The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art

By John Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
VI
Gothic in the British Isles

IT has earlier been remarked that the union of Gothic elements took place in England independently of developments in France. To speak of independence would be misleading without the qualification, already emphasized, that all Gothic art springs from a common source in the new European society of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. As we have seen, the new society was largely dominated by the vigour and enterprise of the Norman dynasties, who held strategic positions well distributed across the area of western life. It is not without significance that the one country which retained, more or less permanently, the Norman stamp should be England. Unlike Sicily, where the earlier traditions were incompatible, England was not merely an island, but an island with a single dominant culture closely related to that of the Normans themselves. Though London could not compete with Paris as a centre of intellectual life, its mercantile importance was far greater. Even in the Saxon period, London was the richest city of the North.

Immense prestige belonged to the King of England; and it was for this prestige that the Norman dukes endangered and finally lost their homeland. And because of this same prestige the elements of the new art found a more congenial soil in England than they did in Normandy. It is commonly forgotten that by the time the greatest Norman churches were built, in the Romanesque style, the true centre of Normandy had become London. Norman kings had reigned for more than a generation, and owing to the statesmanship of the Conqueror, their hold on England was much tighter than that they exercised across the Channel. In consequence of this the English Norman architecture greatly outweighed in importance the continental output. In the first place, there is the vast number of Norman foundations in England; in the second, their individual size. It was long ago pointed out by Professor Prior that the Abbaye-aux-Hommes at Caen covered less than half the area of such Anglo-Norman churches as Winchester Cathedral, St. Paul's in London, and Bury St. Edmunds. Only Cluny among the very largest Romanesque churches abroad: Spires, St.-Martin at Tours and St.-Sernin, Toulouse, could barely equal Bury. It is unquestionable that in the year 1100 there were in England both greater buildings, and more of them, in progress than anywhere else.

To build on such a vast scale, in a country which had previously known no large-scale structures, implied a technical revolution. We can still see the importance of the change at such buildings as Winchester Cathedral, where early and later Norman work stand side by side. Fifteen years before the end of the eleventh century all masonry is of the crude, wide-jointed variety, incapable of refinements. Fifteen years after 1100, and William of Malmesbury was amazed to see "stone being so correctly laid that the joint deceives the eye, and leads it to imagine that the whole wall is composed of a single block". So closely did the cultural and the technical revolutions go together, that it has been possible to suggest that the material improvements in technology were responsible for the awakened spirit which gave them birth. We must make no such mistake. Design precedes execution, and William Rufus's great hall at Westminster fell so far short of his imagination that he said it was fit only to be the kitchen for the hall he meant to build.

The main building technique in Saxon England had been carpentry, as for

-72-

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The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vi
  • The Illustrations x
  • Acknowledgments xii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter I the Production of Gothic Art 12
  • Chapter II - The Design of Gothic Art 25
  • Chapter III Gothic Designers 39
  • Chapter IV Gothic Geography 53
  • Chapter V - Cathedral Gothic 59
  • Chapter VI Gothic in the British Isles 72
  • Chapter VII Spatial Gothic 83
  • Chapter VIII National Gothic 91
  • Chapter IX the Gothic Age 130
  • A Short Bibliography 133
  • Abbreviations Used in the Notes 137
  • Notes to the Text 138
  • Index 147
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