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Monthly Archives: February 2009

silospsd261A short distance south of Burgos in Castille, the Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos has a double storied cloister which contains on its north eastern pier one of the most sublime images of the pilgrimage roads.

It portrays the the Gospel story of the Journey to Emmaus. Immediately after the Crucifixion two disciples travelling from Jerusalem chance upon a fellow traveller they call a stranger. Only after they have invited him to join them in breaking bread does the stranger reveal himself as the risen Christ

silospsd35In Latin, the words “stranger” and “pilgrim” are etymologically synonomous. Is this why Christ is here depicted with all the attributes of a twelfth century pilgrim to Compostela, most notably with a scallop shell sewn onto his bag? In a literal sense Jesus appears to be travelling in pilgrimage to the shrine of his own disciple – a strange and anomalous concept but one which says much about the meaning of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the medieval mind.

In order to enter Spain, pilgrims had to cross the Pyrenees. The most popular route was the Cize Pass. The ascent beganroncevalles-19 at Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and passed over the mountains to Pamplona on the Spanish side.

As the descent into Spanish territory began, the road led through a narrow and heavily wooded defile called Roncevaux. It was here that in the long distant and mythical past, the mother of all battles had taken place between the Christian Franks and the Moors of Spain.

roncesvalles-9The legend was epic. It told of the betrayal of Charlemagne’s Frankish army by the Judas-like Ganelon and the subsequent ambush of the rearguard led by the heroic knight Roland.

They were surprised and overwhelmed by a massive Saracen force and Roland tried to recall the main body of the army by sounding his horn, the Olifant made of elephant tusk, blowing so hard that he burst the vessels of his temple.

In a dying gesture, Roland tried to smash his great sword Durendal against a rock rather than have it fall into enemy hands but finding that his stroke was so powerful and the sword so well made that it split the boulder in two. Roland died a martyr’s death.


At Blaye, not far from Bordeaux, pilgrims could visit the tomb of Roland in the church of Saint Romanus. A little further south at Belin was the burial ground of the fallen Frankish warriors. At the abbey of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux, the Olifant was displayed on the altar. All along the pilgrim roads jongleurs would recite the epic poem known as the Song of Roland which was but the most famous of a huge repertoire of popular legends centered around Charlemagne and the heroic feats of his twelve paladins.

After the Arab invasion, Christian Spain was restricted to a small kingdom north of the Cantabrian mountains called Asturias. It was from here that the origins of the Reconquest were born and that an abbot, Beatus of Liebana composed a famous commentary on the Apocalypse in the late eighth century.

The Christians of Asturias found significance in their defeat at the hands of the Saracens. These were events long prophecied.

It was reckoned that the Antichrist was now come and the End Times were unfoldng. Beatus was one of the first to claim that Saint James had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission in Spain following the Pentecost and prior to his martyrdom at Jerusalem in A.D. 44.

It was not long after, in the early years of the ninth century that the miraculous discovery of his tomb was made by a shepherd at Compostela. The location of the most important shrine of western Europe at such a significant site as the frontier between Christendom and the Caliphate on the very edge of the known world, may not have been mere coincidence but it certainly had a great pull on contemporary imaginations. How the body had reached Spain from Jerusalem was the subject of an elaborate legend.

The manuscript of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse was copied in the monasteries which lined the pilgrim road, for a long time the front line of the war between Christians and Arabs

The medieval mind made no difference between legend and historical fact – such a distinction was alien. The popular retelling of the oral tradition where subsequent versions added to the old, met the learned, written tradition of the elite. It has been observed that because of the rupture in classical culture caused by the collapse of the Latin Western Empire in the sixth century, a process took place whereby each was contaminated by the other. Monasteries were deliberately located in rustic areas where pagan traditions thrived. Correspondingly, the vast body of the illiterate imbued the written Latin word with magical properties and undeniable truth.

historia-turpini-1Out of this came the simultaneous perpetuation of legendary traditions in both clerical texts and oral tales. And so the legend of Roland has its written Latin version – the Historia Rotholandi et Karoli Magni which was included in the five books of the Codex of Calixtus which set down the tradition of Santiago in manuscript. The historia was purportedly written by Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin.

