Building with God: Anglo-Norman Durham, Bury St. Edmunds and Norwich

Building with God: Anglo-Norman Durham, Bury St. Edmunds and Norwich

By Hugh McCague

PhD Dissertation, York University, 1999


Abstract: I shall argue that in the medieval period, the construction of churches and, to a considerable extent, urban planning, were deemed God-centred processes rather than human-centred activities. The capacity to work and be skilled in the crafts and building trades were considered a divine gift, patterned after the ultimate in exemplary handiwork, God’s forming of Creation.

The impetus for the craft or building project, its design, technology and implementation were ideally indicated and guided by God. Further, the design was to mirror a divine archetype that was to be re-created outwardly in the completed craft work or church and restored inwardly in the working artisans and builders. This approach to the crafts was reinforced in the opening and closing rituals and liturgies for the building of churches. The crafts were integrated into a medieval Christian way of living that applied the precedents regarding craft work and architecture in the Bible.

The Anglo-Norman towns of Durham, Bury St. Edmunds and Norwich provide three comprehensive and contrasting case studies representing outstanding urban features of topography, cathedrals, monasteries and castles. I shall argue that these three towns, as great medieval building projects, were represented as ordained and guided by God, sometimes through the medium of titular saints and the divinity of monarchs.

Like other great Anglo-Norman centres, such as the capital at Winchester, they attempted to manifest on earth the divine hierarchy (the authorities of ‘regnum et sacerdotium’) through powerful expressions in coordinated architecture and town planning. At these three towns this God-centred manifestation partook, in varying degrees of the elements of the holy fortified citadel, the ‘monastic town’ and ‘shrine,’ the great Christian centres of Rome and Jerusalem, and the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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