Cathedrals and the Birth of Freedom

Article excerpt

Cathedrals and the birth of freedom Cathedral by Jon Cannon (Constable, 2007, 534 pages)

Enter any one of the great gothic thedrals of Western Europe and you cannot help but be overwhelmed by their beauty and profound mystery, and also the sheer size, boldness and complexity of their structure.

But because of their ubiquity, and their modern association with travel and tourism, we tend to lose sight of their central historical significance to European history and the events they represent. One such gothic cathedral, England's Lincoln Cathedral, was completed in 1311 and its original spire soared to 160 metres. Until its construction, no building had equalled the height and scale of the European cathedrals anywhere in the world since the construction of the Cheops Pyramid in 2560 BC, which was, at completion, just over 146 metres, the tallest construction ever built to that date. Why did it take almost another 4000 years for this feat to be surpassed? Although the spire of Lincoln Cathedral collapsed three hundred years after it was built, nothing was to rival the heights achieved by these gothic cathedrals until the kte nineteenth century with the 'modern' Eiffel Tower for the Great Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889.

Quite apart from any consideration of medieval religious belief and symbolism-why were such singular and remarkable edifices built? These buildings, in purely economic terms, were the biggest single financial undertakings in the medieval period.

The expenditure and scale of the structures eclipsed those of defensive casdes, parliaments, government buildings and anything else.

Their construction and the political will to build them often extended over several generations from conception and planning to completion. Massive, long scale projects of this nature are completely unknown in the modern world. The Snowy Mountain Scheme or the Three Gorges Dam are mere bagatelles at their side.

A preliminary report on a study that Anne E.G. McCants from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is undertaking on the economics of cathedral building in the kte Middle Ages, has come up with some fascinating cost figures to give us an idea of the economic effort that these cathedrals represented to the society of the time. Many Australians will remember die spiralling costs of the Sydney Opera House, funded, judiciously as it turned out, by a state run lottery. At its completion in 1973, the basic building, before machinery and fittings were installed, blew out to an impressive $400 million in today's dollars.

McCants quotes from research based on billing techniques relied on by modern quantity surveyors and suggests that in the Paris basin alone between the years 1120 and 1270, the number of ecclesiastical buildings created for this small population was equivalent to constructing three Sydney Opera Houses in each of Sydney's nine local government council areas within a period of one hundred and fifty years. In fact, it has been estimated that in Europe at that time there was a church or chapel for every 200 inhabitants.

And Europe had a poor, overwhelmingly agricultural economy, not a rich modern one like today's Australia. 95 per cent of people then worked and depended directly on agriculture and had a life expectancy of less than 50 years. McCants relies on calculations from Bernard Bachrach's book, The Cost of Castle Building, emphasising the puny economic output in those times. Considering the low grain yields-yield ratios of as low as 2:1 and only occasionally as high as 4:1-and the labour intensive nature of agricultural production, the opportunity cost of building at die close of the tenth century required the full time efforts of at least 4 and possibly 5 agricultural workers to sustain die construction workers (and their dependents) assigned to building. This opportunity cost should be compared to that of military expenditure at the time to underline the perceived social priority for church building. …