Records reveal how a medieval cathedral was protected against fire

The fire which severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this year showed how vulnerable medieval churches are to this threat. This would have even been more true in the Middle Ages, and new research about an Austrian cathedral shows how the prepared against outbreaks of fire.

The research is part of the work done by Barbara Schedl of the University of Vienna, who examined thousands of records related to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The current church, which is the home of the Archbishopric of Vienna, was built in 1263 after a fire had destroyed much of the original structure. Their would be renovations and additions to the cathedral in subsequent centuries.


Schedl was able to examine hundreds of years of the church’s income and expenditure accounts, which were maintained by the Kirchmeister or church treasurer, which offered fascinating new insights into how the medieval cathedral was maintained. “We found many entries in the treasurer’s ledgers relating to the emptying, filling and mending of water vats, for instance,” Schedl explains. “These vats were put up in the roof in the Middle Ages, so that extinguishing water would be on hand quickly in the event of a fire. They were emptied and mended before winter.”

Between 2012 and 2018, Schedl collaborated with institutions such as the Dombauhütte (the cathedral’s construction department) and meticulously examined all existing written sources on St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the context of two research projects which were funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. These sources include everything from builders’ invoices and letters of indulgence to last wills, deeds and the treasurers’ annual accounts. Of these annual accounts, seventeen transcribed volumes from the Middle Ages, each around 28 pages long, have been preserved. A comparison shows how substantially the material base has been expanded: whereas only some 200 sources had been used previously, this number has now been increased to about 3,000 – more than ten times as much.


The initial research project was devoted to recording all available sources systematically for the first time. The follow-up project focused on religious objects referred to in written sources, including altars and pulpits, chests and chandeliers. Since all of these objects are no longer to be found, any written record of them constitutes an important source for historians. On the basis of these records, Schedl can identify the place that many of these items occupied in the cathedral and reconstruct what were their – in some cases varied – uses and purposes. Barbara Schedl’s interdisciplinary approach and working method have turned out to be very helpful. She was able, for example, to identify a textile item as being a protective cover for an expensive, elaborate chandelier. Another object that has become “visible” again in this way is a brick partition wall of several metres in height which also served as a podium and separated clerics from laypersons. “For me, this rood screen is a very exciting object. The written sources now help us identify exactly where it stood, when it was created, how it changed over time and what it was used for,” says Schedl.

Order of service by Duke Rudolf IV. for St. Stephens, 28 March 1363. The services brought money into the church coffers. Credit: Diözesanarchiv Wien

The altar is a religious item that frequently features in the construction history of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Towards the end of the 16th century, a total of 38 altars were mentioned according to Schedl. The altars fulfilled a dual function as liturgical objects and generators of funds.” As soon as a section of the building was roughly finished with a dirt floor and a temporary roof – in modern terms this would correspond to a building’s skeleton – an altar was set up. The services held there brought money into the church coffers. The funds were used to furnish the surrounding space, for instance to replace animal skins with glass windows or to continue building another section,” explains the historian. In general, funding sources for construction were diverse, ranging from foundations and indulgences to bequests and fines for non-compliance with court rulings. The ruling classes contributed very little.

The cathedral was a remarkable building in the Middle Ages, with its South Tower, completed in 1433, considered to be the highest church spire in continental Europe. It is even more noteworthy that the church was recycling its building materials – this becomes clear from the fact that no items of expenditure for the removal of building material can be found in the treasurer’s accounts. The only exception was the annual removal of excrement from a small chamber in the tower. Unpaid work by volunteers on the construction site was also an important contribution. Throughout all social strata, such voluntary workers were mainly motivated by the thought of doing this work for their own salvation and because it was for a building dedicated to God. “In the last will of a poor widow I was able to decipher that she bequeathed her bedding and an old coat to St. Stephen’s. The treasurer’s accounts show that their sale raised a few pennies for the church coffers. That was touching,” relates Schedl.

When Martin Luther’s ideas began to take hold, donations stopped coming in – the North Tower has remained unfinished. There is now better evidence than ever before that throughout its three hundred years of construction, the Steffl, as it is fondly called by the Viennese, was funded and made possible by joint popular effort.


The research can now be seen in a new book by Barbara Schedl – St. Stephan in Wien. Der Bau der gotischen Kirche (1200-1500) – as well as an online database, which can be found at

Top Image: Photo by Daniel Stockman / Flickr