Histopathological examination of the placenta is the gold standard for evaluating antenatal inflammatory processes that might influence fetal development. Histological chorioamnionitis develops through a well-characterised stereotyped progression of maternal and fetal cellular stages that vary from patient to patient and are amenable to quantification. Increases in the intensity of these responses and their gradual transformation into a chronic phase are important variables that can adversely affect fetal physiology. Under recognised placental inflammatory lesions affecting the decidua, placental villi and fetal vessels are also potentially informative factors that should be taken into account in the studies of adverse pregnancy outcomes. This review summarises the relationships between aetiology, intensity, duration, characteristics and site of histological placental inflammation and suggests how these data may help to better understand the antenatal environment.