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The Cosmopolitan City of the Middle Ages


The pilgrimage to Compostela acquired great importance soon after the city’s foundation. Santiago became the spiritual focus of Western Europe, welcoming different cultural tendencies as well as treasures that enriched its sanctuary. Attracted by such, the Normans made repeated forays via the Ria of Arousa. However, the city was finally invaded by the Moors, who, led by Almanzor, devastated it in the year 997, although they respected the sanctuary. Its reconstruction led to Santiago’s first urban expansion, which included the construction of a new fort defining the perimeter of today’s old town. Construction of the large Romanesque cathedral began in the year 1075.

In 1099 Diego Xelmírez, the great promoter of the Compostela see and transformer of the city, was appointed as Santiago’s bishop. A key figure in the politics of Castile and León, he centred his constructive urge on the cathedral, the archbishop’s palace and the churches where he housed new relics that he acquired for the city, including those of St. Susana, Santiago’s second patron saint.

This was a time of fighting between the people and the archbishop, which involved the queen Doña Urraca, the bishop, cannons and abbots, knights and the bourgeoisie. Xelmírez promoted the cathedral’s construction from the first year of his episcopacy, entrusting the project to Maestro Esteban, who finished it in 1125. At that time, the cathedral and the city grew in parallel. By the time Xelmírez died in 1140, the medieval city’s present-day structure had been defined.

The year 1168 saw the beginning of the cathedral’s second important construction phase, which was entrusted to Maestro Mateo –the most important artist of his time in the Iberian Peninsula. In Santiago, he is linked to two of the cathedral’s monumental works: the Stone Choir and the Pórtico de la Glory. Completed in 1188, the Pórtico de la Gloria surpassed the aesthetic possibilities of its time and pointed to new horizons, to the extent that it can now be considered one of Romanesque and universal art’s masterpieces.

In the 13th century the cathedral acquired its full splendour, attracting an increasing number of worshippers from all over Christendom and consolidating the pilgrimage to the city. By then, the French Way, the most important of the roads leading to Compostela, had been defined. The pilgrimages gave rise to a decisive phenomenon in the city’s life: the establishing of the mendicant orders’ convents in the city, generally at the city gates. Convents such as San Francisco, Santo Domingo, Santa Clara or Belvís created new quarters, which determined the old town’s structure beyond the city walls. During the late Middle Ages, Compostela also became an important industrial and commercial centre: the names of streets such as Caldeirería, Moeda Vella, Acibechería or Concheiros are derived from the existence of rich and flourishing guilds.

The 14th and 15th centuries were times marked by fighting between Santiago’s bourgeoisie and the power of the Church, while Compostela’s prelacy experienced an important economic decline. The Fonseca family, which provided the city with three archbishops, controlled its destiny during this time of profound transformations at the end of the Middle Ages. The year 1495 saw the founding of the “Colegio de Estudiantes Pobres” (School for Poor Students), the origin of the present-day University instituted by Alonso de Fonseca III in 1525. From then on, Santiago began to stand out as an academic and student city.


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The Cosmopolitan City of the Middle Ages
The Cosmopolitan City of the Middle Ages