French Gothic Architecture

The peak of French Gothic architecture lasted throughout the fourteenth century when France was covered with buildings all built in a unified style. These buildings weren’t just cathedrals, but also monasteries, civil and military monuments, gates, bridges, palaces, castles, etc. Some of these monumental constructions remained complete until the present day, like the town and monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel standing on an islet in Normandy, near mainland. Its highest point, called La Merveille, was built between 1203 and 1228. Of the palaces, the first to mention is that of Paris originally located in the place where the actual Louvre museum stands today. The Louvre Palace was originally built as a fortress by Philip II in the late 12th century and was later completely rebuilt by Francis I.  Today nothing remains from the original fortress but a few remnants that are visible in the museum’s basement. We know the original appearance of the medieval fortress thanks to a miniature in the Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, from early fifteenth century.  In it the palace is reproduced together with its circular towers and turrets*, all crowned with conical roofs.

Top: A view of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, an island commune in Normandy, France. It is located about one kilometer off the country’s northwestern coast. Since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it takes its name. Bottom: The buildings on the northern side of Mont Saint-Michel are known as “La Merveille” (The Marvel). The cloister is surrounded by a double row of carved arches resting on granite pillars.
From one of the once most important Gothic castles, the Louvre, only remains a miniature by Pol Limburg which illustrates the castle as it was in the early fifteenth century. It comes from the famous illuminated manuscript “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (from about 1412 to 1416). This particular miniature corresponds to the month of October.

Sometimes these palaces had the appearance of a large massive building, like the Papal Palace at Avignon whose current external appearance is due to the work undertaken under the pontificates of Clement VI and Innocent VI (between 1342 to 1362).  Other palaces however had several towers of different heights and numerous sculpted pinnacles.  The palace of John Duke of Berry had this appearance (as seen in ancient written accounts and miniatures), as well as the palace of the treasurer of Charles VII, Jacques Coeur the merchant, who built it between 1443 and 1453 in Bourges.

Top: The Palais des Papes or Papal palace in Avignon, southern France. One time fortress and palace, this papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Bottom: Inner facades and courtyard of the house of Jacques Coeur the Merchant, in Bourges, France (1443-1453).

In Gothic palaces the stairs were usually placed inside circular or octagonal towers located at the corners of the courtyard to give some “movement” to the façades thus breaking the whole mass of the fortified walls; the steep roofs were opened by skylights or windows to allow sun-light to illuminate one or several floors of the palace. The magnificent effect given by these skylights can be appreciated today in the palace of the Abbots of Cluny in Paris and in the hostel that the bishops of Sens also had in the same city.

Top: The former Palace of the Cluniac Abbots in Paris is now the Musée National du Moyen Âge – Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny (“National Museum of the Middle Ages – Cluny thermal baths and mansion”). Bottom: The Hôtel de Sens in Paris. It was originally owned by the archbishops of Sens. The building now houses the Forney art library. It was built between 1475 and 1507.

The great halls of these Gothic palaces were covered sometimes by stone vaults, but usually the ceilings were made out of wood and decorated with polychromed carved lattices. On the walls, huge fireplaces contributed to produce a monumental effect.

Not only palaces and citadels* were enriched in this way. Hospitals also were sumptuous due to the idea that patients should be decorously housed. In France there are some examples of Gothic hospitals; the most notable is that of Beaune in the Côte d’Or with its beautiful courtyard decorated with lights and its large galleries for convalescents, in the great room with a high ceiling and sufficient ventilation there are wooden rooms  that served to keep patients in independent and separated areas. The towns had stone fountains that also served as ornaments, many of which are still in use.

Top and bottom left: the Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune in Beaune (France). It was founded in 1443 to serve as a hospital for the poor. The original hospital building, the Hôtel-Dieu, is one of the finest examples of French fifteenth-century architecture. Top left: courtyard, Top right: polychrome roofs, Bottom left: Hospice interior. //  Bottom right: a medieval fountain at Le Thoronet Abbey (Provence) from the 12th century, still in use.

