The thirteenth century saw the triumph of the Gothic style in architecture in the building of great cathedrals all across Europe, a phenomenon much celebrated by modern art historians. 'The Gothic Image' seems to capture the spirit of the 'Age of Cathedrals' with its intellectual ambitions, artistic development and the craftsmanship available in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe.1 But who paid for it all? The material support offered to ecclesiastical institutions is probably most often explored by historians with regard to aristocratic patronage and to donations made in connection with the preparations for a 'Good Death'. Yet the perpetual daily provision of ecclesiastical services to the community, the sustenance and education of the church personnel as well as the construction, daily running and repair of complex and expensive buildings required more and regular provision. From its origins, the church depended on a robust economic foundation and persistent support from the community in order to guarantee its services; this need led to the establishment of a series of practices and rules for both obligatory and voluntary contributions, thus creating a complicated framework of links and interdependences between the laity on the one hand, and the church's many institutions, from cathedrals and parish churches to monasteries or hospitals, on the other.
Many of the features of lay support of the medieval church derived from gradual developments which evolved over many centuries. Yet in the thirteenth century some significant changes in these systems of material support can be observed. The key aspects of this transformation can be considered in part as the legal formalisation of hitherto customary practices, through the impact of the expansion of canon law, and in part as the consequence of new i E. Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century (London: Collins, 1961). G. Duby, The Age of Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420 (London: Croom Helm, 1981).
trends in both the quality and quantity of donations, a consequence of the broader social and cultural changes taking place at the time.2
Accounts of the various forms of material support provided to the church often distinguish between involuntary and voluntary contributions. This differentiation may be helpful for the purposes of general orientation, but the boundaries between the two are always blurred, not surprisingly for an issue that had been largely guided by customary practice for centuries; not even the best efforts of canon lawyers could manage to establish clear and firm rules and formalise conclusively the various payments due to the church. Tithes offer a good example of the ambiguities involved. The giving of a tenth of annual production, based on the Old Testament, began as a voluntary form of support in the early Christian church, but became firmly defined as a compulsory duty from the eighth century onwards, and was subsequently the subject of a series of further regulations. Tithes were mostly derived from agricultural produce, but did not spare any kind of income however small it might have been. Although the basic principles had been long established, various aspects of their application needed constant monitoring and improvement. As with all tax payments, those required to make them often sought opportunities to escape, or to avoid payment of the full amount required, something that was easier to achieve with regard to the profits that could be made by townsmen. Meanwhile, as one would expect in a period of increased activity among legal specialists, throughout the thirteenth century the system was thoroughly monitored for loopholes that could be closed.3 The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that the payment of tithes was to take precedence over any other form of tax (Canon 54). And one particularly obvious weakness in the system was patched: the widespread custom of avoiding payment of tithes by entrusting the cultivation of estates to persons who were exempt from them was no longer tolerated (Canon 53). English statute law provided some fine examples of the refined legal gaze that detected and attempted to clarify the potential confusion or contention that could arise if, for example, sheep were left to graze by day on pastures within the boundaries of one parish and kept in pens by night in another.4 It is worth mentioning, even so, that despite the efforts of many parishioners to reduce
2 For the expansion of papal taxation in the thirteenth century, see, for instance, J. Thomson, The Western Church in the Middle Ages (London: Hodder, 1998).
3 J. Moorman, Church Life in England in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1945), 116.
4 C. Deedes, ed., Registrum Johannis de Pontissara, Episcopi Wyntoniensis, A.D. MCCLXXXII-MCCCIV (London: Surrey Record Society, 1916), 231; Moorman, Church Life, 118.
