Brunt Buildings, Part 2: an unwanted sequel

Unfortunately, this seems to be a time for the burning of buildings of national and international importance.  Last year Belfast saw the destruction of Bank Buildings, and Belfast is still recovering and coming to terms with the loss. Thankfully Primark has committed to restoring the building. However, on Monday 15th April 2019 we received the terrible news that two more historic buildings went up in flames. The fire at Notre-Dame de Paris was the most publicised in the media, but Monday also saw a fire in the building known as King Solomon’s Stables in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem.

The destruction of Notre-Dame de Paris’ medieval timber roof is a sad loss, but it is only the most recent example of the damage fire can do to great buildings. Fire was a constant threat in the Middle Ages and resulted in the destruction of many buildings. Chris Currie has given some thought to the loss of houses due to fires in towns during the Middle Ages (Currie 1988). This work was based on work by E.L. Jones and others on sixteenth-century fires in urban environments (Jones et al. 1984). In the later and post-medieval periods there was a move to replace thatch with tiles in urban areas or to lime-wash it to reduce its flammability (Jones 1968).

Many cathedrals have suffered fire damage throughout history. Richard Morris notes that the cathedral of Pershore was badly burnt in the 1290s, but was still not repaired by 1327 due to lack of funds (Morris 1979, 221). More recently, York Minster suffered fire damage in 1829, 1840, and 1984 (Kate Giles discusses these here). The most recent of these was the result of lightning striking the south transept. This was probably quite common in the Middle Ages, as churches were the tallest structures in the landscape and would have made effective lighting rods. One of the earliest references to a round tower in Ireland was the destruction of the tower at Slane by fire in 950 (possibly the result of a Viking raid) and the round tower at Monasterboice was also damaged by fire in 1097 (O’Keeffe 2000, 128). Destruction and rebuilding would have been a perfectly natural process for the people of the Middle Ages. The construction of a castle or a cathedral may have taken a lifetime and may have suffered many setbacks along the way. This can be seen at Sherborne, where Monckton has argued that it had a series of continuous building phases between 1350 and 1500 which was interrupted by a fire in 1437 caused by parishioners disagreeing over the monks moving the font (Monckton 2000, 88–90). Once completed, a building was often extended and altered depending on architectural styles, needs, and desires of patrons. Some cathedrals may have effectively been building sites for generations. It is, therefore possible that the ‘normal’ people (ie those not directly involved in the construction) would not have felt the same sense of loss that we do when we see buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris destroyed by fire. They were concerned about fires in their domestic and agricultural buildings, but not when they affected churches or castles.

One benefit of the developments in technology is that there are very detailed records of the cathedral, in the form of laser scanning data. These will provide masons and carpenters with details of how it appeared and how it can be reconstructed. One source for this data is the digital model of the cathedral within the computer game Assassin’s Creed; this shows how detailed the games’ developers made their model and how life like it is (reported here, other buildings have been recorded in virtual reality and are being made available to the public). The reconstruction of Norte-Dame de Paris also gives the opportunity to employ and teach traditional skills, such as masonry, carpentry, glazing, and tiling. These are all important skills that have not been well supported. Elsewhere in France, at Guédelon a castle is being constructed using all these traditional skills and providing employment for many local people. Now there is an opportunity to undertake a similar project at Notre-Dame de Paris. This is even more likely now that the team at Guédelon have pledged their support and skills in the reconstruction effort (reported here).

A more mundane example, but part of my research, is the medieval barn at Bredon. The barn was significantly damaged in April 1980, caused by accident. The National Trust took the opportunity to fully record the building and restore it back to how it was before the fire. The restorations were fully recorded and eventually published with a discussion of the barn (Charles 1997). The success of this reconstruction can be seen by anyone who ventures into the Worcestershire countryside to find the massive barn. It is possible to tell which timbers were original, as parts of them are charred, but the overall appearance is true to the medieval structure. A visitor who did not know the history of this building could be forgiven for thinking the whole structure is authentically medieval. We can only hope that the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris is anywhere near as successful as Bredon and that they do make use of the skilled craftspeople from Guédelon to rebuild the roof as faithfully as possible and spread the skills of medieval carpentry.



Further reading

Charles, F.W.B, 1997, The Great Barn of Bredon: Its Fire and Reconstruction, Oxbow Books

Currie, C., 1988, ‘Time and chance: modelling the attrition of old houses’ Vernacular Architecture 19, 1–9

Jones, E.L., 1968, ‘The reduction in fire damage in southern England, 1650–1850’, Post-Medieval Archaeology 2, 140–49

Jones, E.L., Porter, S., & Turner, M., 1984, ‘A Gazetteer of English Urban Fire Disasters, 1500-1900’, Historical Geography Research Series 13

Monckton, L., 2000, ‘The late medieval rebuilding of Sherborne Abbey: a reassessment’, Architectural History 43, 88–112

Morris, R., 1979, Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales, Dent

O’Keeffe, T., 2000, Medieval Ireland: An Archaeology, Tempus


I cannot attribute credit for the featured image for this article, but it has probably been taken from the video in this article

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