Why did they build expensive medieval churches?

by on May 31, 2008 at 12:22 pm in History | Permalink

Bryan Caplan asks (the rest of the post is interesting on other matters):

Seeing a bunch of French cathedrals makes me even more skeptical of the claim (made by Larry Iannaccone
and others) that people weren’t more religious in earlier centuries. If
people weren’t far more religious in the Middle Ages, why did they pour
such a high fraction of their surplus wealth into century-long
religious architectural projects? You could say "It was primarily
rulers, not donors, who allocated the funds," but that just pushes the
question back a step. Were rulers vastly more religious than the
masses? That’s hard to believe. Were rulers trying to impress the
masses by building churches? Well, why would churches impress the
masses unless they were highly religious?

His answer:

Religious architecture and art were to medieval feudalism what advertising and commercialism are to modern capitalism:
A rather effective way to build support for the status quo using
aesthetics instead of argument. My claim, in short, is that Notre Dame
played the same role during the Middle Ages that fashion magazines play
today. Notre Dame was not an argument for feudalism, and Elle is not an argument for capitalism.  But both are powerful ways to make regular people buy into the system.

I would add that churches were a form of fiscal policy and the associated spending was a way to hand out goodies to political allies.  (This is especially important if the finished project takes decades or centuries to materialize.)  In a time of political decentralization it wasn’t easy to construct or maintain a long distance road.  So you had to put a lot of expense in one easy-to-guard place and in a politically correct way.  Churches were the obvious choice.  Churches may have been an efficient means to store wealth for other reasons as well.  If someone is going to plunder you on the run, they can wreck a church but they can’t dissemble and carry away its value very easily.

Robin Hanson might argue that beautiful churches also signaled the status of the elites who built them. 

1 GeorgeNYC May 31, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Why do businesses build huge “cathedrals” for their main headquarters? They could just as easily and more efficiently operate out of plain vanilla office space. The church certainly wielded much more power than it does now. Probably more akin to the reverence that we hold corporations today. Religion does not always need to be about God. Someday scholars will study Federal Reserve pronouncements with that sort of academic detachment that we now view ancient papal decrees. Yes. At the time, they meant something but in hindsight they seem to be more arrogant gibberish.

2 R Richard Schweitzer May 31, 2008 at 1:22 pm

This is a rather remarkable question, particularly with respect to the the regional social structures of France during the periods examined.

Regional social structures predominated. The most consistent form of commonality for social cohesion was the Roman Catholic Church (with the Albigensian [Cathar – Later Huguenot as well]exception, which was temporarily eliminated by force of arms).

This preceded any form of “National identity,” or, indeed, the submergence of regional dialects. Regions were centered around market centers, and the building of cathedrals reinforced the regional cohesion, which was often in some form of competition with other regions. Some of this effect lingers (terrior?). Religion and the symbolism of the cathedral had a unifying effect, noted by the ruling elites and the developing bourgoisie, not to mention the hierarchy of the Church.

What was to become and be incorporated into France was not then “France.”

3 ZFR May 31, 2008 at 1:58 pm

It has become very noticeable in England that by far the most stylish, opulent and distinctive buildings completed over the past 25 years are the HQ buildings the local councils build for themselves.

In many cases the universities are not far behind, but the Council buildings are more shocking because they are often in the middle of the mundane and cheaper structures in which competitive businesses operate successfully (and are all the Council planners will let them build).

I’ve always thought the goal is to convince the individual that he or she is small and ineffectual versus the power of their rulers. The message is ‘You have no chance against people who can mobilize the resources needed to build this with your taxes’. It seems to work. Most British people are totally apathetic about their local Councils, don’t vote in their elections and don’t know who their elected Councillors are.

4 David Wright May 31, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Cathedral-building may well have served all those ends, but the claim that medieval people weren’t more religious than modern people is still ridiculous. Markets were certainly extant and important in medieval times, so if they were just like us, why didn’t they pour those resources into building beautiful malls? And was all that medieval writing, art, and music, not to mention church attendence, pure signalling without any authentic content? And if no one was religious, then signalling to whom?