their annual tithe payments, there was hardly any substantial opposition to the system itself.5
The changing practices regarding mortuary or funeral fees serve as an illustration of the fact that many parishioners tried to evade the payment of tithes. The church demanded these payments upon the death of parishioners on the assumption that they needed to make up for arrears of tithe payments built up over their lifetime; in the countryside they usually took the form of an animal, and in towns of a best gown or something similar.6 But it was not only the laity refusing to pay their dues which posed a significant and constant risk to church funds and especially tithes. Another risk to parish churches came from the fact that lay and ecclesiastical patrons, including bishops, attempted to alienate part of their funds, a custom the Fourth Lateran Council sought to prevent in 1215 (Canon 32). Already the Third Lateran Council of 1179 had decreed that tithes could not be alienated to lay people without the pope's consent.7
Apart from tithes, another main source ofincome, especially at parish level, took the form of fees for essential church services, for example at weddings and christenings, funerals and anniversaries, for observance of the great church feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, and of more specific feast days such as a church's dedication feast or All Saints. However, it was not entirely clear whether these dues were obligatory or voluntary. The Fourth Lateran Council, for example, apparently dealt with the issue by decreeing that all sacraments had to be administered for free, contrary to customary practice. But the same canon stated that the laity was not to refuse the payment of customary offerings (Canon 66). Despite the underlying ambiguity, it is obvious that these fees were essential to the income of clerics and had to be sustained. The Statutes of Winchester, for example, stated that all adult parishioners 'must pay their due and accustomed oblations at the four festivals, namely: Christmas, Easter, the Festival and the Dedication of the Church'.8 But by doing so, they clearly contradicted the general tenor of church legislation about the free provision of services.
5 G. Constable, 'Resistance to Tithes in the Middle Ages', Journal of Ecclesiastical History 13 (1962), 172-85.
6 R. N. Swanson, Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 216.
7 For the decrees of the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils, see N. Tanner, ed., The Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London: Sheed & Ward; Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), vol. 1, 206-71.
8 Moorman, Church Life, 126.
The papacy not only tried to control lay payments to local churches more vigorously but ecclesiastical expenditure also became the object of scrutiny and legislation in the thirteenth century. Tithes, for example, were initially supposed to be divided in equal parts between the bishop, the poor of the parish, the church fabric and the parish priest or other owner of the benefice. Although the episcopal share of tithes had fallen into abeyance by the thirteenth century, bishops acquired other rights to extract money from parishes, for example via procurations: the right to accommodation for themselves and their entourage on such occasions as visitations.9 The parishes, on the other hand, had been successful in retaining the biggest share in tithe payments, but now found themselves confronted with strict rules about how they were allowed to spend the money: funds had to be set aside, for example, for the parish church fabric. Again, thirteenth-century statute law supplies many examples confirming the importance of the issue, while the documentation of cases where the rule was broken illustrate, as so often, why the legislators had to renew their claim time and again.10 The parishioners not only contributed towards the costs for the church fabric through the dedicated proportion from their tithe payments; they were directly responsible for certain elements of the structure of the parish church, as well.11
A vast range of other forms of gifts and payments can be listed among the support offered more voluntarily to the church by the laity. Such transfers of money, properties or goods to ecclesiastical institutions were essentially based on reciprocity; the community provided the material basis that enabled the church to supply its spiritual services. Donors hoped through their gifts not only for the spiritual rewards promised by the church, but also to share in a communal identity and enhance their social status thereby. Collections were made during all regular services as well as at major feasts or on special occasions. In order to increase revenue-generating opportunities or enhance the appeal of a specific place, individual institutions introduced additional feasts or acquired new relics. The festival of Corpus Christi is an example of a highly successful liturgical innovation which spread quickly across Europe in the late thirteenth and particularly the early fourteenth century and was
9 Moorman, Church Life, 120.
10 For examples of Statute Law dealing with the issue, see Moorman, Church Life, 126-31. A. Brown, Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 77, quotes two examples of breaking the rule in Salisbury from 1222 and 1224.
11 Swanson, Church and Society, 217. K. French, The People of the Parish: Community Life in a Late Medieval English Diocese (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
received enthusiastically by clergy and laity.12 It also created substantial revenues for the institutions which adopted it. Similarly, pilgrims were accustomed to leave gifts while attending services at the places they visited. The attraction of such pilgrim traffic was therefore highly desirable; so much so, that relics and claims were forged or fabricated. Another method of attracting bigger audiences and thereby increasing the volume of donations was the offering of indulgences. These promised additional deductions in the number of days souls were supposed to remain in purgatory in exchange for attendance at particular services in specified churches. To make sure that churchgoers knew about these premium-carrying occasions, the charters granting the privileges were publicly displayed.
