By: David A. Smith
By now, to my astonishment and quite possibly yours, the exposition of the third pre-municipal typology of urbanization – the abbey campus headquartered by an abbey or cathedral church – has reached its fifth installment (and like the Middle Ages, it seems to be hanging around well beyond its expected useful life, while the fourth typology taps its toes in the temporary file cache).
Fortunately, like the Middle Ages themselves, what came before sowed the seeds of its own demise, for all good blog posts must eventually end, and the abbeys’ dependency on donor-funded grant capitalization for serially funded campus expansion – the model used by most established universities, though not the new upstarts – positioned them for such immense economic success they became a takeover target.
The abbeys’ over-reach and their destruction
Though any institution that lasted effectively for five centuries deserves more praise than snark, in a blog post snark there must be –
‘You must know’ – said the judge’ but the Snark exclaimed ‘Fudge!’
– and over that half a millennium the abbeys imperceptibly changed. Founded as the isolated outposts of civilization amid the painted heathens, they became of commercial and intellectual activity, usually surrounded by towns that had grown up around or alongside their campus, spinning off secular business from the innovations the abbeys created, imported, or scaled.
As they did, the abbeys also shifted from being predominantly spiritual entities selling salvation as a byproduct of faith to diversified secular operating businesses providing products and services throughout the community.
Fountains Abbey, with its extension economic additions:
The Abbot’s House, its Great Hall, and support buildings
Agriculture led to viticulture which led to the invention of brandy:
I’m doing this solely because it’s my job
[The apex of monastic viticulture was champagne, invented by a monk, Dom Perignon. – Ed.]
Yes, but this was long after the Counter-Reformation …
As monopolies are prone to do, complacency set in; instead of sleeping in the same dorter as everyone else, abbots began building their own houses on the campus.
The abbot’s house, New Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey, with the (excavated and renovated) Abbot’s Lodging, foreground, now the visitor center
After all, as the ultimate non-profit, the church should raise as much wealth as it can, for the salvation of the faithful and the greater glory of God – and if some of the money raised went into expanding the church, improving the cloister or the outbuildings, or even making the abbot’s lodgings more suitable to receiving merchants and nobles – that was all part of the never-ending capital campaign.
It just keeps gushing
(Note the curious morally insidious way that a donor-funded model of capital expansion undermines the mission purpose; since the only way to build the campus is through grants, one must always be fundraising. Fundraising becomes a purpose that comes to be seen as coequal with the mission, because without the fundraising, where would the mission be?
(Does this sound like any universities you know?)
Trust us, we’ll put it all to good use
Similarly, the role of the abbot as the abbey’s most important person gave way to a second chair – a prime minister to the king, as it were. In fact the commendator (the lay administrator) was a combination of the owner’s representative and the Office of Inspector General, living and working on-site at the monastery, keeping an eye on the accounts and making sure that the abbey’s equivalent of UBTI (Unrelated Business Taxable Income) was remitted to the king.
Argyll’s Lodging in Stirling, sold to the Earl of Argyll by a commendator in 1559
Meanwhile, with the dominant monopoly came the short-cut knockoff products. Why have monks praying hour after hour, when it can be much more economical (and therefore more profitable) to offer not salvation itself but reduction of penance requirements via indulgences:
indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins“ which may reduce either or both of (1) the penance required after a sin has been forgiven, or (2) the temporal punishment after death (called Purgatory).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the monasteries and church could raise only so much from appeals to faith, indulgences became the spiritual equivalent of paper money: they could be mass produced, sold in whatever denominations the market would bear, and even in some cases wholesaled.
(On our vacation, I recall seeing, possibly in Mary Queen of Scots’ house in Jedburgh, an indulgence made out in favor of the local laird, for him to fill in the names of up to thirty people at his discretion. Shades of the Letters of Transit!)
You can fill in any other names you like, Rick
Having a license to print money (or its equivalent in sacred bearer bonds) was beneficial to the monasteries, and equally beneficial to the king, so the aims of Church and state found ready alignment:
With the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as Crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands.
At the same time, and perhaps for the first time in human history, the indulgence market experienced the common risks of paper money – counterfeiting and hyperinflation:
There was a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted. Indulgences grew to extraordinary magnitude, in terms of longevity and breadth of forgiveness.
