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Sahagun-Cea-Bridge-3Sahagún lies on the banks of the Cea river on the Castilian meseta between Fromistá and León. The rather empty and desolate place today belies its medieval status as one of the most important monastic centres in twelfth century Spain. The town took its name from the abbey of San Facundo e Primitivo.

According to the History of Charlemange and Roland, “a castle stands in the meadows, in the best part of the whole plain, where afterwards a church was built in honour of the blessed martyrs Facundus and Primitivus, where likewise their bodies rest and an abbey was founded and a city built”.

The Guide counts Sahagún as major halt on the road, the end of the seventh day’s journey from Fromistá and mentions it by name several times.

Sahagun-San-Tirso-2The Benedictine monastery adhered to the Cluniac order and Sahagún was the centre of Cluny’s power in northern Spain, presiding over more than fifty dependent priories.

Its links with the king emperors of León-Castile and the court were exceptionally close and it was especially favoured by Alfonso VI who chose to be buried there rather than in the royal pantheon at León.

Sahagún was an important part of Alfonso’s plan to develop the Compostelan pilgrimage infrastructure and the monastery benefitted from an annual donation of 2,000 bushels of wheat which went towards feeding pilgrims in the hospital of sixty beds.

San-Pedro-de-las-Dueñas-4The abbey’s church was an immense construction and housed the relics of the two saints.

In the cursory account of Spanish saints included in the Pilgrims’ Guide, the relics of Facundus and Primitivus are among only two others apart from Santiago, that pilgrims are ordained to visit.

The two saints were martyrs of third century Roman persecutions, decapitated by the banks of the Cea river. The Guide repeats the legend that their church was erected by Charlemagne. In fact Alfonso III of Asturias had first settled a community of monks from Cordobá at Sahagún in the 870’s.

historia-turpini-1The History of Turpin is the early twelfth century Latin manuscript which forms Book Four of the compilation known as the Jacobus, the hagiographical texts devoted to the cult of the Apostle James of Compostela.

The narrative, occasionally interrupted by homiletic passages, is an account of the emperor Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition. Each episode contains a miraculous dimension and the whole text is in ultimate service of the Galician shrine.

Written in epistolary form, the text is purportedly written by Charlemagne’s archbishop Turpin of Rheims and addressed to a dean of Aix-la-Chapelle. It claims to be a first hand report.

For this reason most historians refer to it as the Pseudo-Turpin although it is also commonly known as the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi or History of Charlemagne and Roland.


It was an exteremely popular text during the medieval period with numerous manuscripts being copied. Using an episodic structure and divided into approximately thirty chapters, the History is an account of the Franks’ fourteen year campaign, climaxing with the battle of Roncevaux. Although some of the names are different the essential components of the Roncevaux episode are identical to those recounted in the vernacular Song of Roland.

LSJ-KaroliMagni-1-WPThe narrative begins with a vision of Charlemagne’s in which he receives a visitation from Saint James who urges him to free Spain and his tomb in Galicia from the Saracens.

The emperor assembles a Frankish army and after taking the city of Pamplona, the Saracens of Spain surrender the whole of the peninsula.

Victorious, Charlemagne then visits the shrine at Santiago de Compostela to fulfil the demand imposed on him by Saint James.

Converting the Saracens to Christianity, they remain for three years receiving tribute from the Moors which they use to build a series of magnificent churches including a new cathedral at Compostela.

Turpin-Illum-1-WPThe emperor’s campaign appears victorious and he returns to France, however a new Saracen leader, Aigoland emerges from Africa and retakes Spain.

Charlemagne, obliged to return then defeats the Saracens once more on the plain outside Sahagún before departing once more for France where the focus of the campaign enters a new stage as Aigoland seizes the town of Agen. After a seven month siege, Aigoland escapes up the river Garonne and the process is repeated at Saintes.

