There are a lot of theories about where the Valentine’s holiday tradition came from; some say Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who performed secret weddings. Other accounts suggested Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, also credited with marrying secret lovers and martyred by beheading on 14th February.
Spicier takes are that Valentine’s Day was a toned-down replacement for the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which involved two nearly naked young men slapping young married women with pieces of goatskin. According to the ancient writer Plutarch, some believed that this bizarre ritual promoted conception and easy childbirth.
However, the most likely source of the Valentine’s Day we celebrate today is a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, called “Parliament of Fowls” that contains this line: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” By the 1400s, nobles inspired by Chaucer began writing poems known as “valentines” to their love interests.
To give Valentine’s our own engineering twist, here, we’ll share some tidbits about the construction of the remarkable religious edifices that surrounded Chaucer when he wrote the very first Valentine.
The heady heights of Gothic cathedrals
In the 13th century, cathedrals were the tallest buildings in Europe. They required incredible feats of engineering in a period where mechanical solutions were almost non-existent. Therefore, it took an army of labourers and master craftspeople decades to complete one structure.
Work would begin with an intricate papier-mache model of the cathedral, which would be presented to the bishops and senior clergy. Once approved, construction would begin with materials sourcing. Often, quarried stone would come from hundreds of miles away; for example, some early English cathedrals had stone shipped from Normandy, whose quarries produced an exceptionally fine pale-coloured stone.
One of the most complex endeavours was the construction of rib vaults, the grand arches that appear in the ceilings of many Gothic churches. The first step involved the construction of a wooden scaffold to support a precise wooden frame in the shape of the ribs. The stone segments of the ribs were then meticulously laid into the frame and cemented.
Working at height like this in the 13th century was no mean feat. They required new technology to hoist the stones up the highest levels to construct these vaults and spires. Engineers developed a variety of cranes, such as the treadmill crane. Powered by one or more men walking inside a large treadmill, this hoist allowed a single man to hoist a weight of up to 600 kg.
Building with love hundreds of years later
Fast forward to today and it goes without saying that things have changed a lot. That said, many of the processes and tools we use today are rooted in these Medieval methods. We certainly owe a lot to the innovations of the time, and as we develop a more sustainable built environment, we could stand to be inspired by some of the care and attention that went into building these incredible structures.
And on that note, we’ll conclude our love letter to Medieval engineering and hope you all had a a happy Valentine’s Day!