The cost of Parisian Gothic cathedrals

This thesis examines the implicit costs of building the Gothic churches of the Paris Basin built between 1100-1250, and attempts to estimate the percentage of the regional economy that was devoted to build them. I estimate that over this 150-year period, on average, 21.5 percent of the regional economy was devoted to the construction of these Gothic churches, 1.5 percent of which is directly related to the implicit cost of labor.

That is from an honors thesis by Amy Denning, joint work with Keith Jakee.


12% of income on church leisure?
If that was the only leisure activity, maybe. The clearest evidence for the utility church is that they did it, and were still doing it until yesterday.

Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article. Thanks for supplying this info.

Honors student still using the term "Dark Ages?" Come on. That's lazy writing and arguably worse editing.

Project much? A text search of the thesis shows no instances of "dark ages" but 15 of "High Middle Ages".

The spire tumbling down in flames reminded me of the WTC towers.

It's not just an American phenomenon. The French medievalist and historian Régine Pernoud wrote in "Lumière du Moyen-Âge" about how people would walk by Notre-Dame, without self-awareness, to a seminar on "Can the Middle Ages be really called civilized?".

I side with SSC on the subject:

The argument isn't really that Europe wasn't dark though, but that centers of learning moved to other places - Byzantine Empire, Egypt, Arabia. The idea that the era was "dark" is a Eurocentric perspective.

It was dark for people living in Europe and subjected to the ignorance of the times. Implying that any given age should bear a name commensurate with the average of cultures across the planet at any given time is a reductionist argument. Follow that logic to its logical conclusion and you would have to argue that all human ages should be called, "Not Quite as Crappy, Trending Towards Better". In other news, the current year number is also an arbitrary value, and differs based on one's own cultural, regional and religious biases.

The lowered cultural and economic outputs of the era suggest Dark Ages to be an apt description.

Lowered from what?

Lowered from the Greco-Roman empire before and the Renaissance/Enlightenment after. See the graphs here:

I'm all for using "Dark Ages". But I'm astonished by the dating "the start of the High Middle Ages, circa 500 C.E." Really: has such an early date been widely adopted for Western Europe? That leaves the Dark Ages only a few decades to themselves.

By the 11/12th C Europe had made numerous technical and scientific advances over more ancient cultures, cathedrals, windmills, clocks, etc were all high tech at the time. It was noticed too, for example, Anna Comnena remarked on the Franks obsession with gadgets. The perception of the times as "dark" is partly true, partly backward looking Enlightenment, anti-Scholastic

The grain of truth may be a relative drop in literacy rates between the end of the Roman Empire and the Italian Rennaissance. Rome ceased to be the center of the political world, fewer people could speak latin, much less read and write in it. Very little education in non-latin languages. So basically only the clergy could read at that point. That lasted until the development of the printing press when it became possible to widely print manuscripts in other languages.

One of the classes I took in Greek Mythology covered how oral poetry reemerged in the middle ages. We read a translation by JRR Tolkien of a medieval verion of the Orpheous myth, which had been written down in old English. It was interesting to see how the story had evolved as an oral tradition. There were large sections that were transplanted bits of the Aeneid describing the underworld, and it has a happy ending. Like a wierd mash-up of greek myth and germanic fairy tale.

The two hundred year period from Justinian until the rise of the Carolignians probably can be called "dark" as it verged on post-apocalyptic after the demographic collapse of the 6th century . After that, although there were some bumps in the road, civilization was back on the drivers seat.

I don't say this much but you are almost as impressively learned as I am.

Thing is it was only really dark in Western Europe. Civilization was still going strong in the Byzantine Empire and elsewhere.

I think that's the typical dating. From the fall of the Roman Empire, to the Italian Renaissance. So 500-1400 CE.

Of course most scholars don't consider the Dark Ages to have really existed at all anymore.

It would appear that nobody really read dearieme's message. Indeed 500 AD is ludicrous as the date for the beginning of the High Middle Ages. The HMA start around 1000 AD.

The discussion on whether the Dark Ages were dark or not is really fun too. People with little knowledge think they were dark, people with a little more knowledge rush in to correct them, but people with even more knowledge know the Dark Ages really were dark.

