Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot Which men call earth.
-- John Milton, "Il Penseroso"
In the 1870s, well before he left Europe for the United States and, later, the South Seas, a gaunt but ruddy-faced Robert Louis Stevenson wandered the length of France, occasionally in the company of a recalcitrant donkey he christened Modestine, which he compared in size to a large Newfoundland dog and in color to "an ideal mouse." In his first travel book, An Inland Voyage, the author wrote of entering the town of Noyon on the Oise, where he was drawn to the straight-backed Cathedral of Notre-Dame with its two stiff towers that rose solemnly above the tile roofs of the tightly clustered houses. "I find I never weary of great churches," Stevenson mused, "it is my favorite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral; a thing as single and specious as a statue to the first glance, and yet, on examination, as lively and interesting as a forest in detail. The height of spires cannot be taken by trigonometry; they measure absurdly short, but how tall they are to the admiring eye!"
Happily inspired, perhaps, yet it was by "trigonometry" that medieval Europeans ranked the soaring edifices in their midst: The size of a cathedral and the height of its vaults and spires meant everything to rivals for the lucrative pilgrimage