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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Funding the Construction of Gothic Cathedrals:

      Financial and Legal Realities of the Middle Ages

Wolfgang Schöller, University of Regensburg, Institute of Art History

          As in all cultural and social phenomena, the building of cathedrals was subject to changes during the long timeframe of the Middle Ages - in organizational as well as in legal and economic respects. Yet, this was not only because the administration of cathedral-building worked differently between the 9th and 13th centuries, due to changed power structures between the bishop and the cathedral chapter. Changes were also due to differences in regional habits, not only between northern and southern France, or between Germany and Italy, but even within the smallest, well defined local units - concerning, for instance, the institution of the fabrica ecclesiae (see glossary below).

          Obligations of bishops in late antiquity: It is true that, beginning in the 5th century, papal decretals (laws on ecclesiastical questions) imposed on the bishops a division of the bishopric's income, in such a way that a quarter of his income had to be allocated for the architectural/structural maintenance of the public church buildings (pro fabricis ecclesiae) of the diocese. Yet, aside from the exclusive effect of this regulation on bishops of the Roman metropolitan district in Middle and Lower Italy, it was no longer of any practical significance during the High Middle Ages. Although still listed in 12th century canon compilations by medieval scholars of ecclesiastical law known as decretalists, this Roman procedure was by then simply outdated, if only because of a trend toward the economic independence of cathedral chapters.

[Fig.1: South façade of Strasbourg Cahedral (photo: Athena Review)].

          Beneficiaries in France and Germany: In Italy, as already noted, it was the bishops, who were legally obligated to support public church building projects within their bishopric, by transferring part of their income for the maintenance, restoration, and décor of the buildings. In the case of the 8th-10th century Frankish Empire and its territorial successors France and Germany, however, the obligation to fund construction affected a different group of people. According to the secular laws (capitularia) of the Frankish kings, it mainly affected the beneficiaries or beneficati (owners of property which once belonged to the church), particularly those royal vassals who repeatedly bore the costs of maintaining the churches given them in fee.

      Canons, bishops, and the fabrica ecclesiae: What does this mean in practical terms? As the scholar of ecclesiastical law Bernhard of Pavia stated in his Summa decretalium (written 1191-1198), collapsed and destroyed churches were to be renovated, to which all clerical beneficiaries had to give support commensurate with their means. When Pope Innocent III notified the archbishop and cathedral canons of Rouen (after internal quarreling in 1198) that each would have to allocate equally a part of their income to restore the cathedral, this regulation became generally valid. The law was first entered in the so-called Compilatio IV of Johannes Teutonicus in AD 1216, and then in the Liber Extra of Pope Gregory IX in 1234.

          However, by this time, Goffredus of Trano (1241/43) and decretalists succeeding him emphasized another aspect. According to them, the main burden of building or maintaining a church should be borne by a fund which specifically endowed the church works (fabrica ecclesiae: "the building fund of a church"). Any additional financing drawn from incomes of the beneficiaries (including bishops and canons) should only take place if the money from the fund would not suffice for repairs.

          Actually, the sporadic establishment of such building funds (bona fabricae) had already occurred at ecclesiastical institutions during the late 11th century, and then increased throughout the 12th and, especially, 13th centuries. These building funds or endowments served solely to construct the specific church, and to equip it with ritual furnishings. The bona fabricae had nothing to do with the finances connected with the office of the bishop, or the endowment of the chapter. These funds were instead created, for example, by a larger donation earmarked for church upkeep and maintenance (ad fabricam); or by separating out a part of the daily donations of the faithful; or by the transfer of any prebend properties which had become free. Thus, as no generally valid canon law ordered the creation of such building funds (which were only recommended or demanded by decretalists), the administration of these funds at the cathedrals was handled in many different ways and had no consistent canonical supervision.

           In general, at most of the cathedrals, but also at abbey and collegiate churches, the separate administration of the bona fabricae became the rule during the 13th century. This process, incidentally, did not go over smoothly everywhere, since the treasurers were understandably not easily separated from those incomes, which in case of smaller repair work may have even spun off a surplus. It must be emphasized that this special administration of the building endowment was an internal measure of the individual church institutions. Neither did a general ecclesiastical law regulate its realization, nor do we now have any indications in collegiate churches of the will of individual private donors as the primary deciding factor. At the churches where a special official known as the magister fabricae looked after the management of the building fund, as a rule the special post of a fabrica ecclesiae was created (see glossary).

          Realities of church construction in the High Middle Ages: What did this change in practice? In the case of new building projects or major repair work, certainly it changed little because the regular building endowments, if there were any at all, could hardly have been sufficient. For example, the bishop and the canons of Chartres were compelled - according to the contemporary Miracula beatae Marie Virginis in Carnotensi ecclesia facta (a report on the miracle of the blessed Virgin Mary at the church of Chartres) - to make a "considerable part" of their incomes available for the restoration of the cathedral after the devastating fire of 1194.

