Everything old is new again


Matthew Ross


Cathedrals, like sausages, are best enjoyed without thinking too hard about where they came from.

Last week’s catastrophic fire at Notre Dame de Paris – or rather the billion dollar philanthropic response – has inflamed critics of philanthropy. Reputational whitewashing, tax breaks for giving, bypassing the state. And a greater outpouring of grief and money for an old building than for social injustice.

The critics’ beef with Notre Dame’s donors is not new to our sector. But it only scratches the surface of a nuanced interplay of ethics and philanthropy that has stood hidden in plain sight for 850 years.

Notre Dame de Paris was built on a long-term co-funding model: a large-scale investment in social overhead capital, if you like. The same is true of all the great Gothic cathedrals that rose from the Paris basin and beyond in a massive rebuilding boom that lasted from the early 1100s until the first quarter of the fourteenth century.

Some income came from the state, from civic administration and city institutions. Most funding streams were specific to ecclesiastical building projects. A cathedral’s bishop, chapter and canons were compelled by law to dedicate a considerable portion of their income to the cathedral fabric and were therefore often the majority funders. Taxes, fines, property income and parish revenues from the bishopric were also redirected. Already things start to heat up. With prominent landholding families often in control of cathedral chapter positions, conflict arose between commoners and feudal lords, and urban riots broke out during cathedral building at Beauvais, Laon, Reims, and Troyes.

More interesting still were voluntary contributions, which in boom years outstripped funding from the cathedral chapter. What prompted a boom year? Sometimes it was disaster, typically fire. Usually it was a sensational devotional event – the acquisition of a relic, the canonisation of a saint or even a miracle. As a result, pilgrims flocked to the cathedral to make penance and make gifts. The highly emotive role that relics played in devotional giving across medieval Europe tells us much about the power of symbols to elicit gifts. Likewise the public grief in response to the Notre Dame fire today. Medieval chapters knew this well. Often saints’ days were planned to coincide with annual fairs to stimulate pilgrimage and donations.

The greatest fundraising tool of all was the indulgence. Bought for cash, indulgences offered the purchaser redemption from their sins and reduced time in purgatory. In sum, alms in lieu of penance. The earliest and most common indulgences in the Middle Ages were for donations to church and cathedral building. Pardoners, who were licensed to sell them, would accompany relic tours as part of concerted fundraising drives organised by cathedrals. These practices were hardly immune from scrutiny. The parody of the pardoner as a morally questionable salvation salesman was a familiar trope in medieval Europe, still known today from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As for reputational whitewashing, bishops and confessors were authorised to designate res male acquisite for cathedral building, these being goods that, illegally or immorally acquired, could be donated in return for absolution from sin. There were limits, however. When bishop Maurice de Sully began the reconstruction of Notre Dame in the twelfth century, the prostitutes of Paris offered funds for a stained glass window. Sully refused the gift, but not without consulting moralists who advised that, if acquired discreetly, the gift might not raise public objection.

Notre Dame is a symbol of human achievement in civic unity, faith, architecture, engineering and art. We mourn its near loss. It is also – and always has been – a case study in the ethics of funding and philanthropy. What has been will be again.

Dr Matthew Ross is senior philanthropy manager at the Royal Academy of Music

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