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The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, With a New Preface / Edition 2

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The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are among the most astonishing achievements of Western culture. Evoking feelings of awe and humility, they make us want to understand what inspired the people who had the audacity to build them. This engrossing book surveys an era that has fired the historical imagination for centuries.
In it Robert A. Scott explores why medieval people built Gothic cathedrals, how they built them, what conception of the divine lay behind their creation, and how religious and secular leaders used cathedrals for social and political purposes. As a traveler’s companion or a rich source of knowledge for the armchair enthusiast, The Gothic Enterprise helps us understand how ordinary people managed such tremendous feats of physical and creative energy at a time when technology was rudimentary, famine and disease were rampant, the climate was often harsh, and communal life was unstable and incessantly violent.

While most books about Gothic cathedrals focus on a particular building or on the cathedrals of a specific region, The Gothic Enterprise considers the idea of the cathedral as a humanly created space. Scott discusses why an impoverished people would commit so many social and personal resources to building something so physically stupendous and what this says about their ideas of the sacred, especially the vital role they ascribed to the divine as a protector against the dangers of everyday life.

Scott’s narrative offers a wealth of fascinating details concerning daily life during medieval times. The author describes the difficulties master-builders faced in scheduling construction that wouldn’t be completed during their own lifetimes, how they managed without adequate numeric systems or paper on which to make detailed drawings, and how climate, natural disasters, wars, variations in the hours of daylight throughout the year, and the celebration of holy days affected the pace and timing of work. Scott also explains such things as the role of relics, the quarrying and transporting of stone, and the incessant conflict cathedral-building projects caused within their communities. Finally, by drawing comparisons between Gothic cathedrals and other monumental building projects, such as Stonehenge, Scott expands our understanding of the human impulses that shape our landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Scott (sociology, emeritus, Stanford Univ.) offers an intriguing study of the historical creation of the medieval cathedral in Europe. By not approaching his subject from the usual architectural, art historical, or medieval studies perspectives, he provides a fresh eye and an engaging entr e to how and why, for a 300-year period, Europeans created these lasting monuments. The "gothic enterprise" of cathedral building is covered in chapters devoted to the history of cathedral building and a definition of the "gothic look." Black-and-white illustrations and photographs help elucidate the author's points. Scott also examines the religious experience that generated the will to build the great churches, followed by a concluding chapter on the makeup of the European communities that did the actual work. Based on numerous secondary sources, Scott's readable introduction to the cathedral is a nice follow-up to David Macaulay's classic illustrated work, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. Recommended particularly for public libraries with an interest in art and architecture.-Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520269996
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2011
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 734,358
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert A. Scott is Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and was previously Professor of Sociology at Princeton University for 18 years. He is the coauthor of Why Sociology Does Not Apply (1979); author of Making of Blind Men (1969); editor of several collections of essays about stigma, deviancy, and social control; and author of numerous articles, book chapters, and essays on related topics.

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Read an Excerpt

The Gothic Enterprise

A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral

By Robert A. Scott


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26999-6


What Is the Gothic Enterprise?

The movement I call the Gothic enterprise began in the first half of the twelfth century in the Greater Paris Basin. In fits and starts, it continued for the next four hundred years throughout Europe. By the mid-fifteenth century Gothic cathedrals could be found from Scandinavia in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from Wales in the west to the far reaches of Central Europe in the east. I know of no comprehensive list of medieval Gothic cathedrals, but the total would surely be in the hundreds. In addition, thousands of abbey churches were built during this period (more than five hundred just in France), plus tens of thousands of small parish churches. One authority, Jean Gimpel, estimates that between 1050 and 1350, more stone was cut in France alone than at any period in the entire history of Egypt. Gimpel also reckons that there was one church for every 200 inhabitants of France and England, and that the English cities of Norwich, Lincoln, and York, with populations in the range of 5,000 to 10,000, each had forty to fifty churches. Another authority, Richard Morris, estimates that of the nearly 19,000 ecclesiastical buildings in existence in England and Wales today, nearly half date to the medieval period. Imagine all the quarrying, carving, and laying of stone, the harvesting of timber, the mining of lead, and the assembling of other materials required to build these structures. This was clearly the greatest, most sustained ecclesiastical building campaign in the history of Christendom.

