Look closely at the walls of many medieval churches and, if the light is right, carefully inscribed marks can be seen. These are masons’ marks and they were made by the stonemasons who cut the blocks that make up the walls, piers, arches and windows of the churches. There are a lot of other marks on the walls as well, mostly made by visitors or other people for a whole variety of reasons, ranging from the simple desire to record a visit through to complex systems of working out where processions are to start, or particular clergy are to stand. Masons’ marks stand out from this background of visual ‘noise’ by their repetition, as there are usually several examples of the same mark in close proximity, and by their decisiveness in cutting, since they were cut by people evidently skilled in using sharp tools. That much is clear, but what remains to be discovered is what purpose these marks served.
The great churches and cathedrals of medieval Europe were built by a group of skilled artisans about whom we know a great deal. Documents survive in large quantities in which names, rates of pay, types of work done and other details are recorded. Contracts tell us about the nature of the projects the masons carried out, the tools they used, their conditions of employment, and in sections that seem more modern than medieval, sometimes even include reference to penalties for over running. From these, and from other documents, we can tell where the masons came from, how many days they worked and how many holidays they were allowed to take. We also know that most only worked on the site between the spring and the autumn and that works departments were scaled right down in the winter when it was not possible to build for fear of frost damaging the partially complete structure. In some cases this meant that a skilled workforce was disbanded, and at Lichfield the master of works made an impassioned plea to the Dean and Chapter to be allowed to pay his key workers over the winter since they had skills that it would take some considerable time to teach to new masons in the next season.
Although the documentary record is very rich the documents that refer to building operations were usually written to provide a record of expenditure and to demonstrate that the monies had been spent appropriately. Antiquarian interests were not uppermost in the minds of the medieval clerks of works or lay observers. Nevertheless a great deal can be inferred from detailed study of these documents. The one thing that is conspicuously absent is any reference to rules concerning the uses of masons’ marks. There are some records that deal with the regulations concerning masons, two documents provide direct information about the training and organisation of stone masons. These are the Regius and Cooke Manuscripts that date from the 15th century and are now thought to have been written in the West Midlands. They provide an insight into the way that stonemasons, who worked outside the guild system, had regulations about rates of pay, the taking of apprentices and other aspects of working practice, but no mention is made of masons’ marks. This is particularly unfortunate since late-medieval masons in Eastern Europe were governed by what seems to be a similar system of regulation, known as the Torgau Statutes and these have detailed instructions on the way that marks were to be allocated and used. Some writers have assumed that the Torgau Statutes were a codification of long-established practice in Germany and other East European countries, but it can be shown that this was not the case before the 14th century, and it is also true that such a system was not in use further west at all during the medieval period.
It is certainly the case that late-medieval masons in places like Vienna or Prague are commemorated in sculpture together with their mason’s mark and that sometimes the mark is displayed on a shield as a form of unofficial heraldry, much as merchants’ marks are shown on brasses to wool merchants in Cotswold churches. The masons who completed the vault in the church of St Barbara in Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic displayed their marks on the bosses and painted in shields on the vault surface, together with their initials and the date, 1548. This display of marks is only found in the later medieval period and earlier examples have not been recorded. Masons’ marks, however, can be seen in numerous buildings from a much earlier date, in countries across Europe and further afield, and indeed the use of masons’ marks is a tradition that stretches back into the ancient world.
The most obvious place to exhibit a mason’s mark would be on a mason’s tombstone, of which we have a reasonably large number. The mason is usually shown with his tools, and sometimes clad in a gown if he was of senior status, but in no case is there a mason’s mark depicted, even if there is an inscription to record his name and dates. The famous slab to Hugues Libergier, the master mason of Saint-Nicaise in Reims, who died in 1263, has a complete inscription, an image of the mason in his master’s robes and the tools of his trade at his feet, but no depiction of his mark although his status cannot have been any less than that of Anton Pilgram of Vienna in 1513, or Peter Parler of Prague in the 1370s.
The reason for this total lack of any formal recording of the allocation and use of masons’ marks is probably that there was no single system in use in the middle ages, or earlier. The system is adaptable and there may well have been local variation in the ways that marks were used. Given that marks have been in use for over 4, 000 years it would be surprising if this were not the case. Marks are ciphers, that is they belong to the whole group of symbols that stand outside literacy and enable people to convey very specific information simply. It is a very flexible system and can be found in many societies in which information about ownership, or authorship, has to be passed within a specific group. The marks carry no other meaning beyond the practical one and the system is arcane rather than secret, there was no need for people other than stonemasons to know about it. Current road signs, intended to advise lorry-drivers of by-pass routes, are a modern example of the same thing. The signs consist of four symbols, a circle, a triangle, a square and a diamond and are to be seen on the approaches to towns and cities. Their meaning is known to the people who need to understand them and since the rest of us are not required to use them we are not told what they mean.
