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Category Archives: The Roads

rioja1The Spanish pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela is a journey of almost seven hundred kilometres crossing two formidable mountain ranges, the Pyrenees and the mountains of Leon as well as the flat expanse of the Castilian plain, so baking hot in the summer months.

In the tenth and early eleventh centuries this was a barren, empty landscape, forming the frontier of Christian and Moorish Spain. Over time, the pilgrimage road across it was to become the spine of the medieval Christian empire.

In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries towns and cities on the road began to be transformed. Fromista-11-Xt-1Within a relatively short period of time monumental structures were erected as builders and sculptors traveled back and forth along the pilgrimage artery, creating on a prodigious scale, a  series of homogeneous structures which constitute the great pilgrimage road.

 The transept facades of the cathedral of Compostela combined the work of sculptors from Toulouse, Moissac, Conques, Jaca, Fromista and Loarre. Some returned to work at Leon and Pamplona.

There was a potency in the very idea of this public road which drew on a range of interests and motives. From the time when Sancho el Mayor, ruler of Navarre, Leon-Perdon-1-WPdiverted the pilgrimage road from the coast towards Pamplona and Najera in the early part of the eleventh century, the route took in all the royal cities between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast; Jaca, Najera, Burgos, Leon as well as the royal pantheons at San Juan de la Pena, San Salvador de Leyre, Santa Maria de Najera, Las Huelgas de Burgos, Sahagun and San Isidoro de Leon.

It’s building programme was by-product of the Reconquista, funded largely by the ransom and extortion of the Moorish principalities and an expression of the power of the dynasty Sancho bequeathed.

Sanguesa-Fac-1-WPIt facilitated the introduction of Catholic liturgy into the Spanish peninsula, for so long cut off from the rest of Europe. It was  the vital commercial artery for encouraging French merchants to revive and repopulate an economically moribund area which had remained an empty no man’s land in the centuries since the Arab invasion.

It is this phenomenon which is recorded almost contemporaneously in the twelfth century manuscript book five of the  Jacobus or Codex Calixtinus, known as The Pilgrim’s Guide.

It is a remarkable fact that the engine which fuelled this vast enterprise was the veneration of saintly relics.

Biblio: S Moralejo, On the Road: The Camino de Santiago, The Art of Medieval Spain a.d. 500-1200

The four roads to Compostela were described according to the reliquary shrines of the saints to be found on the way.

Chapter eight of the Pilgrim’s Guide contained a list of twenty-three shrines which pilgrims were expressly told to visit on their journey. Consisting of twenty-seven saints in all, it included Saint James and the Paladins of Charlemagne among them.

Such a text  in a hagiographical work is unique in the medieval world. This is what made the pilgrimage to Compostela the pan-European phenomenon that it was.

One may wonder to what purpose such a list was made and whether it represented the actual contemporary  importance of these saints or whether they were selected for other reasons.

FontenayWere they chosen as signposts to mark the way or rather to persuade travellers to visit relics they would otherwise have ignored? Some shrines clearly benefited from their association with the pilgrimage such as Conques and others such as Saint Sernin of Toulouse were very likely in competition with Compostela.

Pilgrims taking the Puy Road would have had to make a significant detour over rough terrain to reach Conques rather than follow the Lot valley which was the easiest way to reach Cahors from Espalion. Yet Conques was plainly an integral part of the Compostelan pilgrimage long before the Book of Saint James was ever conceived.

Road-@-St-Guilhem-3Similarly, pilgrims travelling from Saint Gilles towards Toulouse, undertook an onerous digression when they followed the Guide’s recommendation to visit the shrine of saint Guilhem at the abbey of Gellone, which was located in a rugged area of the Cevennes. Yet Guilhem’s reputation as the hero of extremely popular epic tales preceded the writing of the Pilgrims Guide.

The shrines are listed in their geographical order beginning with the Toulouse Road. This road joined together the shrines of Trophimus, Caesarius, Honoratus and Genesius at Arles and tombs of the Alyscans at the entry to the city.  After Arles came Saint Gilles and Saint Guilhem.

Montpeyroux-2The brief sketch of the four roads in chapter one dictated that this road went via Montpellier. Thus the inclusion of the shrine of the martyrs of Agde; Tiberius, Modestus and Florentius, is appropriate although it is unclear whether this was a variant of the road or whether pilgrims did indeed visit this site as well as the shrine of Saint Guilhem.

