Medieval Architecture: Complete Guide to Churches, Castles and Empires

The Crusades, The Black Death, and the First Printer; all events that define medieval times.

However, how accurate are the things that we see in artwork, movies, and recreations?

Well we will look into exactly the worlds that were built in the lands of death, disease, torture, religion, and knights!

This is your complete guide to Medieval Architecture

Medieval Architecture Illustration

Continuing the Catholic Empire: Setting up Medieval Architecture

I don’t know about you, but every time someone mentions the Medieval Era to me, I can picture exactly the kind of buildings, people, and even attitudes, but I have never really understood when the medieval era was.

The Early Medieval Era (500 C.E. - 1100 C.E)

Early Medieval Architecture

Early Medieval Europe set off the chain of events that would lead us to the Western Europe and Middle East that we know today. This happened through 3 major events.

First is the Fall of the Western Roman Empire of course. This decreased any want for a strong military. At this point, Europe was becoming more feudal, and the public even refused to support a military through taxes, and instead supported them through land grants.

This is where we see the beginnings of the Knight that we know so well.

Second is the spread of Islam through the Arab Conquest in Northern Africa and Eastern Europe (middle east). Find out what happens when people try to stop them!

Third is the break up of the Carolingian Empire, a Frank Empire, in the 800s. This gave us pretty much the countries in Europe that we know today like France, Germany, and Italy.

High Medieval Era (1100 C.E. - 1300 C.E.)

High Medieval Architecture

The High Medieval Era set up the governments for these new countries: England, France, Germany, Spain, and Later Poland and Hungary.

The setting up of these governments is what led to almost all of the buildings that we will be talking about; including castles, manors, monasteries, and churches.

Also during this era, the crusades attacked European’s spreading Muslim neighbors over land that both religious parties sought control over. This caused a constant transfer of land between them.

Medieval Architecture Crusades

The End of the Crusades marked the start of the next Era.

Late Medieval Era (1300 C.E. - 1500 C.E)

Of course, all the bad things happened after the crusades.

Late Medieval Architecture

At this point in the medieval era, the black plague is killing a third of the population, the Hundred Years war is killing another half of France’s population, and Jewish persecution is killing even more of Europe’s population.

However, the poor became more literate, and even wealthier as a result of the Peasants’ Revolt.

It was a time of death and destruction, that is for sure. Luckily it was bright at the end of the tunnel as the Renaissance was just about to begin.

Enough about that. Let’s get into some architecture, something that lived through the late medieval era.

A Full Millenium of Architecture

We can see from the history of Medieval Europe exactly what architectural priorities Europe had.

For starters, religious buildings, oh my god their religious buildings. Both beautiful and overbearing.

Medieval Architecture

Photo Credit: Guo Junjun

In the Early Medieval Era, we see a huge amount of Roman influences. This created the Norman Style.

Then, in the High Medieval Era, Europe’s own Gothic style. However, Gothic style itself has a few different era’s that have transformed the Gothic Style throughout the Medieval Era.

Then, of course, Castle architecture has pretty much its own style because, where Norman and Gothic Style can be heavily decorative, castle architecture’s top priority is functionality in relation to invasion. 

Medieval Architecture

These architectures are all Western Europe, and we would be forgetting about an entire empire if we left out Byzantine Architecture.

Altogether, these architectures make up the building styles of Europe between 5th century C.E. and 16th Century C.E.

A full millennium of Architecture.

Norman Architecture: The Round Arch

Photo Credit: Oliver Bonjoch

The first and earliest form of architecture during the medieval period is Norman Style Architecture.

Norman Style is exciting in a way that the world was practicing Norman Style well beyond the 5th Century.

In fact, the world’s earliest skyscrapers in the late 1800s were in a way related to the Norman Style. These skyscrapers were a Romanesque revival, which is exactly what Norman Style is.

As a revival of Roman antiquity architecture, you can already imagine the kind of elements that Norman Architecture used directly after the fall of the western roman empire.

The term “Norman” was actually the term used to describe the group of Vikings that invaded the Frank Empire during the Early Medieval period, and assimilated into Christianity. They adopted Roman architecture and built these churches.

However, the building use that used these elements changed from coliseums, temples, and bathhouses, to almost exclusively Catholic churches and monasteries.

Pretty surprising that the Catholic church would adopt an architecture that was once a symbol of Roman Mythology, but Gothic architecture hadn’t come out yet.

Because the building use changed, many new elements were adopted that really pushed this Romanesque Revival into its own brand.

The elements that classify Norman Architecture include:

  • Round, Roman Arches
  • Rainbow” Roman Arches

Photo Credit: Colin Smith / CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Barrel vaults (an extruded Roman Arch that spans an interior space)
  • Groin Vaults (The intersection of two Barrel Vaults)
  • Round or Square columns that hold up these Arches and vaults
  • Painted Tympanums
  • Interior Tapestries and Murals

Photo Credit: Megginede / CC BY-SA 4.0

This architecture style was used throughout the entire early medieval period.

 In fact, it was used for the majority of the medieval era; until Gothic Architecture made its appearance in the 1100’s.

Gothic Architecture: The Pointed Arch

Medieval Architecture - Gothic Architecture

Although the Norman Style lasted for the majority of the Medieval period, Gothic Architecture was really the defining style of the era.

Gothic Style was used so vastly that it is impossible to cover all the important aspects in just one article.

That being said, tuned for some more Gothic Style content.

The Gothic Style, at its most basic element, was really just the shift from using round, semi-circular arches (known as the Roman Arch) to tall, pointed arches.

This allowed for tall, magnificent buildings, and huge, vertical openings.

However, as masonry construction grew taller with more openings, walls needed to be supported in a way that would control the outward facing forces (thrust). Gothic architecture adopted the buttresses that kept these tall walls upright.

What makes Gothic Architecture a vast topic is that Gothic Architecture has many different forms and has undergone different transformations throughout the medieval period.

So lets cover those basic elements before discussing those transformations.

Gothic Architectural elements almost always include:

  • Pointed Arches
  • Rib Vaults (extruded Pointed Arches that span interior spaces)
  • Thin Round columns (that support these arches)
  • Decorated or stained glass Tympanums

Photo Credit: Grosasm

  • Buttresses (Buttresses have different forms, the most notable being flying buttresses, but we don’t want to discriminate between the types)

Photo Credit: Jacques76250 / CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Rose Window
  • Towers at the entrance of the building
  • Insanely ornate decoration

Photo Credit: Zairon / CC BY-SA 4.0

As Gothic Architecture transformed, some of these elements changed, but only slightly.

These stages of the Gothic Architecture include Early Gothic Architecture, High Gothic Architecture, The Decorated Style Gothic Architecture, and lastly, Late Gothic Architecture.

In terms of Western Europe, Gothic Architecture was the primary architecture style for the rest of the Medieval period (1100-1500).

But what about Eastern Europe?

Byzantine Architecture: The Round Dome

Medieval Architecture - Byzantine Architecture

As we know from the Crusades, the countries left over from the Frank empire were not the only places that were living through this Medieval period.

Although the medieval period started with the end of the western roman empire, the eastern roman empire, or Byzantine Empire, lasted until 1453 in what is now Turkey, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan (among others).

Byzantine Architecture can be described best as a combination of different Roman Antiquity Architecture elements from many different building typologies.

What makes Byzantine Architecture so different from the Gothic and Norman styles actually comes from the plan of these religious buildings.

Byzantine Architecture, in plan, is described as a “Greek Cross”.

What this means is that Byzantine architecture took the commonly used Roman Basilica plan type, and centralized it. 

Instead of a linear plan with an entrance on one side and an altar on the other, byzantine architecture intersected two linear elements and emphasized the center as the dome, hence “Greek Cross”.

Other than the plan and the domes, Byzantine architecture still heavily relied on the use of Arch, as well as barrel and groin vaults, to span openings.

