The Medieval Roots of ‘Setting Out’.

The role of a ‘Setter Out’ – A specialist Joinery draftsman, share’s it’s roots with the Castle and Cathedral Builders of Medieval Europe.

The Castle and Cathedral Builders of Medieval Europe where not known as ‘Architects’ – This term was exclusively used to refer to God. At this time the Master Mason was Master Craftsman, Designer and Contractor all rolled into one.*

God as Architect of the Universe from the Holkam Bible

God as “Divine Architect of the Universe”

14th Century Holkham Bible

At this time drawings were produced as part of the contract documents. These drawings were usually a scale plan and elevations used, then as now,  to show design intent. The real work started once the design principles were established.

Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral

Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral from the 1260’s

The Master Mason’s true skill was a knowledge of Geometry. Contemporary illustrations of Medieval Master masons usually show them with a Set Square, Plumb line and Dividers.

The great buildings of the time were not designed using maths. Instead, Master Masons used rules of proportion such as ‘The Golden’ section or ‘Fibonacci’s numbers’. Mathematically these numbers are difficult to comprehend, being based on the square root of whole numbers. However using arcs and lines the geometry is easy to construct.

Once the design principles had been established, setting out would begin. Elements of the building would be inscribed full size on great polished plaster floors and full size timber or metal templates would be made for the carved sections of stone.

The tracing floor in the York Minster Masons loft

John Harvey’s 1968 drawing of the 14thC plaster tracing floor at York Minster.

Much of the stone would be cut off site at the quarry, to save money on transport. Often the templates would be sent to the quarry and large numbers of repeated details could be mass manufactured ready for a final fitting on site. Very rarely would the stone be carved in situ.  At the height of Medieval building, Quarries even offered pre-cut stone ‘Kits’ that could be bought off the shelf.

I have no doubt that these established principles of Geometry, Setting out full scale elevations and sections and Marking out the appropriate joints would have passed down to the other trades on site, including the carpenters and in time the Joiners.

*And often, Quarry man and Haulier as well!

Researched from ‘Medieval Craftsmen – Masons and Sculptors’ By Nicola Coldstream

Want to learn more about Setting out? Read What is Setting Out?

2 Responses to “The Medieval Roots of ‘Setting Out’.

  • Stephan van der Horst
    8 years ago

    I’m looking for more photos and possible descriptions of (plaster) carvings of tracery like the one you published on in april 2010 (York Minster). I read that there would be some in Wells Cathedral also.
    Can you help me finding them ?
    I’m making a study of the mathematical backgroud of gothic wondows