finally completed. This great work of joy at God’s great creation was cut short – its masons dead of the plague. The exultant Decorated period was over.

Huge numbers of people died in wave after wave of plague. What had been the societal norm of joy and exultation became fear and trepidation. How could so many have died unless God was angry with his people? Surely they must have been living in very great sin for Him to visit such destruction upon them? The Black Death wrought huge changes on society and this was reflected in the style of their churches. Gone were the flowing, nature-based designs and in came vast, terrifying cages based on straight lines. The Perpendicular was born.

The Choir of Gloucester Cathedral © Diliff

The choir at Gloucester Cathedral is, in fact, in its bones, Norman, not Perpendicular. Look at the arches of the arcade and gallery in the walls. No points here. But the whole has been overlaid with stone tracery produced in the Perpendicular style – with strong emphasis on horizontal lines. And then there’s the East Window itself. There’s no doubt that this is Gothic, with its vast pointed arch over the whole. It is the largest pre-modern window anywhere in the world – the size of a tennis court. It is enormous, but there’s none of the delicate, curvilinear tracery of Carlisle or York. This is a window designed to inspire fear and awe. Your God is powerful and you disobey him at your peril. Society had become all too aware of this, now that so many of their compatriots lay mouldering in their graves.

And just look at the vault! This is the period where ceiling vaults really took over as the main decorative features in cathedrals. Partly this is a result of practical necessity. The Black Death had carried away a great many skilled masons and lierne vaults could be mass-produced in much simpler designs than those required by Decorated Period windows. Enormously elaborate designs were created from standard-sized ribs producing, in this case, a vision of the very starry firmament itself! Look upon your God and fear Him!


But it was also at Gloucester… some time after the great shock of the plague had subsided… that some of the most beautiful works of the final stage of the Gothic period were wrought. Fan vaulting allowed a little exuberance and joy back into architecture, before the Reformation changed everything. And fans of the Harry Potter films will recognise them too…

Fan vaulting in the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral © Christopher JT Cherrington

And then… along came the Reformation. The new Protestant religion emphasised one’s personal relationship with God. Great men no longer displayed their wealth (or bought favours from the Pope) by building wonderful churches and cathedrals. All they needed was prayer to avoid an eternity in Hell. They turned their attention away from building to the Glory of God and towards the Glory of their Purses. The great English Country House was born and the Gothic faded away behind them as the Tudor Period found new styles more suitable for the houses of the great and good.

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