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Digital Subscriptions > BBC History Revealed > July 2019 > Bravado or Blunder?

Bravado or Blunder?

Cathedrals are often grand, opulent and magnificent – though sometimes more by accident than design. Emma J Wells unpicks the architectural fails of the medieval church builders
Building cathedrals in the Middle Ages was a back-breaking, drawnout afair - spanning decades in many cases

It was Ascension Day 1573. Crowds filled Beauvais Cathedral in northern France, ready to celebrate holy mass. But as the solemn procession snaked towards the high altar, heavy thuds could be heard resonating throughout the stone edifice. Before the eyes of horror-struck worshippers, the colossal 500-foot crossing tower came crashing down, a veil of debris and dust slowly enveloping the church. Only a few years in existence and the tallest of its kind, this was not the first time this ambitious addition had been the cause of the cathedral’s collapse.

Beauvais Cathedral continues to be plagued by structural problems. High above the continuous stream of 21st-century churchgoers and tourists, modern braces are the only element keeping it from crumbling. Tese may be an unsettling reminder of a medieval disaster, but they are also evidence of a lesson learned: caution over creativity.

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Although tinged with irony Oscar Wilde’s words are a testament to medieval architects and masons. In essence, some of our greatest abbey churches and cathedrals – these seemingly divine representations of the Heavenly Jerusalem – are masterpieces of miscalculation and unfortunate happenings (whether deliberate, accidental or foolish).

A lightning bolt set the south transept of York Minster alight in 1984

But though invention could bring disaster, catastrophe also heralded opportunity and discovery From towering infernos to bodgejobs, medieval ecclesiastical fabric (that is, the walls, floor and roof) is a roster of the stories and characters responsible for its creation.

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