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Monthly Archives: July 2015

At the same time that the culture of pilgrimage was growing another, vernacular tradition developed. This was the oral storytelling known as the Chansons de Geste or epic tales of heroic knightly deeds. These centered largely around the figure of Charlemagne and his twelve paladins.

The tales of these Christian heroes wove in and around the hagiographies of the saints and the pilgrimage. These fed upon the Crusading ideals of the day as they harked back to the glory days of olden times when Charlemagne had liberated the road to Compostela from the Saracens and Roland had died the martyr’s death at the great battle of the Roncevaux Pass.

The cycle of Chansons revolving around the person of Saint Guilhem of the abbey of Gellone in Provence was especially popular in the twelfth century. In particular the poems Charroi de Nîmes and Alyscans relate tales of battles against Saracens at the site of the legendary Roman necropolis at Arles which is mentioned at length in the Pilgrim’s Guide and recognised as the start of the Toulouse Road.

The Chanson of Girart de Roussillon features an extended account of how the relics of Mary Magdalene where transported from Provence to Vézelay.

Throughout the Pilgrim’s Guide there are allusions to the epic tales related in the Chansons such as the burial places of the Paladins of Charlemagne and the passage of the Emperor’s army towards Compostela.

The Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi constitutes Book Five of the Codex Calixtinus in a version ascribed to Charlemagne’s Archbishop of Rheims, Tilpinus and is designated as the Historia Turpini. This is a Latin version of the Chanson de Roland

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as well as linking so many reliquary shrines along its highways and byways, was also the source of numerous legends of a mystical nature and the terrestrial road itself, was invested with an inherent and immanent sacred character. This is perfectly expressed in the legend of the Milky Way, wherein the road to Compostela could be traced by following the course of the stars of that galaxy across Europe to its furthest edge in northwestern Spain.lsj-milky-way-1

The legend of the shrine of Saint James at Compostela familiar to medieval pilgrims is most likely the one described in the History of Charlemagne and Roland which originally was included in the Codex of Calixtus, the twelfth century manuscript devoted to the cult of the Apostle.

According to this story, Charlemagne was visited in a dream by Saint James who urged him to liberate his forgotten tomb from the Saracens who then occupied the land. Follow the course of the stars of the Milky Way, the emperor was counselled by the apparition of the Apostle, to its end in Galicia and there he would there find the abandoned burial ground containing the saint’s body.

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The pilgrim road mirrored the heavens on earth. The stars of the night sky representing the saints ascended to the celestial realm, were reflected on earth by their shrines where the remains of their physical bodies were kept as relics. Conduits between Heaven and Earth. The myriad numbers of reliquary shrines along the pilgrim roads corresponded to the Milky Way, which Charlemagne was ordained to follow so that it might lead him to the lost tomb of one of the mightiest saints of the heavenly firmament, James the Apostle.

charlemagnes-dreamHeeding the call of the Saint, Charlemagne set forth for Spain. The Holy Roman Emperor’s army took the road over the Pyrenees and besieged the Saracen town of Pamplona. Echoing the feats of the Israelites  at Jericho, the thunder of the Frankish trumpets caused the walls of the city to crumble to dust.

Charlemagne, his twelve Paladins and his army of Frankish warriors, liberated the road to Compostela and took possession of Saint James’ tomb at Compostela, the emperor constructing the first church above it.