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Medieval Cathedrals of Europe

Updated on March 8, 2008
Norwich Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral

Buildings are great sources of information that can help reveal the beliefs of a society. Sometimes all we have left of ancient civilizations to examine are the ruins of their buildings. Too often, with time, these buildings are lost, erasing the stories they once told as they disappear. Most of the buildings from the Middle Ages have vanished; but, because of the great architecture, or perhaps by God’s will, many of the great cathedrals are still standing.

The Role of Medieval Cathedrals

The role of cathedrals was multifaceted. These cavernous churches not only served as places of worship, but were also the center of daily life for all the people: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry. The remaining cathedrals reflect what people believed in, and how they lived their lives. These buildings tell the stories of why people believed what they did, and why they lived the way they did.

Cathedrals held an important role in the lives of the clergy and nobility, but they dominated the lives of the peasantry. The lives of the middle and lower classes revolved around the local cathedral or church.

Cologne Dom - Construction began in 1248 and continued until the 1500s.  Construction was completed in 1880, and today it is known as one of Europe's top Gothic cathedrals.
Cologne Dom - Construction began in 1248 and continued until the 1500s. Construction was completed in 1880, and today it is known as one of Europe's top Gothic cathedrals.
Mary window at Chartres Cathedral
Mary window at Chartres Cathedral
Cimabue: Madonna and Child (1100's AD)
Cimabue: Madonna and Child (1100's AD)
Basilica (Cross) Plan
Basilica (Cross) Plan

Every Cathedral Tells a Story

Every aspect of a cathedral tells a story and holds an element of symbolism. From styles of architecture to works of art, such as paintings or sculptures, these cathedrals tell stories worth a million words, often without using any words at all. By touring these beautiful buildings and examining their architectural styles and works of art, you can put these symbolic stories into words.

Cathedrals are a reflection of the people who built them, the people who lived their lives in them, and the people who worked in them. Yet, we can’t forget that the cathedrals were built for God: the church is an image of heaven. Every act was related to God’s will. The belief during the medieval ages was that without God, there would no cathedral, nor clergy, nor nobility, nor peasantry. Without God, there was nothing.

However, for them, there was God, and so there was life.

Symbolism in Cathedral Architecture

Generally, the basic shape of a church or cathedral would be of a cross. Construction always began at the East end of the cathedral; however, it was the West end that functioned as the important entrance. The West entrance symbolized the gate to heaven, and was often decorated with the most elaborate design and artistic effort.

A common theme at the entrance to medieval cathedrals was a sculpture of the Baptism of Christ. Upon entering, you would be reminded of your entrance into God’s family. Another common design was the changing of the seasons, including the labors each season required. This served as a reminder to all who passed through that Christ was involved in all parts of their lives.

After the structure, the next step was to build the towers and spires. Medieval communities often competed with each other for who could build the farthest into the sky. Towers and spires rose above the scenery, serving as signposts to travelers and extending the range of the church’s visibility.

The spires reflected one’s aspirations to be united with God, while the main tower served as the symbol of the church’s contact with heaven. The towers were often built with many arches and windows to make them light instead of dark.

Cathedrals were often built on hills so the church could dominate the surrounding area. It was important for a church or cathedral to be built somewhere special, such as on the grave of a martyr or over the ruins of a previous church. Considering the importance of the architectural symbolism, it isn’t surprising that it took many generations for these cathedrals to be completed.

Building the Cathedral

The building of a cathedral often became the object of immense civic pride. As a place that would both be a part of daily life and also a landmark to show off to visitors, each city or town took a lot of pride and responsibility in their local cathedral.

A local cathedral wasn’t only a place of worship, but a town’s symbol to the world of the strong faith of its townspeople. The cathedral belonged to all the people. It was through the direction of the clergy, the pocketbook of the nobility, and the manual, psychological, spiritual, and financial labors of the peasantry that motivated the construction of a cathedral.

The duties of the clergy, by God’s will, were to get the cathedral built by gathering the vision, labor and finances necessary. Often, the clergy raised the funds necessary by persuading the nobility to curtail their spending on luxuries. Instead, the nobility were influenced to contribute heavily to the cathedral. The Bishop often promised lenience from purgatory to those who donated financially.

Gifts to the clergy were often considered damnation deductible. Gifts ranged from money to people (laborers) to masterpieces of art. The nobility not only took pride in the magnificence of their local cathedral, but they also saw their contributions as signs of repentance. The finished church symbolized their doorway to heaven.

There were many different levels of importance among the peasantry when it came to building the cathedral. In on instance, masses of people were so overwhelmed at the idea of building a temple to God, a symbol of their faith, that they began pulling carts as physical labor to build the church.