Common Byzantine Architecture Characteristics are:

  • Symmetrical, Greek Cross, Centralized Plan
  • Round, Semi-Circular Roman Arch
  • Barrel Vaults
  • Groin Vaults
  • Circular and Pendentive-type Domes
  • Interior Motifs and Murals
  • Colored Marble (as opposed to the white marble often used by romans and greeks)

Photo Credit:

The Byzantine empire ruled for almost the entirety of the Medieval period. It was not until the 1400’s that the Byzantine empire was overthrown by the Ottoman empire shifting the most practiced religion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam.

Of course the growth of Islam led to 400 years of Crusades in hopes to regain certain religious land for the European Christians. 

Dispite such opposition to the spread of Islam, the Ottoman Empire thrived until 1923.

Yeah, all the way up until the end of World War One, when Turkish Nationalists won the Turkish War of Independence.

It is because of the Ottoman empire, however, that Byzantine Architecture played such an important influence on many islamic buildings.

See, Catholicism didn’t entirely rule Europe during the medieval period.

Castle and Homes: Functional Architecture

Medieval Architecture - Functional Architecture

So far, we’ve had an emphasis on Religious buildings as they are not only still existing and used, but because they were some of the most prominent buildings.

I know you think we forgot about castles, but we didn't; they just have an architecture of their own.

Castles practiced functionality to a tee.

Castles served a mostly defensive purpose, they were built as a symbol of power and wealth, but were used to defend important places like rivers, borders, and frontiers.

They had to serve not only as a home for the people that defended these places, but could also function as a place of refuge for wealthy families in case of attack.

Because of this defense purpose, Castles Architecture Elements were centered around defense and include:

  • Moats
  • Towers
  • Inner and Outer walls
  • A keep
  • Inner Courtyard

These castles were built rather simply as well consisting almost entirely of post and lintel, masonry construction.

Medieval Homes

Medieval Homes

Another thing that isn’t covered as much as the religious architecture of the medieval period are the homes the people lived in during these times.

For good reason too, they were not the best to live inside.

Houses during this time were made out of timber, using timber framing. Stones were too expensive for many of the people living at this time, so they were avoided.

In between timber framing was often dried mud, waddle, or hay in order to infill the frame and create walls.

Lastly, homes were topped with a thatched roof until the 13th century when fires became so common, people began using wood shingles to finish houses.

Which is only slightly better.

What made these houses terrible, aside from the fires, they were poorly ventilated, poorly insulated, and the wood framing was rarely built correctly so moisture in wood would often knock down entire homes.

Yet, they still had a huge influence on what we think of as medieval.

Medieval Architecture Now: The Revival

Of course, we can’t end an article about an architecture style without talking about its implications to the contemporary world we live in.

What is it that you see when you think of medieval architecture?

Medieval Architecture Still Thrives?

I'm sure one way you’ve seen medieval architecture in our own era is still through buildings.

Oftentimes people seek homes which are in a “medieval style”. These homes have a masonry cladding and oftentimes even take the shape of a castle. They can have turrets, towers, sometimes even motes.

Not only that, but the timber framing in medieval homes heavily influenced the Tudor housing style, which came directly after the end of the medieval era. People still love the Tudor Style home.

Not only that, but the gothic architecture of the medieval period is still primarily how many catholic churches are built to this day. Even the byzantine churches are being replicated in many orthodox and protestant churches all over the world.

Medieval Architecture in the Media

I know that you love at least one medieval movie or game.

I mean, A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger is one of the best movies out there.

Even Game of Thrones, although fantasy, is built on the foundation of the medieval era, and that's one of the best series in history.

Game of Thrones was influenced by many events in the medieval era, the largest one of these being the hundred years war.

Medieval Architecture Built To Last

Medieval Architecture brought some of the most beautiful churches that exist in our world, and a lot of them are still standing. It's no telling that the medieval times are still present in our culture and museums.

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.