How did medieval structures get financed?

Ask an Economist

I have noticed that Trillions of dollars of building during the Middle Ages went on in Europe from an agrarian/trading society. How did taxation of millions for farm labor become the basis of trade in Europe? It seems not rational that the food grown during the period 300 AD to 1780 was the basis of wealth. Therefore we know that mining silver, gold, copper allowed for coins but since there was no technology of the era that converts to the Trillions in Building out Paris, London, Prague, Austria, Russia. So, how was farm labor converted to the structures we see still standing today.....which architecturally are still the world standard for greatness.


Medieval cathedrals and other structures are indeed impressive works of construction, and to look at them is to marvel at human ingenuity.  Medieval societies were in fact technological quite progressive, a fact documented for example in Joel Mokyr’s history of technology, The Lever of Riches (Oxford 1992).  Technologies for cutting stone, lifting heavy objects and advances in the design of buildings were all developed in ways that enabled these structures to be built. 

Creating them was expensive, and was financed, ultimately by the redistribution of agricultural surpluses.  The true cost of production was the labor of the skilled crafts persons who shaped and assembled the component part of the structure.  Wim Vroom, Financing Cathedral Building in the Middle Ages (Chicago 2010) offers a detailed look at the financing of these projects.  Funds came from many sources.  We should also remember that some construction projects took a very long time to complete because of the challenges of finding adequate resources.

Answered by:
Dr. Joshua Rosenbloom
Department Chair
Last updated on March 9, 2018