Charlemagne then follows the fleeing Aigoland to Pamplona with an even greater army. Again, Charlemagne defeats the Saracens in a battle outside Pamplona and this time Aigoland himself is killed.

At Mont Garzim in Navarre a battle is fought with that Saracen king of Navarre named Furra.

Saracens-2-WPThe war enters a new phase with the arrival at Nájera of a giant leading an army of twenty thousands Turks of Babylon. The giant challenges the Franks to single combat, defeating allcomers until challenged by the paladin Roland, who kills him with a sword thrust to the navel, his only vulnerable spot.

Following this the Franks capture Nájera.

The war now moves south to Cordoba where six thousand Franks are confronted with ten thousand Saracens assembled from the principalities of Andalusia. The Saracen soldiers wearing demonic masks, and beating loud drums terrify the horses of the Frankish cavalry who are forced to beat a retreat. The problem is solved by blindfolding the horses and blocking their ears.

LSJ-Paladins-WPVictorious again, Charlemagne generously divides Spain among his people and holds a council at Compostela, decreeing it to be the Metropolitan See.

The culminating drama now unfolds, the ambush at Roncevaux and the martyrdom of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and most illustrious warrior. With the Franks finally returning to France, Roland is placed in command of the rearguard as it crosses over the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, the treacherous paladin Ganelon has plotted with the Saracens, Marsile and Beligant. After the main Frankish army has gone over the Cize Pass, they ambush the rearguard. Roland, wounded and dying becomes a martyr.

Distraught, Charlemagne rushes back too late and then destroys the Saracen force near Saragossa. Ganelon is executed by being torn limb from limb by four wild horses. The returning Franks bury their dead at various hallowed sites

Finally at Saint Denis, Charlemagne is absolved of his sins in a dream on his deathbed and receives the crown of martyrdom.

The last chapter of the book consists of a letter by Pope Calixtus II which is a call to arms for a crusade in Spain.

Biblio: History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Bernard Gicquel, Tallandier 2003

LSJ-Calixtus-2-Authorship of the text of Book Five of the Jacobus, the so-called Pilgrim’s Guide is attributed to Pope Calixtus II and a certain Aimery and it’s colophon tells us that it was largely composed at the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy.

It goes without saying that such medieval attributions of authorship and provenance need to be treated with scepticism. The career of the Burgundian Calixtus, as a former monk of Cluny and eventual holder of the Papal throne did little to qualify him for the familiarity with the topography of northern Spain demonstrated by the text. Furthermore, Calixtus’ death in 1124 precludes him as the definitive author.

 Rio-PisuergaThe dates 1137, which marked the death King Louis VI of France and is referred to in the text and 1173, when the first known copy was completed, provide the time frame for the compilation of the Jacobus. According to the text, the cathedral of Compostela had already been under construction for sixty-three years at the time of King Louis’ death and building was still ongoing.

This close proximity of the text to the phenomenon it described is further evidenced by the mention of the continuing practice at Triacestela, Fromista-Corbels-1-WPof pilgrims gathering stones which they carried to Castaneda, eighty kilometres further on. These went into the making of the lime used in the construction of the cathedral, giving the modern reader a vivid sense of the contemporaneity of the text.

 It seems evident that the author had a firm grasp of the fine detail of the pilgrimage road, especially when one considers that Chapter III entitled “Of the names of towns on this road”, lists a total of fifty seven place names along the route. On this basis, an origin for the text of the Pilgrim’s Guide within the scriptorium of the cathedral of Santiago seems likely.

Biblio: J. Passini – Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques. Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa XXX 2000 pp.75-83, W. Melczer – The Pilgrims’ Guide to Santiago de Compostela

LSJ-Quatuor-3In the almost exclusively non-literate culture of the medieval world, the production of a manuscript answered a need to fix and define an oral tradition  simultaneously conferring the status of authenticity on the material contained within.

 The Jacobus, a compilation of writings devoted to the cult of the Apostle James, was such a document. However, it presents a radical departure from the general form of hagiographical texts which focussed on the vita, or life and death of the subject  and provided examples of their miraculous powers.

