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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Santiago de Compostela

Bob Trubshaw


Then on they went quite boisterously, gogling here and there,
Knelt them down before the shrine, and heartily said their prayer.
They all prayed to St Thomas, in such wise [ways] as they could,
And then the holy relics kissed, each man as he should.
While a goodly monk told them the names of every one.
And then to other holy spots they turned till they'd completely done,
Continued in their devotions till service was sung through,
And then as it was nearly noon to dinnerward they drew.
Then, as the usual custom is, pilgrim's signs they bought.
For men at home should know what saint the pilgrims here had sought.
Each man laid out his silver on the tokens they liked best
. . . They set their tokens on their heads, some on the their caps did pin,
And then to eat their dinner good, they rushed back to the inn.

From the Tale of Beryn (Early fifteenth century).

Those of you who saw the plug for the planned Mercian Mysteries megatrip in September may be wondering 'What's so special about Santiago?' so this article is an attempt to outline the significance of this medieval pilgrimage route. [Note - this planned 'megatrip' never came off!]

Pilgrimages were the middle age's equivalent to dashing off to the sun for a fortnight in the summer - a chance to get away from the everyday tedium. Medieval pilgrimages ranged from an individual's visit to the shrine of a local saint through to the political posturing of the Crusades. In their differing ways they manifest the intense popular piety in medieval christianity coupled with the clearly pre-christian sense of sacredness of place.

With little direct encouragement from Church leaders, the overwhelming majority of clerks and laymen believed that to visit a saint's shrine was no different from visiting the actual person, and that touching or even seeing the relics would bring health and well-being. If the Church leaders did not overtly encourage this belief, they certainly schemed to benefit from the enourmous wealth of gifts which pilgrims bestowed on the shrines. The trade in more-or-less plausible relics became to the medieval money managers what the sale of antique art and artifacts is to the present day custodians of the fabric funds.

From as early as the eleventh century the pilgrims were assured that their perigrinato would atone for past sins and earn some remission from the torments of pergatory. The penitential pigrimage was the opportunity for criminals guilty of 'enormous crimes' to work out their salvation on the road by assuming the role of a travelling beggar - with hat, purse, baton and badge. Not only was a pilgrim exempted from all taxes, once he had sewn the emblem of his destination on his clothes, no one could sue him for debt in any temporal court. Mixing with these felons were the devout fulfilling a vow made at a time of personal crisis or illness, and others journeying in the hope of a miraculous cure for a malady such as leprosy or blindness.

The popularity of particular sacred shrines waxed and waned according to the fashions of the moment, although Rome and Jerusalem remained the most venerated. Second only to these was the shrine of St James the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela, north-west Spain. A tomb alleged to be that of St James had been discovered in the diocese of Iva Flavia in the ninth century; the date of 816 is conventionally given and the tale is elaborated with a miraculous rescue of the body from the Atlantic breakers. It was all a bit like a pop group making sure it has a good promo video as well as a snappy song. The success of the PR campaign can be judged by the succession of ever more splendid churches were built on the site, financed by gifts of the pilgrims.

From the eleventh centuries onwards increasing hordes of pilgrims went by sea or by land along the long route de Saint Jacques (or, in Spainish, El camio de Santiago) to worship at this shrine. Although certain of St James' bones were given or sold to other shrines - one ended up in the Great Mosque of Cordoba - the relics were lost for some 150 years (after being hidden in advance of a British invasion). But, true to medieval practice, they were rediscovered in 1879 (or 1884 depending which guide book you read) and his (once-again complete) skeleton now rests in a shrine in the crypt of the cathedral. As a fragment given to a church in Tuscany fits exactly a gap in the skull, it must be his . . . mustn't it?

Those who recall the biblical tales of St James will know he was a fisherman who opted for the life of evangelism. It may seem strange to some that his image is now very much one of the champion of Spain against the infidels and other enemies of the nation. On a number of occasions the saint has been seen fighting alongside the Spainish armies - King Ramiro I swore that he was with him at the battle of Clavijo in 844 and had personally slaughtered 60,000 Moors. Some forty such manifestations in six centuries reinforced James as Santiago Matamoros (Moor-killer) - he even popped up in the New World to help ex-pat Iberians massacre a few American Indians. In the city of Santiago are a number of statutes showing this canonised Rambo as a mounted knight dispatching small hordes of swarthy, bearded Arabs with a single thrust of his sword. When Franco brought his expert Moriccan troups to Compostela to dedicate themselves to the overthrow of the Republic, all such statues were discreetly enveloped with sheets!

