Productive Assets, The Byzantine Way

In the medieval West, much land was held as military fiefs, that is, given as contractual compensation for fielding troops. Parish churches were outright owned, bought and sold, as the small-time operating assets they were, while monasteries and some cathedrals were, or sought to be, self-owning cooperatives. Some monasteries were organised as multinational corporations.

In the Byzantine Empire, however, things were done a little differently. Here the owner of a monastery granted it for life to someone called a kharistikarios, who received all the revenues, maintained the monks and the fabric and could pocket the surplus. The sources do not talk about a fee pertaining to the ultimate owner, but the system would make no economic sense without remuneration to both owner and manager, so I presume there was one. I am not sure how to translate this, perhaps “franchisee”?

If such a vocabulary startles people who think monasteries and churches generally are all about an individual search for salvation, that is all to the good. They have obviously never asked how their saints are fed, or who repairs the roof. But where you have expenses, you must have incomes too. In many cases these were land-rents, or tolls or dues, in other words the saints getting a cut of someone else’s labour. Some monks used to run an honest business making alcoholic beverages, or copying manuscripts – commercially, not just for their own devotions. And above all, there were donations, and what some modern Christians call “holy hardware”. Exit the monastery through the gift shop!

Whenever you have a business, you always have the question of who owns it, and who represents it vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and how large a cut they should receive.

Posted on April 6, 2016 at 09:58 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

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