This Cult of Carts was an amazing show of the religious zeal of the lower classes. After arriving at the building site, having pulled carts of stones, wood, corn, and other provisions for the new church, they would grovel, half naked, on the ground to confess their sins and implore for divine mercy.

More than Places of Worship

Cathedrals are more than places of worship. They are great buildings of information, knowledge, and history. They tell stories that are often missed and left out in textbooks or other historical works. It is amazing to think that one can walk into a building that is a living representation of the most poorly represented people in European history: the peasantry.

It might have been the Clergy’s vision and the Nobility’s pocketbooks that designed and paid for the cathedrals, but it was the devotion, physical labor, and strength of the Peasantry that got the cathedral built.

In a time before photographs, life was recorded in these massive cathedrals. The next time you have the opportunity to visit a medieval cathedral in Europe, do so. They aren’t only full of religious and spiritual relics—they also show the stories of the people and events that shaped the history of the cathedral. You might be surprised at the stories you can find in these buildings.


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    • profile image

      Ashvida 4 years ago

      , wow', but 'wow'. This is an incredible song. You rellay did take that picture and paint it in song. Vocals are fantastic (I can tell you've rellay put your Singing Success CD's to work!).I'm very proud of you, my friend. This challenge has a lot to do with who you are and what you're all about challenging yourself and others to bring the grace of God out of hiding. To be creative is one thing to inspire creativity in others is master-level stuff.Well done!Your friend, Harold

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      Tatjana 4 years ago

      Dan. Seriously. WE are so blessed by the way you share your life. The thing is slrsouiey the WORLD needs it. Seriously. I don't know how to go about contacting the world and informing them of this, so I'll be contacting God and asking Him to take care of it. Your work is beautiful and inspiring and powerful. Thank you. And also thank you because if you hadn't hosted this project, I'd have never known my brother-in-law could throw down like an early 90 s rapper. Also a great gift

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      Raphael 4 years ago

      Congratulations Hastings, All of you! Vera, you're going to LOVE being a part of that family. God, Thank You for mnakig all of this possible for all of them and God, please hold Vera's grandmother extra tight, it took a strong heart for her to follow you in this. Amen.I'm off to finish reading the logs, we're just back from Germany and almost NO internet access (little towns) so much to catch up on!Much love to all of you. Have a safe flight home.Jackie for the Peraza Family

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      oij o9ih 5 years ago


    • profile image

      martinnitsim 5 years ago

      long time no see tom i got it from a mate so i think this is there site

      filling address , they have 20% discount now,just say myself-netsimsy said you would sort him out

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      ricardo 6 years ago

      cool cathedral :)

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      great help for a history paper



    • profile image

      stratedgylover 6 years ago

      this helped me quite a bit with my medieval cathedral project for world history. thx.

    • profile image

      Emma 6 years ago

      WOW THIS WOULD COMPLETELY HELP ME WITH MY PROJECT. THANKS :) ") ") : ) :) :): ): ):):) :):):):)):):):):)::):):):):):):)):)::))::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::)))))))))))))))))

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      someone 6 years ago

      good job! it really helped me on my project! thanks!

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      Bronson 6 years ago

      nice page, this helped me on a report that i had to for my social studies teacher about cathedrals.

    • profile image

      Alana 6 years ago

      O.O this is great, helped me with my assignment too!

    • profile image

      Maria  7 years ago

      Thanks a lot, this really helped me in an assignment I had about medieval cathedrals!

    • profile image

      Architects North Wales 7 years ago

      An excellent hub, you have a very good understanding of history.

      This hub is a credit to the architects and builders from the Medieval times as they produced the most stunning cathedrals that are not only still standing but still have that awe of impressiveness even now.

      The fact that these architects and builders did not have access to the tools and technology available today makes these cathedrals all the more impressive.

    • profile image

      Kent Splawn 7 years ago

      Trying to find out how many cathedrals were built in the UK, as well as how many constructed in medieval Europe? Anyone know?



    • profile image

      Mo 7 years ago

      This hub did not help me at all.

    • profile image

      Blev 7 years ago

      Were there ever teenagers living in cathedrals during the medieval era (as opposed to monasteries?) I need to know for a short fiction project.

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      rianne_girl 7 years ago

      actually, it doesn't help me at all but,i really like the view,thank you.

    • profile image

      we 7 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge. very helpful

    • profile image

      Kammy 7 years ago

      This site didn't help me at all. I need information on how medieval cathedrals were made and this has been NO help!

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      This helped me sososososososo much

      on my assignment



    • profile image

      Liza 7 years ago

      Thanks for all the great info. This really helped explain to me the very important role that cathedrals played in medieval life!

    • profile image

      craig 7 years ago

      hey this is a great site. I have an assignment on Medieval cathedrals and this has really helped.

    • profile image

      Stephanie 7 years ago

      I am doing a project on Gothic Cathedrals.