In this latter version we find the Apostle James appearing to the Emperor Charlemagne in a vision calling him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens and the expedition which was then undertaken to do his bidding. Charlemagne not only liberated the shrine of Galicia but also built the first church there and made the road safe for pilgrims to follow. It was when returning victorious but exhausted to France, that the misfortune at Roncevaux took place.

Of the two versions, it is not possible for us to know which came first, but heroic knightly tales and pious lives of saints coexisted comfortably in the age of Pilgrimage and Crusade

parthenay-17Along the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela a recurrent sculpted image can be seen on the facades of the churches – a victorious rider. Invariably, beneath is a cowering figure being trampled upon. Who is this mysterious horseman? Commentators have long agreed that it represents an archetypal Christian monarch triumphing over paganism but it seems impossible to distinguish which of the two most likely historical figures it might be: Constantine or Charlemagne, for both emperors developed legendary features fitting the same mythological purpose.

constantineBy the edict of Milan in 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine had granted  Christianity freedom from persecution after a lengthy period of oppression at the hands of his predecessor Diocletian. Constantine was responsible for Christianity becoming the state religion of the Empire even though it is often questioned whether he was a believer himself. Nevertheless, he ordered  the construction of the first church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and Saint Peter’s in Rome. He called the Council of Nicaea in 325 at which the Nicene Creed, the expression of the Christian Trinitarian doctrine was devised.

His reputation  grew in the Christian imagination during the middle ages largely because of Eusebius’ history. According to this, when Constantine was planning to fight the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 against the army of Maxentius, his rival for control of the empire, he experienced a vision which persuaded him to order his forces to fight under a Christian banner. His authority as a Christian ruler was further revered due to the document known as the Donation of Constantine, an early medieval forgery, which granted temporal power to the Pope.

charlemagne-10thThe Franks were the first Christianised Germanic tribe and their ruler, Charlemagne was seen as Constantine’s successor, acquiring a vast empire  the size of which had not been seen since the decline of Rome itself. Charlemagne was a conquering Christian  monarch who, although he fought mainly against pagans in the Germanic lands,  was conflated in legend with his father Charles Martel who had defeated the Arabs at the battle of Poitiers in 732. This halt to the Arab march through Europe was a legendary victory,  the wishful prototype of later encounters with the Saracens of the Crusader era.

Charlemagne did much to restore a declining monastic culture in Europe and the Benedictine order of the eleventh and twelfth centuries looked to Charlemagne as their secular champion. Monasteries attributed their foundation to him as a way of asserting their power and autonomy and at a time when the Papacy was threatened, Charlemagne was its protector.

On Christmas Day 800 Charlemagne revived the memory of Rome when he had himself anointed the first Holy Roman Emperor.

parthenay-13 In referring to himself as emperor, Charlemagne may not have been thinking solely of his secular role. The notion of empire had been embedded in Apocalyptic prophecy since the time of the Book of Daniel and continued through the Book of Revelation and into the middle ages. These prophecies defined the span of earthly time in terms of four empires. They were either the Greek, Persian, Roman or Arab depending on the contemporaneous setting, but they were agreed that there would be a final evil empire which would precede the End of the World.

According to legend, Charlemagne was the first pilgrim to Compostela and liberator of the shrine of the Apostle James

beatus-12A Spanish chronicler writing in 754 about forty years after the Arab invasion was at a loss for words to describe the extent of his country’s misfortune: “Who can relate such perils? Who can enumerate such grievous disasters?” he wrote. “Even if every limb were transformed into a tongue, it would be beyond human capacity to express the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils”.

In 711 when an army of Arab and Berber invaders crossed from north Africa via the Straits of Gibraltar, Spain was a Christian Catholic kingdom of Visigoths.

The Visigoths were one of the two branches of the Gothic people who had migrated to the eastern Roman empire from the Russian steppes in the fourth century. The word visi suggested noble in the Gothic language although contemporary historians took it to mean western when they settled in France and Spain in the sixth century.

The Visigoths were Christianised early on but they had adopted the Arian creed which was then quite prevalent in the Roman Empire but was subsequently contested and denounced as heretical. Although the ruling elite later accepted orthodox Catholicism, this combined with the Arab invasion had meant that the Spanish church was for a long time distinctive and seperate. In particular the Book of Revelation held a special significance in the liturgy.

