Medieval Architecture

There are several ways to approach the subject of medieval architecture, including talking about the differences between two popular styles of the building during this time period known as “Romanesque” and “Gothic”, but first let’s focus on what people were living in, rather than jumping to what they eventually built.

Medieval architecture, characterized by its grand cathedrals and castles, was a product of skilled craftsmanship and religious devotion. The use of pointed arches and ribbed vaults allowed for taller and more spacious buildings, while stained glass windows added a touch of beauty and spirituality. These architectural marvels still stand today, serving as a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the medieval period.

Medieval Architecture Facts for Kids

  • Medieval architecture dates from the 5th to the 15th century.
  • Castles were built for defense and to show power.
  • Gothic style featured pointed arches and tall windows.
  • Romanesque style had rounded arches and thick walls.
  • Churches often had a cross-shaped plan.
  • Stained glass windows told stories from the Bible.
  • Flying buttresses supported large stone buildings.
  • Towers and spires were popular in castle design.
  • Most houses were made of wood and thatch.
  • Stone was mainly used for churches and castles.

Gothic Architecture

Emerging during the medieval period, Gothic Architecture captivated many with its intricate and fascinating designs. Originating in France around the 12th century and flourishing until the 16th century, this architectural style quickly spread throughout Europe, leaving a profound mark on many medieval structures.

Famous for its towering, pointed arches, expansive windows, and meticulous carvings, Gothic architecture is epitomized by the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Nevertheless, elements of this unique design are also manifested in many other medieval buildings, including castles, churches, and universities.

A distinctive feature of Gothic architecture is the use of flying buttresses, and external supports that strengthened the building structure, allowing them to reach greater heights. These functional supports also enhanced the artistic appeal of the buildings, further contributing to the allure of Gothic architecture.

Romanesque Architecture

Emerging in Medieval Europe around the 10th century, Romanesque architecture drew considerable influence from the designs of ancient Rome, hence the term ‘Romanesque,’ signifying ‘like Roman.’

This architectural style is characterized by its solid and robust appearance with features like thick walls, round arches, and large towers, often symmetrically arranged. The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy stands as a renowned example of Romanesque architecture.

This era also witnessed architectural advancements such as the introduction of vaulted ceilings and the transition from wood to stone in construction, enhancing the durability of the structures and their resistance to fire.

Medieval Castles

Medieval castles, a captivating element of medieval architecture, are bound to enthrall children with their grand and robust designs. More than just regal dwellings, these formidable structures served as significant hubs of power and defense during the Medieval Ages, each distinctive in their design comprising high walls, towers, and drawbridges to safeguard against enemy onslaughts.

The stronghold of the castle was the keep, a large, robust tower providing residence to the lord and his kin. Interestingly, many of these castles had concealed passages for impromptu attacks or swift evacuations. Their expansive courtyards were often venues for tournaments and lavish feasts.

Despite their sturdy exteriors, these castles were a testament to the marvels of medieval engineering and craftsmanship, with their construction spanning years, if not decades.

Cathedral Architecture

Medieval cathedral, or Gothic architecture, is renowned for its magnificence and elegance, with its unique features such as the use of pointed arches instead of the round ones typical of Romanesque architecture. These pointed arches facilitated the construction of much taller buildings with thinner walls, which could accommodate large stained glass windows, thus giving the cathedrals a bright, spacious ambiance.

Another critical architectural innovation was the flying buttresses – external, arched supports that not only helped balance the roof’s weight but also added to the building’s aesthetic appeal. The combination of intricate stone carvings, soaring spires, and elaborate stained glass windows contributes to the captivating allure of medieval cathedral architecture, making it an intriguing subject for children to explore.

Medieval Monastic Architecture

Medieval Monastic Architecture offers an intriguing study for children, presenting a glimpse into the multifaceted lives of monks and nuns during the medieval era. These religious individuals resided in large, self-sustaining monasteries and convents, which served not only as places of worship but also functioned as educational institutions, healthcare facilities, libraries, and living quarters.

The buildings, often cross-shaped with a central church, boasted impressive architectural features such as elevated, arched ceilings, intricate stonework, and vibrant stained glass windows. Remarkably, these grand structures were constructed by medieval craftsmen using rudimentary tools and techniques, their resilience evident in their continued existence today, standing as a testament to the skills of the craftsmen of the era.

Medieval Fortifications

During medieval times, the construction of robust fortifications was a testament to both self-preservation and the display of power. People erected these imposing structures, encompassing castles, cities, and towns with high, thick walls, to shield themselves from adversaries.

The walls were equipped with watchtowers and gatehouses, from which guards would vigilantly monitor for threats. To enhance the defenses, some fortifications featured expansive, water-filled moats. Access across these moats was managed using drawbridges, which could be manipulated from within the stronghold.

The use of stones in the construction of these fortifications, which could span several years, highlighted the remarkable engineering prowess of medieval architects, and their completion signified both dominance and control.

Feudal Manors

Feudal Manors, a pivotal aspect of medieval life, embodied the era’s social hierarchy through their architectural designs. Typically conceived as expansive country houses for lords, they were enveloped by forests, fields, and smaller structures such as bakeries and stables.