The earliest Gothic great church was the Abbey Church of St. Denis, located seven miles north of Paris. Under the direction of St. Denis's famous and influential Abbot Suger, work on erecting a Gothic-style west front began in 1137, quickly followed by the renovation of its choir to the new style in 1141. Though St. Denis was not a cathedral (see box), the work there appears to have stimulated renovation to the new Gothic style of a large number of Romanesque cathedrals in the surrounding Greater Paris Basin (see Map 1). These included the cathedral churches at Sens (1140s), Senlis (1151), Reims (1150s), Laon (1160), Noyon (1160), Notre Dame of Paris (1160), Chartres (1194), Amiens (1220), Troyes (1220), and Beauvais (1226), to name just a few.

The Greater Paris Basin proved fertile ground for Gothic cathedral-building for good reason. Unlike other regions of France, such as Flanders, Burgundy, and Champagne, where powerful counts supported the construction of monasteries and cathedrals, the vicinity of Paris had seen precious little church-building during the previous century because of the general weakness and financial impoverishment of the monarchy. But once the monarchy began to gain strength (see Chapter 5), the absence of a recent regional style, combined with the fact that most abbeys and cathedrals in the Greater Paris Basin were old and in disrepair, created an opportunity for wholesale renewal of churches that could not have arisen elsewhere.

The new style of the west front and choir of St. Denis was not an abrupt departure from the earlier style; rather, it involved a liberal borrowing of the most advanced features of the Romanesque great churches that were being built in adjacent provinces of northern France. But even if none of its constituent elements was novel, the elements were employed and coordinated in fresh ways. The renovation of St. Denis in turn jump-started great-church-building campaigns throughout northern France and elsewhere, although considerable time elapsed before the Gothic style emerged as predominant. Moreover, what appeared were not carbon copies of the west front, choir, and planned nave of St. Denis, but projects that explored the implications of Abbot Suger's ideas. Over time, the Gothic style transformed the earlier Romanesque into something new, a style that would become the antithesis of Romanesque architecture. (See Chapters 7 and 8 for a detailing of the Gothic style and its differences from Romanesque architecture.)

Initially, the new style received its warmest reception in northern France and, slightly later, in England. This pairing should not surprise us because the cultural, political, economic, and ecclesiastical ties between England and France ran deep. A great many of the leading prelates of twelfth-century England were French, and those who were English by birth had been educated at the great cathedral schools of France, such as Chartres and Notre Dame. By 1140 English kings had greater influence in certain regions of France than did the nominal suzerains of the French monarchy, and French had been the first language of English elites since the Norman Conquest of 1066. It seems natural that the new style of architecture being developed in and around Paris inspired the building of great churches in England—especially as the timing was right. The burst of cathedral-and great-church-building after the Norman Conquest had lulled by the mid-1100s, creating an opportunity for a new style to take root.

Elements of Gothic design appeared in widely dispersed places throughout England. One was in the great Cistercian abbeys of the north, such as those in Ripon (1160), Byland (1170), and York Minster (1150). Another was in the southeast, where the pivotal development was the rebuilding of the choir at Canterbury following its destruction by fire in 1174. As seat of the head of the Church of England, Canterbury Cathedral galvanized the Gothic church-building movement in England. Its immediate progeny included cathedral churches at Rochester (c. 1179) and Wells (1180), the great abbey church at Glastonbury (1184), and cathedrals at Chichester (c. 1187), Winchester (c. 1190), Lincoln (c. 1192), and Llandaff, Wales (c. 1193).

The new style quickly found its way to other parts of Europe. In Sweden, work on Uppsala Cathedral began in the 1230s, and in Germany cathedrals were begun at Strasburg and Cologne in 1240 and 1248 respectively. In Germany, initially, the use of Gothic elements in cathedral design was generally cautious; such elements were insinuated into preexisting Romanesque structures in such a way as to preserve the integrity and harmony of the early style rather than to modify or contrast with it. In this sense, Gothic architecture was being adapted in Germany to the well-established Roman esque style rather than being used as an alternative to it. (By the late Gothic period, however, some of Europe's most interesting and beautiful examples of Gothic architecture appear in the great urban churches of Germany.)