How many Zimbabwe dollars can dance on the face of a bank note?
By the late Middle Ages, the abuse of indulgences, mainly through commercialization, had become a serious problem which the Church recognized but was unable to restrain effectively.
‘Unable to’? Or were indulgences, like congressional earmarks, an invention for patronage that many might decry but none were willing to foreswear?
A Question to a Mintmaker, woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg, circa 1530, presenting the Pope and [A] indulgences as one of three causes of inflation, the others being [B] minting of debased coinage and [C] cheating by merchants.
Indulgences were from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation a target of attacks by Martin Luther and all other Protestant theologians.
In business-model terms, indulgences not only set off runaway inflation, in so doing they severely cheapened the brand. That, in turn, called into question the entire copyright protection, a dissatisfaction given voice through a new disruptive social medium. The printing press enabled a blogger like Martin Luther could cut out the publishers and get his message directly to the customers.
Business-model disruption courtesy of technological and financial disruption
At the same time communication was being revolutionized, so too was finance. Capitalization of enterprises no longer depended purely on grant funding or taxation: the voyages of discovery were creating new forms of capital aggregation, including limited partnerships, and commercial banking had been invented in the 1450s, giving rise to new forms of urbanized living: the city-state. As all this continued, the rise of the nation-state – like Tudor England and Capetian France – rendered the abbey’s invisible shield against assault less valuable. Now the sovereign did that, and the sovereign felt the crown, not the abbey, should be getting the revenue:
The desire to dissolve religious houses and appropriate their endowments for the use of the state was normally a policy demanded by secular authorities rather than the reformers themselves.
Within half a century, the Catholic Church lost its copyright protection, and with that, it lost its brands identify as the sole road to salvation. The muckraking journalism of Luther and his ilk such as Scotland’s John Knox broke the church’s monopoly moral superiority – and rendered them tempting targets for acquisitive kings like Henry VIII:
In 1535 the Valor Ecclesiasticus was introduced by Thomas Cromwell. This was a comprehensive survey to ascertain how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales. As well as assessing wealth, hand-picked commissioners enquired about the quality of religious life being maintained, assessed any superstitious religious observances such as the veneration of relics and looked for evidence of moral laxity.
Making money, deviating from the mission – sounds like the City of Boston trying to cancel a non-profit’s 501c3 exemption or its tax abatement.
Render unto Menino the taxes that are Menino’s?
The commissioners were also instructing establishments to strictly enforce the practice of common dining and cloistered living,
In 1535, Henry VIII nationalized the monasteries, and those that refused nationalization, his soldiers demolished.
Glastonbury Abbey before the dissolution
Thus endeth the abbey’ era of pre-municipal urbanization.
And after Henry’s soldiers got through with it
And with its end, comes a lesson for modern day.
A cautionary tale
Imagine a campus that is:
· A place-based center of moral education.
· Built from a founder’s vision.
· Selling an intangible product (say, education) with a brand-protected intellectual product.
· Positioning itself out as the arbiter of morality.
· Funded by gifts from grateful customers and those signaling their virtue.
· As a result, much richer than its neighbors.
Wouldn’t it behoove such institution to stay on the right side of government?
Don’t lose your mission, lest you lose your tax exemption
The pre-municipal city, Type 3: The abbey
· Products or services. (1) Salvation. (2) Moral comfort. (3) Structured employment. (4) Library/ archive.
· Higher level of authority. God. Hard to beat that.
· Value proposition. Come with us for eternal life; spurn us for eternal damnation and endless pain.
· Revenue model. (1) Gifts, tithes, and offerings. (2) Fee-for-service (inter-cessionary prayer). (3) Get-out-of-hell-free cards (indulgences.
· Natural features selected for. (1) Unclaimed but arable land. (2) A steadily flowing stream (water source and drainage).
· Housing typology. Campus-style layout. Workforce dormitories divided into senior management (abbot’s lodging), management (monk’s dorter), and labor (lay brothers’ dorter).
· Household type. ‘Geographical bachelors’: management and workers. (While there were convents of nuns, men-only monasteries dominated.)
· ‘Anchor tenant’ major capital asset. The cathedral, whose building usually took decades.
· Modern echoes. (1) Universities with dormitories (the product is a diploma). (2) Hospital complexes.
[Continued in Part 4]