Jørgen H. Jensenius. Paper submitted at the conference: (Theorising) History in Architecture and Design, at Arkitekthøgskolen i Oslo, 25th-27th April 2003.

In this paper I will discuss the apparent lack of written architectural theory from the period between Vitruvius and Alberti, and propose the notion of architectural sub-theory, for the undercurrent systematic thinking of the medieval builders.

As a building archaeologist I study the history of standing buildings, or building remains in the ground. The research methodology is based on direct observations, survey and

description; the primary sources of evidence are selected measurements. These are used to define the form and size of the edifice by expressing ratios and their geometrical equivalents.

Other sources are medieval texts on planning, design and construction and available modern written sources, a bibliography of which is ample. In my doctoral thesis I identified and described some 30-odd Norwegian wooden churches which pre-date the year 1100.[i] I did deconstruct the notion of form of the buildings into a series of constructional actions and ritual ceremonies to reconstruct the process and result of planning and design.

Books on the history of architectural theory often start with the Ten Books On Architecture by the Roman engineer Vitruvius, written around the year 26 BCE. Vitruvius treats several aspects of engineering, with lesser emphasis on architecture proper; he writes down what was commonly known in his time. When narrative undercurrent of praxis is written down in this way, the text attains a status as normative rules and objective knowledge. Vitruvius did describe buildings in Greece, Asia and Egypt, although he may not have been outside Italy. He preferred Greek theory of art and building practice to modern Roman structural inventions. Read as a sort of building manual based on practical experience the books of Vitruvius describe in a generalized way, how things could be done. Even with his inflexible and canonical approach his instructions lack necessary details; at the end of book IV he says there are other types of valid columns he does not know the rules for.[ii]  

The writings of Vitruvius were known in the form of copies throughout the Middle Ages, together with manuals produced by military engineers, the Roman surveyors[iii] and authors like Faventinus (c.300 CE) and Palladius (c.400 CE).[iv] These manuscripts were studied in monasteries and may have been valued for the cosmological information which they contained. But the original illustrations of the books were lost in the course of time, so the practical engineering solutions may have not been easy to comprehend.[v] However, the aesthetic principles deduced from Mediterranean stone temples would have been of little use to builders of wooden churches in Northern Europe. [vi]

Some 1500 years after Vitruvius the Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote his On The Art Of Building In Ten Books. If this 1500-year gap is explained as being void of architectural theory as codified practices, one may ask what replaced them, or what supposedly constitutes an architectural theory. An architectural theory may be seen as a set of premises from which empirical rules for planning, design and construction are deducible. On its simplest level, a theory is the knowledge of a series of actions lying behind the formal result; the practice of craft providing the ground for the theory. The American architectural historian Paul-Allan Johnson proposes that theory's role in architecture has been thought to guide practice by a discourse. Therefore, one can say that theory has to lie behind all sorts of planning and design.[vii] The Norwegian art historian Staale Sinding-Larsen states that, essentially, theory can be viewed as systematic remembrance. Different theories may then be seen as specialised and pointed versions of lists of actions.[viii] Normative statements on "how-to-do" something, do not in themselves constitute theory. A theory links ideas with practical work, the abstract with the concrete. In order to make a theory workable it has to be written down.


How did medieval writers describe buildings?

There are very few medieval literary sources in the vernacular that cast light on contemporary planning and design practice. What was written down must have been chosen electively, but how to write has always been prescribed. Oral transmission in the vernacular was simple, basic, cheap and fast and could be exchanged quickly; but the knowledge of skills would easily disappear with the person. In contrast, writing was expensive and technological complex; and Latin was considered the mayor language of learning and culture. Therefore, most written statements are brief and generally idiosyncratic in method and content.

In the absence of general statements describing Romanesque or Gothic architecture, one has turned to scholarly commentaries. Scholars educated in Biblical, Roman or Old Norse literary traditions describe, as non-builders, their experiences of edifices. A diversity of texts were produced at centres of literacy to imitate and continue old works like chronicles, didactic prose, homilies, devotional and mystical writings. Generally, people retained in writing that which was unique and memorable to them and not the ordinary, the simple ways of praxis. Despite chronological, environmental and doctrinal diversity, descriptions of churches are outward and superficial. Few of the various constructional references are open to straightforward interpretation; descriptions regarding size, form and construction are devoid of clear definition, even when the author tells us he was himself an eye witness.

