Cover of Passion for Compasses by Sonja Klug

A Medieval Eyeopener & the Passion for Compasses

When I started Passion for Compasses, I did not expect to discover a medieval eyeopener. Although the subtitle–Medieval Master Builders and their Cathedral Building Plans–intrigued me, I thought I would learn a bit about how medieval architects built the great gothic cathedrals without understanding any of the technicalities. I picked it up from Book Sirens in exchange for a review, so I figured it was worth a try to read it.

Dr Sonja Klug informs us that relatively few construction plans have been found for the impressive churches and cathedrals of the Romanesque and Gothic periods. She began by asking where the drawings went? Were the plans destroyed in Europe or lost over time? Or were they never made at all? Although there are very few architectural drawings, there were numerous compasses. What were they used for and how? Was it possible to design complex buildings such as churches and cathedrals without blueprints?

I certainly did not expect her answer. Given the subtitle–Medieval Master Builders and their Cathedral Building Plans, I thought I would learn a bit about the design of the great gothic cathedrals without understanding any of the technicalities. I picked it up from Book Sirens in exchange for a review, figuring it was worth a try to read it.

Medieval Europe as a Foreign Culture

What I received was a gold mine that opened my eyes to the medieval world as a foreign culture. It is one thing to know that the literacy rate was low. It is another to recognize that people who live in an oral culture have completely different ways of thinking. Dr. Sonja Klug says that it is a mistake to believe that writing merely represents language in visible form. For those who neither read nor write, she says, texts often seem like magic. She notes that in the 11th century, priests kept written texts in reliquaries or sacristies, right next to the bones of the saints. As an example of cultural differences, she speaks of the difficulty of transferring land through written deeds because the illiterate landowners could not make the connection between the deed, a piece of paper, and the physical reality of the land itself.

So I learned that the great master builders of the great cathedrals were illiterate, as were their entire work crew. The masters did not draw up building plans for their men to work from. They marked their plans on the ground in the here and now. But that was just the beginning of what I discovered.

“Despite the demanding content the book is written in an understandable and entertaining way. Klug argues convincingly, using numerous quotations and examples to make her train of thought clear. Illustrations provide additional clarity.”

The Surprising Passion for Compasses & Other Medieval Eyeopeners

Papyrus, Parchment, & Paper

The next astonishing proof she offers for her thesis is the question of paper. She offers evidence that papyrus was no longer available in Europe after about 650 A.D. From then on, the most common writing surface became wax tablets. Between 650 and 750 A.D. in both the Islamic world and Europe men wrote fine documents on parchment, which was time-consuming and expensive.

Around 1100, the first paper mills were established in Muslim-occupied Spain and the first paper document in Europe has been located in Sicily in 1109. In 1120 when the Abbot of Cluny came into contact with paper in Spain he said making it of rags lowered the quality of the product. The Jews took over papermaking in Spain around mid 1240 as the reconquista began in Spain and the first surviving paper book in Germany comes from 1246. Paper finds its way into common use by merchants around this time in Italy. It is only with the printing press and that the demand for paper increased and its cost decreased. But it was made from cloth until the 19th century, explaining for me, at least, among other things, the ubiquity of the rag collector character of fiction. But also, without literacy, what need is there for writing materials? Or libraries?

Education, Mathematics, Perspective, & Compasses

That brings Dr Klug to many of hr other topics. One is education. She documents the rise of schools from about 750 A.D. on, beginning first with schools for clerics, with the introduction of Arabic number from 1 to 9 in 976 A.D. and then schools for merchant children whose needs were very different. Next there is the beginning of universities, also first for clerics. The first university, in Bologna, was founded in 1088. The cultural flowering of the Middle Ages began in the north with the invention or rediscovery of such tools as the wheelbarrow, the treadle wheel crane and the increase in water mills. This was also the moment that mathematical texts were translated from Latin to vernacular languages and the compass was introduced as a practical technical building device (declared as a ‘sacred Godlike tool'(p 232). And then came Gothic architecture (1140-1350) taking over from Romanesque.

Leonardus of Pisa introduced the zero only in about 1200. And only in 1235 did Villard de Honnecourt create the first architectural sketchbook on parchment. He, like most author is illiterate and has a scribe write it. It was not to scale, nor did he use perspective as we understand it. In fact, Giotto’s was the first to use one point perspective in his frescos in 1305.

An Exciting Cultural & Historical Journey through Time

She looks at the spread of papyrus, parchment and paper and traces the ability to write and calculate in Europe. She also looks at the construction process in historical illustrations and draws comparisons with Arabic architecture. Finally, the author presents the various types of compasses that were available and explains how the drawing skills of master builders developed up to the Renaissance. Her book is a medieval eyeopener that describes its passion for compasses.

Her insights into the history of architecture led me to an epiphany. It was not only Architects of the Middle Ages who thought and planned very differently from how we think today. Everyone’s world view was different. I loved this book. I recommend it highly.

“The book is not only interesting for experts, but for any reader who is enthusiastic about medieval history, because a horse is not a car without wheels and an engine.”

About the Author

Dr. Sonja Ulrike Klug has been studying medieval architecture for over 20 years. She has published several books on Gothic cathedrals.

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