Nothing is as good as a question to establish the theme of a book. But in this case the question is not just answered by trawling through historical records to establish which wealthy patrons sought to bribe St Peter by sponsoring the construction of one of England’s finest churches: our authors are just as concerned with identifying the horny handed carpenters and masons who were the physical builders.
That is an ambitious enterprise, when the only evidence for the medieval period consists of masons’ and carpenters’ marks. The authors remark that the use of such evidence for the analysis of medieval craft practices is relatively new.
They carry it off with imagination and flair, making reasonable deductions about the size of the core workforce, how many years the job took, when extra masons were taken on and for what tasks. The work of individual masons, carpenters and sculptors can be identified, even if we have to know them as ‘the Angel Master’ or the ‘IR’ Mason (after his mark). Studying those marks also enables the sequence of construction to be rethought, and the speed with which the work progressed, leading the authors to propose new dates for key parts of the medieval minster.
This study draws within its scope all the craftsmen and women who worked on the furnishing, monuments, repairs and restoration for the nearly 700 years since the Minster’s ‘completion’. And yes, women were involved on equal terms, as account books from the 17th and 18th centuries make clear. They included entrepreneurs such as Mrs Thornton, who ran the 18th-century carpentry firm in York that executed much of the restoration work conceived by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the two decades from 1713; or Anne Waite, whose firm supplied all the nails and labourers who worked as apprentices or partners with their husbands, sawing marble and stone.
The book is packed with this kind of revealing information and thus isn’t just about who built Beverley Minster, but is about the potential for gaining further knowledge from studying buildings from the perspective of their builders, as distinct from the patron-led studies that currently dominate the subject.