Abstract: A Godly Enterprise: Church Finance and Social Investment in the High Middle Ages

Anne E.C. McCants


Of the many campaigns brought to fruition by the economic prosperity of the High Middle Ages, few have left evidence as perdurable or awe-inspiring as that to expand the physical presence of the Church by the conspicuous construction of both new and newly enlarged church buildings in the Gothic style. Between the 12th and early 16th centuries beginning in the greater Paris Basin a massive public and private investment was made in these monuments to human ingenuity, social collaboration, and the glory of God.  Their soaring heights, open and luminous spaces, elaborately chiseled stonework, intricately traced and colored glasswork, and improbably thin masonry walls were all designed to celebrate the majesty of God, master architect of all the created order.  They were also intended to bring glory to God’s servants on earth: the bishops whose seats they comprised, the urban communities that played host to them, and the departed saints whose bones found their rest in them.  Historical appreciation of the artistic and technical feats embodied by Gothic construction is well attested, but rarely do historians ask how it was all managed?  What factors activated a cathedral building campaign; under whose direction did they take shape; in what combination of ways were they financed and by whom; and finally, who benefited?  This paper first reviews the scope of the Gothic building boom, and then explores the complex ways in which deep spiritual conviction worked together with economic opportunity, social coordination, and technical innovation to produce one of the most spectacular examples of an enduring infrastructure investment in history.