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Monthly Archives: March 2009

loarre-copy When Pelayo and his band of warriors defeated the Saracen force at the battle of Covadonga in 722, it was a mere eleven years after the Arab conquest of Spain and the intention was to restore the Visigothic kingdom. As the centuries passed and the dominion of the Arabs continued, new Christian kingdoms were established in the north with shifting alliances and power struggles, each bearing less connection to the original Christian monarchy.

Pelayo’s victory established the small kingdom of Asturias with its capital at Ovideo and which soon expanded to include Galicia and the shrine of the Apostle at Compostela. In the late ninth century Alfonso III recovered the city of León and moved his capital there.

Nevertheless, as long at the Caliphate of Cordoba remained in place, the Christians of the north remained largely restricted to the narrow area between the Cantabrian mountains and the sea.

To the south was a no man’s land, an empty underpopulated region which existed as a shifting frontier between Islam and Christendom.quantanilla It was through these lands that the pilgrimage road passed, although for safety, pilgrims often preferred the more arduous, longer route north of the mountains.

Christian successes were few and far between, Santiago Matamoros had come to lead the Christians to victory at Clavijo in 844 but a century had elapsed before his vision reappeared at Simancas in 939. For  the rest of Europe after the battle of Poitiers, the Pyrenees marked the frontier between the two worlds. Crossing the mountains into Spain was bound to hold a symbolic importance for pilgrims.

For the Christian rulers no matter how long had passed however, the memory of the Visigothic kingdom was never forgotten.

isle-daugerThis route would have drawn pilgrims from Paris and the shrine of Saint Denis along the valley of the river Loire past Orléans and the relics of Saint Euvert towards the great pilgrimage abbey of Tours and the tomb of one of the most celebrated saints of the medieval world – Saint Martin.

A roman soldier who had famously shared his cloak by cutting it in half to shelter a poor beggar who had turned out to be Christ. Tours was an important Frankish city protected by one of the great saints.

poitou-24-copyThe Road of Tours passed down the western side of France to another great medieval city Poitiers with its numerous churches and shrines, particularly those of Hilary and Radegonde.

The prosperous region of Aquitaine was well supplied with important saintly relics. At Angèly was the head of John the Baptist around which the monks sang prayers all day long.

At Saintes was the priory of Saint Eutropius, his tomb kept in a large crypt. At Bordeaux were the relics of Saint Seurin and at Belin the burial site of the fallen martyrs of the battle of Roncevaux.

aquitaineAt Blaye at the abbey where the tomb of Saint Romanus was to be found was also the burial place of Roland, the most famous hero of the medieval world. The attributes of his martyrdom, the sword Durendal and the Oliphant horn were also displayed there. The sight of Roland’s tomb would have been an important visit as the pilgrims then continued on to the Cize pass over the Pyrenees and the site of the great battle of Roncevaux where Roland had met his celebrated martyrdom at the hands of the Saracens.

limousin-sunsetIn 732 the new emir of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman, so it was written, led a massive Saracen army of between 30-50,000 men over the Pyrenees into France. His intention was to overrun France as his predecessors had done Spain, twenty years earlier.

Eudes, duke of Aquitaine met the vast army but was considerably outnumbered.

The Arabs had already made several previous incursions into France with mixed success. In 721 they had been defeated at Toulouse, but four years later had managed to come within a hundred miles of Paris, setting fire to the city of Autun as they retreated. In 732 however, the invading force was a great deal more substantial and threatening.

According to a Spanish chronicler of the time, Abd ar-Rahman “joined battle with Eudes on the other side of the rivers Garonne and Dordogne”, leaving the Aquitanians “disastrously bloodied” and the city of Bordeaux ravaged.

The mighty Saracen force advanced north from Bordeaux towards Poitiers. There they plundered the basilica of the patron of the city, Saint Hilaire. The army moved on towards Tours the greatest Frankish city and the shrine of their most venerated guardian, Saint Martin.

“Abd ar-Rahman decided to despoil Tours”, the chronicler continued, ”by destroying its palaces and burning its churches. There he confronted the consul of Austrasia by the name of Charles”.

limousin-4On a flat plain somewhere between Poitiers and Tours, by the side of the old Roman highway, the two armies met. Eudes of Aquitaine had made an oath of fealty to the Frankish leader Charles Martel who led their joint forces.