These and most other aspects of lay donations to religious institutions were related to the contemporary concepts of the afterlife. The hope or anticipation of accruing advantages in the afterlife was the main motivating force behind lay support of the Christian church from the outset, yet the thirteenth century saw some important innovations. Jacques Le Goff went as far as to call the thirteenth century 'the triumph of purgatory'.13 This space, in which souls remained for varied periods of time whilst they were purified, became more precisely defined and visualised in this period. This belief structured patterns of lay donations to ecclesiastical institutions.14 In order to avoid joining the 'goats' on their way to hell on Judgement Day and follow the 'sheep' into heaven, medieval Christians could also compensate for sins during lifetime by prayer, almsgiving and donations to the church.15 In the earlier medieval period, monasteries usually were the beneficiaries; by the thirteenth century, friars, parish churches and chantries were popular recipients of such offerings.
These transformations were a direct consequence of the economic changes taking place in Europe at the time. The surge in urban populations and the production of new wealth evident since the eleventh century gave lay donations a new direction. The change could sometimes happen within the space of a single generation, as shown by the practices of wealthy thirteenth-century families of Vienna. Otto vom Hohen Markt, a prominent member of the Viennese elite, had established a sound economic and material footing for
12 M. Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
13 J. Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 235-41.
14 Le Goff, The Birth, 209-34.
15 Matt. 25.32-46. Jacques Chiffoleau coined the phrase budget de l'au-delà' (budget for the afterlife) in this context: J. Chiffoleau, La comptabilité de l'au-delà: Les hommes, la mort et la religion dans la région d'Avignon à la fin du Moyen Âge, vers 1320-vers 1480 (Rome: École française de Rome, 1980).
himself and his family by 1250 and invested in provisions for urban religious communities. Yet his favourite institution was the Cistercian abbey of Heiligenkreuz, situated in a valley in the surrounding countryside. Otto's son Greif followed his father's example, but his devotion also displayed significant new tendencies. He favoured the private chapel of St Mary's 'am Gestade', a private chapel in one of his father's townhouses, which became a prominent urban church attracting substantial support by the town's élite. While his father had asked to be buried at Heiligenkreuz, to which he retired, Greif devoted time and money to the city's hospital, an institution actually founded by his more distant ancestors.16
This shift from rural to urban institutions, and from monastic to civic institutions, is characteristic of a new trend. People sought to make discretionary donations (as opposed to compulsory parish-bound tithes) to institutions within their communities under their scrutiny. The foundation ofprivate chapels by wealthy townspeople is evident all across late medieval Europe. The earliest English examples show that initially bishops who approved such grants considered them to be temporary and required owners to attend parish services as well.17 That a variety of institutions were aiming to provide services previously offered by parishes reflects donors' wishes to have closer control over the ecclesiastical institutions which they entrusted with the care for their souls.
The voluntary support of religious institutions did not change only in quality in the thirteenth century, but also in quantity. More people were able to make donations. In England, anxiety arose in royal administration about the amount of land being held by religious institutions. The Statute of Mortmain in 1279 aimed to stem this flow by regulating transfers of land to religious institutions.18 Similar forms of intervention are documented from most European regions. But the consistently increasing volume of donations cannot simply be interpreted as a consequence of the growing number of people who could afford them; it also reflects the increase of lay involvement in the church in general. This development had begun with the Gregorian Reform and steadily gained momentum throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The thirteenth century also saw a growth in the making of wills. These usually included some form of religious donation, sometimes connected with
16 B. Pohl-Resl, Rechnen mit der Ewigkeit: Das Wiener Burgerspital im Mittelalter (Vienna and Munich: Bohlau, 1996), 25-7.
