Historically, operative stonemasons were part of a small but real middle class. This put them in a very unique position in their day, which seems to have been primarily tension between wealthy lords, and many poor via the system of serfdom.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the economic realities facing operative stonemasons of the 14th century in England, tracing back to a time that was close to the authorship of the Regius Poem. It’s a crazy time period that involves mass death from the Black Plague, rebellions, violence, and an improving economic picture for everyone, including masons.
A Master’s Wages
Contemporary illustrations of master masons show them to have been prosperous middle class professionals. The men they supervised, who did much of the actual carving and laying of stone, were like modern skilled tradesmen, and many younger men still learning the trade worked on the building sites as labourers.The Medieval Stone Mason
Looking back through the historical record, a master mason would typically earn double what a carpenter would earn, and perhaps 4 times the amount of an apprentice at best. In leaner times, a master mason might earn 3 – 6 pence per day. Over the course of the century, many different rates would have been paid.
But what does that mean? The amounts of money don’t make sense unless you look at prices at the time. The following prices are from available sources in the references, and date to about the 14th century in England.
- A craftsman’s house might cost 20 shillings a year (240 pence)
- A gallon of acceptable ale would cost 1 pence
- A sheep would cost 1s 5d (about 17 pence)
This means that at a very good wage, a mason could cover his house in 30 – 45 days worth of labor, and would have had adequate money to cover things like clothing (a tunic would have been about half a day’s wages) and other food items.
Food Normally Provided
As another data point, the Statute of 1446 specified 4d (4 pence) a day for a freemason in Summer with food, 5 1/2d without food. In Winter they reduced to 3d or 4 1/2d. A master mason was normally paid around double. The Statutes were frequently breached and it seems that some masons were happy to pay any consequent fines. The Statute of 1495 increased the value of food provided to 2d a day.
Master Masons as their Own Contracting Businesses
There is ample evidence that in the later mediaeval period it was quite common to sub-contract a whole project to a master mason. I would go as far as to say, intuitively, that this was the norm where parish church alterations were concerned. It seems inconceivable that the parish would wish to be concerned with the minutiae of, for example, procuring and transporting stone. The master was paid a contract price by the patron and got on with the whole job.The Stonemasons and their World
In the Regius Poem, one of the old charges, Master Masons cannot take “bondmen” (which were servants, serfs, and slaves) as apprentices, and should take care to only take on apprentices which could serve for seven years. This early document can be thought of as a type of proto-labor union agreement of the day, and it makes sense, when you consider this point that stonemasons may have acted as contracting businesses!
Freemasons tend to think of a Master Mason’s work as being on a grand cathedral. That did happen; for example Wells Cathedral was being built during the time by Master Mason William Wynford. But cathedrals were too big and rare to be the work of most stonemasons. In the 14th century there were a great number of bridge projects to be done as well, owing to an expansion of the road networks for trade purposes. In larger, grander projects, all of the following projects would have been worked on by masons of the day:
- Cooling Castle, Kent
- St. John the Evangelist’s Church, Newton Arlosh
- St. Wulfram’s Church in Grantham
- Jewel Tower, of the Palace of Westminster
Regarding Mason’s Marks, while I can’t find reference to them in England in this century, already in the German “Torgau Statutes” of 1462 they are mentioned. They note that on becoming a journeyman (equivalent of the fellowcraft), the mason “took his mark at a solemn admission feast”. It is probable
In the most active years of 1347 until 1351, the Plague killed at least 1/3rd of the population, and 1/2 in some places. This created a lot of social mobility though, as smaller villages consolidated and disappeared. There became such demand for work, that leaving an employer or lord and working illegally elsewhere where they pay might be more became common. This labor power was one of the beginnings of the end for the system of serfdom.
It’s often been said that Master Masons lived a “nomadic life” going wherever the work was, and in this economic mode, it makes perfect sense. As contractors, they would have located themselves close to whatever the major project of the day was. And worth keeping in mind is that this time involved more labor mobility for everyone due to the black death, and rising pay rates.
Economic Crises and War
During this 14th century though, there was a massive economic crisis which was in part created by the plague, and the costs of the 100 Years War. With certain regions in Europe seeing their population fall by half, wages tended to increase as there were fewer workers to go around. Between the 1340s and the 1380s the purchasing power of rural labourers increased by around 40 percent.
The Peasant’s Revolt in England, 1381, was said to have included masons among carpenters, weavers, and others, and sought lower taxes, removal of unfree labor known as serfdom, and removal of the King’s senior officials. During the remainder of the century, laborer’s wages continued to increase due to a number of factors.
- Medieval Masons and Gothic Cathedrals
- Gothic Cathedrals Chapter 3
- Medieval Prices and Wages
- UC Davis: Medieval Price List
- The Economic Crisis of the 14th Century
- Economics of the Peasant’s Revolt
- Medieval Mason’s Marks
- The Stonemasons and their World