      This may have been some help.

      To me it is not crazy, but I do wonder what the life of Medieval times were like.

      I did learn that underneath the cathedral, workers usually built a crypt, which was a combination storage area for the town, the graveyard for the clergy. Now that's creepy.

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      Alyssa Gommiebarr 8 years ago

      this is just crazyyy it belongs on the movie the crazies!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Very interesting!

      A fascinating subject.

    • SusanVMUSA profile image

      SusanVMUSA 8 years ago

      Great hub!

    • festersporling1 profile image

      Daniel Christian 8 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub Stacie. A few in Europe I definitely want to see! Love seeing history before your eyes. Cathedrals are beautiful.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      An interesting and informative hub, thank you.

    • profile image

      coockie 8 years ago

      The cathedrals are very interesting to learn. You have good pictures of the cathedrals. When I have projects on cathedrals I will make sure I log on here.

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      Duchess OBlunt 8 years ago

      This was very interesting. Great cathedral, and great information and wonderful insight into life in the Medieval times.

    • StevenCavendish profile image

      StevenCavendish 8 years ago

      This is a great hub. We have some nice cathedrals in Australia but nothing like the great cathedrals of Europe obviously.

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      jack 8 years ago

      nice caathedral...good information, and a lot of it.

      *team jessica*

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      jessica 8 years ago

      It's a serious and beautiful topic being discussed on this page...get a life freak. >=p (like the face? i hope it adds to my comment)

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      caroline 8 years ago

      why is everyone so serious on this website! here's what you should say:

      very helpful =) thanks!!

      much better!! (smile face and exclamation marks add A just don't realize it)

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      antica 8 years ago

      nice, thanks for the help.

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      lilly 8 years ago

      that is nice cathedral

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      person 8 years ago

      im doing social studies report on catherdrals any ideas for me

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      April 8 years ago

      hey this was great help to learn about and i hope to see myself in one. and this makes my traveling days a whole lot easier.

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      czczx 9 years ago

      I'm doing a medieval research, and I find it very helpful with a lot of information.It makes it a lot easier.

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      czczx 9 years ago

      Very helpful with a lot of information.

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      Luke 9 years ago

      I simply adore this article. It spits out so many good facts. I'm like doing this project for Hisotry and this just makes it so much easier I absolutly would request this article to anyone looking for great facts on a cathedral<3

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 9 years ago from London

      Medieval cathedrals are wonderful, and bring awe. Not only are they aesthetically so good, but the sheer dedication taken to build them is amazing.

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      kool kat 9 years ago

      oh nvn i got u as the author but wat is the name of the sponsoring institution

      this is so awesome great job

    • profile image

      kool kat 9 years ago

      dude stacie r u the author of this page??

    • Chesterton Wilde profile image

      Chesterton Wilde 9 years ago from Quebec

      I was glad to read this hub and to see how you emphasize the importance of the cathedral as a place of living faith for those of the middle ages. Of course it is today as well, but to a lesser extent than at that time. Perhaps someday our society will return to a true devotion to places of faith, like churches and cathedrals, instead of shopping malls and nightclubs! :)

    • solarshingles profile image

      solarshingles 9 years ago from london

      I simply adore slowly explorig such a wonderful structures. They are so full of art and state of the art old fashioned building architecture. Light, sounds, feelings, there are very different, than anywhere else.

    • Sandilyn profile image

      Sandilyn 9 years ago from Port Orange, FL

      Excellent hub! I love the cathedrals and I was not aware of all of the meanings. It brings new lights into why they were built the way they were. I have always marveled at the works and how they were done by hand especially in the time period that they were done.

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      rein bakker 10 years ago

      I am interested in the traditional function of cathedrals as marketplaces. As a place where you could meet your friends, have an appointment with your tailor, hear the organ playing etc. etc..

    • Isabella Snow profile image

      Isabella Snow 10 years ago

      Nice hub, I've seen loads of fabulous cathedrals over here. Don't forget St. Stephen's and St. Vitus'! :)

      And congrats on winning the contest!!

    • Rik Ravado profile image

      Rik Ravado 10 years ago from England

      Great Hub - Agree with Lissie Sagra Familia is amazing to see - gather work is accelerating as more people visit and more funds are coming in...

    • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

      Stacie Naczelnik 10 years ago from Seattle

      Lissie, I haven't been, but I've seen pictures (research and from friends). It looks amazing, and I can't wait to see it myself some day.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 10 years ago from New Zealand

      Great hub - I thought about doing something similar - glad I didn't . For me 1 of the more inteesting cathedrals in Europe is Sagra Familia in Barcelona, its still being built - not Medieval but to see the construction (its built by volunteers and started in the 1920's not finishing anytime some) is amazing