          Obviously, rules were established for the effective enactment of the canon law. The fact that one felt obliged to codify the proportionate burden over and over again by contracts, internal statutes, and regulations, only confirms this state of affairs in a different way. For instance, since the beginning of the 13th century there is evidence for the taxation of incomes made by prebends and benefices of the cathedral chapter and canons, intended for a whole series of building enterprises. Yet even under these circumstances, refractoriness and opposition by the canons was not precluded.

          What about the contributions of the bishops? Unlike the circumstances of the 10th and 11th centuries, the cathedral chapters had now grown into independent legislative bodies. Every bishop experienced this, as when the chapter claimed its right to have a say in the administration of the episcopal income. Also, in a quarrel with the bishop, the cathedral chapter could unceremoniously place him under an interdiction, an action which some of the French cathedral chapters had an explicit right to perform.

          Much evidence points to this changed situation, in which the chapter also took over the status of owner-builders of the cathedrals, so that the contribution of the bishop, whose office could be understood as a beneficium ecclesiasticum ("ecclesiastical benefice"), was now more clearly defined. Thus in 1283, a Parisian bishop was, among other things, expected to contribute to the maintenance of the new cathedral belfries; while his colleague at Poitiers had to bear the costs for the entire wooden construction of the cathedral towers.

[Fig.2: View of the southeast façade of St. Peter's Cathedral at Regensburg (photo:Athena Review)].

         Surely, a bishop was not necessarily unconcerned with the control of the building funds office (fabrica ecclesiae). At Cologne during the 14th century, a vehement quarrel flared up on this subject between the archbishop and the cathedral chapter. We also hear of fierce quarreling in Arras about the extent of the episcopal obligation for church construction in the year 1253. In this case, Bishop Jacob refused to pay for the repair or restoration of the belfries and cloister, as the cathedral chapter demanded of him, since (from their point of view) the general maintenance of the entire cathedral and of certain parts of its furnishings should be incumbent upon the bishops.  Of course we also know of bishops who donated this or that sum of money for the building of the cathedral, or those, such as Robert of Courtenay at Orléans, who gave building materials and land for building sites.

          The passion of a number of these conflicts is surprising. There is little doubt that the greater the chapter's influence became on the administration of the cathedral, the more the bishop became estranged from any structural concerns of the cathedral. The latter still held the bishop's seat (the cathedra), but in actuality it may have no longer stood under the bishop's jurisdiction.

          The role of the parish churches, and the 'harvesting' of alms: In contrast, parish or parochial churches, which were most intensely exposed to the jurisdiction of the cathedral chapter, were the big losers. In this case, petitions were frequently replaced by mandates (orders). Admonitions addressed to the parish priests remained comparably moderate. These included demands to support the interests of cathedral building in their sermons, to conscientiously administer the incoming means of the parish, and to inform the bishop about the individual donors. Yet, who would have wanted to risk dismissal or excommunication because of the slightest unauthorized act, even if the local church needed the legates and offerings of the members of the parish community just as much as the cathedral? With such punishments - and this was certainly no isolated case - the vicar general of Châlons-sur-Marne threatened in 1255 all those parish priests who did not support the cathedral building enterprise, to the best of their abilities, on all Sundays and religious festivals up until the next synod; who did not make cathedral-building their top priority, thus putting back or suspending all other matters; or who admitted non-local collectors of alms into their churches, up until the mentioned date.

          Additional mention should be made of the collections of alms. Whether or not they were connected with an indulgence by payment, their numbers were immense. Much to the displeasure of some of the ecclesiastical authorities, in many places during the 13th century they had fallen into the hands of professional collectors, the so-called questuarii. All this not only proves the eminent importance of oblations or donations from the congregation for the building of churches - which emerges clearly in other sources - it also, of course, shows an undisguised amount of commercialization.

          Rather common during the Gothic period was the planned 'harvesting' of the diocese by the questuarii, who travelled around on behalf of the cathedral building office (fabrica ecclesiae). In Cologne, collections in favor of the cathedral building had priority over all others - if the latter were approved at all. Non-local collectors, such as brothers of the order of St. Anthony of Vienne, who, at the beginning of the 14th century, collected money in the Cologne diocese, were obliged on penalty to surrender a part of their proceeds to the local cathedral building fund.

[Fig.3: The Pardoner from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1390) is an English version of the questuarii, who has just returned from Rome with a license to sell pardon and indulgences. He also sold fake "relics." (This item is reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; 26 C9 f.138r)].     

