Gothic Cathedral – Middle Ages – History of architecture

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A Gothic cathedral: very high nave with stone arches

Gothic cathedral: Nave of Rouen cathedral (1200s AD)

Northern France gets rich enough to build cathedrals

In the late 1100s and early 1200s AD, the kings of France, Philip and his son Louis, whose capital was Paris in the north, managed to conquer the south of France and make it part of their kingdom.

Now all the tax money that had been used to build Christian churches and castles in the south of France came to Paris instead, and finally the people of northern France could afford to build big stone buildings. They didn’t waste any time!

A Gothic cathedral – a new style

In the south, people had been building churches in the Romanesque style, but for these new churches, the architects wanted a new style, which we call Gothic. The easiest difference to see between the two styles is that while Romanesque churches have round arches, Gothic churches have pointed arches.

Milan cathedral - Gothic cathedral with five sets of windows across the wide facade and many tiny stone pinnacles

Gothic cathedral of Milan, Italy (begun 1336 AD)

But there are a lot of other differences as well. Gothic cathedrals have many more windows, and much bigger windows, and so they are not dark like Romanesque churches.

In the hot south, people liked thick walls and small windows, so the churches would be shady and cool. In the north, where the days were darker and shorter, people wanted more light. So the architects figured out new ways of making roofs and of supporting walls, especially the groin vault and the flying buttress.

Bigger cathedrals with stone roofs

Gothic churches are also usually bigger than Romanesque churches. By 1200 AD, people had more money available, and they could afford to spend more on building great churches. And, where many Romanesque churches had wooden roofs (which were always catching fire), Gothic churches had safer stone roofs.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Gothic cathedrals? Let us know in the comments!

Check out some Gothic cathedrals:

St. Denis (begun 1130s AD)
Laon (begun 1160 AD)
Paris (1160s AD)
Chartres (begun 1194 AD)
Rouen cathedral, France (begun 1202 AD)
Reims cathedral, France (begun 1211 AD)
Amiens cathedral, France (begun 1220 AD)
Westminster Abbey, England (begun 1245 AD)
Milan cathedral, Italy (begun 1336 AD)

Learn by doing: visit a big church near your house.
The church at Laon

Bibliography and further reading about Gothic cathedrals:

More medieval architecture
More about the Middle Ages home

By |2018-04-16T10:32:24+00:00July 30th, 2017|Architecture, Medieval|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Gothic Cathedral – Middle Ages – History of architecture. Study Guides, July 30, 2017. Web. December 15, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. bob January 30, 2018 at 10:59 am - Reply

    sooo cooolll

    • Karen Carr January 30, 2018 at 10:14 pm


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