The Church was the custodian of writing, both as craft and artefact. In his writings dating from about 1144, Abbot Suger of St.-Denis expresses how the architectural forms serve the metaphysical notion of the church; or in the exegetical vocabulary, an anagogic interpretation of heavenly existence.[ix] Patrons were rhetorically praised by stressing novelty, affluence and immensity of the edifices. In documentation of historical events, in saints' lives and in foundation descriptions the scholars' aloof attitudes toward the praxis of architectural design are shown. Many of the authors assert the historical truth of their narrative through cross-reference to Biblical events and edifices, particularly those that would be familiar to most readers. Temple of Solomon,[x] rebuilding of Temple,[xi] the Ark of Noah,[xii] the Ark of the Covenant with the Tabernacle,[xiii] the vision of the Temple by Ezekiel[xiv], the Eternal City and the Holy Sepulchre are all used as established structures of factuality in order to function as external support of the narratives. Descriptions of such edifices are at once very literal and very limited in their scope; their numbers of lengths appear to be real, but are not so in practical terms.

Obviously, the medieval linguistic, theological or historical analogies of architecture are not to be understood as architectural theories. Factual knowledge was subordinated to devotional symbolism with a vocabulary pointing to ideas beyond the form; an example is the quasi-real description of a wooden church in the so-called "Stave Church Homily".[xv] While there is a certain connection between liturgy and the building proper, there are no real analogies between theology and architecture; theology has no physical equivalent in materials and constructions.[xvi] Theological exegesis is important for an understanding of the medieval religion, but didactic discourses are operating with general intellectual constructs far from the builder's reality. Therefore the abstract aesthetics of scholasticism would be of little practical help in the process of planning, design and construction of any church.[xvii]


How did systematic thinking guide building design?

One may presume there were both general and detailed norms regulating the design and construction of medieval wooden churches; concrete, contextualised descriptions communicating fundamental aspects of praxis. Since there are no historical "oral mnemonics" available for study we have to interpret from the building remains. For the builders knowledge of form was the means; while utility and economy were the ends. In most cases, there were not many options for what form the design of a church should take, the plan and elevation was in its basis a pragmatic labour of craft. Churches were copied selectively by imitating sequences of actions and were adapted to vernacular materials and economies. Design and construction were developed by individual trial and error. Builders were empirically trained and apprenticed by physically copying, by use of an undercurrent oral and tangible communication in team-working, leadership, analysis and problem-solving. In this interrelationship between thought and action the individual builder did the remembering, but all memories were attached to membership of the social group of builders. Systematic thinking on knowledge of form was transferred through the ages as a "living" narrative text, with intervention, developments and change by different builders at different times.

The personal portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt[xviii] (c.1220-30) is an evidence of narrative transmission in the vernacular of knowledge of form; drawings containing principles of construction are explained in the shortest possible way and without elaboration; obviously meant solely for someone with an intimate knowledge of carpentry and masonry.[xix] Such a rare narrative in the vernacular may not be seen as the beginning of a textual discourse, but more as an extra aid to the voice, and as a cue for memory. Planning praxis, design rules and construction techniques may have been sufficiently extensive and detailed as to require a conceptual framing, linking non-written praxis and written theories. Medieval masons insisted that their whole craft was based on the "art and science of geometry",[xx] but the prescriptions were not occupied with the mathematical side of geometry or arithmetic. Geometry as a term, as well as the content, varied through the centuries, from any practical rule of the craft, to the most theoretical at the universities.[xxi] The practical geometry is not simply an application of the theoretical work of Euclid; rather it is based on reflective thoughts on form, size, technique and constructions.[xxii] Some contemporary texts describe design procedures vaguely as "the right way" of proceeding.[xxiii] If geometry then can be regarded as design theory of size and shape, "the right way" may have included transference of numbers, ratios and geometry as scalable standards of accuracy. Churches were not designed by geometry; rather geometry was adapted to any successful construction. The geometry of the carpenters was not connected to a philosophical rationalisation of its procedures, but it must have been clear for those involved what the right and wrong ways of doing things were. Such knowledge of technique is more than can be expressed in writing, and what can be written down is not more than that which can be quantified. Much of this knowledge is undercurrent, the planning, design and building techniques were requisite codes of materials and scalable standards of accuracy. This was based on the builders' experience memorised as steps of action. To follow these steps carefully would guarantee that the final result would look like a prototype. The builders did empirical testing of different hypotheses for solutions in design and construction. Since this was not registered, written down and elaborated methodologically it could not be called a theory proper; but it may be called an architectural sub-theory. Obviously such a narrative undercurrent of the builders had to be rejected by scholarly discourse.