While it is clear that workshop practice will have determined the way that masons’ marks were used, and this will have varied from site to site, there are certain aspects that are universal. Marks can be used in several different ways and these can be separated out quite easily.
The first category of mark is the quarry mark. Stone sent out of the quarry in the recent past was given a mark to show where it was to be shipped to, this was usually painted on the roughly-cut block, and was part of the quarry-master’s tally system. The blocks sent from the Clipsham quarries in the Lincolnshire Limestone field in the 1950s for repairs to the Houses of Parliament had a clear ‘HC’ for House of Commons on the blocks. A version of this system is still in use and a huge block of stone being transported on a lorry along the M69 in May 2007 had ‘Houses of Parlement’ in red paint in large letters on its side. We know from stone recovered from Roman sites in England and in the Empire that masons had their name inscribed on the stone they wanted for their building projects once they had inspected it at the quarry. This was at a time when masons were literate. L. F. Salzman discovered that the master mason working on Gloucester castle for the king in the 15th century marked the stone at the quarry that he had selected for the work. This was the only medieval reference to marks that Salzman was able to find despite considerable searches of the records. Later masons also marked stone in this way, Nicholas Stone, the 17th-century London mason and sculptor wrote in his account book for 1646 ‘I went to Mr Wilson’s yard and marked 80 [….] of stone wch he sent the next day’. Henry Wilson’s stone yard was in Petticoat Lane and supplied Portland stone to St Martin’s churchyard. The mark widely believed to be that used by Sir Christopher Wren to select Portland stone can be seen on a block displayed in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral in London.
Stone blocks left abandoned in the Ham Hill quarry in Somerset have incised numbers on the side of the block for a purpose that cannot now be explained, but would have made sense to the quarryman at the time. In one case we can find out what these marks meant. The works department at Lincoln cathedral received a shipment of stone blocks from a quarry at Ancaster in the south of the county in the 1830s and queried the amount that they had been sent. In order to make their complaint the cathedral measured the blocks and checked them against a schedule that the quarry had been asked to supply so that the marks on the blocks could be understood. These marks were based on Roman numerals, with bars to allow for halves and quarters, and identified the block size in cubic feet and twelfths of a cubic foot. The cathedral had a case and the quarry had not sent the amount they had ordered.
Quarry marks are unlikely to survive the process of cutting up the stone and dressing it for use in the building, and indeed their purpose is served once the block has been delivered to site.
The second category of mark differs, these marks can often still be seen on the faces of the stone since they were part of the process of construction. This type is the assembly mark and it enabled complex sections of things like doorways, niches or other such work to be built up in the correct order. The marks form a sequence in many cases and they are often still visible in the finished building. Sometimes the sequence was based on a version of Roman numerals, at other times a domino system was used in which the end of one block had the same symbol as the end of the next block, which in turn had a different symbol on its other end to relate to the next one.
Stone masons were not the only people to use these marks, they are almost universal and can be seen on anything constructed from parts which need to be put together. They can be seen on medieval altar-pieces; on the individual coloured pieces of glass that make up stained-glass windows; on the beams and joists in timber-framed buildings; on 18th-century gun mechanisms, and on the bearings of massive Victorian steam-engines, to give just a few examples. The advantage of this system is that it prevents things being assembled incorrectly and it allows someone other than the person who made the various component parts to put the whole thing together. A variation on this, sometimes found in stone and timber buildings, is a joint-mark made when the sections have been dry-assembled to check the fit.
These marks are cut across the assembled joint and make aligning the sections simple. They are particularly valuable when the stone blocks appear to be very similar, for example, the blocks used to build up the outer walls of spiral staircases, which all have a concave surface, but may not all be of the same dimensions.
The third type of mark is the banker mark made by the highly-skilled stone masons who cut the stone into the regularly squared blocks or more complex sections of mouldings, capitals, bases and similar. These people were always paid more than the masons who built with the stone and had to undergo a lengthy training before they were able to achieve the accuracy needed to do this work. These days it is still the case that a mason would need to train full-time for two to three years to be proficient, and for about six years to be able to do more intricate work. The medieval mason was unlikely to have much understanding of the written word, but would have been able to work with figures and to have followed verbal instructions. His training would have made him familiar with templates for cutting complex shapes and with using books of drawings when he had to carve animals, plants and birds, whether real or fabulous.
Documents describe the different ways that masons were paid, with piece-work frequently the norm and it is this that accounts for the use of banker-masons’ marks. Masons marked their stone to let the paymaster know how much work they had done. Two documents make this clear, one for a building that has marks visible and one that does not. Lincoln cathedral contracted with a mason to build the upper part of the crossing tower in 1306 and specified that the plain work, that is the walling stone, was to be costed by measure and the more complex work by the day. The stone blocks of the tower are covered in masons’ marks. Exeter cathedral, by contrast, paid its masons regular wages during the great rebuilding that lasted from c.1280 – 1350, and there are no marks to be seen on the masonry erected during that period.
