A Review of ‘Cathedral of the Sea’ by Ildefonso Falcones
Upon arriving in Barcelona, my first priority was to seek out books set in the city. I scoured the local library network and stumbled upon Cathedral of the Sea, a novel set in 13th century Catalonia. The book follows Arnau Estañyol and his family, with the construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar serving as the backdrop of the story.
Arnau, the son of a runaway serf, grows up in Barcelona with his father. When he asks about his mother, his father tells him that the Virgin of the Sea is his mother and will be with him through thick and thin. This belief becomes ingrained in Arnau’s imagination, and he sees the image of the Virgin smiling at him with compassion and love whenever he approaches her for solace.
To understand the context of serfdom in medieval Europe, we must take a step back. Most serfs are indentured for generations and lack the freedom to dispose of their land as they please. They are forced to pay taxes and tithes to their feudal lord and are expected to fight and die for them. The lords are often tyrannical, invoking “Prima Nocta” and being above the law.
In Cathedral of the Sea, any serf who runs away and survives in Barcelona for a year and a day is emancipated from serfdom. Arnau and his father bide their time in the city until a series of events causes a food shortage, leading Arnau’s father to incite a mob to steal grain. This results in Arnau being orphaned when his father is executed for his crimes.
Divine providence seems to step in as the guild of “bastaixos” or porters of La Ribera take Arnau in as an apprentice and teach him their trade. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar is being rebuilt by all the guilds of the neighborhood, and Arnau offers water to the bastaixos as they carry loads of stone from Montjuic on their backs as a service to the Virgin.
Arnau’s fortunes turn again during an anti-Semitic riot in Barcelona when he rescues two children and their family’s Moorish slave from the violence and hides them in a niche under the Cathedral. The family repays his kindness by helping him set up a thriving moneylending business. With the help of Sahat, the Moorish slave he rescued, Arnau becomes one of the richest and most respected money-lenders in town, even being elected as one of the counsels of the sea and accidentally marrying into royalty.
However, Arnau’s happiness does not last, and he experiences a third act of misfortune, where he loses everything and is arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. But divine providence comes through again, as the city rises up in revolt against the Inquisition, rescuing Arnau and the other counsels of the sea.
While Ildefonso Falcones may not be the greatest writer, and Cathedral of the Sea may not be the greatest piece of fiction set in Barcelona, the book is well-paced and extremely cinematic. Despite being over 500 pages, it held my attention and propelled me to finish reading it in just five days.