 The final shrine listed on the Toulouse Road was that of Saint Sernin itself, at the city which gave its name to this route. Again, we know from chapter one that this road continued southwards from Toulouse towards the Somport Pass.

Chanaleilles-belltower-2-coThe Puy Road was next to be described but by the shrine of a single saint only, Foy of Conques. The celebrated shrine of the Black Madonna at Notre-Dame du Puy was not included but like Moissac, mentioned merely to indicate the course of the road.

The Limoges Road records only Mary Magdalene at Vézelay and Leonard in the Limousin and Front at Périgeux.

The Road of Tours was considerably more replete with saintly relics. Isle-d'AugerBeginning with Euvertius at Orleans, the pilgrim was exhorted to pass via the shrines of Martin at Tours, Hilarius at Poitiers and that of the head of John the Baptist at Angely. At Saintes the tomb of Eutropius, at Blaye; Roland and Romanus, at Bordeaux; the Olifant of Roland and the tomb of Seurin. At Belin, a single grave contained the burial of Olivier, Ogier, Arastain, Garain and other paladins of Charlemagne.

Aragon-PyrenneesOn the Spanish side of the Pyrenees a mere four shrines received the Guide’s approval; Santo Domingo de la Calzada near Logroño, the relics of Facundus and Primitivo at the Cluniac abbey of Sahagun and  Saint Isidore at León, before the ultimate destination of the shrine of the Apostle James at Compostela.

 This list certainly included the most important shrines of the day. By their inclusion in such a list however, several seemingly minor saints were elevated into the most select pantheon.

One abiding puzzle remains the lack of any mention of Martial of Limoges, whose shrine merited a major pilgrimage church which rivalled the dimensions of Tours, Toulouse and Compostela. His absence from the text is especially  remarkable because the city of which he was patron gave its name to that route and was undoubtedly a major halt on the road.

saintes-crypt-ls-tomb-vaul1It is now acknowledged that there were numerous variants to the four roads described in the Pilgrim’s Guide and logic insists that it was not intended as a travel guide in any modern sense.

Such a consideration may lead us closer to the real intent behind the hagiographical register of the Book of Saint James. The idea that all of these illustrious shrines were mere waystations on the road to the ultimate goal in Galicia could only serve to promote the prestige of Compostela and elevate the Apostle to a status which superceded all others in the celestial hierarchy.

Initially the most popular route into Spain for pilgrims to Compostela, it has been traditionally considered that the passage over the Somport Pass was later restricted to those using the so-called Via Tolosana, from Arles. However its more central position along the Pyrenean chain suggests that the Aragonese Way drew travellers from a wider area.

A number of old Roman highways continued to serve medieval travellers. From Carolingian times a monastery at Siresa along the Hecho valley was strategically placed to assist the mountain crossing using the Palo Pass where there was an old Roman road. There, pilgrims benefited from an important collection of relics which included bones of the saints Andrew, Stephen, Benedict, Adrian, Lupercius, Medardus and Sebastian as well as a relic of John the Baptist and a piece of the Holy Cross.

However with the development of Jaca and the retreat of the Moors to the plains, the pass at  the Somport became the the standard route from Oloron.

Just below the pass, which stands at 1640 metres, was the great monastic hospital of Santa Cristina of which the Guide speaks with so much effusion. This was protected by the fortress at Candanchu. Along the right bank of the fast flowing Aragon river, the road descended gradually the thirty kilometres to Jaca, passing Canfranc where a customs house was set up in the mid eleventh century to deal with the increasing amounts of trade which were now passing between the Peninsula and France carrying goods from as far as Africa.

The rugged and desolate gorge through which the road threaded its way, made the travellers easy pickings for thieves, as evidenced in the naming of an overlooking summit as the Coll de Ladrones – thieves’ hill.

At Canfranc a bridge led over the river which could quickly become a raging torrent, to the left side. The road continued due south, on one side the castle at Castiello de Jaca and on the other the Monte del Apostol which rises to 1362 metres.

Jaca was a bustling frontier town, made prosperous by the passage of pilgrims and traders. As the capital of the early Reconquista, the royal coffers had been swollen from the money extorted from the Moorish taifa of Saragossa.  At Jaca pilgrims also had the opportunity to vist the shrine of Santa Eurosia at the cathedral.