An example of the familiar: dumb people think x, smart people think y, really smart people think x?

(I don't have an opinion! Didn't technology continue pretty well apace, though?)

Such was life in Capetian France.

The familiar woody cone is the female cone, which produces seeds.

Finally some sanity!

The destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral is the symbol of the pinnacle of the decadence of western civilisation.

Such is life...

Some parts of the West. I can not jmagine Brazilians allowing such a thing to happen.

Sogar diese Spinne und dieses Mondlicht zwischen den Bäumen - Friedrich

The National Museum of Brazil would beg to differ

It was different in many ways.

The loss of the Brazilian National Museum was a far greater loss to the world. While the damage to Notre Dame is a great shame it is not significant next to losing the Museum's 20 million item collection.

The reason appears to have been general neglect of the museum, including fire safety. A great shame.

That was a good one.

No, it wasn't.

Since this is a throwaway comment thread, not even sure if the Brazilian Real T.R. is commenting or if it's the counterfeit one, I will speculate and say it's almost a sure thing the Notre Dame fire, which spread so rapidly, was arson, and the only question in my mind was it the work of a deranged person (medically not legally), or a warped Islam radical? I think it's a tossup. If there was a prediction market we would know more, but it's been outlawed, sadly.

Theresa M. Towner is associate professor of literary studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and the author of Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels (University Press of Mississippi)

It was so!

Not at all. It was a stupid idea. I am sick and tired of the run-of-the-mill anti-Brazilianism that is so fashionable in America nowadays.

While at UNLV, Mayne played football for two years and he later signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks.

Wow over 20% of their economy was devoted to virtue signaling. No wonder those were the dark ages.

Free lunch economics.

Where did the 21.5% cost to the economy-1.5% cost of labor, or 20% of GDP profit go.

Profit is the cost not paid to labor.

Were the monks personally paying whore or pimps to work for them providing sexual favors? Was is paying gold miner, or raiders and pillagers to obtain gold they buried In private hoards?

Anything that is 20.5% of the economy is 20% of the labor cost to the economy.

Zero sum. Costs(a negative number)+benefits(a positive number) must equal zero..

Debt and savings time shift costs and benefits to individuals, but economy wide, its zero sum.

Land can be improved, or destroyed, but in the end, that too is zero sum. Land producing coal is steadily becoming more worthless., often toward a massive liability to the local economy. Often rendering wealth worthless. Eg, mine workers houses become worthless, and the public infrastructure, roads, water, schools which had high labor cost to provide benefits to mine workers become worthless because there are no miners.

The Notre Dame has been worthless for probably a century. Its been claimed to be extremely valuable, but all the labor value has been depreciated away, and no one has invested, ie, paid workers tto build capital, to offset the decay.

Today, it is a public liability as it burns, requiring taxpayers to fight the fire to prevent other properties, ie pay workers, fire fighters, to provide the benefit of bystanders not suffering losses steming from the lack of investmentt to offset the decay which has long ago been accounted for in depreciation.

Capital gains are impossible. Land is not capital. Capital increases in value only by paying workers to build more capital. Otherwise, it loses value, accounted for as depreciation.

I'll grant Roman ruins have become like land, the product of nature and human consumption. Most old capital is pillaged and plundered once fully depreciated and considdered worthless.

Capital gains are impossible.

I've been telling the IRS that for years.

Direct labor costs, the other 19% might have been costs of inputs.

I am almost sure these estimates are plain wrong, though. The reason was that per capita incomes in Europe for the 12th-13th centuries were so low that more than 1% of GDP could not be mobilized for anything.

If I were to provide a comparative estimate of monumental construction we can look at Ancient Athens. The Parthenon cost 6,000 talents and took 9 years to build, so the annual cost was 670 talents per year. Athens in 440 BC had about 300,000 inhabitants and unskilled daily wages for construction workers were 1/6000 talent per day, using data of English wages for construction workers from Clarke (2003) and reconstructed national accounts imply that in the early 18th century 260 days of unskilled building wages was the per capita GDP, which is 4.3% of a talent in Athens around 440 BC. So the 670 talents spent on the Parthenon per year was roughly equivalent to 5% of Athenian GDP if the ratio of unskilled construction worker to GDP was the same (by the way, the ratio of skilled construction worker wage to unskilled was the same in Ancient Athens as 18th century England, at around 1.50, so relative prices were perhaps not very different).