“The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions. In the blink of an eye they annihilated the Arabs with the sword”. Thus, the Spanish historian, writing just thirty years after the event, described the battle which put an end to Arab plans of extending their hegemony over the whole of  Europe.

Out of this victory, a new dynasty emerged, the Carolingian. Charles, whose victory earned him the name Martel, the Hammer, was nominally the so-called Mayor of the Palace at the court of the weak Merovingian king. His victory at the battle of Poitiers sealed his power base and paved the way for his son Pepin to become king of the Franks and his grandson Charlemagne, to becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

Historians are divided as to the real significance of the Battle of Poitiers but it nevertheless, entered the annals of legend. History and mythology became entwined and difficult to separate, each acting on the other.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Chansons de Geste, the epic poems estella-ferragut-killed-wswhich recounted the great deeds of the Carolingian monarchs and their heroic knights, painted the Franks as the defenders of Christendom. They were cast as the Chosen People and their Christian struggle against the pagan Saracens explicitly linked them to the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Moors now become Ishmaelites and Chaldeans.

Not only did the Song of Roland and the History of Charlemange and Roland draw on this legendary material, but so too did the Pilgrim’s Guide. All three  placed the Compostelan pilgrimage firmly within this mythological tradition.

languedoc2The Road of Toulouse or Via Tolosana was the most southerly French route, leading from Provence to the Pyrenean pass of the Somport.

It began at the Alyscans cemetery  and its myriad saintly tombs, just outside the city gates of Arles. Pilgrims proceeded to the cathedral of the city where relics of Saint Trophimus were held.

tolosana-sunset-7-copyArles had been the metropolitan see of Gaul in the fourth century and so had a long and rich history as an important religious centre.

Crossing the Rhone delta to the great abbey of Saint Gilles, pilgrims venerated the relics of this saint, one of the preeminent of the day, at his tomb in the cavernous crypt.

From the Rhone basin, the Guide mentions two alternative routes, one along the Mediterranean coastline to Montpellier and the relics of the martyrs of Agde, Tiberius, Modestus and Florence at the abbey of Saint Thibèry.

The other route led north from Saint Gilles towards the mountains of the pont-du-diable-1Languedoc and the remote abbey of Gellone which housed the relics of a very popular saint, the warrior monk Guilhem whose heroic feats during the time of the Carolingian emperors were retold in many epic songs.

The great destination further on was the ancient city of Toulouse and the shrine of Saint Saturninus at the vast pilgrimage church there.

From Toulouse pilgrims headed south towards the Pyrenees which they crossed via the Somport Pass into Aragonese territory and the town of Jaca.

le-puy-st-michel-skyIn the year 951 the bishop of the Auvergnat town of Le Puy-en-Velay, Gotteshalk led the first recorded pilgrimage from France to Compostela. On his return it is said, he ordered the building of the church of Saint Michel de l’Aiguilhe on top of one of several volcanic pinnacles which rose from the ground of that geologically strange town, like a finger pointed at the heavens.

The road of Le Puy was frequented by the Burgundians and the Teutons according to the Guide. They passed through the cathedral town of Le Puy,  situated in a small depression on the high plateau of the Auvergne.
There they venerated a black coptic figure of the Madonna and a miraculous druidic dolmen known as the Stone of Fevers.

rouergue-quercyThis route led through rugged and inhospitable regions but in spite of the difficulties, its popularity was assured because it passed by way of the abbey of Conques, one of the most important reliquary shrines in Western Christendom,

There they found the golden statuette when encased the relics of a saint of prodigious miracle working powers. This was Sainte Foy a virgin martyr of fourth century Roman persecutions. Great numbers flocked to this shrine which became a major station on the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Passing along the valley of the Lot River pilgrims venerated the relics of Saint lot-11Hilarion, martyred at the hands of the Saracens in the eighth century at Espalion.

Along the Lot river, pilgrims received assistance at the important abbeys at Figeac and Marcilhac before coming to the greatest monastic centre in southern France at Moissac.

pierre-perthus-road-4-copy1The Road of Limoges passed through Burgundy and the centre of France. Its fountainhead was the great basilica Vézelay.

Standing on an isolated hilltop, this abbey contained the precious relics of one of the medieval world’s most emblematic saints, Mary Magdalene.

A famous pilgrimage shrine in its own right, pilgrims congregated there as they prepared for their journey to Galicia.

