“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

Few cathedrals never know an earthquake. Most, like Lincoln, survive, with spires left unreplaced; others, like the cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, wearily face demolition after one earthquake too many. Tuesday’s quake gave Washington National Cathedral its first real rattle, knocking spires off the central tower, cracking buttresses, raining rubble onto the south transept steps, damaging a gargoyle, and probably causing damage yet unknown.

The rueful consolation of architectural history, both medieval and modern, is that it certainly could have been worse. In A.D. 1248, a busy year for crusading, church-state sparring, and all the usual duecento brouhaha, an earthquake hit England. Tallying up the year’s events in his Chronica Majora, the prolific monk Matthew Parris recorded the damage done to Wells Cathedral, around 20 miles southwest of Bath.

Here’s the original, for you Latinists:

Eodemque anno in Adventu Domini, scilicet quarto die ante Natale Domini, factus [est] terraemotus in Angia, ita ut, prout haec scribenti enarravit episcopus Bathoniensis, quia in ejus diocesi evenit, dissipatae sunt maceriae aedificorum, et lapides de locus suis avulsi in muris hiatus fecerunt patulos et rimas cum ruinis. Tholus quoque lapideus magnae quantitatis et ponderis, qui per diligentiam caementariorum in summitate ecclesiae de Velles ponebatur, raptus de loco suo, non sine dampno super ecclesiam cecedit; et cum ab alto rueret, tumultum reddens horribilem, audientibus timorem incussit non minimum. In quo etiam terrae motu hoc accidit mirabile; caminorum, propugnaculorum, et columpnarum capitella et summitates motae sunt, bases vero et fundamenta nequaquam, cum contrarium naturaliter debuit evenire. Et ille terraemotus tertius fuit, qui in triennio citra Alpes evenit; unus in partibus Sabaudiae, et duo in Anglia, quod ab initio mundi est inauditum, et ideo terribilius.

And here’s a quick translation:

That same year, during the Advent of the Lord, specifically on the fourth day before the Nativity of the Lord, there was an earthquake in England in which—as the bishop of Bath, in whose diocese it occurred, told this writer—the walls of buildings burst, and stones torn from their places left holes and cracks in ruined walls. The vaulted roof of the cathedral of Wells, set in place atop the summit through the diligence of masons and made of stones of great number and weight, was torn from its place, not without damage. It fell on the church, collapsing from on high and making a terrible crash that struck not a little fear in those who heard it.

During this earthquake, a wonder occurred: The peaks and summits of chimneys, ramparts, and pillars were dislodged, but the bases and foundations were not, although naturally, the contrary should have occurred.

This earthquake was also the third in three years to occur on the near side of the Alps, one in Savoy and two in England, a thing unheard of since the beginning of the world and thus that much more terrible.

Wells Cathedral survived, but its architectural future wasn’t placid. In the early 14th century, just a few decades after the earthquake, a new central tower cracked and seemed ready to collapse until a mason named William Joy invented a solution: scissor arches.

For nearly five years, I’ve written blog posts about the National Cathedral, finding Charlemagne’s heirs in the Bishop’s Garden (and butterfly amour there too) while taking autumn snapshots, looking into bloomin’ Arthuriana, admiring the spires draped in whimsical light, and tracing the building’s architectural kinship with a facade across the street. Then, of course, there are those nearly 40 poems about the gargoyles.

If you’ve enjoyed any of this stuff, please consider making a donation to help fix my favorite medievalist neighbor. The repairs are expected to cost millions, and structural engineers are “daunted by the idea of finding a way to repair such massive pieces so high up.” I suspect that like William Joy before them, these modern architects and masons will find ingenious solutions, but their work won’t be covered by insurance, so please drop a coin or two in the collection plate; you’ll be helping to restore a monument to the enduring influence of the Middle Ages. And if you’re feeling cheeky, you might insist that a gargoyle sent you.

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