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What Is Medieval Architecture?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Medieval architecture refers to the buildings built during the Middle Ages that ran roughly from the 5th to 15th centuries. The architecture was built upon earlier works and continued into the so-called Renaissance. Examples of medieval architecture tend to be confined to western, central and southern Europe as well as Scandinavia. Medieval architecture can be divided into the powerful, the religious, the public and the functional.

Roman architecture, as well as classical architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean, survived into the Early Middle Ages. There is archaeological evidence for the survival of a number of Roman towns and villas across Europe, including Britain. With a lack of skilled masons, these often fell into disrepair and were in later ages replaced with wooden huts. The architecture of the peasantry and lower classes is marked by low-slung huts known as grubenhaus surrounding central halls such as Meduseld in Beowulf.

In the later Middle Ages, architecture began to develop further with larger and stronger buildings. These buildings were created to match their functions. This saw the creation of pottery complexes, mills, smithies and multi-sectioned long houses.

Castles slowly replaced forts across Europe. Archaeology demonstrates that in the Early Middle Ages, also called the Dark Ages in Britain, hill forts were resettled. Various kings such as Alfred the Great built a series of wooden fortifications known as burghs, as found in places such as Banbury and Edinburgh. The stone castles that now dot the countryside were not built until the 11th century, mostly by Norman lords.

In France, meanwhile, powerful landowners began building large fortifications that became castles. These were built for a number of reasons. Firstly, the castle showed power and also a demonstration of wealth. It also acted as a military installation that gave a certain amount of protection to the lord against the King of France. Furthermore, as with Roman city walls, the castle could act as a trade barrier because by limiting access to the city, traders would have to pass through a tariff zone.

Religious medieval architecture was at first built upon the architecture of the Roman Empire. This was in part based on the layouts of Roman temples; the layout of one, for example, can be found at Caerwent in Wales. Early churches were urban-based and were either converted basilicas, hence the name, or built on the sites of ancient temples. Societies such as those in Anglo-Saxon England built wooden churches, a trend that continues in Scandinavia, while richer and more advanced kingdoms such as France and the Holy Roman Empire developed stone churches that were rarely seen until the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

As well as the development of churches across Europe, the Middle Ages saw a wide variety of monastic buildings. Many began as humble buildings in the countryside, but became wealthy later on through donations in wills. The monasteries were ever-developing complexes often larger than the great manor houses of the rich. They were usually built in stone and showed the grand possibilities of architecture. Perhaps one of the most striking examples is Mont Saint Michel in Normandy.

Early periods saw the dominance of Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque styles in medieval architecture, while the 12th century and onward saw the growth of Gothic architecture. There were also regional variations including the architecture of the Norse in Scandinavia and of the Kievan Rus in Eastern Europe. Eastern European architecture was also heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire based around Greece and Constantinople.

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