As Ancient Athens build the Parthenon in only 9 years, Notre Dame took like 200 years and involved the resources of a larger territory (roughly 4-5% of France), containing, perhaps, around 0.5 to 1 million people. So the degree of resource mobilization was much lower than 5%.

20% resource mobilization was for the construction of all the cathedrals in the Paris Basin.

Go Owls!

Notre Dames burns. Why? This is divine retribution for centuries of exploiting hunchback labor.

As European, I feel utterly depressed by the events in Paris.

This cathedral lasted for 900 years. Poor, simple people took decent care of it over the centuries and bequeathed Notre Dame to us, so that we could enjoy its beauty

It now breaks my heart that my generation, with all its riches and technology, has been unable to do the same

Like all human constructions, Notre Dame was bound to go back to ashes. But I feel ashamed to witness this event in my lifetime.

In Japan, they rebuild their thousand year old temples every 20 years because of its wooden foundations. This has the effect of keeping the old cultural skills of temple building in tact for the next generation not to mention maintaining its cultural treasures in pristine condition. For this Paris should not worry, the cathedral will come out stronger than ever. Just have a little faith.

This is a comment worth about 1000 of the crappy ones that infest this site.


I agree with plus 100 but --- whoever you are, don't settle for a little faith, only "Great faith" is worth your goal in life - no matter who you are .

There are thousands of people alive today who can build cathedrals that will make you tear up at their beauty.

Don't settle for little faith, go for great faith.
Proverbs 8.

Indeed, in France they still form charpentiers that know how to rebuild it.

The current version of Notre Dame de Paris dates from a 20 year restoration project spanning from 1844 to 1864. During the French Revolution several statues were damaged, bells removed from the towers to forge a cannon. The Archbishop home burned on 1831 during a riot. The sacristy was burned on 1848 during another riot. The spire that fell yesterday was rebuilt during that period too.

Look at what happened to the Cathedral of Leon in Spain on 1966. If you go there today you can't image the roof was completely destroyed 50 years ago.

The lesson is that nothing will last 1000 years if you're not rebuilding it all the time. Structures and infrastructure need constant investment and maintenance efforts. What matters here is the human tenacity to rebuild after things happen.

+1000 too. Another example that gives hope Is the old center of Warsaw. It was completely destroyed by the Nazis, not by random aerial bombing, but methodically, building after building, with dynamite. After the war, the newly created UNESCO raised enough money to have it rebuilt identically as it was before, and this was done perfectly (though it took about 15 years to complete the work).

Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, which is enormous, was dynamited by Stalin. It was rebuilt over about five years in the 90s.

Good news, then. The spire which was destroyed was "only" a couple of hundred years old. There's some damage to the roof area, but the rest of the Cathedral seems to only have some smoke damage.

They were already redoing the spire which burnt in this renovation (which likely started it all). It'll likely take a few years, but they should be able to restore everything damaged, with the exception of a few of the roof beams which were "original" and thus much older.

Who's they? I trust that the secular French Republic won't spend public funds on it.

The French Republic owns all religious building built before 1905. At that time, it confiscated them all without indemnity. But now it is in charge of their maintenance. Moreover, the French Republic takes no assurance policy for any of its building. So, "they" means the State, or all French taxpayers.

However, there will be a huge national and international subscription. It may well rise enough money to repair Notre Dama, and in this case, the state will have nothing to pay.

"The French Republic owns all religious building built before 1905. At that time, it confiscated them all without indemnity"

Thank you: I knew neither of those facts. Does that mean it owns some synagogues? Perhaps even a mosque?

What about really ancient religious buildings e.g. Les Alignements de Carnac?

