Forty years after its publication, David Macaulay’s Cathedral is still a magnificent introduction to Gothic architecture. There is hardly a finer set of drawings of medieval craftsmen at work, and the shaggy, slightly-lopsided splendor of the fictional Chutreaux cathedral reveals Macaulay’s deep engagement with his subject. (Chutreaux was based on Amiens, where Macaulay drew and wrote the first draft of the manuscript). In Macaulay’s narrative, the townsmen of Chutreax collaborate seamlessly, working together to build workshops, foundations, and scaffolds. Macaulay shows each step in detail, from the forging of nails to the hoisting of voussoirs. Cross-sections and elevations, dotted with tiny laborers, give readers a sense of how the building comes together in three-dimensional space. Eighty pages and nine fictional decades after it begins, Macaulay’s cathedral rises in all its glory above the small, dense town of Chutreaux.
For adult readers, the gap between Macaulay’s portrayal of medieval life and current knowledge of the period is frustrating. Children’s books aren’t academic tomes, but the fact that Cathedral does not include a single legible image of a woman gives readers an inaccurate portrayal of women’s contributions to medieval building and civic life. We know now that women participated actively in the design and use of Gothic cathedrals. Women were patrons, religious leaders and worshippers. Some women were members of craft guilds, especially in textile arts. They also fed, clothed, and looked after the children of the carpenters, masons and glassblowers shown in Cathedral. Macaulay’s illustrations are wondrous, but it is time for a new story.
Further reading: David Macaulay, Building the Book Cathedral (1999) and Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction (1973); Therese Martin, ed. Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture (2012).