How are sub-theories on wooden church design in Norway reconstructed?

In Norway round the year 1000, a small, rectangular plan with earthfast posts seems to have been common for a church, the buildings copying features of prototypes locally and elsewhere. The reconstruction of theories of church design can only be inferred from the evidence of the buildings themselves, by employing a direct, empirical and inductive approach. It was argued in my dissertation that some of the investigated church plans share ratios of lengths and geometrical figures; clearly intrinsic design as variants of a common systematic way of thinking. However, although many of the churches are superficially alike, they display a huge variety of measurements and ratios. Different "best-fit" possible solutions for the plans are shown, and it is concluded that it is not possible from these results to tell what the design intentions of the builder were.

The proposals of Vitruvius were bound to a stone tradition, and to search for a Vitruvian tradition in North European wooden architecture may therefore be in vain. The idea that the vitruvian aesthetics is part of a universal law may have been a late invention by scholars. It may be surmised that craftsmen working about their mnemonic sub-theories on wooden churches in Norway would look upon their own rules and canons as normative and timeless, maybe "timeless principles" were ideas beyond the practical craft. The notions centre and periphery are relative. Often the largest church in the city is assumed to be a prototype. Elements and forms are described as percolating out to rural communities from this building. For a local church in Norway, the bishop's town comprised a centre; for Norway, Hamburg or Aachen constituted centres; and for Hamburg, Rome and Jerusalem were in turn centres. The paths of influence may have been more complicated. Obviously, there must have been variety in terms of planning, design and building, - through the ages, from team to team and from place to place. The prototypes were different, the local conditions changed and craft practices developed. Small changes in numbers, ratios or geometrical forms would produce noticeable differences in the final design product. In this way one attained the variety that is the hallmark of medieval design.


What happened next?

In the year 1486 the Regensburg master builder Mathes Roriczer and the goldsmith Hanns Schmuttermayer of Nürnberg published "how-to-do" booklets on north-European design practices, in a much older gothic geometrical design tradition. They explained with a total lack of philosophical discourse how to create a ground plan and from that, how to derive the elevation of a pinnacle using geometry.[xxiv] By this, they put in printed vernacular the technique of geometrical setting-out that already must have been familiar to all skilled practitioners of a whole group of arts and crafts.

The Italian humanists have been credited with the discovery of the Books of Vitruvius, even though they were known in the form of many copies throughout the Middle Ages.[xxv] The earliest printing of Ten Books by Vitruvius was done in Italy round about the year 1486[xxvi], and the Ten Books by Leon Battista Alberti was published in the same year. Alberti wrote in a Vitruvian tradition, covering the same area and with the same materials and climatic conditions, albeit under different social, political and economic conditions. He wanted to make practical solutions for the architecture of the future, which was of the same quality as that of the nation's forefathers. Therefore, he explored and measured the ruins and compared the information through line drawings, with the interpretations of the books of Vitruvius, until he had understood what each building had to contribute in terms of ingenuity and skills.[xxvii] Architects, who wanted to imitate the monuments of ancient Rome, could then distinguish the antique from more recent additions. The printed architectural treatises from this time were rendered suitable for analysis and were developed to general theories; but a methodological confusion between the representation of architecture and the process of architectural design was explicit. The treatises may have been intended for the instruction of a prince or a patron, for scholars and for would-be gentlemen architects with knowledge in aesthetics, but hardly for the benefit of builders. The architectural treatises from the time of Alberti were presumably never meant to replace the mnemonic specifications and ramified therefore into theories parallel to, or quite independent of the systematically thinking on the practical knowledge, the sub-theories, of the church builders.

It has been shown that medieval scholars as mediators of ideas pointing beyond the form of existing buildings, provided analogies which were devoid of fundamental information for the craftsmen. The prescribed way of writing was not written at the level of execution, but at the level of generalisation. However, the craftsmen who acted as mediators of practical work used oral and tangibly transferred knowledge of form. The paper concludes therefore that the first reason for the apparent lack of scholarly architectural theories for 1500 years may have been because the narrative undercurrent of the builders' praxis was rejected by scholarly discourse. It has also been proposed that craftsmen with their sub-theory did not require written discourses to initiate, fund, plan, design, construct and develop the buildings that were required.