Gothic architecture also came to Italy in the early thirteenth century. If any single building project can be termed responsible for introducing the Gothic style into Italy, it was the great church of St. Francesco at Assisi (1228). This Franciscan church, which was greatly influenced by the evolving Gothic style in France, was the order's mother church and thus became a model for other abbeys of the order. Even so, regional and local influences predominated, and nothing like an official Gothic style was uniformly adopted throughout Italy. Most of the other Italian examples of Gothic architecture were constructed relatively late in the Gothic period.

In Spain, the influence of the Romanesque pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela was overwhelming, creating at first an environment that was not particularly congenial to the Gothic departure from traditional styles. The first evidence of Gothic influence in Spain appeared in the cathedral at Ávila late in the twelfth century, which served as the model for such thirteenth-century Spanish cathedrals as those at Lérida (1203), Burgos (1221), Toledo (1222), and León (1255). The more clearly Gothic cathedrals of Spain, such as Barcelona Cathedral, Palma de Mallorca, Gerona, and Santa María del Mar in Barcelona, and those at Seville, Castile, Granada, Salamanca, and Segovia all were built much later. The earliest of these was Barcelona Cathedral (1298), and the latest was Segovia Cathedral (1525); dates for the others are scattered through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Gothic cathedrals did not appear in the Low Countries until the fourteenth century, with beginning dates of construction concentrated most heavily in the years 1330 to 1440. In Central Europe, examples of Gothic cathedrals appear at about the same time, most notably the Prague Cathedral, whose construction began in 1344. Its design blended elements of English and German Gothic styles and served as the model for Kutna Hora, a major collegiate church in Bohemia, which was started in 1388. But most of the church-building activity in Central Europe, as in Germany, produced large urban parish churches rather than towering cathedrals and great churches, because by now church-building had become the measure of civic standing and pride in the emerging towns of the region.

Even this brief account shows clearly that the Gothic enterprise was anything but smooth and linear. Taken in its entirety, the movement arose from a series of very complicated building campaigns marked by discontinuities, fits and starts, diversions, and sidetracked initiatives of every kind. What propelled and sustained it was the realization by bishops, abbots, kings, and others that the Gothic cathedral was a powerful theological and political symbol—symbolism we will explore in this book.


How Were the Cathedrals Built?

What feats of human ingenuity and perseverance enabled ordinary human beings, using rudimentary tools and technologies and working under extremely difficult circumstances, to transform blocks of stone, lengths of timber, ingots of lead, pieces of iron, mountains of sand and quicklime, and other commonplace materials into majestic works of art? The process was enormously complex. Before work could begin, an overall plan was needed, identifying the component parts and specifying their appearance and the means of assembling them to form the whole (Figure 3 shows a typical cathedral "footprint"). The builders had to envision the sequence of actions allowing them to combine the parts at appropriate stages, including how, step by step, to gather the necessary materials and workmen, and how to acquire the revenue to pay for everything. Next, a site had to be found and cleared so the foundations could be marked out, trenched, and laid. Building materials then had to be located, delivered to the site, and assembled there. To do all of this, a workforce with the necessary skills had to be found and hired, and a sufficient number of ordinary laborers engaged to carry, load and unload, mix, and lift the construction materials. This workforce had to be instructed, supervised, and paid, and the work checked for quality. In addition, because a main aim of the Gothic style was to flood the interior with light, builders had to devise new ways of constructing vaults, buttresses, and arches that would allow them to open the side walls for windows.

Salisbury Cathedral as an Example

A brief look at how Salisbury Cathedral (Figure 4) was constructed offers some insights into the challenges that cathedral builders faced in transforming their vision into material reality. It took approximately one hundred years to build Salisbury Cathedral. Most accounts I have read give the starting date for its construction as 1220. On April 28 of that year a ceremony was held at the eastern end of the Cathedral Close to mark the laying of the first foundation stones. A good deal of preparation, however, had to be done before the first foundation stones could be laid, suggesting that the work began several years earlier. The construction program that began in 1220 seems to have proceeded more or less continuously for forty-six years, by which time most of the main vessel of the building was complete. This was immediately followed by a second building campaign, which produced the present tower and spire, as well as a freestanding bell tower, which was later demolished. This second campaign probably began about 1266 and was completed by 1320.