Along the way Santiago aquired the appelation 'Compostela' - field of stars (from the Latin campus stellae) - as the original discovery of the saint's bones came about (so it is said, and who are we to doubt it???) when a hermit was attracted to a certain hillside by a vision of stars. It may destroy the image slightly to note that the area is famous for its high rainfall and its present-day nick-name, El Orinal de Espana, translates as it sounds - 'The Urinal of Spain'! In all fairness, the not-easily over-impressed authors of the Rough guide to Spain consider Santiago to be 'one of the most beautiful of all Spainish cities', not least because the rain ensures a lushness of vegetation lacking elsewhere in Galicia. And it means that the churches are fitted with multitudes of frequently-functioning gargoyles.

Another name by which the famous hill at Santiago became known is 'Mountjoy'. The origin of this is a little less than direct. The first person in the party of pilgrims to sight the cathedral (which, as the goal of the long, arduous journey, must have been one of the greatest moments of travel) would shout 'Mon Joie!' and become 'king' of the group. For reasons which seem to smack of the gruesome puns which Radio One DJ's are over-fond, the hill on which the cathedral stands therefore became Mountjoy.

An enterprising French monk - Aymery Picaud - enters the pages of history as the first writer of that now well-established literary genre, the travel guide, by documenting in detail the journey. He records not only such practicalities as water sources and lodging places, but warns of such eccentrics as the Navarrese Basques (who exposed themselves when excited and protected their mules from their neighbours with chastity belts). No wonder travel guides went on to become best sellers!

Having arrived at the Cathedral, the multitudes of by-now bedraggled travellers exchanged their clothes (the old ones being burnt in a brazier on one of the towers) and stood gazing upon the west front. The side doors depicting Purgatory and the Last Judgement flank the main door surmounted by Christ presiding over apostles and elders of the apocalypse plus Saint James himself, in the symbolic posisiton of intercessor. Supporting him is the most accessible part - the Tree of Life (or, as the Catholic guides would have it, the Tree of Jesse). The pilgrims gave thanks at their journey's end with the fingers of one hand pressed on the roots of this tree. So many millions have performed this act of piety that five deep and shiny holes have been worn into the solid marble. After their prayer they would lower their head to touch the brow of the humble squatting image of the saint.

The spiritual climax of the pilgrimage remains a peculiar experience. After climbing up the steps behind the altar to embrace the seven hundred year old Most Sacred Image of Santiago and kissing his bejewelled cape, one is given a document written in Latin called a Compostela. This is followed by confession and attending High Mass.

Just as any advertising campaign needs its 'logo', so the trek to St James came to be associated with the scallop or cockle shell. Tombs throughout Europe have medieval effigies carved with cockles on their coats, or scallops on their hats, and so forth, which denote a successful trip. The nearest known example to me as I write is in the church of St Helen's, Ashby de la Zouch, where the effigy of Thomas Hastings, probably the brother of Lord Hastings, is so depicted. In additition to simple depictions of scallop shells, one of the commonest souvenirs was an amphulla - a little lead or pewter flask containing a few drops of holy water from a shrine or nearby holy well. The water they contained was regarded as a curative for the sick in times of need. Several such ampulla in the form of scallop shells have been recovered in Lincolnshire and I suspect in most other counties too.

In the contemporary chronicles for 1184 it is recorded that 'The order of Santiago was confirmed by the lord pope. These soldiers, who are distinguished from all others by the red sword that is their emblem, have their base in Spain. They seek to use their might in the struggle against the Saracens.' To what extend the Order of Santiago was intended to protect the pilgrimage route from possible attack by the Moors is unclear, but it is worth noting that the Spainish tourist authorities today have taken over one of the roles of this Order, by promoting a well-defined route from the Pyrennes, through Pamplona to Santiago, a route which runs roughly 750 km from the coast through hilly, indeed mountainous, regions.

