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  • Financing Cathedral Building in the Middle Ages: The Generosity of the Faithful
  • Robert A. Scott
Financing Cathedral Building in the Middle Ages: The Generosity of the Faithful. By Wim Vroom. Translated by Elizabeth Manton. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2010. Pp.ix, 734. $89.50 paperback. ISBN 978-9-089-64035-2.)

This monumental study of financing of medieval cathedral-building projects was first published in 1981 in the author's native Dutch. This welcome English-language version presents a revised and updated version of his original work, incorporating new scholarship done on the topic over the past three decades. It is the most complete, authoritative, and nuanced work of scholarship yet published on the topic. As such, it will be welcomed by anyone wishing to learn about all aspects of how Europe's great medieval cathedrals were financed.

Wim Vroom addresses four key questions: Where did the resources to pay for cathedrals originate? By what means were these sources amassed? What is the order of magnitude of the sums available to fund the building campaigns? What was the pattern of ebb and flow of monies available to support major building projects over time, and how did this affect the pace and timing of building?

To answer these questions, Vroom has amassed an impressive body of data drawn from the surviving fabric records of some eighty cathedrals where construction projects were undertaken during the later Middle Ages. He then presents an exhaustively detailed case study (c. 130 pages) of the three centuries of building entailed in the construction of the Utrecht Dom, in turn supplemented by briefer accounts from the fabric rolls that have survived for building projects at eight additional cathedrals: Sens, Bourges, Exeter, Troyes, Toledo, Milan, Segovia, and St. Peter's in Rome.

The result is an analysis presented in two main parts that is at once broad and deep. Part 1 of his book explains the common understandings of the time about which parties—i.e., bishops and canons—should properly commission building works and their obligations to draw on sources of income available to them to help pay the costs. He then provides a systematic overview of the various sources of income on which they drew to finance building works and explains the methods they used to do so. His descriptions of the patterns of funding in his individual case studies shows in illuminating detail the exact impact that financing had on the pace and scope of building campaigns and the modifications that were required in the face of funding shortages.

Several conclusions emerge from his study. One is that construction projects were never funded by any single source, or even a handful of them. The bishops and cathedral chapters responsible for paying the bills drew on every imaginable source of funds they could identify. The list includes gifts from founding bishops and cathedral chapters responsible for paying the bills; initiation fees charged canons for becoming chapter members; fines levied [End Page 769] against them for violating chapter rules; gifts from popes, kings, and other secular rulers; tithes levied against parish churches within the jurisdiction of the bishopric in question; sales of indulgences; gifts given by pilgrims visiting the shrines of saints housed by the cathedral; profits from fairs held in connection with major feast days; loans; and other sundry sources of income. Vroom shows how the circumstance of each cathedral dictated the pattern of its financing and in turn affected the scope of the design that was affordable and the pace of work to implement it.

The result is a work so encyclopedic that it marks the essential beginning point for any future study of cathedral financing that may be undertaken. Scholars of the topic owe Vroom a major debt of gratitude for the care with which he has assembled this detailed overview of an important aspect of cathedral building during the Middle Ages.

Robert A. Scott
Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences
Stanford University


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