Since there is no direct documentary evidence for the way that medieval marks were allocated we can only speculate, and look at later evidence. Masons may have chosen their own mark, or been given one when they joined the site, later masons sometimes based their mark on that of the master who trained them, and 20th-century masons often used their initials arranged in a pattern. Marks do sometimes form groups and this may indicate that they belong to a team of masons working together. An example of this is a mark like a capital letter ‘W’ which can be found in that form or with extra strokes across the ends of one, or more, lines. The marks are mostly drawn free-hand, although compasses are sometime used for marks based on circles, and consist of lines that meet or cross in a pattern. The marks are made with a chisel or a punch and a point is sometimes used to drill the ends of the lines. Although it was important that marks were not easy to confuse it is clear that masons did not spend a long time cutting elaborate marks made up of a large number of lines. Analysis of 13th-century marks shows that most marks from that period consist of between four to six lines and that marks of more than seven or eight lines are rare. There is the occasional mark of twelve or fourteen lines but these are not often found.
The antiquarians who first noticed marks in the 18th and 19th centuries assumed that marks belonged to individual masons and that it should therefore be possible to trace these itinerant workers from one building to another. It soon became apparent that this was not true, but it is a view that is still sometimes voiced. Marks from Bronze-Age Knossos (c.2500 BC) look very much like marks from 13th-century Southwell Minster and co-incidences are very common. An unwary collector of marks could outline a career for the mason whose mark was a five-pointed star that began at Winchester in the 1080s and ended at Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire in the 1620s, taking in Buildwas abbey, a building at Kenilworth priory known as the barn, and Santiago de Compostela and Lincoln cathedrals along the way. Clearly this cannot be true. Later writers concentrated on the more complex marks and tried to use these to connect dated buildings with marks with those that had the same marks but were not dated. This approach has much to offer, but it needs refining.
Marks and Letters
Certain marks, from the 13th–16th centuries, are very closely based on letter-types and this helps to date the marks. Some marks at places like Lincoln, Southwell and Nottingham St Mary are similar to Lombard capitals, found in the 13th century, and marks at Ludlow, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and York are well-drawn versions of the later textura letters. Although the connections do not date the marks precisely they do provide some indication of period since these letter-forms were in use at particular times. They can also tell us something about the masons who used them, but not necessarily whether they were literate. The marks always occur alongside the more usual line-based marks, so it would be unlikely that one or two masons in the team were more literate than the others. It may have been the case that the letter refers to the mason’s name and that he was shown it and learned how to cut it. Fotheringhay church has a series of marks including a beautifully cut textura ‘h’. The church nave was built in the 15th century by a master mason called William Horwood and it is possible that the mark is his, although it is found on plain stonework which he would have probably assigned to an ordinary banker mason. Perhaps a select team of his masons used it.
We get some insight into the problem by looking at the range of work that the medieval mason did. His skills were many, and included sculptural work involving cutting mouldings and capitals as well as squaring blocks. The most skilled men were able to carve sculpture and the distinctions we draw between masons and sculptors would not have been recognised in the middle ages. Equally the cutting of inscriptions was in the hands of the same masons and some will have learned about letter-types this way. It is clear from the mistakes that can be found, letters reversed or up-side-down, that these men could not necessarily read what they were cutting. Texts were often written out at full-scale on sheets and these were pricked through to transfer the letters to the slab. Monumental masons today who have to cut inscriptions in Chinese characters, or other unfamiliar alphabets, have to rely on a text written for them in a similar way.
Marks in the Post-Medieval Period
This trend can be seen on 17th-century buildings as well, at Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire from the 1620s, for example, which has large-scale marks on the exterior stonework and prominently-sited marks on the fireplaces and on the sculptural work of its porches.
By the 18th century, however, marks were only placed on the joint-beds and non-visible faces of blocks used for churches and houses, although stonework on bridges continued to be face-marked. Revival of medieval traditions in the 19th century brought marks back to prominence, co-inciding with antiquarian interests in discovering the meaning of medieval masons’ marks. Marks are still is use today, although they are usually hidden on joint faces, and are made by masons who wish to continue a tradition that is as old as building in stone.
Masons’ marks provide evidence for the working practices of the highly-skilled and able men who constructed the magnificent stone churches and country houses of the past. The marks were put on the stone for entirely practical reasons, in answer to the particular needs of the industry. Many of the master masons are recorded in the documents and we can admire their design and engineering skills when we visit their buildings. Masons’ marks enable us to gain insights into the world of the masons working for the masters. We may not be able to identify, or name, the masons from their marks but we can use them to deepen our understanding of their work and appreciate more the buildings that they helped to create.
This is an extract from: Jennifer S. Alexander, 'Masons' Marks and the Working Practices of Medieval Stone Masons', in P.S. Barnwell and Arnold Pacey, (eds) Who Built Beverley Minster?, (Reading, Spire Books, 2008)
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