Crossing the mighty Loire river they reached sanctuary at the great Cluniac priory of La Charité-sur-Loire. From there they headed towards the important town of Bourges and then at Noblat, the tomb of Saint Léonard, a holy hermit of the fifth century.

limogesIt was a short distance to the city of Limoges and the great pilgrimage church there which housed the relics of Saint Martial, said to be one of the evangelisers of Gaul in the fourth century. Pilgrims were able to reach the city by two important bridges which spanned the wide river Vienne.

From Limoges the route had to cross the bleak plateau of the Corrèze.

berry-burgundyPérigeux was an important station on the road to Compostela, its great cathedral containing the tomb of Saint Fronto one of the seven Apostles of Gaul who, it was said, had been sent by Saint Peter himself to evangelise the south western region. Peter, the first bishop of Rome had given Fronto a miraculous staff which gave its bearer the power to raise the dead. Fronto’s tomb was round in the likeness of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.

The road now was now directed through the regions of Gascony and the Béarnais and the important abbeys of Saint Sèver and Hagetmau with notable relics of their own.

Christ had named the Apostles James and his brother John, the Sons of Thunder.

Castor and Pollux were the sons of Jupiter, known as the Thunderer, thereby they also, were designated The Sons of Thunder.

In ancient mythology Castor descended from heaven astride a white horse to become protector of man and slayer of his enemies in battle. Castor and Pollux were venerated in Roman Spain.

In 844, a generation after the discovery of the tomb of Saint James at Compostela, the caliph of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman ordered a punitive raid on the Christians of the north. The Christian king Ramiro 1st met the large Saracen army on the plain below the castle at Clavijo.

clavijo-by-arbego1In a dream before the battle, Saint James appeared to Ramiro, predicting his victory. During the course of the ensuing battle a figure on a white horse was seen leading the Christian charge. It was the Apostle himself.

Henceforth, Saint James made visionary appearances during the great battle of the Reconquista leading the Christian forces to victory.

He was named Santiago Matamoros – the Moorslayer. Matamoros-WP-2Visions of the saint on a white charger occurred at Clavijo in 9th century, Simanacas in 10th, Coimbra in 11th and Las Navas de Tolosa 1212. When the reconquest was completed in 1492, Ferdinand & Isabella gave thanks at the shrine at Compostela.

In one of the miracles recorded in the Codex of Calixtus the following story is recounted: A Greek bishop rebuked some soldiers for praying to St James for military assistance. That night he dreamed of St James dressed as a crusader ready for battle.

“Blessed James appeared, clad in white garments, bearing the arms of a warrior, shining with radiance and arrayed as a soldier, holding in his hand two keys. Then he made this position even clearer in words, ‘I am appearing to you so that you will not doubt that God has made me a soldier and a contender and sent me to fight for the Christians against the Saracens and to gain victory for them”.

chrismon-bwThe Reconquista began at the battle of Covadonga in the Cantabrian mountains in 722.

An eighth century chronicle recounts that, “A certain Pelayo, the swordbearer of the kings Witiza and Roderic, oppressed by the dominion of the Ishmaelites, had come to Asturias”.

Pelayo was a Visigothic nobleman who  had held high position at the court of the old kingdom and had refused to surrender to the new conquerors.

Along with many others, he had taken refuge from the Arab invasion in the mountain fastnesses of Asturias and had declared an independent Christian kingdom. They held their camp on a rocky outcrop named Covadonga

congas_de_onisPelayo met the Saracen force that was sent to quell his rebellion by an old bridge  at Congas de Onis. Carrying the banner of the Christian Chrismon into battle in imitation of the Roman Emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian bridge. To Constantine it had been told of the Christian emblem: In this sign you shall conquer.

Like Constantine, Pelayo was victorious and the people of Asturias rallied round his band of fighters and managed to keep the Moors out of the small, beleagured, nascent kingdom.

The Chrismon became the symbol of the kings of the Reconquista and can be found carved above the entrances of numerous twelfth century church in Aragon. It displays the first two Greek letters of the word Christ and the first and last words of the Greek alphabet alpha and omega. This is a reference to chapter 1 verse 8 of the Book of Revelation: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is and which was and which is to come.jaca-4

This placed the Reconquista within an eschatological narrative.  In adopting this paleo-Christian symbol, the Christians of Spain saw themselves as God’s Chosen People whose struggle against the Moors thus became an integral part of the working of Abraham’s covenant with God through history towards the Apocalypse

In 711 the Visigothic Christian kingdom of Spain was invaded by a Moslem army of Arabs and north African Berbers. In an incredibly short time, Spain was overrun and defeated.

