Construction of Cathedrals Brought Progress – Not an Extended Middle Ages!

by Jeremias Schröder OSB

Die “Welt,” a daily newspaper in Berlin, offered us on Good Friday an original, but also very unenlightened article on the catastrophic fire at Notre Dame. It was about the enormous costs which the Church expended in the medieval building craze of Gothic cathedrals. Other investments, for example in infrastructure and education, thereby became impossible. And thus the Middle Ages were extended.

Briefly: Large Gothic churches were not a means by which centralized church leadership took over marketing positions. Rather, they were a typically European expression of the public spirit. Their construction, which certainly entailed a large expenditure of resources, did not lead to stultification of the people. Rather, it led much more, in the development of highly complex construction sites, to massive progressive in the fields of architecture, technology, and organization. That the schools at these cathedrals were the forerunners of European universities does not have a lot, to be sure, to do with the Gothic style – but it’s not entirely unrelated either.

Even if the construction of cathedrals presumably did not extend the Middle Ages, one might cautiously note that extending the Middle Ages a bit would have also had a few advantages: persecution of witches, wars of religion, and absolutism are elements of early modernity that one doesn’t exactly rejoice in.

Medieval societies obvious found it to be in order to dedicate a considerable portion of their social production to cathedrals. By contrast, our enlightened era prefers military spending (USA), automobiles (Germany) or large propaganda celebrations (North Korea). What do you suppose is being extended there?

Jeremias Schröder OSB ist abbot president of the Benedictine Congregation of St. Otilien. This article is reprinted with kind permission of Translation awr.

One comment

  1. Philip Ball’s “Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of the Gothic ” (Harper) deals with these issues (and many more). Recommended, especially in the aftermath of April 15!

    Ronald Stolk

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