Alfie Robinson

My dissertation aims to square medieval building contracts with the fabric of buildings as they were actually built, so visiting the sites themselves has been essential. The BAA’s travel award has made this possible. The goal is to shed light on the value judgements contained in building contracts, the most interesting of which hinge on comparisons to existing structures. This of course invites one to search for buildings where both the exemplar and the ‘copy’ still survive. A particularly rich example is that at Magdalen College Oxford, which was to have library and chamber windows “as good as” or “better” than those at All Souls, Oxford. Thanks to the grant, I was able not only to compare the buildings themselves but also the measurements that were described in the original contract with what actually happened when the mason took chisel to stone.

Only through this empirical research did I find that the measurements vary hugely between what was intended and what achieved. The windows that were to be “better” than those at All Souls were in fact significantly shorter in the end than even the model. From what we know of other contracts, which often show a desire to lengthen naves and choirs, or widen arches, size often mattered to medieval builders. At Magdalen, though, there was multiple contracting, with the advice of mason Richard Bernes marshalled to decide the height of the cloister below. It seems that a compromise was struck between the two ideas, and in the process the desire for a “traimson” (transom) in the windows was also rejected. That decision, guided by the shrinking size and light of the library accords with nothing in the contract but the more subjective desire to have windows in quality like those at All Souls, which are notably generous in scale for readers’ convenience. Other locations I was able to visit thanks to the grant include Fotheringhay and Durham, both with rather subtle shifts in construction occasioned by their contracts. The documents cannot be understood without reference to built reality, and it has been a privilege to be able to visit these sites, particularly after the last year.