          In an additional method of carefully-staged planning, messengers would march into the parishes in advance and announce, for this or that day, a specific collection. Frequently, the day of the collector's arrival had to be observed as a holiday. If a parish church was under interdiction (with a prohibition of official ecclesiastical acts), this would be reversed, so that the collection could be carried out. The parish priest had to assemble the congregation to explain the purpose of the collection to them and to exhort them to donate something.

         Anyone who really tries to probe fully into the written sources of the Gothic era in terms of how individual characters acted in connection with the funding of church building, will time and again discover examples of calculation, indifference, ignorance, selfishness, and hostility. For us, this behavior simply brings the process of late medieval church building - and everywhere, that of cathedral building - from a sphere of religious keenness and rapt theological symbolization, back to reality.   

Glossary of terms on cathedral building and administration:

benefice: (beneficium ecclesiae) an ecclesiastical office connected with income earned from financial holdings, land, or taxation.

beneficiary: (beneficiati) originally referring to the lay holder or incumbent of church property (land and estates), often royal vassals; after the 12th century, refers to the holder of prebends directly connected with an office (benefices).

bona fabricae: a building fund, whose money is solely devoted to church building and maintenance of the church fabric.

canon: members of the cathedral chapter, or a collegiate church's chapter. Also, a member of non-monastic religious community living under a rule. Whereas the regular canons (canonici regulares) took a monastic vow, the secular canons (cononici saeculares) did not, and were therefore entitled to more personal freedom, living in their own houses with their own posessions. Many secular canons came from noble families. Their numbers increased significantly after the 10th century, due to growing benefices.

canon law: ecclesiastical law.

capitularies / capitularia: laws and regulations of the Frankish kings, divided into chapters (capitulae).

cathedral chapter: an ecclesiastical corporate body having legal status to manage the administration and services of the cathedral. The chapter and its canons participated in the election of a new bishop and the management of the diocese.

collation: conferment of an ecclesiastical office with a benefice attached.

cumulation: an accumulation of ecclesiastical prebends and offices, as in the hands of a bishop, often leading to less attention paid to individual prebends or offices.

Curial: concerning the central administration (Curia) of the Pope, or of a bishop (diocesan Curia).

decretal / decretal epistle: legal decision (decree) of the Pope on ecclesiastical questions, written as a letter.

decretalist: scholar of ecclesiastical law.

fabrica ecclesiae: 'the construction of a church'. By the 12th century, the administrative office for the management of the building fund (bona fabrica).

in fee / fief: (from Latin: feudum) a piece of land, a customary right, or an office given from a master to his vassal. A fief was originally a loan given for the lifetime of the vassal, but later they increasingly became heritable.

incorporation: incorporation of a prebend into an ecclesiastical institution, e.g., the transfer of a parish into the posession of a cathedral chapter, or monastery, which could lead to insufficient pastoral care within the parish.

indulgence: release or pardon granted by the church from a punishment, increasingly (by the 13th c.) bought and sold.

interdiction: prohibition of all ecclesiastical official acts as a penalty for specific persons or a specific church, or other ecclesiastical institutions.

vicar: deputy of an ecclesiastical office-bearer, such as the bishop, or a parish priest.

magister fabricae: an official controlling the construction funds of a church.

masons' lodge: on-site headquarters of the Master Masons and their assistants (sculptors, stone workers, and bricklayers) in a cathedral building project.

metropolitan / archbishop: the bishop of the capital (metropole) of an archbishop's province, consisting of several bishoprics. The Pope, as bishop of Rome, is the Roman metropolitan.

oblation: collected offerings of the congregation given during the mass.

office: ecclesiastical office and its related duties.

Ordinary: bishop or archbishop with ordinary jurisdictional power.

pardoners / questuarii: professional, travelling alms collectors involved in the sale of indulgences and pardons.

prebend: (praebenda) the right to receive income in various forms, including money, food, and housing, in connection with an ecclesiastical office.

prebendary: the holder of a prebend.

prince bishop: a bishop who, besides his ecclesiastical office, also had the secular status and power of a prince. Such status and territorial power was conferred by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany).

questuarii / pardoners: professional alms collectors with a papal license to sell indulgences and pardons, often travelling around a region.

reservation: specially reserved ecclesiastical rights.

thesaurarii: treasurers of the funds of a church.

vassal: someone under oath to serve a master or king, usually by military service. In return, he received land (a fief) in fee, and certain privileges. Dukes were examples of royal vassals.


Wolfgang Schöller. 1989. Die rechtliche Organisation des Kirchenbaues in Mittelalter, vornehmlich des Kathesdralbaues. Baulast-Bauherrenschaft-Baufinanzierung. Köln-Wien.

Pöschl, Arnold 1926. Die Enstehung des geistlichen Benefiziums. In: Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht, 106 (series 4, 14), pp.3-121, 363-471.

This article appears on pages 48-52 of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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