Over the past couple of days I have tried to reflect on the cathedral at Canterbury and its place in the medieval realm. We had the outstanding opportunity to visit the church and take a guided tour of its interior on Friday, and experience none of us will soon forget. Naturally, we as 21st century Americans were awestruck to be standing in a church that had been a place of worship for over fourteen hundred years, with much of its architecture dating back to the medieval era. However, I am quite our experience there made less of an impression than it would to a medieval Christian.
During Canterbury's heyday in the 11th and 12th centuries, many if not most English Christians were living in small villages with rather unimpressive architectural landscapes. Wattle and daub was the building material of choice for the huts of the poor, and even the wealthy were resigned to one- or two-story houses made of wood that served as homes, offices, and workshops. The nobility at the time did live in larger quasi-castles, but only later in the era did they begin to be built for comfort instead of fortification. Thus, Christians were used to buildings that served pragmatic purposes and provided shelter, but that did not do much else.
That being said, I can not fully grasp how overwhelmingly impressed the pilgrims who traveled to Canterbury Cathedral would have been when they saw its ceiling that reaches for heaven and its intricately carved interior. I would not put it past any one of them to believe that God himself had a hand in building this church that seemingly defied the limits of human creation. They probably literally believed that they were standing in God's house, because a building like that cathedral is certainly too grand to house any earthly entity.
Thus, I think that the cathedral itself may have had more to do with the experience of God in the minds of medieval pilgrims than the relics therein. Christians purportedly traveled to Canterbury in order to see and revere the remains of Thomas Becket, and many reported having experienced healing and grace after visiting them. The remains of the saint have since been removed from the church, but I for one still left it feeling peaceful and imbued with a sense of divine omnipotence. Perhaps the sweeping architecture and ornate decor of the cathedral actually affected medieval pilgrims just as much as the relics of the saints that were kept there.