The Saracens, as they were known to the Christians, continued northwards entering France and establishing their rule over the Frankish province of Septimania. In 731 they were defeated at the battle of Poitiers by Frankish forces under the leadership of Charles Martel. The Saracen foothold in France proved tenuous and they were soon expelled. In Spain, however the Arabs were destined to survive and prosper.

In Damascus, meanwhile, an internal power struggle led to the overthrow of the ruling Ummayad dynasty by the Abbasids who now took control of the Caliphate. The Ummayads were hunted down and killed, but one of their number, Abd ar-Rahman escaped to Spain and succeeded in taking power there.

Cord-Ext-Mosque-D1Designating himself emir Abd ar-Rahman Ist, he made Cordoba the capital of the autonomous emirate henceforth known as Al-Andalus. The Arabs soon developed Andalusia into what was probably  the  wealthiest and most developed region of the age. They evolved a highly refined culture combining scientific learning and the arts. Cordoba, itself became a model city of one million inhabitants.

Christian Europe lagged behind far behind. In Moslem Spain,  Christianity was tolerated by the authorities but the Christians of Andalusia, or Mozarabs as they were known, were second class citizens and many converted to Islam. Christian Spain was cut off from the rest of Europe and developed its own  special liturgy. Only a small enclave remained free from Arab rule in the region of Asturias in the north, protected as it was by sea and mountains. It was from here that the process of the recovery of Spain from the Moors began. It was called the Reconquista and it combined the desire for territorial gain with Holy War.

A chronicler of the ninth century could only reason that the misfortune of the Christian Visigothic kingdom of Spain was due to the iniquity of her rulers Witiza and Roderic: “The Saracens entered Spain on account of the treachery of the sons of Witiza”, he wrote.

Cord-Int-Mosque-1The caliphate of Cordoba ruled over Al-Andalus until 1031 when internal squabbling led to its dissolution. During the course of its hegemony over the Spanish peninsula, the Christian north remained impotent. The vizier Al-Mansur, was able to attack the towns of León and Compostela with impunity, razing the cathedral of Santiago in 997 and carrying its bells to Cordoba, as though to silence the growing cult of the Apostle.

alyscamps-1 The Alyscans is the Provencal name for the Elysean Fields. This was the name given to the ancient burial ground on the edge of the city of Arles, which became the starting point of the Toulouse Road to Santiago de Compostela.

The Romans had used it as a major necropolis and right up to the city gates row upon row of stone tombs stretched a great distance either side. Through it ran the road which linked Rome with Arles, the Aurelian Way.

A hallowed site and much prized as a resting place for the dead, it was an old custom to transport the deceased there from the upper reaches of the Rhone. Situated on a sharp bend in the river, boats would run aground  a short distance away from the cemetery. The custom arose of placing the dead in a shallow boat  floated downstream, a coin clamped in the mouth to pay for the funeral rite. The stone cutters and carvers of Arles had a deserved reputation for their skill in making ornately carved burial sacrophagi.

alyscamps-st-honorat-pictBy the middle ages it was a Christian cemetery with seven churches. The now ancient stone tombs were believed to hold the relics of martyrs, the more ornate the decoration of the sacrophagous, the more illustrious  the saint. Legend declared that the fallen Frankish warriors of Roncevaux lay buried here. Moreover, adding another layer of sanctity to the already sacred site was the  notion that actual battle had  taken place at the Alyscans when forces led by the warrior monk Saint Guilhem defeated a large Saracen army there.

Among the celebrated saints entombed at the Alyscans were Honoratus, founder of the first monastic community of western Europe; Genesius a martyr of Roman persecution whose relics were widely considered to be especially powerful and Caesarius, the sixth century archbishop of Arles who had grasped a sea wind in his hand and released it on a barren valley thereby rendering it fruitful.

At this site of exceptional mythical status, the pilgrims to Compostela congregated as they set out on their journey by the Toulouse Road. The Guide urged them to make use of the intercessory power that was present, so that the pilgrim “may be certain to have those pious deceased lying there intercede for his salvation in the presence of God at the final Resurrection”.