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Making Your Mark: Medieval Masons’ Marks at Tarascon

View of the ruined towers from the southwest, with the keep on the right and the two smaller towers on the left.

How do you operate a business when you can’t read and your knowledge of math is extremely limited? Making your mark on the dotted line (as they used to say) could seal the deal or in the Middle Ages, finalize your invoice at the end of the day’s work.

On a recent visit to southern France, I visited the ruined fortifications near the Chapel of Saint Gabriel in Tarascon. This ruined castle complex, a little bit east of the current riverside chateau, is remarkable for the surviving masons’ marks all over the castle’s stonework. Hundreds of marks are visible, recording the signatures of over 30 masons. Masons’ marks survive in medieval stone buildings like cathedrals, castles, walls, and manor homes however Tarascon is unusual. Not only are the marks relatively large but they are also still extremely crisp and easy to identify. While somewhat rough and crude compared to other medieval buildings, at least these are large and easily observed.

Over the River and Into the Woods

The Roman camp of Ernaginum formed the foundation for the castle towers and chapel down the hill. There is evidence of Roman quarrying adjacent to the towers and several of the towers’ blocks were likely created by Roman masons. The site was used strategically since the Iron Age and the major Roman roads in France intersected close by. In 858 a.d., a charter from Charles the Bald references the church of Saint Gabriel in the first of several exchanges during the medieval period. The fortifications are first mentioned in documents from 1207 a.d., when the Saint Gabriel site was controlled by the archbishop of Arles (chapel) and the Count of Provence (castle, presumably). A medieval bridge, no longer extant, crossed the Vigueirat Canal nearby, and the site is less than 3 miles from the Rhône. By the 14th century, the fortifications were abandoned after Raymond de Turenne des Baux pillaged the region.

A helpful Dad stands in the ditch south of the keep. Note the square shape and clean cut of the stone to the right; this may indicate Roman quarrying.

The towers were likely constructed in the 12th century to protect bridges and water sources throughout the Alpilles region. The ruins consist of a small keep, two minor towers, and the foundations of a wall. There is a sheer drop off on the north side and ditches cut into the rock on the south and west faces of the wall. The southern ditch may be a remnant of Roman activity; there is definitely evidence of human interference with the terrain. The towers and the chapel are currently monitored and studied by a local group, Les Amis de la Chapelle Saint-Gabriel.

Masons’ Marks: What We Know

Several manuscripts from the 15th century describe the typical work and training of masons outside of a guild, however Tarascon’s structures pre-date these texts. Masons’ marks are recorded in ancient Greek and Roman structures so it was a long-standing tradition for skilled craftsmen to record their contribution to a new building. Occasionally quarry marks are seen in medieval buildings; these would be incised on stones selected by the master mason (akin to a project manager or chief architect) before shipping to the construction site. Most quarry marks do not survive the final shaping of a stone to be set into its final position, whereas masons’ marks survive in conspicuous places.

How many do you see?

The marks at Tarascon are far from conspicuous, in fact they are downright obvious. In some cases, they take up most of the face of a stone. This type of evident mark is typically seen when medieval masons were paid by quantity rather than a set daily wage. At the end of each day, a mason’s work would be counted and he would be paid for the number of stones shaped and completed. Leaving his mark was the equivalent of leaving his signature on each stone to allow this daily accounting to happen. The symbols vary in complexity however it must take several precious minutes to carve even the simple ones. Some like the hammer are obviously related to the trade however I like the more whimsical ones like the star or wind puff/spiral.

It appears that masons’ marks were either shared or certain types were relatively common over hundreds of years. Several projects have tried to identify masons based on surveys of identifiable marks, however rarely reach any firm answers and are inconclusive.

Another section of the keep wall. A few of the blocks in the lower left corner are modern replacements around the door.

While southern France has a high number of medieval buildings in a good state of preservation, there is currently no accessible literature comparing the marks at Tarascon to other buildings in close proximity (PhD project, anyone?). With major Roman roads, aqueducts, chateaux, chapels, and cathedrals in the immediate region, this is fertile ground for future study or just some delightful sight-seeing. Don’t miss Glanum (an excavated Roman settlement), the Barbegal aqueduct sections east of Fontvielle, the medieval center of Beaucaire, or Mas Des Tourelles’ wine tasting room with Roman-era wine making display. The chapel of Saint-Gabriel and its towers are on a well-marked trail system, so if you prefer natural sights and sounds, look for red, yellow, and white marks on the trees and rocks around the historic monuments.

When you go off the well-beaten path a little, you find hidden treasures like the castle towers near Saint Gabriel. This beautiful little spot has its own rich and significant history, and hopefully as research marches down the road of progress the story of its masons’ marks will develop into something more. Until then, enjoy the sights and scenery of this great site and ponder its mysterious symbols and marks.

Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.

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