17 Moorman, Church Life, 15.
18 Swanson, Church and Society, 197.
the funeral or anniversary celebrations. Such donations may appear as a prime example of voluntary support. Unlike mortuary fees, they were not legally required, but donors considered them necessary for the salvation of their souls. The witnesses required to guarantee the legal acceptance of wills may not only have helped to secure the fulfilment of testators' wishes after their death, but could exert pressure on them to conform to expectations. In 1419, when the former mayor of Vienna Rudolf Angerfelder had his will recorded, the three witnesses asked him three times whether he was sure he did not want to make any donations at all to a church institution before accepting his decision.19 In a similar way, mortuary payments became routine in English wills of the fourteenth century.20
Another key aspect of material support offered by the laity to the church, namely their involvement in and funding of charitable practices, also underwent significant transformations in the thirteenth century. Caring for the poor was one of the church's duties, and a part of the tithes was supposed to be set aside for such purposes, but the public also engaged much more directly in helping with poor relief. Charitable bequests formed another essential component of provisions for the afterlife and could take many forms, from donations to religious institutions to endowment of chantries and their associated charitable provisions, to payments towards educational establishments or public works such as bridges. In particular, the thirteenth century saw a huge rise in lay hospital foundations and a diversion of charitable donations from churches to these hospitals. As in the case of the other changes outlined above, what we see here is a difference in the outward form of the practice, rather than in the spiritual intentions behind it, and again the reasons are to be found in evolving economic and social conditions. Hospitals offered more efficient and tangible poor relief, especially in larger settlements, and lay founders could exercise more control over their functioning than over a specifically religious foundation. Looking at it from the point of view of the gift-exchange model, charitable donations made to hospitals may have been particularly appealing for donors because the institutions offered both the enduring and repeated execution of donors' wills, and also a good crowd of people who would pray for their souls. One document from the city hospital in Vienna can illustrate the new directions of material support. In this charter dated 1268 the master and fraternity of the hospital asked the public for
19 Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, Stadtbuch 3, fol. i5v (1419, 22 October. Entry in the register 1419, 10 November).
20 Swanson, Church and Society, 2i6.
assistance with the daily expenses of the institution. Everybody making a contribution was promised indulgences granted by several authorities, from the local bishops and archbishop to the pope. The document is clearly a forgery, but it is well made, and must date from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. It even comes with the genuine seal of the town of Vienna attached. Interestingly, its production coincided with the main building phase of the hospital complex including a huge and lavishly decorated Gothic church.21 Donors would have been able to see what they were getting for their money in stone, as well as in the indulgences' promise of future reward.
Fear of eternal damnation because of sins committed during one's lifetime, or the desire to have a private chapel or chaplain to guarantee one's access to the sacraments, cannot wholly account, however, for the generous support for ecclesiastical institutions. Nor can the idea of conspicuous consumption and the display of individual wealth, especially when it comes to the financing of the great cathedrals and similarly extensive building projects in the thirteenth century. Single donors did make spectacular contributions to such complexes by funding stained-glass windows or donating richly decorated liturgical objects. But much more investment was required to assist deans and chapters with their efforts. In this respect, civic pride, expressed in the creation of a landmark and a symbol for the community, also needs to be taken into consideration. Regardless of the sometimes troubled relationship between a bishop and chapter with a city's population, contemporaries did view cathedrals as signs of communal identity, and contributing towards their building, maintenance and decoration was a highly desirable practice. For the erection of the new cathedral in Salisbury, for example, generous support was offered not just by King Henry III, but also by a substantial sector of the local population who made donations in various forms according to their means.22 In similar fashion, great cathedrals were completed in the thirteenth century all across Europe.23 When looking more closely at the material support offered to the church by the community in the thirteenth century, we may as well start with the great works of art.
21 Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, Burgerspitalurkunde 2, 1268 June 29; Pohl-Resl, Rechnen mit der Ewigkeit, 15-21.
22 Brown, Popular Piety, 49-51.
23 See F. D. Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2002), 251-2, for a list of European cathedrals built or completed in the thirteenth century.
Was this article helpful?