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23 November 2020

ACE Book Review – Imogen Corrigan, 'Stone on Stone: The Men who Built the Cathedrals'


ACE Tour Director and medieval historian Imogen Corrigan is well known for her perennially popular Churches of Norfolk: An Appointment with Angels tour and her exploration of Northumbria in the First Millennium. Prior to leading tours, Imogen spent almost 20 years in the Army, retiring in the rank of Major, before studying Anglo-Saxon and Medieval History at the universities of Kent and Birmingham. An accredited Arts Society lecturer, she is also a Freeman of the Company of Communicators.

2021 will see Imogen lead a brand new tour for ACE uncovering Churches of Suffolk, introducing participants to an array of delightful and very different parish churches and revealing the characters that built them. Imogen writes of the tour, “I am increasingly convinced that we can learn about [our medieval ancestors] as real people from the carvings and images that they left behind, and explore what mattered to them”, and it is this premise that lies at the heart of her recent book, Stone on Stone: The Men Who Built the Cathedrals.

Published by Robert Hale Ltd in 2019, this fascinating book takes a human angle in its study of some of Europe’s greatest cathedrals, asking the questions – who were the people who built these enduring structures, and how did they construct them?

Imogen draws on extensive research to explore the history of cathedral building and introduce readers to the Master Masons, who were the individuals responsible for designing the cathedrals and also running the building sites. Many of these men became famous, and some notably wealthy, in their lifetimes. Their achievements are truly astounding, and this book details the processes involved behind the building projects they masterminded – from selecting a suitable site, to sourcing and transporting materials, employing and managing a workforce and training apprentices, and, of course, financing the entire endeavour. Imogen shows how, like any building project today, cathedral construction was sometimes beset with practical and logistical problems!

The book also explores cathedral design. One chapter investigates the way in which artistic ideas were spread, as Master Masons and patrons travelled, viewing buildings of different styles, which then went on to influence their own projects. Imogen shows how the itinerant lifestyles of many workers led to the transmission of ideas, and how books were another way by which designs spread. She discusses the Herefordshire School of Architecture and its roots in Byzantine and Scandinavian design – an early example of cultural exchange!

Patronage is another important theme under discussion here: one chapter is dedicated to studying the sponsorship mechanisms that often financed building projects, and which can also explain aspects of church and cathedral design – from stained glass donor windows to chantry chapels. As Imogen writes, evidence shows that much patronage – whether that of an individual or a guild – was motivated by the hope of finding “enough favour with God to be admitted to the company of the citizens of Heaven”.

The book contains a variety of photographic plates – showing cathedrals ranging from Salisbury and Wells to Rheims and Amiens – as well as some illustrative ground plans. Fascinatingly, images show that the workforce itself was sometimes inscribed in the very fabric of the cathedral: architectural details include carved figures on cathedral exteriors showing masons and sculptors at work. Imogen describes a range of source material, including contemporary manuscripts, contracts, accounts and drawings, and notes that “cathedral building was such a huge part of medieval daily life that we should not be surprised by the large number of accounts that survive”. There is also material evidence within the churches and cathedrals themselves – including carvings, masons’ marks, wall paintings and tombs – across sites up and down the country.

Through this book, Imogen deftly demonstrates how the Middle Ages were indeed “a time of innovation and experimentation with new artistic and architectural ideals”. The writing style will be recognisable to those who have travelled with Imogen, as she elucidates the motivations behind the building of new cathedrals, and describes how the projects were realised, with characteristic insight, flair, and, at times, humour. For those interested in medieval history – both architectural and social – this is a must–read!

We hope that this book review has inspired you to read Stone on Stone: The Men Who Built the Cathedrals, which is available online and through bookshops. To find out more about Imogen’s upcoming tours with ACE, click here.