The most complete Gothic castle is that of Pierrefonds. It has a large staircase in the courtyard and its flanks are defended by circular towers all finished with slate conical roofs. The main rooms were decorated with heraldic frescoes and most of them had large stained-glass windows as a secondary decor. Another equally formidable castle is that built by King Rene of Anjou in Tarascon near the bridge over the Rhone. It is a huge stone cube with towers at its four corners and topped by battlements and machicolations*, built in the early fifteenth century.

Above: Two views of the Château de Pierrefonds, in the commune of Pierrefonds in the Oise département (Picardy) of France. The castle has most of the characteristics of defensive military architecture from the Middle Ages, though it was heavily restored in the 19th century.
Interior of the Pierrefonds castle: Top Left: Camelot throne room, Top Right: La Salle des Preuses, Bottom: interior hall with chimneys.
Top: Exterior view of the Castle of René of Anjou in Tarascon ( Bouches-du-Rhône department, France). Bottom: the Avignon city walls.

Many French cities still have remains of their Gothic walls with their typical square battlements and towers at the corners, but few of them preserved their city walls intact as it’s seen today in Avignon, unrivaled throughout France. The top of the walls is adorned with a crest which also served to defend the city gates.

Inside these walled cities, the bourgeoisie, craftsmen, artisans, and merchants inhabited the neighborhoods classified by their occupation or profession, and as these places were very small for the growing population, the streets proved to be narrow: the houses’ second floors extended outward over the streets.  Usually, the first floors’ height was as tall as a man on horseback, the facade of the second floor extended over the street to make space for bigger rooms, and in consequence, the lower levels formed a kind of porch parallel to the streets where shops were opened and pedestrians walked by. Bourges, Rouen and some other cities in Normandy still have many private houses from this era. Houses were often built in wood, with a vertical framework visible at the outside usually decorated with sculptures.  Each floor often included one or two rooms, which would suffice for the family needs.

French medieval houses in Colmar (top) and Rouen (bottom), France.

The urban planning of cities was generally adapted to the terrain on which they were built, but when a new city was founded the streets were arranged according to a preconceived regular plan. Thus, the urban plan of Aiguesmortes was shaped as a perfect grid, with the main streets leading directly from the city gates to the central plaza. Some major cities like Paris were largely paved, but usually the sewage and trash recollection systems were very basic in those times, and along the streets’ center often ran filthy streams.

The roads were far from what they had been in Roman times when wide paved roads ran from one end to the other of the civilized world. The tradition of building bridges continued, as it was common during the Romanesque period, but now the pointed arches allowed greater openings with less thrust, and thus, where architects previously had to project a series of semicircular arches, now it was enough for them to project just one or few pointed arches: as a consequence, the laying of the bridge’s pillars was greatly diminished. At the center of the bridge a chapel was sometimes built to be used for praying.

Top: aerial view of the French commune of Aigues-Mortes (Gard department, Languedoc-Roussillon region) showing the city’s layout surrounded by its medieval walls. Bottom: Bridge from the XIII century at Entraygues-sur-Truyère, a commune in the Aveyron department in southern France.


Citadel: A citadel is the core fortified area of a town or city. It may be a fortress, castle, or fortified center. The term is a diminutive of “city” and thus means “little city”, so called because it is a smaller part of the city of which it is the defensive core.  In various countries, the citadels gained a specific name such as “Kremlin” in Russia or “Alcázar” in the Iberian Peninsula. In European cities, the term “Citadel” and “City Castle” are often used interchangeably.



Machicolation: (French: machicoulis) a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones or other material, such as boiling water or boiling cooking oil, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall. The design was adopted in the Middle Ages in Europe when Norman crusaders returned from the Holy Land. A machicolated battlement projects outwards from the supporting wall in order to facilitate this.

(from Italian: torretta, little tower; Latin: turris, tower) is a small tower that projects vertically from the wall of a building such like in the medieval castles. Turrets were used to provide a projecting defensive position allowing covering fire to the adjacent wall in the days of military fortification. As their military use faded, turrets were used for decorative purposes.