Salisbury Cathedral was constructed on a virgin site, built to a uniform design, and was the result of a single, more or less continuous building campaign. These three features distinguish it from most other Gothic cathedrals, which involved elaborate renovations of preexisting Romanesque structures or a series of distinct building campaigns strung out over long periods, during which new architectural styles and building techniques were introduced into the original design.

Much of what is known about the building of Salisbury Cathedral has been pieced together from fragments of historical records and findings of modern archeological studies of the building. The site chosen for the new cathedral was a seventy-acre plot of land owned by the bishop, Herbert Poore, on a water meadow near the River Avon (see p. vi). A water meadow is a plot of low, flat land adjacent to a stream. Although water meadows are subject to periodic flooding—and Salisbury Cathedral itself has been flooded a number of times in its eight-hundred-year history—this site is underlain with a thick bed of chalk that provides a firm, even ground for the foundations of the building.

The design of the building has been attributed to a canon of the chapter, Elias de Dereham, who was also affiliated with Canterbury Cathedral. The master mason, who took responsibility for executing Elias's grand design, was Nicholas of Ely. His first task would have been to clear the site so that foundations could be trenched out and laid. Presumably he first located and laid out the central crossing, which measured thirty-nine feet by thirty-nine feet and was to serve as a guide for defining other dimensions of the building (see Chapter 7). From the crossing it was then possible to plot out the foundation for the remainder of the building.

Once the outline had been measured off, a four-foot-wide foundation was trenched, establishing the entire perimeter of the building. As with any large building, the foundation had to be laid in a single, continuous process, because foundations laid in separate sections over time are prone to uneven settlement, which can lead to later catastrophic collapse. Because the water table in Salisbury is extremely close to the surface, the foundation trench could be excavated only to a depth of perhaps four feet. The trench was filled with flint gravel and chunks of chalk mixed with straw. (Retired Clerk of the Works Roy Spring reminds us that the gravel and chalk pieces had to be flat rather than round, or else the foundation would act like a bed of ball bearings!) The foundation stones laid at the ceremony of dedication in April 1220 were placed on this bed. The entire foundation was then built up above ground level to a height of twenty or twenty-five feet. Once it was finished, construction on the rest of the building could proceed.

Construction moved from east to west. (You may find it helpful to refer to the footprint of Salisbury shown in Figure 5 as we go along.) The first segment to be completed was the easternmost Lady Chapel, here known as the Trinity Chapel. It was dedicated on September 28, 1225, five years and five months after the first foundation stones were laid. The cathedral chapter moved from a temporary wooden chapel that had been assembled at the eastern end of the present site to the Trinity Chapel, which it immediately began to use as a formal place of worship. The next twenty years (1226–1246) were devoted to building the chancel, choir, and transepts, up to the end of the first bay of the nave. Twelve more years were required to complete the nave and the west front up to the top level of the roof (1247–1258). Finally, the next eight years (1259–1266) were devoted to roofing and vaulting the nave, vaulting the aisles, and finishing the exterior facade of the west front.


Excerpted from The Gothic Enterprise by Robert A. Scott. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: a Personal Journey 1
Pt. I A Grand Undertaking
1 What Is the Gothic Enterprise? 11
2 How Were the Cathedrals Built? 17
Pt. II History
3 Kings, Feudal Lords, and Great Monasteries 47
4 The Age of Cathedral-Building 65
5 The Initial Vision 76
6 "The Cathedral Crusade" 91
Pt. III The Gothic Look
7 What Is the Gothic Look? 103
8 An Image of Heaven 121
9 A Pragmatic View of Cathedral-Building 134
Pt. IV The Religious Experience
10 Sacred Force and Sacred Space 147
11 Imagining the Cathedral 171
12 Honoring the Dead 183
Pt. V The Gothic Community
13 Medieval Living Conditions 211
14 The Spiritual Brokers - Priests and Monarchs 219
15 Cathedrals and Community 233
Conclusion: Learning from Stonehenge 237
App.: Terminology 251
Notes 255
Bibliography 269
List of Illustrations and Credits 279
Index 283
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