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Economic and Social History Blog

5. Church Building in the Middle Ages – and the power of the referee (23-3-2020)

Church Building in the Middle Ages – and the power of the referee (23-3-2020)

Written by Jan Luiten van Zanden

Let me start the new week with serious academic research, and a serious issue. The good news is that the paper about church building in Western Europe has been accepted for publication and is about to be published by Exploration in Economic History. Thanks to Eltjo’s skills in collecting obscure historical sources, Auke incredible data manipulation skills, and Bruce expertise as medievalist and his amazing writing skills, we now have a paper that charts church construction in Western Europe (England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Low Countries and Italy) between 700 and 1500. For a large part of the period this is probably the single best indicator of economic performance that is available, and thanks to Auke the paper contains some beautiful ‘heat maps’ (shown below) which summarize 800 years of economic history. They speak for themselves.

Heat maps of church building activity in Western Europe (cubic metres per square kilometre), 700–1500. Maps smoothed using a Gaussian filter (Hijmans 2016). Note: 700–1000 is plotted on a different scale.

The story can go into different directions here. I could tell you I am fascinated by Medieval cathedrals since a visit to Amiens when I was 12 or 13 years old. Or I could speculate on the meaning of the fact that in western languages ‘church’ both means the real building and the religious community, which is a way perhaps makes our indicator also an index of the intensity of religious beliefs. But there is something more mundane I would like to share with you. When we submitted the first version of our paper to EEH, which did not include Italy (but did have estimates for the rest of Western Europe), one of the referees, a specialist on Italian economic history (and not necessarily an Italian economic historian), criticized the paper for this reason. Including Italy would be the real test case for the idea, he argued. He suggested a number of references we could include as well. Moreover, the editor agreed; including Italy seemed to be a condition for acceptance. I am worried about this. This was not a criticism of the method, the sources or the idea. The original paper-covered 5 countries during a period of 800 years – is that really not enough to test its potential? Increasingly, referees seem to be furthering their own research agenda, and as an author you have to comply because you want the paper to be published. I don’t mind suggestions like this (include Sweden, or China etc.) but to make one’s approval dependent on this is – I feel – going much too far. We were lucky in the sense that Eltjo was already working on the Italian data, but the focus of the paper changed a lot due to the inclusion of Italy. This little incident shows, I think, that the rules of the game of the refereeing process should be spelled out more clearly (and we all can probably give many more similar examples of the unpredictability and unfairness of the refereeing process).

But let’s celebrate the near publication of this paper with the beautiful heat maps!

Continue reading: Crisis in the Garden (24-3-2020)


Eltjo Buringh, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Auke Rijpma, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Church building and the economy during Europe’s ‘Age of the Cathedrals’, 700–1500 CE, Explorations in Economic History, Volume 76, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eeh.2019.101316.