What is a cathedral?
For instance, the cathedral of Laon in northern France lost its bishop when the town got smaller. Now it is only a church.
And the church of Toulouse, even though it is a big beautiful church, never had a bishop. So it was never a cathedral. But most really big medieval churches in Europe are cathedrals.
When did people build cathedrals?
Most famous medieval cathedrals are in Europe (where the Christians were). Most of them were built between about 1000 and 1600 AD, during the Middle Ages. There are cathedrals all over Europe, in Spain, in England, in France, in Germany, and in Italy.
Romanesque and Gothic architecture
The architecture of cathedrals is based on the old Roman basilica. The earliest Christian churches were a lot like Roman basilicas.
But the biggest cathedrals are bigger and higher than the biggest Roman basilicas. Early medieval architects built cathedrals in the Romanesque style, and then later (beginning about 1100 AD) they built cathedrals in the Gothic style. You’ll find some examples of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals on the Romanesque and Gothic pages.
Why did towns build cathedrals?
Cathedrals were where Christian people in medieval Europe went to pray to God, and also where they took communion and talked to their priests. People also went to cathedrals for baptisms or funerals. At the end of the Middle Ages they started to get married in cathedrals, too.
Cathedrals were also community centers
But cathedrals were not only for religious ceremonies. When bishops or lords or kings had important things to say to a group of people, they met in the cathedral. They might use the cathedral as a courthouse. Other times, teachers used the cathedral as a school.
It was the biggest place in town that was inside, out of the cold and rain. In bad weather, many towns held their farmer’s market inside the cathedral, or they held job fairs there. People also gathered inside the cathedral for safety if enemies attacked their town, or used the cathedral as a hospital when a lot of people were sick.