Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago

Paula Gerson is transported to Galicia by this guide to the route to Saint James' remains

January 14, 2010

If you know nothing about the Christian pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, this lavishly illustrated book provides an excellent introduction. In the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela ranked among the three most important pilgrimage destinations, the other two being Rome and the Holy Land. Established by the mid-10th century, the sacred journey to the tomb of Saint James reached its high point between the 12th and 14th centuries; its popularity lessened by the 17th century, and decline was quite evident by the 19th.

But as the impetus to make the pilgrimage to Santiago dwindled, the pilgrimage itself became increasingly of interest to scholars. Starting with the early 20th-century examination of the medieval literature and art associated with the pilgrimage, studies expanded by the 1970s to include the perspectives of anthropology, cultural and social history, music and ritual studies. Since the 1980s, public enthusiasm for following the pilgrimage roads to Santiago has grown enormously, with the annual number of "official" pilgrims increasing from about 300 in the mid-1970s to close to 200,000 in the Holy Year 2004. This revival has certainly been bolstered by major exhibitions in 1985 and 1993, by the marking of the routes by the Council of Europe beginning in 1987 and by the renovation of pilgrims' hospices along the roads. Precisely why this medieval pilgrimage has had so much appeal for our postmodern society is not discussed in the volume reviewed here, but the book is part of the revival phenomenon.

The volume is a collaborative endeavour, although Kathleen Ashley is primarily responsible for the text and Marilyn Deegan the many fine photographs. The authors' stated goal is to "allow readers to imagine the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela", and this they have accomplished. To aid the armchair traveller, the images predominate; in a book of fewer than 300 pages, there are more than 250 colour images, many full page in size. Especially welcome are the many close-up images.

Most of the basics of the pilgrimage are covered - the cult of Saint James, geography of the pilgrimage, art and music, saints, towns and rituals - and the writing is engaging and lively throughout. Arguably the most interesting chapter is "Legends, folklore and miracles" - this is perhaps not surprising, as it is one of Ashley's areas of expertise. However, as this volume is aimed at the general public, it does not cover any one topic in depth, but rather enables the reader to find out more by providing informative endnotes and a good bibliography.

A large part of the text is derived from many first-hand accounts by pilgrims of different social status ranging in time from the 12th to the 18th century, including a number of extracts. Many of these passages concern general problems of the journey - availability of food, unscrupulous innkeepers and toll collectors - but others describe landscapes, monuments visited and shrines. These voices give the reader some sense of what remained constant and what changed over 600 years of the pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, errors have crept into this lovely book, owing perhaps to a rapid schedule for its completion and publication, or via the editing process. Many of the problems occur in the captions, especially in dates for the monuments, and in one case an incorrect identification. Figure 165 is not, as stated, the nave of Bourges Cathedral, but a side aisle. The use of some architectural terms is also curious. For instance, the caption for Figure 238 has Saint James seated "in the mullion" (rather than the more appropriate "on the trumeau", or central pier). Not all problems are confined to the captions. The cathedral of Autun is said to be across the valley from Vezelay, when Autun is in fact nearly 70km away. The church that is just across the valley from Vezelay is, rather, Saint-Jacques-d'Asquins, noted (in the caption for Figure 39) only as being 2km from Vezelay.

These errors being acknowledged, if you are looking for a special gift for someone, Being a Pilgrim is a good choice.

Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago

By Kathleen Ashley and Marilyn Deegan

Lund Humphries, 264pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780853319894

Published 28 September 2009

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