Wednesday, March 14, 2018

To Be a Pilgrim

 on the Way of Santiago

Tomorrow night in the Princeton University Chapel the celebrated singing group “Tenebrae” will perform the “Path of Miracles” by the English composer Joby Talbot, an extraordinary choral sequence inspired by the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  The head of the sponsoring body, the Princeton University Concerts, has asked me and Joan to give a brief introductory talk.  Joan has some real credentials.  In addition to being a musician, she actually walked the roughly thousand miles from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Compostela.  Such knowledge as I have is more professorial, but I have welcomed the opportunity to think about the subject and the many happy memories with which it is associated.
Tenebrae singers
 Pilgrimage, or travel undertaken at least ostensibly to satisfy spiritual obligation or desire, characterizes all the world’s leading religions.  Pilgrimage played a particularly important role in pre-Reformation European Christianity.  Statistics show that it is by no means a spent force even today.  280,000 pilgrims picked up their certificate of completion at the Compostela Pilgrims Office in 2016.  Many more visited pilgrimage sites in Israel and Italy.  The Holy Land and Rome, indeed, as the ancient sites of the earthly ministry and Passion of Jesus Christ and the founding martyrs of the Roman church, had been the principal goals of the medieval pilgrims.  It was interference with the pilgrims’ routes that was the presenting cause of the first Crusade.   By the year 1300 there were hundreds of small, local pilgrimage sites and dozens of larger ones, including Cologne, Canterbury, Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, Monte Gargano in Apuleia, and Trondheim in Norway.  Pilgrims came to Compostela by sea and by at least four major land routes or viae, “ways”, including the famous one from Paris that began in the Latin Quarter on the rue Saint Jacques—Saint James Street.
Pilgrimage was often enough a taxing and even dangerous undertaking.  The word journey means the distance a healthy walker could cover in a day (un jour).  In the English word travel we see the French travail, work or labor, the direct reflex of which, “travail” is used mainly of the pains of childbirth.  Canon law required that long-distance pilgrims prepare their testamentary wills before departure, as there was a significant chance they would not return.  Illness, accident, local food scarcities, military activity, highway robbers—the potential dangers were many.

The remarkable music of Joby Talbot, a modern artistic response to pilgrimage, has many artistic antecedents.  For forty years I had the pleasure of teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at Princeton.  I never tired of the task, nor ever felt I had exhausted the richness of a text that remains uniquely informative in its incidental testimony concerning medieval pilgrimage.  The poet instinctively grasped the almost natural allegory that forced comparison between the journey of a life’s course and that of a slog along a dusty road.  But he captured much more, especially a sense of the extraordinary diversity of pilgrims and their motivations that is no less striking in the twenty-first century than in the fourteenth.  In any random pilgrim band, all ostensibly bound by the same vow, one might find mixed together the deeply devout, the curious, the adventurous, and those who simply had to get out of town for reasons best unmentioned.  One might be traveling with a criminal whose pilgrimage had been court-ordered.  Chaucer’s Pardoner is one of the greatest con-men in world literature.  His Wife of Bath would better described as cruising than as traveling.  Like so much in Christianity, a deeply sacramental system in which the material and the visible betokened unseen spiritual reality, the truth of any pilgrim heart could be known by God alone.

Santiago Matamoros

The Compostela pilgrimage was fabulous in its origins and uniquely bellicose in its historical development.  All pilgrimage sites cherished their relics, but he gold standard for sacred corpses was the body of one of the Twelve Apostles.  By the ninth century, they had practically all been claimed by major basilicas throughout Europe, but Saint James the Greater (son of Zebedee and brother of John the Beloved) was still surprisingly available.  He is the only Apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the Bible.  In the ninth century his remains washed up in a stone boat, or perhaps a stone coffin, on the rugged Galician headlands; and almost immediately the saint was seen on horseback and in full armor traversing the night sky at the head of a Christian army on his way to a place called Clavijo, where he aided in the defeat of a large Saracen army and began the slow southward progress generally known as the “Reconquest,” which finally culminated in 1492 with the total defeat of Muslim power on the Iberian peninsula.  In Spanish the bright part of the galaxy we call the Milky Way is called the Camino de Santiago, and the saint himself is known by the terrifying name of Matamoros, “Moor-slayer”.  The peculiar tenor of militant Spanish Catholicism, which in the Americas would have some unhappy results, was encouraged by the military order of Saint James.  The saint’s more pacific doppelgänger, the horseless pilgrim with walking staff, gourd water-bottle, and above all the scallop-shell or “cockle” hat—that is, the saint on his way to his own shrine--is more familiar and more reassuring, or perhaps more haunting.  Recall the “mad song” of Ophelia in Hamlet:

How should I your true love know
    From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
    And his sandal shoon.

Santiago peregrinus


  1. Professor Fleming, please tell Joan that I am in the midst of walking from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago. My stage this year is Moissac to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. I walk while Anne D works with manuscripts at the BN. Cheers, John Hedeman

  2. Dear John: How wonderful! Joan found Moissac one of the most spectacular sites along the route. More power to both you and your admirable spouse as you carry out your diverse contemporary versions of the spiritual quest!