Cathedral Building… or was it Economy Building?

All the cathedrals across Europe were built in the space of about 200 years, at the height of the crusades. They look expensive, but they were actually money machines.

Siracusa cathedral

Whilst there may have been an element of religious fervour to them, they were also a way of demonstrating power to potential enemies and the illiterate masses. You find pragmatism at the root of almost all high morals. If you dig deep enough, though, you also find economics.

Cefalu cathedral

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet, is a novel about the building of a fictional British cathedral by a brilliant historian. He uses his characters to show how the cathedral building era across Europe drew so many skilled workers, and so many support workers from the surrounding countryside to feed and clothe and entertain them, that entire cities grew up around the building site. It would remain a work in progress for generations until completed, and this new driver of economic growth lasted almost exactly two centuries. By the time it ended, the cities were created and the economy was self perpetuating.

Was this the whole plan in the first place? I’m pretty sure it was.

A flourishing throng of people, where young apprentices could train, and junior tradesmen could cut their teeth in business, was bound to turn into a stimulating environment. Academic learning would flourish and innovation in all areas of human endeavour would be nurtured.

Palermo cathedral…. which faced economic competition from a simultaneous cathedral project in nearby Monreale…

The wealthy people of the growing town donated to keep the building work going, since all the customers it brought to them meant it was their bread and butter. They also wanted to be remembered for all eternity.

In Northern Europe, the richest would pay a high price to be buried inside the cathedral and be a part of it forever; although southern Europeans who, to this day, bury their dead in the Roman style necropolis out of town, find this practice astonishing and gruesome.

Monreale Cathedral
Monreale Cathedral; the bet paid off, and both venture capitalists (who were cousins) created cities which were thriving economic powerhouses

By the time the cathedral was finished, the stone masons, carpenters and other skilled workers would integrate into the, by then, very wealthy city. Some of them might move on to teach their architectural skills at a new cathedral building project.

Although we nowadays define a ‘city’ as a town with a cathedral in it, it really worked the other way around. The cathedral created the city, not the city the cathedral.

When the Normans conquered Sicily, they managed to grab a truly precious prize. Sicily was one of the richest jewels in Europe, with flourishing pottery, pasta and other industries. The Normans wanted to make it even better, though, and above all, they wanted to fill it with Christian wealth, to show everyone that their god was the most powerful and the most beneficent.

So they began probably the most prolific church and cathedral building programme that Europe had ever seen within such a small piece of land. It has never been surpassed since, anywhere in the world.

Catania cathedral

So essentially, building cathedrals was the medieval way to trigger a massive boost to the economy and industry. Stories of unfinished cathedrals are stories of tragic economic failure.

I suspect ancient Greek temples were a similar community phenomenon, building up thriving city-states. And this makes me wonder what went wrong at Segesta. It is an ancient Greek temple in Sicily that still stands perfectly, but was never quite finished.

Segesta temple – an ancient cathedral project that went bust?

Sicily has so many cathedrals from this era, it is hardly a surprise it became the richest part of Europe at that time. And it is hardly surprising to me that the population revelled in the glory of God, when one looks at all the wealth and  material reward their religious activities brought them.

Cathedrals in Sicily

Province of Palermo

Palermo cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Trapani province

Marsala and its cathedral

Siracusa and Ragusa

A festival at Noto cathedral

Siracusa and its cathedral


Sicilian Byzantine style cathedrals inspire fashion designers

Wikipedia article with a full list: Cattedrali Normanne in Sicilia

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary Vella says:

    Missed you. As always so insightful. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. astridvella says:

    There’s a fascinating book you might wish to read that highlights the parallels between the cathedral-building phase in Europe to the first skyscraper-building phase in the US. The parallels are compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VH says:

      That sounds very interesting! Can you remember the name of the book?


  3. T. Franke says:

    Ah, and the cathedral in Syracuse was a second-hand offer, since they re-used the temple structures for building the church ….. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. VH says:

      Yes! Waste not, want not!!!


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