In Vézelay’s Shadow (Dennis Aubrey)


Vézelay in Burgundy was one of the principal starting places for one of the main medieval pilgrimage routes to Santiago Compostela, the Via Lemovicensis. Vast numbers of pilgrims came to the pilgrimage church of Sainte Madeleine to begin their long journey to the northwest corner of Spain. A pilgrim approaching the famed Basilique Sainte Madeleine from the north would pass through the hamlet of Asquins, just a mile and a half away.

Nave, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Asquins today is a small commune of 326 people, built primarily along a single long street that runs from north to south. In the Middle Ages, this street was full of shops and vendors who sold religious items to the faithful who marched their weary way on the pilgrimage.

Like the pilgrims themselves, these vendors traveled on foot with their bundles on their back, or – if they were more prosperous – perhaps with a mule or horse. Whether they were locals who owned shops or itinerant peddlers, the marchands d’objets de pieté produced and sold ex-votos, memorial candles, and pilgrim badges to the stream of pilgrims who made their way to Vézelay. This practice continued up to the 20th century as the factories in town made ex-votos for churches and shrines in France, Italy and Spain.

Nave from north transept, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from north transept, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Pilgrims who passed through Asquins to Vézelay would pass below les Champs de la Cordelle, the hillside where Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade to the multitudes assembled in the valley. On the 31st of March 1146 the road would have been thronged with the faithful, including King Louis VII and his bride Eleanor of Aquitaine, crying Deus veult! Deus veult! as Bernard cried out “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood.” There was not enough cloth to make the crosses for those taking up the cry and Bernard gave his own outer robes to be cut up.

Altar, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Once the pilgrims mounted the steep hill of Vézelay, they would reach one of the greatest churches of the age – the Basilique Sainte Madeleine. Home to precious relics of Mary Magdeleine, the abbey church was a great pilgrimage site of its own, as well as the starting place for the route to Santiago.

West entrance, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

West entrance, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Asquins, known as Esconium in the 12th century was a mere dependency of the great abbey at Vézelay that loomed above. It’s own modest church reflected the importance of the pilgrimage to the town. Situated on top of a small hill overlooking the village is the Église Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur d’Asquins, named after Saint James the Greater, the first apostle to be beheaded for his faith by King Herod. Saint James is, of course, known in Spain as Santiago.

Small retable, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Small retable, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur, Asquins (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

There is another reason that Asquins is well-known for pilgrimage – it is thought to be the home of Aymery Picaud who wrote the Codex Calixtinus, which dates from around 1150. This illuminated manuscript Codex Calixtinus is the oldest known guide to the Santiago pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. 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 fueled 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.”

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Asquins holds a special place for PJ and myself. The modest church, the history, and the spectacular view of the basilica in Vézelay make it a place where we would like to live.

On a final note, since we may someday buy a house in Asquins, we were delighted to learn that they have a football team, AS Asquins, playing in the Seniors 3eme Division, the equivalent of the tenth level of French club football. Their pitch is as unpretentious as one could imagine – next to the fields full of Charolais cows. We are proud to announce that they are at the top of Pool F in their division. Not bad for a town of 326!

AS Asquins (2013-2014 club)

AS Asquins (2013 club)

PJ and I are passionate fans and while our favorite club AJ Auxerre has been relegated to Ligue 2, we look forward to joining the other Asquins supporters at the famous Hirondelles cafe at the main intersection of town.

Location: 47.482656° 3.754369°

23 responses to “In Vézelay’s Shadow (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Ludwig, Asquins is as modest a little village as you can imagine. A single public venue, the bar Hirondelle at the main intersection (there are only a couple), a bunch of houses, the church on the high ground, and (across the small highway) the soccer pitch. It is one of the things we like most, the simplicity and quiet.

  1. Dennis an PJ, your posts always invite me to travel and discover this churches by my own eyes. Not before having travelled with my imagination (they have that power because they suggest the intrinsic atmosphere!) Thanks again! Allow me a little suggestion: Why not include a schematic plan to indicate where the churchs are? regards Hugo

    • Hugo, thanks for your kind words. How did the defense of your disseration go? Done yet?

      As for the location, at the very end of the article, there is a link to a Google Map that places that church along with all of the others on which we have posted. Try it and let me know if that works for you.

  2. oh my the light coming through makes this place very peaceful, i could lay on the floor and just look about me…this may be the one i like the best,kathy

    • Kathy, it is a lovely, quiet, and peaceful spot. We have never seen anyone in the church, but it is well-kept and clearly part of the life of Asquins. Glad you like this so much.

  3. I told your “Life is a Camino” friend that I was too old to make the trek to Santiago. Nonsense, he said. You’re never too old. Agreed. But sometimes pilgrimages take different turns. Your photos take me there online and, as you do so often, you put people in and around your buildings. All 326 of them….

    • Judy, Nathan is a young energetic man, probably with enough energy for all of us put together! We are going to visit with him in France in May in the Ardeche region. I know he is going to run rings around this old dog.

      • Looking forward to France, not so sure I’ll be running rings around ya, buddy, if whatever lung infection I have right now doesn’t abate.

        Also, I was going to mention that when I walked by Asquins I remember passing by that one cafe and seeing the town youth hanging about. It seemed like a pretty chill place, I would have stopped but it was starting to get dark and I still had to climb up that one steep hill to St. Madeleine. I can’t believe that was August 18th, because I still see the bright neon green arrows someone painted on the path there like it was yesterday.

  4. I doubt anyone would fall asleep in those pews… If you make this your local church, you’d better take a cushion to mass. Thanks for these posts on French churches – I always read them and always enjoy them.

  5. The great cathedrals are stunning, however, it’s a place like this that speaks loudest for me. The generations of families who worshiped inside those walls. The tranquility and the quality of light. The simplicity and humility of the place. Beautifully captured.

  6. Thank you for the Asquins reportage. i just wondered if you have a photo of the bust reliquary of St Jacques le Majeur. it is used for pilgrim stamps on the credentials for the Camino. Thank you for all your work.

  7. Pingback: Vino con Vista Vezelay France on the UNESCO Route: The Way of Saint James is the Camino de Santiago to Spain | Vino Con Vista Italy Travel Guides and Events

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