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
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
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
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