Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1018:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1018.

Today, we look at old barns and we read an old metaphor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Malcom Kirk's new book, Silent Spaces, shows medieval barns. Many still stand, and it's hard to tell them from an elegant modern church. I show one picture to my wife and ask, "Can you believe this is a barn?" "No," she answers -- then she adds, "It must've been built for Holy Cows!" Indeed, its Corinthian columns are joined by Gothic arches that support great timbered roof beams. The roof is slate and the walls are stone.

Wheat, along with oats, peas, beans, and barley, was a medieval staple. Most people worked in agriculture. They ate less meat than we do. They lived off stored grain.

The grandest of these agricultural cathedrals were put up by monastic orders. The Cistercian monks lived on technology's cutting edge. Their monasteries were the modern factories of the high middle ages. Surrounded by their farms, the Cistercians practiced the latest techniques of food handling and processing.

Medieval barns constantly compromised between wood and stone. Medieval population growth had led to a huge consumption of wood: wood for houses, waterwheels, windmills. A whole tree for a crossbeam in a Gothic cathedral. And wood for barns!

Our modern wood construction uses small closely-spaced 2x4 studs -- lots of light wooden pieces. That began in mid-19th-century America. And we could only afford it once we had steam-powered lumber saws. Medieval barns mixed heavy wooden beams with stone. The balance depended on how much wood was available.

The only place you see that kind of construction today is in traditional churches; and they, in turn, copy medieval churches. But they also copy medieval barns. In fact, architects call those old granges aisled barns. The cattle might be billeted off the sides of the nave. Hay might be stored in the chancel.

If that strikes you as sacrilegious, then reflect upon the Christmas story -- and upon the keen sense of symbol and metaphor that marked all aspects of medieval life.

These old barns speak to the integrity of medieval thinking. Medieval Europe didn't divide material and spiritual needs with the same knife blade we do today. Bread was a sacramental element. It sustained both our material and spiritual life. If the Christ Child was, indeed, born in a barn, why not a fine barn -- a seat of power? Why not a dwelling fit for a king?

Sure enough, we now find these old buildings converted into mansions. Today, the grandest building is no longer the one that speaks to the most elemental human need, but one which contains humans. We've changed the old metaphor. It's a change I do not fully understand. But it's also one I cannot get out of my mind.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kirk, M., Silent Spaces: The Last of the Great Aisled Barns. Boston: A Bulfinch Press Book, 1994. I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for providing the Kirk source.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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