 Its five books do include a list of miracles but no Vita, perhaps because the legend of Saint James had early been established in apocryphal texts. Rather, the intentions of the authors seem to be twofold.

Leon-Zodiac-2-WPFirstly to legitimise the questionable notion that one of the Twelve Apostles was actually buried in northwestern Spain. This was addressed in Book Four’s History of Charlemagne and Roland, which fused the legend of Saint James’ shrine with the memory of Charlemagne, the most potent and revered of medieval icons.

 The second concern of the authors is with the pilgrimage itself, since in the case of Compostela more than any other medieval cult, the journey was as, if not more important than the goal itself. The nine chapters of Book Five, the so-called Pilgrim’s Guide, deal comprehensively with this subject.

The course of the pilgrimage road had long been be a contentious matter with powerful and sometimes competing forces at play.

Rio-Salada-3Before the establishment of Estella in 1090, the road passed along a series of monasteries between Villatuerta and Irache. Among these was the priory and pilgrim hospital of Zarapuz, belonging to the powerful abbey of San Juan de la Pena. The existence of the new town meant that the route now moved away from Zarapuz, to the detriment of San Juan, whose monks bitterly complained to no avail of the rights granted to Estella.

Similarly, the important monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla was not favoured when pilgrims were directed to Najera. The monks were obliged to go there to solicit pilgrims on the road to make a detour of nine miles to the remote abbey in the Sierra de la Demanda to visit the relics of their saint Emilianus whose cult was now forced into a comparative decline.

Iroz-Bridge-WP At the end of chapter III the author claims his intention is to provide information which will give pilgrims an idea of the expense involved in their prospective journey to Compostela. Yet in performing his task, the author has at the same time fixed the definitive route of the pilgrimage road to such a degree that this may actually have been his intended purpose behind the manuscript compilation.

 Variants of the pilgrimage road were not eradicated, but at some point in the middle of the twelfth century, the author of the Jacobus set down in writing what had partly been a growing popular tradition and partly the enforced will of royalty and the Church. It came to be known as the Camino Frances.

Biblio:  Passini – Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques. Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa XXX 2000 pp.75-83, W. Melczer – The Pilgrims’ Guide to Santiago de Compostela, Elias Valiña: The Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago


Santiago-67During the great florescence of the Compostelan pilgrimage in the twelfth century, travellers reached Santiago by a variety of ways. Some came by sea,  others from El-Andalus and Merida up the Via de la Plata. Only one of these itineraries was set down in writing and that was the road from the Pyrenees, the so-called French Road or Camino Frances.

This route is recorded in the Jacobus, that twelfth century medieval manuscript devoted to the cult of Santiago de Compostela which contains a chapter entitled “The Day’s Journey on the Apostle’s Road”.

In contrast to the scant account afforded the four roads through France in the previous chapter, the level of detail here given to the description of the Spanish road is revealing by the manner in which it is so clearly defined.

 Aspe-River-10Stylistically the text takes its form from the itineraries which were drawn up for the Roman legions, which measured journeys in units of distances travelled per day.

It specifies two routes over the Pyrenees, either the Somport pass or the Cize and Roncevaux. Beginning at the village of Borce on the French side below the Somport Pass, the first route consists of three days journey to Puente la Reina in Navarre from where, the text tells us a “single road leads as far as Santiago”. From Borce to Jaca is the first day, Jaca to Monreal the second and Monreal to Puente la Reina, the third.

 Navarre_Aragon-The second route is described from the village of Saint Michel Pied-de-Port “at the foot of the pass of Cize on the Gascon side”. From there the journey is divided into thirteen uneven stages between way stations of a day’s length. It is worth noting that according to these instructions the pilgrim would cover an unlikely average of over fifty kilometres per day.