In order to pursue the questions of oral and tangibly mnemonic transference of knowledge of form, I will continue my research into the 28 remaining medieval wooden churches in Norway. By examining the fabric of these churches, the dominant factors which changed their intrinsic design may be traced. It may also be possible to understand more of the original commissions and how the builders combined the international church architecture with their local sub-theories of knowledge, practice and rules.              

[i]  J.H. Jensenius: Trekirkene før stavkirkene. En undersøkelse av planlegging og design av kirker før ca. år 1100, ConText 6, Arkitekthøgskolen i Oslo. Oslo: 2001.

[ii]  I. D. Rowland and T.N. Howe (tr.): Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1999, p. 86.

[iii]  G. Choquer et F. Favory: Les arpenteurs romain. Théorie et practique. Paris: editions errance, 1992.  

[iv]  H. Plommer: Vitruvius and Later Roman Building Manuals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, pp. 1-38.

[v]  S. Schuler, S.: Vitruv im Mittelalter, die Rezeption von "De architectura" von der Antike bis in die frühe Neuzeit, Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1999, p. 48.

[vi] C.H. Krinsky: Seventy-eight Vitruvian manuscripts. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, 1967, vol. XXX, pp. 36-70.

[vii]  P.-A. Johnson: Theory of Architecture, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1994, pp. 33-35.

[viii]  Sinding-Larsen, S. 1994: Arkitekturteori og bygningsanalyse. Trondheim: Tapir, 1994, p. 49.

[ix]  E. Panofsky: Abbot Suger On The Abbey Church of St.-Denis And Its Art Treasures, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1944) 1979.

[x]  1 Kings 5-8, The New Jerusalem Bible, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985.

[xi]  2 Chronicles 34.

[xii]  Genesis 6.

[xiii]  Exodus 25-30.

[xiv]  Ezekiel 40-48.

[xv]  A. Salvesen: Gammelnorsk homiliebok. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1971, pp. 100-104.

[xvi]  Beaujouan, M. G. 1957: L'interdépendance entre la science scolastique et les techniques utilitaires (XIIe, XIIIe et XIVe siècles). Paris: 1957, pp. 6-7.

[xvii] P. Frankl: The Gothic. Literary sources and Interpretations through Eight Centuries. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 107.

[xviii]  H. R. Hahnloser: Villard de Honnecourt [Rev.ed.]. Graz: Akademische Druch- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1972.

[xix]  P. Kidson: Review of Francois Bucher, Architector: The Lodge Books and Sketchbooks of Medieval Architects. New York: Abaris, 1979, in Journal of The Society of Architectural Historians, Philadelphia, vol. 40, 1981, pp. 329-333, esp. p. 330.

[xx] L. R. Shelby: The Geometrical Knowledge of Medieval Master Masons, Speculum, vol. 47, 1972, pp. 395-421, esp. pp. 420.

[xxi]  B. Ullman: Geometry in the Medieval Quadrivium, Studi di bibliografia e di storia in onore di Tammaro de Marinis, vol. IV, 1964, pp. 263-285.

[xxii]  S. K. Victor (tr.and com.): Practical Geometry in the High Middle Ages. Artis Cuiuslibet Consummatio and the Praktike de geometrie, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, vol.134, 1979, pp. 64-65.

[xxiii]  V. Mortet: Recuil de texts relatifs é l'histoire de la'architecture et la condition des architectes en France au Moyen Âge, XIe-XIIe siècles, vol. I-II, Paris: Alphonse Picard et Fils, Éditeurs, 1911-1919, pp. 51-52.

[xxiv] K. Schottenloher (ed.): Des Dombaumeisters und Buchdruckers Matthäus Roritzer Büchlein von der Fialen Gerechtigkeit Regensburg 1486 dem Urdruck nachgebildet. Regensburg, 1923. 

[xxv] S. Schuler: Vitruv im Mittelalter, die Rezeption von "De architectura" von der Antike bis in die frühe Neuzeit. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1999.

[xxvi] L. Marcucci: Regesto cronologico e critico. Studi e documenti di architettura, no. 8 (Firenze), 1978, pp. 11-184, esp. p. 29.

[xxvii]  L. B. Alberti: On The Art of Building in Ten Books (1486), tr. by J. Rykwert, N. Leach, R. Tavernor, London, England and Cambridge, Massachusets: The MIT Press, 1989, pp. 92-93 and p. 155.

© J.H. Jensenius