The primary structure, the manor house, was fortified with stone to shield against potential threats, and its grandiose design reflected the lord’s power and wealth, boasting spacious rooms for entertaining and feasting.

The practicality of these manors was equally important, with features like the Great Hall for communal dining, a chapel for spiritual needs, and solar acting as private quarters for the lord and his family. These self-sufficient manors housed all necessary buildings and land, providing support for all inhabitants.

Medieval Architectural Sculpture

Medieval architectural sculptures were integral to the aesthetics and functionality of architectural designs during the Middle Ages, providing both visual intrigue and narrative elements. Architects often incorporated detailed stone carvings, such as figures of saints, angels, and biblical characters, into their designs, positioning them in conspicuous areas like doorways, corners, and building tops.

The elaborate carvings adorning the facade of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral offer an iconic illustration of this artistic practice. These sculptures, while decorative, also served utilitarian purposes, exemplified by the often frighteningly depicted gargoyles, which were actually conceived as water spouts for protecting the buildings against rain damage.

Therefore, these artistic endeavors represented a harmonious marriage of aesthetic allure and practical functionality.

Medieval Timber Framing

During the Middle Ages, the architectural style of medieval timber framing rose to popularity, particularly in Europe. This construction method entailed the use of heavy timbers to construct a framework for buildings, a space subsequently filled with materials such as wattle and daub, brick, or plaster.

The framework often remained exposed, resulting in a distinctive ‘grid’ pattern that characterized the building’s exterior. Besides its practicality and robustness, this technique enabled the development of spacious interiors and the erection of multi-story structures.

Today, enduring examples of this unique architectural style, including houses, barns, and churches, stand testament to the durability and historical significance of medieval timber framing.

Byzantine Architecture

Byzantine architecture, a distinctive style that originated during the Byzantine Empire era, had a profound impact on the evolution of medieval architecture. The Byzantines were pioneers in their field, introducing innovative construction methods and captivating designs that continue to inspire architects today.

Their unique architectural contribution, particularly the use of domes in buildings, resulted in structures with a grand and imposing presence.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, is a noteworthy example of this style that children will likely find intriguing. Constructed as a church in 537 AD, it was converted into a mosque in the 15th century and currently serves as a museum. The Hagia Sophia’s massive dome, adorned with complex mosaics, showcases the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture’s influence on the medieval period.

The Byzantines’ penchant for incorporating abundant gold and vibrant hues into their designs lent a regal and opulent aesthetic to their structures. This architectural approach left an indelible mark on the architectural landscape, shaping the design of buildings during the Middle Ages and beyond.

Building for Safety: Protecting Medieval Estates and Castles

During the Early Middle Ages, everything was built with the idea of protection in mind. Do you remember the practice of manorialism? A lord’s manor wasn’t simply the house he lived in with his family, but rather, all the lands, peasants’ homes, stables, and storage buildings on his estate.

Around this estate, a wall was usually built to keep the people inside safe. Much like cultures before them, the people of Europe first began building large structures from wood, but wood catches fire quite easily and doesn’t provide nearly as much protection as stone.

It was also important for kings to consider where they built castles. Was the area hard to reach? Might it be better to place it on a rocky hilltop so that anyone wanting to attack would have to climb, or to only have one way to get in or out?

All of these things were considered when building during the medieval period because for quite some time, the threat of attack from either other nobles or invaders (such as the Vikings) was a real possibility.


Castles, then, weren’t simply giant stone structures sitting out in the open, waiting for someone to come along, knock on the door, and walk in. Rather, they were buildings within high walls, and contained what was very much like a small village inside the walls, along with the actual living place of the nobles, which was known as the “castle keep.” As you might imagine, buildings made of stone—especially large buildings—were difficult to keep warm.


Fireplaces were common in the bigger homes of kings and nobles and for the peasants. They had fires too, but they did this by having a hole in the roof so that smoke could escape through the top. They certainly didn’t want all of that smoke hanging around inside, and as such, they made what was basically an early version of the chimney. (Unlike the somewhat nicer houses of nobles and kings, their homes were smaller, made of lower-quality building materials, and had very little inside, except what they needed in order to cook or sleep.)

What about Romanesque and Gothic architecture?

How did that play into the building? And what were these styles, anyway? These two types of building styles (also known as architectural styles) were very often used for important buildings. Can you think of what might have been quite an important building during this period? A cathedral! The tallest building of any city of the High Middle Ages was also the one into which the most thought and work was put. Cathedrals could take a long, long time to build. Just think about carving all of that stone.

The Romanesque style

The Romanesque style refers to the types of cathedrals, monasteries, and places of religion built during the 1000s-1100s in Europe, and it gets its name from looking very Roman in appearance. In other words, columns and arches were frequently used, just like in ancient Roman architecture. Gothic buildings, on the other hand, came later. These were popular just after the Romanesque style began to lose its appeal, and were very fancy in comparison.


Cathedrals in the Gothic style were often narrow inside, filled with stained glass windows, and frequently had what were known as “flying buttresses” or large, curved stone arches connected to the outside of the building to give it support. This style became very popular for cathedrals throughout Europe, such as Reims Cathedral in France and Westminster Abbey in England. Many of these cathedrals have been well taken care of, and you can still visit them today.