Medieval Churches And Shareholder Value

It is a tiresome cliché that whereas the highest building in a city used to be the cathedral spire, it is now the business skyscraper. This may be true, but there is no meaningful contrast, for the medieval cathedral was a business skyscraper.

Similarly, the Victorians propagated the sentimental bullshit that the peasants flocked to build the cathedrals with their own hands, out of “faith”. One might as well say that the Detroit car factories were built on a voluntary basis to express the common people’s devotion to automotive transport. No, the factories were commissioned by entrepreneurs and built by specialists, in order to manufacture a product that would be bought by the people in sufficient quantities and at a sufficient price to repay the investment with a handsome profit left over for the owners. And a medieval church was in no way different. Even the involvement of volunteer labour, as with the Duomo of Milan, does not disprove the motive of return on civic capital.

When we talk about the Middle Ages, we all refer to something called “the Church”. This is, however, in part a back-projection from more centralised ages. While medievals certainly did hypostatise “the Church” as a single entity, e.g. in sculptural propaganda featuring Ecclesia vanquishing Synagoga, much of the time otherwise they used the plural, as when Eadmer has Anselm of Canterbury lamenting “the oppression of the churches in England”. He seems to have been thinking of “the churches” – by which he meant the cathedral churches – parishes were dependent and quite unimportant – as independent players, rather like similar companies competing in the same market. As indeed the churches were – they competed against one another for the same pilgrimage incomes, and were in frequent dispute over other sources of revenue. Such disputes had sometimes to be settled by the secular power, just as when courts arbitrate between corporations today. “The Church” was therefore somewhat of an umbrella term, like speaking today of “the business community” or “the economy”.

The cathedrals (or megachurches, as we would say today) and the abbeys were owned by a sort of management collective, either of monks or canons, while the parish churches were owned outright by a handful of local magnates. These performed share swaps and securitisation and all sorts of modern financial operations with them, then as now productive of much litigation. Managers were headhunted to other corporations, and the jackpot was a royal clerkship, which could lead to the chancellery, with all the opportunities for extorting bribes.

The author of the 12th-century guide to the workings of the English Exchequer calls it a form of usury “when anyone receives a manor or a church in return for a loan and, the principal remaining intact, appropriates to himself the profits thereof until the principal has been repaid.” This clearly shows that both manorial estates and churches were considered as the same kind of revenue-generating assets or plant. Whereas the assets of a manor were land, serfs, animals and equipment, the most important working plant of the church was naturally the relics of the saint, whose miraculous properties attracted pilgrims and their donations, that is, operating revenue. Some of our names for places are in fact anachronisms, because to the medieval the saint overshadowed the city; we visit “Venice” but they went on pilgrimage to “St. Mark”. Other kinds of investment included the chrism for anointing, which the parish priest purchased from the bishop and from which he expected to earn a revenue.

Everyone knows how medieval relics were faked and stolen from rivals; but this knowledge does not necessarily stretch to understanding to what extent the medieval church was every level a commercial enterprise, designed to turn a profit. A lot of money was at stake, and everyone was in on the game; where would Bilbao be today without its new Guggenheim, or Orlando without Disney World? Just as with the modern museum or art gallery, the architecture has a subordinate but still definitive value in getting the equivalent of “bums on seats” – or shoes on flagstones, since in those days the congregation stood. The bishop and canons, no doubt aided and abetted by any secular city authorities, wanted to build longer, wider, higher, lighter or with more crinkly bits round the edges than anyone had ever done before; they were not doing this for the glory of God, but to maximise shareholder value.

Posted on April 18, 2010 at 10:17 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Ghost in the Machine
    on April 18, 2010 at 12:46

    I recall you showing me this some time ago. Then as now, it’s a real eye opener.

    However, I do believe that a significant number of those involved, and particularly the craftsmen, practiced their trade both “for the glory of God” and to put food on their family’s table. For to many of us, such is the nature of craft.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on April 18, 2010 at 14:23

    Of course the craftsman was doing it to put food on the table, while the bishop was commissioning it to increase revenue. Just like building an offshore oil rig.

  3. Written by Ghost in the Machine
    on April 18, 2010 at 18:39

    Ah, but the oil company building the offshore rig is doing “God’s work” — just like Goldman Sachs.

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