Most likely, this claim depends on a purposeful distortion of what it means to “be religious.” For example, if you were to equate religiousity with the rate at which people sinned, you could probably claim that medieval people were no more, and perhaps even less, religious than modern people. But that isn’t what we really mean by religiosity — we mean a particular way of looking at the world.

5 Sebastian Flyte May 31, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Why were some gargoyles placed so high upon the roof’s as to be out of sight? As Charles Murray says: ‘they carved for the eye of god.’

6 alex May 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Entry-Deterence is the answer.
there’s a paper arguing that Cathedral Building was a like over-investing in capacity in order to avoid competition from protestantism. Sounds possible.
I can’t find the paper, but it was in Kyklos.

7 Organic George May 31, 2008 at 3:43 pm

The size of buildings though out history have told us who was in powder. The early feudal lords has their castles, then the church had it’s cathedrals, then government building dominated the urban landscape, now corporations overwhelm the skyline.

Those that have the gold, make the rules; or in this case the bigger buildings

8 M. Hodak May 31, 2008 at 4:22 pm

It’s easier to evaluate religiosity if we step back from such a sharp distinction between church and state as Bryan (and perhaps Tyler) are trying to draw. Church and state were partners in the business of controlling the masses. While one doesn’t have be so cynical as to believe that impressive church structures, like impressive monuments of later times, were built mainly in the interests of that controlling enterprise, that was certainly one of the effects. in both cases, the edifices help the masses identify with something bigger than themselves, a form of worship that happens to be of great use to the political elite, whether religious or secular.

9 Cyrus May 31, 2008 at 4:59 pm

If you want to build a lasting monument, a beautiful place of worship is probably your best bet. It doesn’t have to mean you are particularly devout. It does mean that you think enough people are, that they will take care of it when you’re long since dead.

10 Barkley Rosser May 31, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Iannaconne is a smart and capable guy, but how he can defend this idea of some constant
degree of religiosity over time is simply bizarre. To enrique: why do you presume a constant
degree of religiosity over time?

We know that within the last century in various parts of Europe we have seen large changes in
degrees of belief (and church attendance) in some countries. Are these observed and reported
changes all fake?

In most places, cathedrals are ultimately paid for by the locals, although often they were the
local elites and business guilds. So at Chartres Cathedral one can see particular stained glass
windows being sponsored by particular guilds or particular aristocrats, with an occasional big
window or piece being paid for by a king or a queen. Yes, advertising certainly got in there, and
around any major religious monument you are likely to see business people hawking all sorts of
things from statues to relics to other effluvia. Does this mean they, or more precisely their
customers, are not actually religious?

11 Bob Calder May 31, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Hodak is on point. The Church didn’t have competition.

The Catholic Church (if you include the various monastic orders) owned more real estate than anybody in Europe. In an agrarian society, that means power. Wars were financed as well as cathedrals built.

Asking why they built Cathedrals frames the question in modern Christian terms and is irrelevant and silly.

12 Superheater May 31, 2008 at 5:34 pm

This is another of those articles where Mr. Caplan and Cowen’s analyses fail due to a skeptical bias that seems to have crossed into cynicism. Analysis might actually be a generous description given the errors

Consider this:”churches were a form of fiscal policy and the associated spending was a way to hand out goodies to political allies”. Hundreds of years ago, the devotion of substantial amounts of labor and resouces meant diversion from the necessities of the day, agriculture and armies. If it was “policy”, it wasn’t very enlightened.

As for this assertion: “Churches may have been an efficient means to store wealth for other reasons as well. A church was neither efficient or effective at storing wealth-its construction was costly, it wasn’t parcelable or portable and had no other uses than as a house of worship.

This is so badly written it makes readily defeasible assertion that advertising is a “rather effective way to build support for the status quo using aesthetics instead of argument”. While advertising can support the “status quo” it is also a powerful method for upending the status quo.

