Megastructures of the Middle Ages: The Construction of Religious Buildings in Europe and Asia, c.1000-1500
By Maarten Prak
Paper from Epstein Memorial Conference, ‘Technologies and Human Capital Formation in the East and West’, London, 19-21 June 2008
Introduction: In the medieval Latin West, building must have been among the most important industries, constituting perhaps as much as five percent of the economy. Between 1136—when building started on the new choir for the church of Saint Denis, north of Paris, presumably the first Gothic project—and the middle of the fourteenth century, medieval Europe was in the grip of what amounted to a building boom. Major projects continued to be undertaken in the following centuries. The products of this boom still amaze observers today. In many European towns the cathedral and other medieval churches are among the main tourist sights and keep attracting crowds of visitors who travel long distances to admire them. Even today, the cathedrals are among the tallest structures in many a European town. And not only was the building industry flourishing during the Middle Ages, it was at the same time a very innovative industry. The rise of Gothic architecture has been documented at great lengths. Next to a change of style, Gothic was also a major change in the “scale and scope” of church building. This required new technological know-how, and a trained workforce to execute the new designs.