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A large stone building with fancy carving and pointed arches all over it - medieval cathedrals

Medieval cathedrals: Façade of Amiens cathedral in France

What is a cathedral?

A cathedral is any Christian church where a bishop has his headquarters. No matter how big a church is, if there’s no bishop working in it, then it’s not a cathedral.

More about bishops
Lots more Middle Ages articles

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.

All about St. Sernin in Toulouse
The church at Laon

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.

Lots of articles about the Middle Ages

Romanesque and Gothic architecture

The Romanesque cathedral at Vezelay (1100 AD)

The Romanesque cathedral at Vezelay (1100 AD). This is where Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade

The architecture of cathedrals is based on the old Roman basilica. The earliest Christian churches were a lot like Roman basilicas.

More about 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.

What do Romanesque churches look like?
How are Gothic churches different?

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.

What is communion?
How did people get baptised?
What do Christian priests do?

In the Middle Ages, most cathedrals did not have chairs in them, the way they do today. People stood or walked around during the Mass. Or they knelt on the stone floor to pray.

What is a Christian Mass?

Chartres nave

Chartres nave

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.

More about medieval schools

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.

Medieval hospitals and medicine

Learn by doing: medieval castle project
More about the Romanesque
More about Chartres Cathedral

Bibliography and further reading about cathedrals:

Romanesque architecture
Gothic architecture
More medieval architecture
More about the Middle Ages
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