I live in an area where the primary occupation was mining. The earnings were meager and due to a lack of education and religious and ethnic discrimination they had no opportunity for economic betterment.

The local church obtained gold for fixtures during its construction through the donation of jewelry. Such a donation represented a significant sacrifice for people who often had little or no other wealth, not even homes or land. Their motivation was strictly an expression of relgious faith. There was no rational economic motivation other than to erect a house of worship.

13 josh May 31, 2008 at 8:36 pm

I would argue that prior to sustained per capita economic growth, fascistic symbols of community greatness such as grand churches may have actually been welfare-improving. Although, interparish competition may have made this close to a zero sum game.

14 Roland May 31, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Cathedrals were HQ’s for one of the most important long distance activities of the age-pilgrimages. Without parsing the motives of the participants, from the point of view of bishops, monks, innkeepers, brothel owners and souvenir sellers this was a most important cash enterprise.

15 TomG June 1, 2008 at 5:40 am

And bragging rights too. Regions and even the cities themselves were competing for claiming the biggest and greatest edifices and attributes. If it took ten years to build, there was time to revise and increase scope (put more money in) toward making the one that everyone would talk about at the end of the day. Upon completion it became the new standard set to dare others to try beating (you can read of their not infrequent collapses while under construction – while today it’s the cranes)

16 Ed D. June 1, 2008 at 8:00 am

Much of the giving to the church, including funds for cathedrals, came in the form of indulgences. Yes, indulgences were nominally for God’s forgivness as allocated by the church. But more realistically they were to secure the church’s backing for political foray and even war. The church was the power back then given that secular power was so fragmented. Getting the power of the church on your side in any political situation meant quite a bit.

17 M. Hodak June 1, 2008 at 11:33 am

“My understanding is that church and state were sometimes allies, sometimes rivals. The church was not dependent on the lord for funds. It had its own lands and revenues as well.”


This is all technically true. But the allies/rivals distinction rarely transcended the degree to which they were partners. A good example of what happened when the partnership broke down completely was when Henry VIII decided he no longer needed the legitimacy conferred by the Catholic church. Henry promptly lost a good deal of his legitimacy, and the Church promptly lost a good deal of their lands. Henry decided that he had less to lose in that break, but he clearly would have preferred to do what he wanted to do (i.e., divorce Katherine) with the sanction of the Church.

My larger point, regarding overall religiosity noted in the post, made in various ways by other commenters, is that religious sentiment for organized religion is not what it used to be, but only because much of it (though not all) has migrated to other foci of worship, including the state. I would suggest that what animates Mugabe’s supporters is not meaningfully different than the source of Pope Leo’s support of Charlemagne.

18 Bob Calder June 1, 2008 at 12:30 pm

Excellent post Cassandra. So let’s get back to the more or less religious statement. Saying people were less religious than today ignores the effects of the separation of Philosophy and Church. Can I use Ockham in 1317 as an arbitrary start to that event? In the late 1400’s the new humanist scholars began to attack poor medieval scholarship in theology. Subsequently (much later) the scientific revolution prized the ownership of the physical further away from religion.

In the meantime, how could people whose world view included the day-to-day interference of spirits in their lives NOT be under constant spiritual bombardment and thus sincerely religious?

Talk about signaling! Going to church and praying several times a day is the way one signals the spirits, ensuring survival. Of course there are the haircut, the hat, the clothing, the sacrifice, and the words all of which ensure prosperity. But remember that Christianity is built on intercession which means you NEED a priest so just being good won’t save you. In England, tithing income to the church was about four percent of GDP compared to two percent of GDP for the government from taxes (Clark’s Farewell to Alms) this is my imperfect recollection speaking though.

Perhaps the best modern day comparison the great cathedrals have is our attempts to communicate with extra-terrestrials in terms of signaling.

Contemporary structures exist in Mexico for instance, Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor AD 1452 huge expansion project. I’m not suggesting this was for signaling aliens, just neighbors.

