Medieval cathedrals – Architecture

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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)

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.

(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.

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.

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.

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.

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 home

By |2018-05-08T20:25:04+00:00July 30th, 2017|Architecture, Medieval|9 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Medieval cathedrals – Architecture. Study Guides, July 30, 2017. Web. July 16, 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. the small May 8, 2018 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    i hate this

    • Karen Carr May 8, 2018 at 3:17 pm

      Sorry to hear it! I’ll try to make this article more interesting.

    • Ethan May 24, 2018 at 6:32 am

      this article is interesting.

  2. john April 18, 2018 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    Do you have a source on the section for “Why did people build cathedrals?” I’m writing a medieval history paper!

    • Karen Carr April 18, 2018 at 5:09 pm

      Either of the books listed in the bibliography would discuss these same points; have you checked them?

  3. FRANK April 10, 2018 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    wheres the important info

    • Karen Carr April 10, 2018 at 3:15 pm

      What were you trying to find out?

  4. bob January 26, 2018 at 9:24 am - Reply

    sooooo coooolll

    • Karen Carr January 26, 2018 at 9:44 am

      Thank you!

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