Medieval church building-boom took place in the 12th century, study finds

A recent study looking at the construction history of churches during the Middle Ages has found that a building boom took place in Western Europe during the 12th century.

A team of researchers from The Netherlands and Northern Ireland examined the construction of churches between the years 700 and 1500. It involved 1,695 churches, ranging from cathedrals to parish buildings that are found in 1,144 settlements in Western Europe. They used their data to track new church construction in terms of square metres on a per capita basis – not only to understand the number of new churches being built but also those being expanded in size.


The results for Western Europe overall reveal that while church building increased after the year 1000, it really took off during the 12th century, and continued into the 13th century. However, by the year 1300, the amount of construction leveled off and soon started declining precipitously as the Great Famine and the Black Death struck Europe. It was not until the early 1400s that the rate of church building started rising again.

Luzern, Korporation Luzern, S 23 fol., p. 15 – Illustrated Chronicle by Diebold Schilling of Lucerne (Luzerner Schillling)

The team found significant regional variations when it came to church building. Southern France was the only region to go against the downward trend in the 14th century, which the suggest might have because the suppression of the Cathars could have led to a “triumphalist surge of construction,” Meanwhile, the 15th century recovery was predominantly focused on the Low Countries, which reveals how good economic times in that area supported their own building boom. In fact, if it was not for the region’s growth, we would have seen another overall downturn in church building by the second half of the 1400s.


Meanwhile details about church building in Great Britain are dominated by what was happening in England. The researchers note:

After an early 11th-century lull, a surge in construction activity then followed the Norman Conquest of 1066 as England‘s new rulers sought to make their mark. This paralleled the contemporary boom in Italy but was mostly generated by very different factors. The decades around 1100 show some of the highest per capita construction levels of the period, strongly surpassing the Western European average at that point and approaching within 25 per cent the apogee attained at that time in Italy.

Italy, the centre of the Catholic Church, had its own ups and downs, which only somewhat mirrored what was happening in the rest of Europe. The authors write:

Italy also stands out as the only country in which building activity per capita remained well above the European average throughout the eight centuries surveyed. Italian church building per capita charted a generally upward trend until after 1060, when it suddenly surged, tripling within the space of 60 years (c. 1060-1120) to reach a level in c.1100 that would never be bettered. This remarkable boom nevertheless followed rather than led that which had begun at least 50 years earlier in Germany, France and the southern Low Countries. Thereafter, activity fluctuated around a high level until the first quarter of the 14th century, when it suddenly subsided and then fell further in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death to a per capita level roughly half that prevailing when the 14th century had opened. Although output held up reasonably well until the final years of the 15th century, this was at barely half the level that had prevailed during Italy‘s commercial golden age in the 12th century and well below that.


While economics and demographics were the usual predominant factors, religion could also be an important element in church construction. For example, one could deduce that the “gathering momentum of conventual church building apparent during the 11th century,” was initiated by Cluniac-inspired religious reforms and increased fervour among the laity.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits Français 2609, Grandes Chroniques de France, folio 60 v°

The researchers also looked at the influence of disasters on church construction – earthquakes (particularly in Italy), war (particularly in France) and fires often destroyed churches and required them to be rebuilt. The authors find that church officials were generally good at responding to these disasters and having them rebuilt, especially in areas where this was more common. In areas where disasters were not as common, it might take much longer for rebuilding to be done. This was the case with Lincoln Cathedral, which suffered heavy damage from an earthquake in 1185. Repairs were not complete until 1330.

Overall, the research provides valuable insights into the historical context of church construction in Western Europe, emphasizing the interplay between economic, demographic, and religious factors. By analyzing the dataset and historical records, the study offers a nuanced understanding of how church construction evolved over time and its implications for economic development. The meticulous methodology employed in quantifying church construction activities underscores the importance of considering various biases and factors that may influence the interpretation of historical data.


The article, “Church building and the economy during Europe’s ‘Age of the Cathedrals’, 700–1500 CE,” by Eltjo Buringh, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Auke Rijpma and Jan Luiten van Zanden, appears in the journal Explorations in Economic History. You can access the article through ScienceDirect or read the preprint version on

The Building of the Temple by Jean Fouquet (c. 1465). The Temple of Solomon is depicted as a Gothic building under construction. Miniature from an illuminated manuscript of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (c. 93/4 AD) made for John, Duke of Berry.