 Thus the first stage is between Saint Michel and the Navarrese village of Viscarret; the second, Viscarret to Pamplona, the third is Pamplona to Estella, the fourth, Estella to Najera, the fifth goes from Najera into Castile and the city of Burgos. The sixth is Burgos to Fromista. Across the meseta the road heads into Leon from Fromista to the Cluniac bastion at Sahagun which is the seventh days’ journey. The eighth is Sahagun to Leon, the ninth Leon to Rabanal, the tenth to Villafranca del Bierzo in Galicia. Villafranca to Triacestela is the eleventh, the twelfth goes as far as Palas and then finally the thirteenth to Compostela itself.

Biblio: W. Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela


The final book of the Codex Calixtus  begins with these words: “There are four roads which, leading to Santiago, converge to form a single road at Puente la Reina, in Spanish territory”. Often referred to as the Pilgrim’s Guide, it is hard to consider that it was possible to use it in the form of a guide for travellers in any modern sense and indeed its purpose remains obscure. It would appear to be a collection of liturgical pieces, hagiographical texts and sections of practical advice. Nevertheless, it does maintain a certain cohesiveness in that it remains faithful to the idea of what a twelfth century pilgrim might have witnessed and as such must stand as a fascinating reminder of a bygone age.

The routes were defined by the location of the most important saintly shrines on the way and the pilgrimage to Compostela became a cumulative sacred experience.

In modern times, these four roads have been named according to the principal town on the route. Thus we have the Road of Tours which leads from northern France down the western side of France. The Road of Limoges passes through Burgundy and the centre. The Road of Le Puy crosses the Auvergne. The Road of Toulouse leads from Provence through the Languedoc region.

It is generally considered that each road began at a certain point, like a fountainhead where pilgrims congregated. The Tours route at the shrine of Saint Martin at Tours itself, the Limoges route beginning at the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, the Puy route beginning at the shrine of the black Madonna at the cathedral of Le Puy. Finally, the Toulouse route commencing at the necropolis of the Alyscans at Arles.

Modern historians have attempted to recreate the old pilgrim roads using these locations as markers and filling in the rest with reference to surviving buildings, most often the many eleventh and twelfth century churches which still exist. How well they have succeeded is open to opinion, as is the more difficult question of how much the Pilgrim’s Guide can be said to reflect a true picture of twelfth century pilgrimage.

Christian writers, from the earliest years were keen to set down in writing the lives of the saints and the miracles which they performed, whether during their lifetime or through their relics after death. Many of these texts failed to survive the ravages of religious warfare and revolutionary zeal. At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela there exists in complete form the full twelfth century text of the cult which was venerated there.

The Liber Sancti Iacobi or the Book of Saint James is often referred to as the The Codex Calixtinus after Pope Calixtus II by whom it was purportedly written, although it is clearly derived from a number of sources. Scholars are agreed that it was written  around the middle of the twelfth century and comprises five books.

Book One consists of liturgical material. Book Two consists of the accounts twenty-two miracles performed by Saint James. Book Three consists of the story of Saint James’ translation from Palestine and burial at Compostela.

Book Four is called the History of Charlemagne and Roland and is a Latin version of the Chanson de Geste known as the Song of Roland with a strong emphasis on the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Book Five is today often referred to as the Pilgrim’s Guide. It is a curious manuscript whose intention has been much disputed. It is ostensibly a guide to travellers to the shrine of Saint James via four roads which cross France and meet beyond the Pyrenees  in Navarre where they join to form a single road to Compostela.

There is advice on matters concerning pilgrims such as the inhabitants of the countries they must pass through, which rivers are poisonous, but above all which saintly relics to visit along the way.

Modern historians have attempted to recreate the old pilgrim roads using these locations as markers and filling in the rest with reference to surviving buildings, most often the many eleventh and twelfth century churches which still exist. How well they have succeeded is open to opinion, as is the more difficult question of how much the Pilgrim’s Guide can be said to reflect a true picture of twelfth century pilgrimage.

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.