Pilgrims have been visiting the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain, for over a thousand years but, between the eighteenth and the late twentieth century numbers declined to such an extent that in 1976 only 243 pilgrims received the compostela (the certificate, written in Latin, confirming the completion of the pilgrimage and arrival in Santiago). In the last 30 years, however, the mystique of pilgrimage has been rediscovered and in 2004, a ‘Holy Year’ (when the saint’s feast day falls on a Sunday), the official count of pilgrims arriving in Santiago was 179,000.
Being a Pilgrim offers a fascinating account of this phenomenon of pilgrimage, or ‘spiritual tourism’ as it is sometimes called today. The book is both sumptuous and scholarly, covering many aspects of pilgrimage: not only the art and ritual of the sub-title, but also architecture and history, sociology and anthropology, and theology and spirituality. The text was written by Kathleen Ashley, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine and has published widely on medieval popular culture, hagiography and cultural history. Marilyn Deegan, Professor Emeritus at King’s College, London, a medievalist and freelance photographer, took most of the more than 250 colour photographs that make the book such a visual feast. The ‘medieval routes’ of the title refer to the four main pilgrim routes through France, beginning at Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy-en-Velay and Arles. All these routes meet up close to the Pyrenees, becoming the Camino frances (the ‘French Way’) that crosses northern Spain.
The authors recognise that pilgrimage involves not only a physical journey, but also ‘an inner psychic journey towards a valued goal’. Pilgrimage is an individual task undertaken in a supportive social setting, thus revealing ‘not just the individual’s but also the wider culture’s “imaginary” – its social imagination’ (p.58). This is reflected in the fact that the Camino frances was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987, and inscribed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 1993.
The book discusses everything from the magnificent architecture of the cathedrals and abbeys en route – in Le Puy, Conques, Burgos and León, for example – to the provision of latrines for medieval pilgrims. There are numerous anecdotes taken from official records and the journals of pilgrims, together with accounts of some of the more famous historical figures who have made their way to Santiago as pilgrims, such as Queen Isabel of Portugal, who arrived in Santiago in 1325, and the mother of Joan of Arc, who went to Le Puy after Joan’s death to fulfil her daughter’s vowed intention to make the pilgrimage.
The book is enhanced by the inclusion of scholarly endnotes, an index, extensive suggestions for further reading (including works in English, French and Spanish), and a map of the routes under discussion, although this main map (pp. 246-47) and several other smaller supporting maps that appear in the book all suffer from a frustrating lack of detail.
If you are a returned pilgrim and have already earned your compostela you will find that this book evokes many rich memories while at the same time adding new layers of knowledge and understanding to your experience. If, on the other hand, you have not yet walked one of the pilgrim routes to Santiago, you may find the book prompts within you an irresistible urge to get started.