The Contractors of Chartres Revisited
By Chris Henige
Paper given at The Masons at Work Conference (2012)
Introduction: Some thirty-five years ago, architect and architectural historian John James published an in-depth study of the cathedral at Chartres entitled The Contractors of Chartres. Five years later he summarized his conclusions in The Master Masons of Chartres, in which he encapsulated his theory about the contractors who built the cathedral at Chartres:
If Chartres had been built in another age, the control over the builders would have been greater, and the many complications that have permitted us to see into the history of its construction would have been lost. As it is, we can divide the major part of the work up to the completion of the vaults into over thirty campaigns, carried out by only nine contractors. They each appeared for a short time, laying on average a mere three courses of masonry in each program. Some returned to the works many times and, when not there, would have found work on the other great cathedrals and abbeys around Paris, sometimes as far away as Auxerre and St. Quentin. They were itinerant men, wanderers like strolling players and freelance soldiers, who moved with their chattels from place to place working where and for as long as they were needed, and packing their bags and moving on when the need had passed, or the funds to pay them had run out.
It is not difficult to understand why the idea of itinerant contractors has met with considerable resistance from the start, as it tends to fly in the face of our understanding of medieval building practice, and indeed of practicality. Because James’ conclusions were met with such fierce resistance, little credence was given to his method of inquiry, after all, how could a sound methodology lead to such an untenable conclusion? In this study, I hope to turn back the clock somewhat and disentangle the evidence James has extracted from the fabric of the building from his ultimate conclusions.