19 David June 1, 2008 at 2:48 pm

A few points: the middle ages lasted hundreds of years. Motivation for building cathedrals changed during that time, depending on circumstances and conditions, just as motivation for, say, the crusades changed as each crusade followed. To suggest a sole motivation is to suggest that the British taking over Iraq in the 1920s is the same as the US doing likewise today. Likewise as theology and doctrine developed so did motivation, especially as the concept of ‘pardons’ that could be purchased increased in the Roman Catholic Church. Take a single project, King’s Chapel, Cambridge. It took around 150 years to build this huge Gothic cathedral. It was begun by Henry VI, a genuinely religious and pious if somewhat incompetent king, who wanted to build a holy institution. It was finished by Henry VIII, an egomaniac of vacillating religion, who split the English church from the Roman. From what we know of their characters, the two men had very different motivations: one God-focused, the other self-aggrandizement. Then – economically, to suggest the churches were a good place to store wealth does not make sense. If, as a king of a Roman Catholic countru, you poured your money into church building you LOST your money TO the church – which was controlled by the Papacy, predominantly. You could not access it and kings did not access it until, for example, Henry VIII split from the Roman church and decided all church lands were his. In addition, you could not sell a church and gain back all the money poured into the masonry. Indeed, churches were liable during an invasion to be sacked, burned and looted, struck by lightning or destroyed in earthquakes.

Churches were built for psychological reasons first and foremost, depending upon the originator of the church, and were more often than not as an act of penance. Andrew Carnegie did not create thousands of libraries to ‘store his wealth’ and likewise kings and rich merchants built churches not to store their wealth but for similar psychological urges as Carnegie experienced or Bill Gates does now. As for whether people were more or less religious, Eamon Duffy in ‘Stripping of the Altars’ has postulated reasonably that a similar percentage of people then as now were seriously interested/involved in religion as now. Relgiion shaped the lives of everyone in the same way as do politics and the media now, people followed it in the same way as they follow politics/media now, but those who craved intense religious/spiritual life were fewer as they are now. My own reading of medieval history and literature suggests this is a reasonable postulate.

20 Thomas June 1, 2008 at 9:09 pm

Religions were the F500 corporations of their time. Churches were their headquarters. It’s a way of CEOs/Priests peeing on their subjects and announcing their dominance to the world. Why? Because they can.

21 European June 2, 2008 at 8:05 am

It seems like Americans have a hard time understanding exactly how unreligious Europeans have become.

22 David Derrick June 2, 2008 at 10:29 am

The churches were built for the glory of God. Sorry, but that was a large part of the motivation.

23 BlogReader June 2, 2008 at 10:41 am

I also agree with Ryan about the store of wealth idea. What could be more illiquid than a cathedral?

il-what? This is the middle ages we’re talking about. Besides it gave rulers another excuse to go plunder some other country: they need more money to build a church.

24 Joe Marier June 2, 2008 at 11:44 am

There are also biblical reasons for stone structures. Luke 19:35-40…

So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount.
As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road;
and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. 7 Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 8
He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

25 gs June 2, 2008 at 12:12 pm

If someone is going to plunder you on the run, they can wreck a church but they can’t dissemble and carry away its value very easily.

Actually centralizing the loot makes it very easy for marauding barbarians. They just have to destroy that one church and voila! they get the state treasury.
In India, the temples were and some still are, a repository of amazing wealth. And the temple towns were attacked repeatedly by Afghans and Persians–google Mahmud of Ghazni.

26 Eric Rasmusen June 2, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Good post! –for its question, not for the answers.

Churches are a very very inefficient way to reward clients. Why not give them cash? Or at least give them houses they can live in?

The great mystery is why so many cathedrals and village churches were built of stone when the houses of the rich people were not, till, I think, the 1500s or so. (Castles I will except, but they were for defense more than for housing).

We can add the puzzle as to why monasteries were so wealthy and built such grand stone buildings.

