The Opportunity Costs of Cathedral Building

The great cathedral-building craze had run its course in western Europe by the fifteenth century, but it set the tone and tenor of medieval Christian worship for centuries to come. Despite serious attempts by economic historians, it is difficult to gauge the economic effects of cathedrals for several reasons. For one, they were multipurpose facilities that contributed to community as well as spirituality. People gathered at cathedrals for prayer, funerals, marriages, and festivities. Local guilds, magistrates, and municipal officials met there, giving the cathedral the role of town hall as well as church. Actors sometimes staged plays in cathedrals, and a certain amount of commercial activity also transpired there.23 For another, their construction took place over long periods of time. For example, Canterbury Cathedral took 343 years from start to finish, of which less than half the time was spent in actual construction.24

The exact amount of resources used in the construction of cathedrals cannot be directly calculated, but a good deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that the opportunity costs were massive. Although cathedral building in England between 1100 and 1400 involved, on average, less than half of 1 percent of the adult male population annually, almost 9,500 ecclesiastical buildings, such as abbeys, cathedrals, and parish churches, were constructed in England and Wales during the medieval period.25 By contrast, if we assume that the same labor technology was used to build equivalent-sized structures, France used eighteen times as much labor input in cathedral building over the same interval.26 Medieval architectural historian Jean Gimpel claimed that more stone was cut in France between 1050 and 1350 than during the entire history of Egypt.27 Even though capital markets were rudimentary in the Middle Ages, the building of religious structures on the scale described by these authors meant that resources responded to a kind of spiritual investment demand and that the consequence was that scarce capital was directed toward religious buildings rather than traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, or education and technology.

Sociologist Robert A. Scott provides some provisional calculations of resource costs regarding parts of Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. Scott calculates that the addition to Westminster Abbey undertaken by English King Henry III in the thirteenth century cost £45,000 in the currency of the day, at a time when the annual income during Henry's entire reign was only £35,000. On the basis of hod-carrier wage rates, then and now, Scott further estimates that each gothic cathedral or similar great church would cost hundreds of millions of pounds in today's currency.28 Estimates like these, though far from conclusive, provide indirect evidence of huge opportunity costs of building cathedrals and churches. If secular economic growth quickened after the spate of cathedral building ran its course, as Max Weber asserts, it might have done so in part because of the reallocation of resources from cathedrals to traditional social/economic infrastructure.

An argument of this nature naturally assumes that the cathedral-based economy was on or near its production-possibilities frontier. Therefore our conclusion contrasts markedly with a Keynesian interpretation of cathedral building. Economist Virginia Lee Owen argues that cathedral building was comparable to the WPA projects of the American New Deal in that, she calculates, 2.5 percent of the European labor force was engaged in cathedral building between 1200 and 1328, presumably with appropriate income multipliers.29 City size data does not substantiate that result, but even if it did, we reject the Keynesian macroeconomic premise that it does not matter what is produced as long as resources are used to produce something. Others have shown that there is a deadweight loss associated with resources used in monopoly-inspired rent seeking; in such cases, output would rise even if the resources were idled or retuned to underemployed uses. To be sure, medieval craftsmen and resources could have been used building fences around commons rather than building cathedrals.

Despite the difficulty of estimating the economic effects of cathedrals, it is clear that medieval Catholicism emphasized large-scale, extravagant structures over small-scale, simple ones. For example, the enormous cathedral at Amiens covered an area of about 84,000 square feet and contained a volume of 260,000 to 300,000 cubic yards. It is estimated that the historic cathedral at Chartres contained a volume in excess of 300,000 cubic yards. Economic resources have alternative uses. Therefore, by rejecting the extravagance of church buildings—however they were financed—Protestantism made it possible for such resources to be directed toward more secular, market-oriented activities. In addition, it is quite possible that cathedrals acted as signaling devices to potential entrants, including Protestants ultimately, that the Church was willing to establish excess capacity in order to deter entry of new religions (a point we embellish in appendix 8A to this chapter).

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