Historically, four pilgrims' routes can be traced through France - from Paris, Vezelay, le Puy and Arles, merging into two paths over the Pyrenees - either via Pto. de Somport or further west at Pto. de Ibaneta. Regonised routes also existed from Italy (via the important monsteries of Catelonia) and from southern Spain and Portugal. In passing, some may be interested to know that the citadel controlling the border at Somport was built, under the direction of Phillip II, in the form of a five-pointed star

Despite the Order of Santiago, invariably the pilgrims would travel in groups, for safety. There were even professional 'tour operators', medieval precursors to Thomas Cook, who were known as patronus. For so much a person, these men charted ships, provisioned them, escorted the pilgrims from the place of embarkation and pointed out the different objects of interest and devotion along the journey. In the fifteenth century eighty such pilgrim vessels were counted lying at the same time in the harbour of Corunna - thirty-two of them from England. Exact details of the role expected of the patronus is specified in one of Caxton's books Informacion for Pylgrmes into the Holy Londe. Much of the same advice would not be amiss in the latest Fodor's guide.

Centuries after the cessation of such medieval package tours the pilgrims' path is again well-marked by the endeavours of the 'Friends of the Path'. A firework festival on the eve of the feast of St James (25th July) signals the climax of the summer outings by present day perigrinatos. On this, and other special feast days, the holy incense burner, the botafumeiro, is swung by no less than eight preists at a rather dangerous speed through a vast ceiling-to-ceiling arc in the cathedral. It is said that this method of cleansing the air comes from a time when pilgrims not only prayed here but also spent the night. Accidents have been known to happen!

But if British pilgrims travelled overland to and from Santiago they went not only through northern Spain but also through the Aquitaine region of France. This route became an alembic for artistic, cultural and commercial transmutations so that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Aquitaine stood at the forefront of taste and culture. The churches were adorned with rich carvings, with a vigorousness of symbolism quite unlike that of contemporary Europe. Indeed, to modern eyes many of the male and female 'exhibitionists' appear to have an obscenity at odds with our post-Reformation taste in church decor. Anthony Weir and James Jerman in their book Images of lust describe many of these carvings in Aquitaine and their British imitators. (Anthony Weir has most kindly offered to make available to me his unpublished notes on church carvings in northern Spain which should ensure that we have the opportunity to visit some of the most splendid of such sculptures.)

Kilpeck sheela-na-gig (6k)

Romanesque sheela-na-gig corbel at Kilpeck, Herefordshire
From a photograph by Bob Trubshaw

In 1130 we know that one Oliver of Merlimond, a Herefodshire baron, made a pilgrimage to Santiago. It seems certain that he had a sculptor in his retinue who was making drawings of these delights. On his return home similar sculptures were used to embelish Merlimond's small Augustinian foundation at Shobden (now lost) and a Benedictine cell at Kilpeck whose famous 'Sheila na gig' and other carvings are well-known. But, even if Kilpeck is outstanding among insular art, it pales by comparison with French and Spainish churches with over 300 carved corbels.

Parallels between Aquitaine and Britain can be detected at many other sites - motifs at Melbourne church in Derbyshire also imitate those in in several churches in the Auvergne. An exchange of ideas along the pilgrimage route is clearly in evidence within Spain, too. At Leon, Estella and Sanguesa there are carvings of women intwined with serpents, probably intended as a depiction of one of the Deadly Sin of luxuria. At Santiago church a mermaid carving seems to have inspired others along the pilgrimage route through France.


The Plantagenet chronicles, ed. e.Hallam, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986
Images of lust A. Weir and J. Jerman, Batsford, 1986.
The pilgrims' way, J. Adair, Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Spain north R. McCarta and N. Verlag, Nelles Guides, 1991
Spain - the rough guide M. Ellingham and J. Fisher, Harrup Columbus, 1991 edition.
France - the rough guide K. Baillie and T. Salmon, Harrup Columbus, 1991 edition.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.11 May 1992.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

This website does not gather or store any visitor information.
Created April 1996; updated November 2008