For churches, I think the answer is a combination of religious feeling and local patriotism. Nowadays universities have grand buildings built from gifts; in medieval times, religion was what was valued.

27 Art Historian June 2, 2008 at 12:47 pm

To sum up my not-an-economist opinion, it is silly and polarizing to ask which times or people were more religious. All we have are the buildings, which are as changing and dynamic as society. Yes, the buildings are a microcosm of their times, just as the web tells us about the spider that made it. However, the buildings have changed so much over time, because the people who used them changed and we did/do not not have the same circumstances in the USA as the Europeans did/do.

28 Art Historian June 2, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Yes, I agree with Fundamentalist on his/her 3 points. So true.

29 Barkley Rosser June 2, 2008 at 2:17 pm


The minute you admit that religiosity can decline in one area (say, Europe),
you have given up the game. Why should there be some offsetting increase
necessarily somewhere else when it goes down in one location? Is this
something ordained by God?

30 Cassandra June 2, 2008 at 4:06 pm


Would agree with your assessment that churches were built over centuries starting & stopping as funds permitted. The purpose of the cathedral was not revenue generation but as a spiritual centre.

The fact that we keep thinking in terms of the rational (economics) to explain the irrational (spiritual) reflects the growing secularization of our society. We do not see god’s presence in our every day existence nor do we consider places and objects to be sacred. The bible is no longer a jewel incrusted book but just another paperback. Hence we find it difficult to comprehend why anyone would build a cathedral nor what force they could have employed to force others to do so. The notion that communities constructed cathedrals voluntarily working from one generation to the next seems incomprehensible.

Can you think of any activity that parallels this in modern society aside from the most mundane like making pancakes on Saturday with the kids? As a society, we do not build for permanence anymore than we plant trees in anticipation of their maturity 200 years from now as George Washington did. Even our idea of religion has become individualized due to the reformation. The late Pope John Paul reflected this personalization of religion which would have been heretical in the catholic church of the middle ages.

31 Ovid June 2, 2008 at 5:45 pm

We do not see god’s presence in our every day existence nor do we consider places and objects to be sacred. … Hence we find it difficult to comprehend why anyone would build a cathedral nor what force they could have employed to force others to do so. The notion that communities constructed cathedrals voluntarily working from one generation to the next seems incomprehensible.

Well, I’m suspicious of the spirituality explanation because it pushes the explanation into the black box of people’s minds. We don’t really know what these people felt, other than a lot of different people felt a lot of different things at different times. Virtually all our evidence before the fourteenth century is ecclesiastical and even there you get references to heterodoxy and even straight-up unbelief. (I’ve come across references to atheists as early as the eleventh century – both cases were stories of how they were struck down by saints for their unbelief, but the fact that the church scribe felt the need to deal with the issue is pretty telling.) There’s even more evidence of general suspicion of the Church. So, even if we assume that the vast majority of people believed something, you can’t assume that they believed what they were being told. They had their own ideas about Christ, the saints and the Church that claimed to know more than they did. And all that’s before you touch on the issue of self-conscious heresy, which is an entirely different can of worms.

I’d favour a more social explanation. These were the centres of their respective cities. It was where you met people (medieval sermons are constantly denouncing people who talk in church), traded, sheltered from the rain etc. Religious festivals around the cathedral constituted huge parties for the profane as well as spiritual experiences for the pious. It wasn’t just pilgrims who flocked to cathedral cities, but also the people making a living from selling the pilgrims board, lodging and souvenir tat. If people bought into the cathedral as a meeting place and communal centre, then that explains its appeal without needing to assume that everyone was religious in the same way or using it for the same purpose.

As for how the cathedrals got built – ordinary people didn’t, in fact, always contribute voluntarily. The bishop had his tax- and tithe-collectors and the knights to make sure you paid up.

32 Cure of Ars June 2, 2008 at 7:56 pm

This question is like a Rorschach inkblot test. The answer say more about the person answering than it does about why medievals built cathedrals.

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