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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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°