The Path of Sant Iago – Exile (Dennis Aubrey)


This is part one of a two-part post on the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella, one of the most important goals for the multitudes of pious pilgrims who converged at the shrine of Saint James from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

This illuminated manuscript Codex Calixtinus is the oldest known guide to the Santiago pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. It is generally ascribed to Aymeric Picaud, a French scholar from Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Poitou region of France. Picaud’s work is integral to our work at Via Lucis, providing much of the information available on the medieval pilgrimage churches on the different routes across France and Spain. It also provides a rationale for pilgrimage.

“The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.”

Codex Calixtinus

Codex Calixtinus

The medieval pilgrimage was an exile – enforced or voluntary – a journey of hardship and sacrifice that had to be endured in order to achieve sanctification. The pilgrim left home to walk in the company of strangers across great distances. The way to Santiago de Compostella involved crossing mountains, rivers, and deserts over long distances, on foot, braving brigands and illness. The voyage was made by old and young, sick and infirm, men, women and children. This great effort was intended to purify the soul and enabled the pilgrim to receive the blessings that Christianity could bestow on its adherents, including translation to heaven upon death for an eternity of bliss in the sight of God and the Saviour. It would represent a triumph over the efforts of the Devil to ensnare the souls of the faithful and to damn those soul to an eternity of suffering.

Capital, Burial of Saint Hilaire, Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Burial of Saint Hilaire, Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This struggle between the Satan and God was a constant and real presence among the faithful in the Middle Ages. The conflict was not in any sense metaphorical. There were many who had seen the Devil face to face and contested with his demons. Only the safety and protection of the medieval church kept the soul from the grasp of the powers of Evil. The priceless relics of saints and martyrs were a line of defense against the assault on the soul of the Christians, and they needed to be protected, displayed, and venerated.

In this battle against evil, pilgrimage was one of the greatest weapons. In this exile of the spirit, faith was tested and fired, refined to a purer essence. The medieval roads were filled with these exiles. They walked across Europe to receive the blessings of the saints and martyrs who helped to combat the demons who fought for possession of the soul – even the soul of a saint – until the very end.

Capital - Funeral of Saint Paul the Hermit, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Funeral of Saint Paul the Hermit, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But there is more than the fear of sin and damnation that accompanied this exile. There was a hunger of the soul as well. There was exultation in knowing what was expected by God and abiding by that expectation. Joy moved the multitudes as much as fear.

We can get an idea of the significance and importance by the words of the Almoravide emir Ali ibn Yusuf, who, on a diplomatic mission to the court of the Doña Urraco, Queen of Zamora, asked “Que apenas se puede transitar por la calzada hacia occidente.” (Joaquín María Córdoba Zoilo, Viajes y viajeros en la Europa medieval).

“Who could be so great that so many are coming and returning from Santiago so that you can barely move on the road to the west?”

All along the routes to Santiago, the monasteries built churches to shelter, nourish, inspire and teach the pilgrims. A giant spiderweb network of churches filled the pilgrimage roads, even in the most remote places. They were filled with relics of saints and martyrs, and most precious of all, of the Saviour or his Mother. The veneration of these relics was the tangible evidence of the sacrifice at the heart of Christianity.

Side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers  (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The churches taught the lessons of the Bible, reminding the pilgrims of the message of Christianity. The life of Christ, stories from the Old Testament, life of the martyrs, and the symbolic stories illustrating the faith all appeared on the capitals, tympana, decorated facades, and frescoes that adorned the churches.

Capital - Sampson attacking the lion, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Sampson attacking the lion, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These same adornments taught the nature and dangers of sin and the temptations of the Devil, urging faithfulness and diligence on the pilgrims, reminding them that evil never rested.

Capital - Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun  (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

To walk across the European continent despite all hazards and difficulties meant that the pilgrim entered the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in a state of grace. Sins were forgiven, the pilgrim could restart life with a clean slate.

Chapelle de Peyrusse, Peyrusse (Cantal) Photo by PJ McKey

Chapelle de Peyrusse, Peyrusse (Cantal) Photo by PJ McKey

This journey of exile, of banishment, continues into our own age as many still walk the Camino today. The scallop shell badge and the Credencial, or Pilgrim’s Passport, is shared by thousands today to join the walkers from the Middle Ages. The passage of time attests to their multitudes, as even stone is worn by the passing feet.

14 responses to “The Path of Sant Iago – Exile (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. My husband and I joined the community of pilgrims to visit the relics, walk the miles and pay homage to those who travelled before us. The voluntary pilgrimage was truly enlightening, to see the old churches, to meet so many wonderful people, and live in the beautiful countryside of Spain is an experience we will never forget. Admittedly we had it much easier that those pilgrims of the middle ages, good food, comfortable beds, friendly people on the roads, no banidits, and we only had to walk one way. We took the plane home.
    We loved it so much we are looking to do another – a different route…..

  2. Fascinating piece. It’s unlikely that you know James Carse’s “Breakfast at the Victory: The Extraordinariness of Ordinary Experience” in whose Introduction a dying friends’ lost boot on the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostella is an important metaphor. This is one my favorite books. The lost book and the one that was found in the mud years later is part of what I’m working on for submission to an agent. Thanks so much, Dennis, for this thoughtful piece that awakens all the deep questions of the human spirit: both our goodness and what the theologians of the Reformation called “our proneness to evil.” I wish I didn’t know that truth so personally.

    • I don’t know the book, Gordon, so thanks for the reference. I wish that I had done the Camino in my younger years, but I still hold a little hope that with my new knee, I’ll be able to do a portion. PJ and my sister Ann are going to walk a section when Ann returns from Brazil. Here’s to Stan the Man!

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