Christian pilgrimages were grafted onto older pagan ones. The sacred grove or magical dolmenmellepsd9 now became a Christian shrine with a miraculous relic to attract Christian pilgrims.

“Comets in the sky appeared and countless went in pilgrimage. Their numbers were greater than the past age had ever heard of”.

So wrote Radulfus Glaber, Benedictine monk of the abbey of Cluny in his account of his own time in the mid eleventh century, observing an increase in travel to holy places.

In the tripartite feudal order, the pilgrim – temporarily at least, wore the same mantle of sanctity as the monk and cleric. The knightly and labouring castes who fontenaylacked the spiritual benefits which were the privilege of the monastic vocation were fearful for their soul’s eternal destiny. As millennial Apocalyptic fears grew, spiritual rewards could be obtained by travelling ever greater distances to the important shrines, which offered the possibility of redemption and a place in Heaven.

As Glaber concluded, “many consulted in these matters about the meaning of this concourse. They were answered that it portended no other than the advent of that corrupt Antichrist, whose coming at the end of this world is prophesied in Holy Scripture”.

portico-de-la-gpsd8At the Romanesque cathedral of Compostela, a sculpted image of Saint James is presented on the trumeau which supports the central narthex tympanum of the main entrance – the Portico de la Gloria. The tympanum represents the Apocalypse – Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Twenty-Four Elders. The image is direct and clear – Saint James is the direct conduit to the Christ of Final Judgment.

At the base of the pillar the sign of the pilgrims of the past has been worn into the stone, visible by the marks of the hands they have pressed against the cold stone down the ages.portico-de-la-gpsd18

The Book of Saint James tells us: “Whosoever is truly penitent, and is from faraway shores, and has sought to request with all his heart forgiveness from the Lord and help from Saint James in Galicia, without doubt will have the slate of his sins wiped clean in eternity”.

Saint James was considered the brother of Saint John the Evangelist and significantly, John the author of the Book of Revelation.


The edict of the Council of Carthage regarding the placing of saintly relics under all altars had been allowed to lapse but it was now revived. However, with the wave of church building which was now taking place in western Europe, the shortage of suitable additional relics to furnish the corresponding altars posed a problem. The availability of martyrs had diminished since the Empire became Christian, although in Spain there were some who died for their faith at the hands of the Saracens.

There were several ways in which a relic could arrive at a church. Most obviously, the church was erected over the site of the saint’s burial. Alternatively, it could be transferred in the ceremony known as a “translatio”. Also cases of relic theft were not infrequent and since it was reckoned that the saint chose themselves where their bones resided, these thefts were considered sacred or “furta sacra”. By extension, saints whose bones lay buried and neglected could choose how and when they were discovered: this was known as “inventio”.

The monk chronicler Radulfus Glaber writing in the early eleventh century noted that, “the relics of many saints were revealed by various signs where they had long lain hidden.”

And indeed, in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries a number of “inventios” of significant Biblical characters were discovered in Western Europe and seized the popular imagination. In Burgundy there was Mary Magdalene and Lazarus. In Aquitaine, the head of John the Baptist and at Compostela, the Apostle James.

Each of these became important pilgrimage shrines in their own right.


As society moved inexorably towards the End Times a mutually supporting division developed, a caste system imported from the East. This was the Tripartite division: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. In other words, the monks, the knights and the feudal serfs. Each performed a vital service towards the greater good in a mutually interdependent structure whose sole purpose was the preparation of man for Judgment. These were the moral underpinnings of the feudal order.

Those who worked the land provided the necessary food, the knightly aristocracy protected the other two divisions and fought to defend Christendom. It was the monks and clerics however, who provided the most vital function: prayer.

melle-ls-church-l_s1For it was considered that humanity was too sinful to be redeemed without constant prayer and so around the relics of saints an ever more elaborate liturgical ritual evolved. And so the monasteries were reformed, they received great donations from kings and the wealthy aristocracy for the provision of foundations and endowments. By the eleventh century European Christendom contained a network of thousands of abbeys and priories.