Cathedrals in the Middle Ages

Cathedrals in the middle ages were typically large churches and were considered the center church of the bishop’s throne. In the medieval times, monumental cathedrals were built to symbolize of faith and a display of creativity within the middle ages society in Europe.


The laws of the Church established that the throne of a bishop was not to be in a church village but within a church in the city. This explains the presence of larger churches in the city as compared to those in the villages. Nevertheless, developing large churches in the European cities was not problematic because Christians whose influence spread to neighboring districts already inhabited most of the cities.

However, cities such as the British Isles faced some difficulties in establishing cathedrals due to a scarcity of towns. As such, bishops presided over few sections of the city and most of the time they exercised their jurisdiction over small tribes.

Canon law recognized the bishop as the minister and head of the cathedrals and his diocese would be his parochial. With regard to this, legal specialists in canon law describe the cathedral of the middle ages as the single bishopric church and all other churches were simply related to the cathedral. The middle ages also saw the rise of the co-cathedral in which two cathedrals shared the same bishop.

In 10th and 11th centuries, the clergy structure within the cathedral was better organized and they divided themselves into categories. The first one was monastic and comprised Benedictine monks. The second category as made up of clergy who were not bound by vows other than those they took during their ordaining. Canonical laws governed this latter category of cathedral clergy. The two categories led to the differentiation between the secular and the monastic cathedrals.

In some parts of medieval Europe such as German and in England most of the cathedrals were monastic. These types of cathedrals in the middle ages comprised of an internal governance structure and dignitaries all of whom were bound by law to their respective cathedrals. The secular cathedral comprised of four or more dignitaries, canons and a dean who played a significant role in the internal governance and management of the cathedral.

n spite of these obvious differences between secular and monastic cathedrals, there was no difference in how they related to the bishop and the diocese. Both categories had chapters that the bishop had to consult with concerning any crucial issues before a bishopric decision is made.

In medieval England, King Henry VIII abolished all monastic cathedral systems and replaced them with secular ones. For example, the cathedrals at Durham and Canterbury had twelve canons and a dean while the one at Carlisle had four canons and a dean in charge.


Religious authorities and institutions were in charge of building cathedrals in the Middle Ages. However, the community played a great role in the physical construction and the day-to-day running of the cathedral. In the 12th century, the Church began absolving people of their sins if they participated in the construction of the cathedrals.

During this time, the Crusades were raging and many people were leaving their towns to participate in these wars. Although the Church played a significant role in the Crusades, other religious authorities called for people to stay back and help build the churches.

A lot of money was put in constructing the monumental cathedrals in the middle ages. There was some degree of disproval from some sections of the clergy who frowned upon the amount of money that went into building and decorating the cathedral.

However, a large majority of the society was enthusiastic about the building of these lavish structures. During this time, it took years and even decades to construct a cathedral and most people did not except to see the completion of the large churches within their lifetime.

In medieval times, the Cathedral chapter was in charge of financing the construction and decoration of the cathedral. The senior clergymen who made up the cathedral chapter raised money for construction by urging their congregations to contribute. They also arranged for tours and pilgrimages for relics or fined clerics for offenses such as not keeping time. Bishops were not required to contribute directly but they would do so out of their own free will.

The Workforce

The laborers who were involved in building cathedrals in the Middle Ages had different skills. At the bottom were those who transported construction material, dug and cleared earth. These laborers were usually paid daily. At the top of the scale were builders that are more skilled including mortar-markers, quarrymen, masons and plasterers.

Transporting construction material such as stones was expensive. The quarrymen would shape the stones at the quarry before they were brought to the construction site. Although dressing the stones happened all year round, laying stones halted during the winter frost that would keep the motors from affixing the stones together.

Cathedral stonecutters moved between construction sites looking for work and they would be paid according to the pieces of stones they worked on or on a daily basis. Novice artisans usually carried out the piecework and they would calculate how much they ought to be paid by branding each stone they cut with their unique mark.

What set cathedrals apart from other religious structures was their size and the interior design. Careful attention was given to decorating each section of the cathedral from the interior roof, the windows, floors and doors. The builders usually used frescoes to decorate the internal parts of the building. Stone sculpturing was also a popular method of designing and decorating the cathedral.

Medieval methods of constructing the cathedral evolved, as builders and skilled craftsmen perfected their craft. Improvements in architecture and technology made it easier for communities to build their cathedrals faster and to decorate them with diverse elements. One architectural change was the shift from frescoes to stained and highly colorful glass to decorate the cathedrals in the middle ages

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