The Cathedral in Medieval Times


Impressive medieval architecture. Source: Bernavazqueze

Work started on the ancient Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in 1075, but by 1100 it had already become an important place for pilgrims. In this article we will paint a picture of the experience a medieval Christian would have had on arrival from their long and often dangerous journey.

Pilgrims from afar


A rainbow greets ancient pilgrims on arrival in Santiago de Compostela. Source: Feans

Commoners and rich people alike, from the ends of the Catholic world, walked towards the resting place of Saint James. As they entered the Cathedral you can imagine the buzz of dialects and languages: French, German, English, Irish Gaelic, Flemish, Spanish, Galacian, Portuguese, Italian… It’s hard to comprehend the effect of this on people at the time. Today we are accustomed to hearing other languages in our large cities, on the TV and over the internet. However in those times a common villager would be impressed even with distant dialects of their own language. To be surrounded in this exotic buzz would have been a once in a lifetime experience and probably quite overwhelming. Those pilgrims arriving from routes in the East may have mixed with many other nationalities, but the English travelling from where their boats landed on the North coast of Spain may still have found it quite a surprise.

Medieval pilgrims would be overwhelmed with the buzz of exotic languages Click To Tweet

The typical medieval pilgrim doesn’t hear many foreign dialects in her village. Source: Hans Splinter

Like today, you can imagine the joy of arriving at the final destination with the companions that you have grown so close to. However, whereas a modern pilgrim spends a couple of days together with their companions seeing the sights and then fly home individually, medieval pilgrims could stay for weeks. They would have to rest and recover before travelling home on foot or by horse again! In his poem, A Voyage to Compostella, Geoffrey Chaucer shows that the journey home was definitely not something to be looked forward to:

Men may leve all gamys
That saylen to Seynt Jamys,
For many a man hit gramys,
When they begyn to sayle.
For when they have take the see
At Sandwyche or at Wynchylsee,
At Brystow, or where that hit bee,
Theyr hertes begyn to fayle.

– Geoffrey Chaucer, A Voyage to Compostella

Which translates very roughly to:

Those men that sail to Saint James
Leave all fun behind them
For when they start to make the journey
Their hearts begin to fail.

You can read more about Chaucer’s poem on travelling to Santiago de Compostela on this blog of medieval pilgrimage.

A  place of refuge

Lots of the pilgrims were very poor and couldn’t afford paid lodging in Santiago de Compostela. Many of them would sleep overnight in the Cathedral itself, in the gallery on the upper level. Without electric lighting the Cathedral would have been much darker after sunset. In the daytime there was more external light through windows, since the later additional building onto the sides of the Cathedral had not been started.

As medieval pilgrims reached the Cathedral they would go to the Northern gate. Their clothes would be burnt and they would get new clothes to enter the Cathedral. This had two purposes:

  1. Cleanliness, to prevent spread of diseases, lice, bedbugs. Along with the burning of incense in the Botafumeiro it helped deal with the bad smell.
  2. Symbolic of rebirth and renewal.

After the pilgrims entered into the Cathedral in their new clothes, they would be greeted with a thick smell of incense from the Botafumeiro. Like today, eight men swung the huge device full of burning incense and charcoal.

Religious significance

Unlike today, where a significant proportion of visitors to the Cathedral are not Catholic, the medieval Cathedral was completely Catholic. All the pilgrims had made the journey for religious reasons with the hope of earning an indulgence for their sins. Women would cover their heads out of respect, the Masses would be delivered in a common liturgical tongue – Latin. The corridors of the Cathedral would be lined with pilgrims lining up for confession in their respective languages.

What do you think is the biggest difference between what we experience today, and that of our fellow pilgrims in times gone by? Let us know in the comments below!