“Abandon all hope, ye that enter here” is the warning Dante receives as he approaches hell. There, he talks with people from history who tell how they earned a place in hell.

Dante's The Divine Comedy contains both humor and tragedy rooted in the familiar medieval quest for spiritual understanding. As he journeys through heaven and hell, he reflects on moral and ethical questions that Christians faced and shows how people's actions in life determine their fate in the afterlife.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

In the Canterbury Tales, the English writer Geoffrey Chaucer follows a band of English pilgrims traveling to Thomas Becket's tomb. In brilliant word portraits, he sketches a range of characters, including a knight, a plowman, a merchant, a miller, a monk, and a nun. Each character tells a story to entertain the group. Whether funny, romantic, or bawdy, each tale adds to our picture of medieval life.

Illustration of several people traveling on horseback on a road outside a city, including a nun and a priest.

This scene from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales shows the merchant, nun, and priest, who are among several who tell stories during the pilgrimage.

Architecture and Art

“In the Middle Ages,” wrote French author Victor Hugo, “men had no great thought that they did not write down in stone.” Those “writings” were the great buildings of the Middle Ages. With riches from trade and commerce, townspeople, nobles, and monarchs indulged in a flurry of building. Their greatest achievements were the towering stone cathedrals that served as symbols of their wealth and religious devotion.

Romanesque Buildings

In the year 1000, monasteries and towns were building solid stone churches that reflected Roman influences. These Romanesque churches looked like fortresses with thick walls and towers. The roofs were so heavy that they required massive stone walls with no windows or only tiny slits of windows. Larger windows, builders feared, would weaken the support for the roof. As a result, the interiors of Romanesque churches were dark and dimly lit.

Graceful Gothic Cathedrals

About 1140, Abbot Suger (SooZHAY) wanted to build a new abbey church at St. Denis near Paris. He hoped that it “would shine with wonderful and uninterrupted light.” There, builders developed what became known as the Gothic style of architecture.

Photo of a medieval church with tiers of stained glass windows.

Romanesque churches like this one reflect the most common form of church architecture throughout Europe.

A key feature of the new Gothic style was the flying buttresses, or stone supports that stood outside the church. These supports allowed builders to construct higher, thinner walls and leave space for large stained-glass windows.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments