Cathedrals and Economic Development

What was the role of the medieval cathedral? One hypothesis says that these elegant landmarks were in part a vehicle for local economic development. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages entailed massive expenditures of capital and labor as we noted in this chapter. Many were built on the ruins of earlier structures, or were extensions of existing churches. The enormous cathedral at Amiens, with an area of about 84,000 square feet, could house the entire population of the town (about ten thousand inhabitants). Most cathedral cities contained numerous parish churches, but many cathedrals were built to hold all or a greater number of the citizens of the town.63 The nave of many cathedrals alone could serve as a place for guilds to meet, degrees to be conferred, and goods to be bought and sold.64 The role of the medieval cathedral was multifaceted, with religious observance and ritual mixed with civil and commercial interests.

In fact, the medieval cathedral is a metaphor for all kinds of Roman Catholic investments—in liturgy, relics, dress, "feast days,'' festivals, and so on, features we analyze in this chapter. This suggests that there may be a link between the magnitude of a cathedral, the size of its host city, and economic development. Ideally, we would formulate some functional relationship that treats city growth as the dependent variable and cathedral size plus demographic factors as explanatory variables. While there are no extant data on the actual discounted cost of medieval cathedrals, anecdotal evidence does exist. Using scaled designs provided by Mitchell (1968), in table 8A.1 we establish the size of particular cathedrals in some of the top thirty cities of Europe measured by population between 1050 and 1800, taken from the authoritative study of Bairoch, Bateau, and Chevre.65

Despite the very limited nature of our sample, it does not appear that the massive investments in cathedrals had much of an effect on city growth during or even after the Middle Ages. In many cases, construction of a cathedral took decades or even centuries to complete. One might conclude from table 8A.1 that the construction of the cathedral at

Table 8A.1

Cathedrals and economic growth

Table 8A.1

Cathedrals and economic growth

Cathedral city

Size (area in square feet) and dates constructed (approximate)

City growth (measured by inclusion in top 30 European cities in population 1050-1650)


57,000; (1160-1230)

Eighteenth largest in 1050; eliminated afterward


70,000; (1220-1290)

Not on list


91,250; (1201-1427)

Not on list

Paris (and environs) Notre Dame/ Chartres

60,000; (1163-1250) 75,000 (1134-1220)

Grew from twenty-fifth in 1050 to second largest in 1200, remaining the first or second largest city until 1800


79,200; (1199-1265)

Not on list (looted by Hugenots in May 1562)


(unavailable); (1150-1509)

Not on list until 1330 at twenty-fifth, varying between twenty-seventh and twenty-second through 1800

Burgos (Spain)

64,600; (1221-1568)

Not on list


70,000; (1083-1348)

Not on list


72,600 (1220-1334)

Not on list


55,000 (1096-1497)

Not on list


35,000; (1190-1439)

Not on list. Became Protestant in 1561. Reverted to Catholicism in



Sources: Ann Mitchell, Cathedrals of Europe (Feltham, UK: Hamlyn, 1968); P. Bairoch, J. Bateau, and P. Chevre, La Population des villes europeenes 8001850: Banque de donnees et analyse sommaire des résultats (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1988). We include Chartres alongside Notre Dame because of its proximity to Paris. In the regressions below we use an alternative value of 46,000 square feet for Ely, as reported in Paul Johnson, British Cathedrals (New York: Morrow, 1980).

Laon may have actually reduced growth. In the case of Rouen (made famous in the painting series by Monet), continuous construction between the late twelfth and sixteenth centuries may have had a positive effect on growth, but verification of this prospect would require deeper studies of factors peculiar to that city. The two great French cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres for, which construction began in the twelfth century, could hardly have raised Paris to the second largest city in Europe by 1200, but they might have contributed to that result. Clearly, for eight of the eleven cities in table 8A.1, either a negative correlation or no correlation exists. This does not mean that the wealth or income of cathedral-city citizens and businesses were not enhanced over this period. It only suggests that cathedral building does not appear to have a positive effect on city growth, if growth is measured by city population size. Certainly, the quantity and quality of relics must have been big commercial draws for both ecclesiastical contributions and business for the town's merchants.

Obviously, these massive investments in cathedrals generated opportunity costs in terms of alternative investments foregone. An illustration of the magnitude of these investments is given by architectural historian Julius Baum in his account on the Church of Our Lady in Munich: ''An indulgence from Pope Sixtus IV in 1479 resulted in so heavy an influx of funds that not only was the church finally completed . . . but sufficient money was left over to purchase gilt cloth from Venice for vestments.''66 Forced investments in ever-grander and taller cathedrals across the European continent meant less capital flowing toward the development of infrastructure and technology. But if, as it appears, long-term economic development did not follow cathedral building, what was the Catholic Church's rationale in directing and supporting these projects?

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