By: David A. Smith
As we saw in the preceding Part 2, after the demise of the Roman fort model of new-town establishment came the era of the fortified castle, where a single compound served as capital city, market nexus, cultural center, and transportation crossroads. Though the Roman fort, which was intended as an amortizing asset, one that would dissolve into a township as the new territory gradually became economically, politically, and culturally civilized (meaning Roman), the medieval castle was something quite different. Aside from being home-grown, not externally imposed, it was also a permanent bastion, because unlike the Romans, who had invincible confidence in the endless expansion of the Pax Romana, medieval lords saw life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, so there must always be high walls, and strong men to guard them.
Even iff ve are Frrrench
Castles, therefore, were power – law, order, and taxes, all maintained with physical force. That is why they fascinate us centuries later: because of their vast brooding rough hard presence. But if they were an expression of physical might, people in medieval times needed a counterpoint, something to lift up the spirit and give meaning and hope to life.
Enter the parallel community, the abbey, and its wonderful model of a mixed-use, mixed-income campus-style community.
Senanque Abbey amid its fields of lavender
1. Abbeys propagated via franchise networks. From the beginning, the great abbeys were cellular networks, each abbey a node with links back toward the center – the original founding abbey, like Citeaux, with the expanding constellation of daughter abbeys, each set from the others at the optimum communications distance – a day’s ride from the next.
A magnificent alternate world where abbeys rule the planet
A famous early alum: St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Each abbey saw itself as part of a larger community of belief, and with a workforce loyalty that many a Theory Z organization would envy, they were able to maintain message and behavioral discipline across far-flung institutions. Much of this was accomplished through standardization, starting with language. Just as English has become the language of the Web and Twitter, Latin became their lingua franca – though no one’s first language, it was everyone’s second language, so a monk could take up a new post and be confident of adapting to his new surroundings. Thus, like the Romans (and quite unlike the medieval lords), the monasteries represented the closest thing to a global conventional wisdom and source of news and insight.
The replicable franchise also extended itself to the built environment: the abbey’s campus model.
Built from standard ‘blueprints’, with slight regional variation
2. Abbeys were self-financed on a vision. Like Roman forts, abbeys were established in the wilderness, though unlike Rome the abbots and monks came not to conquer but to homestead. They chose remote land both to escape the temptation and sin of forts and castles and villages, but also (more practically) because in remote locations, land was free and could be homesteaded without opposition.
For the initial team of monks sent out from a mother abbey to found a new daughter one, free land was the good news; the bad news was everything else. No physical defenses, no structures to inhabit, no fields to till, no food sources, no labor force, and no endowment. All he had to sell was the vision, but what a vision that was.
Wouldn’t you like a pew in God’s heavenly church?
3. The abbeys’ main product was salvation. Though never couched in such terms at the time, abbeys were factories manufacturing an intellectual product – salvation and eternal life:
Fully trained monks are ready to pray for you, 24/7/365
Moreover, not all prayers were equal: the best prayers came from monks commissioned for the purpose:
The church taught that intercessory prayer … and masses offered by the living could hasten the soul’s progress to heavenly bliss.
Not only was the intellectual product unique and not copy-protected, benefits were subject to recapture (excommunication) right up to the moment of death, and like the best weaponry, this one could be wielded from far away, arrive through the mails, and pinion even a monarch in place.
You can’t divorce me, Henry, only the Pope can annul this marriage, so if you remarry you are eternally damned
4. The abbeys’ revenue model was subscription-based fee-for-service. While God might be everywhere, the best place to connect with Him was in His office – the church and its larger successor, the cathedral.
The higher floors are the most valuable
Though cathedrals were always oriented to the east (for morning sunlight, essential to illuminating stained glass), their hierarchy can be better appreciated if they’re rotated a quarter-turn, so that east is up. When this is done, the plan looks like a normal residential high-rise: the top floors have the most expansive views and command the highest prices
The higher floors are the most valuable
So when the Lancastrian Henry Bolingbroke killed the Yorkist king Richard III and established himself as the first Tudor king, Henry VII, what better way to sanctify his place that by building out a cupola to God – the Henry VII chapel.
As soon as the abbeys were founded, they were in the fundraising business, and quickly established the practice of enabling the nobility to buy what we might call ‘Heaven pre-check’
Pre-destination – the ultimate pre-check – came only centuries later
Such as the illness and death of Robert the Bruce, where the Church cashed in:
In October 1328 the Pope finally lifted the interdict from Scotland and the excommunication of King Robert the Bruce. The king’s last journey appears to have been a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Ninian at Whithorn; this was possibly in search of a miraculous cure, or to make his peace with God. At the end of March 1329 he was staying at Glenluce Abbey and at Monreith, from where St Ninian’s cave was visited. Early in April he arrived at the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn. He fasted four or five days and prayed to the saint, before returning by sea to Cardross.
Robert summoned his prelates and barons to his bedside for a final council at which he made copious gifts to religious houses, dispensed silver to religious foundations of various orders, so that they might pray for his soul, and repented of his failure to fulfil a vow to undertake a crusade to fight the ‘Saracens’ in the Holy Land.
The purpor5ted death mask of Robert the Bruce at Rosslyn Chapel
Robert’s gifts are not unlike those of plutocrats making large donations to expand the built environment of two modern temples of morality and faith – the hospital and the university – whose present forms echo their millennium-earlier forbear not just in revenue model but also in built-environment and housing paradigms.
Which would you prefer: a triptych, your own chapel, or your name on the institution?
[Continued tomorrow in Part 3b]