When you think of medieval builders you probably picture either cathedrals or castles, since they are the most visible examples of medieval building still with us today. Certainly these sorts of structures still have the power to impress, and when you consider the limited technology available to those that built them they can still take the breath away. Men could spend their entire working life on one project in the case of some cathedrals, but of course there was also a great deal of smaller-scale building. There were many peasant dwellings to build, particularly as the population increased, and while these might be simply timber-framed affairs with wattle and daub walls, there is plenty of evidence that professionals were often used in their construction. For the grander town houses the materials would often be more expensive and might include tiled roofs and other more exotic features, which would call for more specialist workers.
In the early medieval period almost all buildings in Western Europe were largely of wood, so there was always a need for carpenters, while other tradesmen such as thatchers would also have been common. During the 11th century there was a growth in specialisation as stone began to be used more and more for building, particularly for ecclesiastical projects. Thus a large building site of the Middle Ages would be bustling with carpenters, masons, tilers and others, as well as many relatively unskilled labourers. Initially a master builder - which today we would call an architect - oversaw the whole project, but as projects got ever bigger and more complex he became increasingly concerned just with the design rather than the wider administration. Some of the spectacular results of these men’s efforts can still be admired today, and now these men have been immortalised in 1/72 scale plastic in this set from Valdemar.
These figures are all busy working away at their particular piece, and are all really well posed, being entirely natural in appearance. Clearly there is a wide range of plausible poses for such men, depending on the size of their piece and the circumstances under which they are working, but we really liked all these poses. Some have tools already in hand while others have an empty hand for one of the various separate tools that are included. Good use has been made of the flexible mould that produced these to ensure the poses are anything but flat. The figure in the bottom row looks to us like a master builder as he looks older than the rest and holds a set square (a classic mark of a master builder) and a rolled document (perhaps a design?).
Then as now builders essentially wore their everyday clothes when at work, as do these figures. They all have simple belted tunics with hose on the legs, and some wear shoes too. Caps of all kinds are also on display, and several have full-length aprons too, which gives us some concern. There are many contemporary illustrations of medieval builders, which clearly show a lot of aprons being worn, but these are almost always shown as coming only from the waist down. As a result we are nervous about the very modern-looking full aprons many of these figures wear, and despite the relative simplicity and apparent utility of such a garment we must register our doubts as to the validity of this for the medieval period given the lack of evidence, although it is hard to say such an item is completely incorrect.
As with so many Valdemar figures, these are beautifully created with excellent detail and entirely realistic anatomy. The care with which the tiny tools have been produced is admirable, and you can even see the flutes on the twist drill, while the large saw is wonderfully slender yet perfectly proportioned. All this does mean the tools are particularly fragile, so successfully placing tool into hand will require some care, but the result is very rewarding.
The set also includes several work benches with a part-sawn log on them, which could be being worked on by many of these figures. Strangely however the bench is incredibly narrow, being just 4.5mm (32cm) in width. This is ample to hold the wood, but to our mind it would be very unstable, although we have not been able to establish whether in fact such an item did exist.
Whether working on some magnificent cathedral or just putting up a new dwelling in the village, these figures really look the part to our mind, and while we are not convinced by the aprons we thought they were otherwise entirely realistic. Some beautiful sculpting and incredibly fine accessories make this a particularly pleasing set which cries out for display with materials and some part-finished building.