Leaving Jaca via the bridge of San Miguel. the road followed the course of the Rio Aragon for a hundred kilometres as it turns due west, the high peaks of the Pyrenees visible to the north. A short distance to the south among the rugged hills lay the royal monasteries of Santa Maria de Santa Cruz de la Seros and San Juan de la Peña.

According to the Guide the stages following Jaca were Osturit and Tiermas. Tiermas was renowned for its “continuously running hot royal baths”. Alternate routes were available to pilgrims and the left bank of the Aragon river was favoured because there were fewer affluent streams to cross as well as an old Roman road, by contrast the right bank of the river received the fast flowing streams that ran down from the Pyrenees.

By the town of Osturit an important bridge crossed the Aragon after which, pilgrims continued along the river past the fortified hilltop town of Esco to Tiermas and Liedana.

The great massif of the Sierra de Leyre rises up here and on its slopes the celebrated monastery of San Salvador, a short distance from the camino.

San Salvador de Leyre was the oldest established abbey of the region and in the early days of the Reconquista had served as a refuge for the kings of Pamplona. This association of resistance towards the Moors was further emphasized by the presence in the abbey’s crypt of the relics of the saints Nunilo and Alodia, two sisters who had been martyred during the persecutions of Abdur Rahman II in 851.

At Ruesta there was a fortress built by the Moors in the ninth century but which they had been forced to abandon and was now taken over by the Christians. The town had a hospice for pilgrims and a monastery San Juan de Ruesta.

From Ruesta a road led south of the Aragon river via Undues de Llerda over hilly terrain towards the fortified town of Sangüesa. This was highly favoured as evidenced by the development of  the latter into an important pilgrimage station with its seven arched bridge. Alfonso el Batallador king of Aragon established his royal palace here and numerous hospices existed to care for pilgrims.

At Sangüesa, pilgrims headed north, crossing the Aragon once more over a massive bridge at Yesa leaving it to follow its southern course as the road headed northwestward along the valley of the Rio Elorz to Monreal avoiding  the Sierra de Izco.

Just before joining the main Navarrese route at Puente la Reina, the road passed by the church of Santa Maria de Eunate. This octagonal church surrounded by a cloister arcade took its round design from the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. It may have belonged to the Knights Templar and been a funerary chapel to honour those pilgrims who had died en route.

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.

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.

The pilgrimage roads as defined in the twelfth century manuscript referred to as the Book of Saint James follow four distinct routes across France. As they reach Spain they join to form a single route, known today as the Camino Francès.pilgrim-routes-wpress1

The four French roads travel from the north, east and south. Each passed through the most important saintly shrines of their regions.

The Road of Tours took its name from the shrine of Saint Martin of that city. This route afforded its travellers the opportunity to visit the great shrines of Saint Denis near Paris,  Saint Hilaire at Poitiers, Saint Eutropius at Saintes and Saint Seurin at Bordeaux.

Those who travelled the Road of Limoges began their journey at the abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy which claimed possession of the relics of Mary Magdalene. In the Limousin they could visit the shrine of Saint Leonard of Noblat and Saint Martial at Limoges and in the Périgord that of  Saint Fronto.

chanaleillesThe Road of Le Puy began at the cathedral town of Le Puy-en-Velay, home to  a prehistoric healing  dolmen. At Conques was the reliquary statue of Sainte Foy renowned for her miracle working powers. Further on was the  abbey of Moissac on the banks of the Tarn river, the great centre of monastic power in southern France

The Toulouse Road began at the ancient Roman necropolis of Arles with its numerous saints’ tombs. On the other side of the great delta of the Rhone was the shrine of Saint Gilles. Travelling up into the mountains of the Languedoc, pilgrims visited the tomb of Saint Guilhem, the knight turned monk and hero of numerous epic legends. The road then headed west to Toulouse and the shrine of Saint Saturninus.

The Pilgrim’s Guide which forms the fourth section of the Book of Saint James, recommends over twenty saints relics to venerate, although there were many more. rioja1On the Spanish road there are approximately 600 kilometres from the Pyrenees to Santiago itself with the route passing through Burgos and across the flat parched meseta plateau  to Leòn and the shrine of Saint Isidore. From there the road rises to cross the mountains of Galicia before reaching Compostela, a short distance from Finistera on the Atlantic coast.