Yes, the state owns synagogues, 3 in Paris alone. Also many protestant temples. For mosques, I don't know if there were some before 1905.
But Macron has suggested he could change the 1905 law to allow the state to build (and own) some mosques. This would satisfy many muslims, who want money to build new mosques (there are not enough for the number of practicing muslims), and also all those who worry of seeing many mosques built instead with Saudi, Qatari, or Muslim Brothers money, coming all furnished with propaganda for various forms of radical Islam. But there is also a strong opposition against this project, uniting the right and the secularists, generally from the left, and it is not clear if it will pass. (For Carnac I have no idea)

Perhaps the canonical "cathedral", and I remember it as quite an experience to walk through the actual building. An amazing achievement for the time and available technology.

I was fortunate to visit Stonehenge years ago when it was more accessible. It reminds me a bit of that - a huge effort sustained over a long period of time.

I would suggest Reims cathedral is the "Gothic Cathedral" par excellence if it must be French, plus it is also an opportunity to visit Champagne cellars if you go there. But the best Gothic Cathedral is surely York Minister.

Yes, but if York Minster burned down there would be less fuss because it's not in London.

paris is burning

With 20% of GDP devoted to science, they would have made so much economic and welfare progress.

Not science, but building a cathedral requires knowledge of what today we know as engineering: masonry and wood structures, the smelting of iron, cooper and others, lime for mortar, glassmaking, some chemistry to put color on things.

Some times we read on MR about the spillover from the banal musings of the rich to the common life of the poor. This is not one of those days.

A vocational ed project in which one could be proud to take part. Plus, read a history of Paris, specifically, and you'll swiftly come to the conclusion that anything that kept Parisians productively occupied for 150 years was well worth any amount of "regional GDP."

Were there no riots for 150 years? Try putting a value on that ;)

"Some times we read on MR about the spillover from the banal musings of the rich to the common life of the poor. This is not one of those days."

Reminds me of Aragorn's line from _The Return of the King_:
“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day."

The latest news are comforting. The structure of Notre Dame is undamaged, and with enough money and care, it should be possible
to restore the Cathedral almost identically as it was.

A question, though it is certainly too early to ask : does somewhat has an idea of the order of magnitude of the cost of such a reparation? Is that on the ballpark of $500M; or $5b; or $50b; or more? I have really no idea.

Yes! Especially since they recently made detailed 3D models of the interior.

Just the day before this terrible event, I was reading Houellebecq in the May issue of First Things (of all places) and found his thumbnail description of cathedral styles of interest:

"What are, exactly, these centuries of the Church’s splendor? In my opinion, each of us has his era of predilection, and it seems to me that it is the architecture that allows us to situate ourselves. In a Romanesque cloister I feel at peace, connected to the divinity. With Gothic cathedrals, it’s already something different. Beauty takes on a character there that Kant will later call sublime (beauty accompanied by the sensation of danger, such as a great storm at sea, or a thunderstorm high in the mountains). In a baroque church it’s no good at all, I could just as well be in a palace, or at the theater."

My inner conspiracy theorist thinks it is all too convenient that they recently removed all of the statues and precious objects for renovation, and also made detailed laser-scanned 3-d models of the interior. Both by an art historian and by the game developers of 'Assassins Creed'.
And then a fire conveniently destroyed all of the rotten old wood that they probably would have had to painstakingly replace anyway during the renovations.

Plus they suddenly have a bunch of some very large donations - in fact the amount of money pledged seems like they could build a second one!

Analyzing the construction of a cathedral in economic terms borders on idiocy. What the people got from it was SPIRITUAL, something you egghedz aren't comfortable talking about. And how do you assess the value to themselves when it's impossible to cram it into a spreadsheet? You reach for silly explanations like "virtue-signalling" and "spillover effects". These people built the cathedrals so they could learn who they were.

I agree, although the value can also be characterized in terms of community and art. Religion community and art do seem to provide mental health benefits.

'That's lazy writing and arguably worse editing.'

First and last sentence are highly problematic.

It does look like a collective fail. Leaves you thinking the term "Dark Age" has been deployed "appropriately" as it supports the wider economic thinking.

Don't have an issue with the word particularly, it's not what you say its how you say it.

Not much in the way of any engagement with early medieval history. Light and dark contrast inserted in large part for narrative effect, to entertain, educate and provide moral instruction ( raw building blocks of a morality play).

The economists here have some work to do, the subject is clearly not well developed and requires more collective care.

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