Review of The Pilgrimage to Santiago by Edwin Mullins
Mullins delves into the history behind a Medieval pilgrimage, the Pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, North West Spain (the Camino de Santiago or The Way of St James), where lies a crypt containing the relics of the apostle St. James. He masterfully intertwines this history with exciting and incredible legends of how the Christians, in need of a leader in Moorish occupied Spain, were fortunate to “discover”, on their own doorstep, the bodily remains of St. James the Greater; Apostle and cousin to Jesus. We learn how the “Moor killer,” St. James “Matamoros”, subsequently fought (after his death!) at the Battle of Clavijo to expel the Moors from Spain and how this and many other legends relating to St. James, are now often romantically told as historical events.
Pilgrim routes are revealed to be considered as “roads to heaven” in the Middle Ages and the Camino de Santiago, where Christian pilgrims had to face the Moors, wolves, bandits, disease and discomfort, was a massive test of faith and determination. A pilgrimage was a public penance to obtain a remission of sins and at a later date, a punishment, or imposed spiritual cleansing for others. The art and architecture were signposts, guiding and inspiring, later to embody the wealth and authority of the ruling classes and the Church. Relics of Saints came to acquire a morbid sanctity and were more valuable than the monuments that housed them.
We are encouraged to question and understand the involvement of Cluny, France in the growth of the pilgrimage and discover how the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (one of the greatest ecclesiastical buildings of the world) raised substantial funding thanks to a fraudulent tax levied throughout Spain. We also gain an insight into why the third most important pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome, rose to be the most popular.
There are many pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and it is a shame the Mullins makes scant reference to the lesser known North Route or Coastal Route (Camino Norte) that hugs the Northern Spanish coast and also scales some particularly challenging mountain regions in the Basque Country between Irun and Bilbao – it is this route that actually became the principal route for many years as pilgrims, in their fear, tried to avoid the Moors who were pressing their occupation of Spain ever northwards. It was also the obvious route to follow for pilgrims arriving by sea from northern lands.
Nevertheless, the most commonly used route to this day across Spain continues to be the French route (Camino Frances) – roughly 80% of all pilgrims travel this path. Mullins begins his own “pilgrimage” from Paris, however, it has to be said that he covers the greater distance by car, rather than on foot and he is a self-confessed, “five-star pilgrim”, choosing to stay in luxury hotels, rather than humble pilgrim refuges. Consequently, his observations tend to be of a well-informed and observant tourist, as opposed to someone experiencing the suffering and joy of a true pilgrimage. He is not unaware of this and comments; “…in a car, you are always a foreigner, on foot a visitor.”
This does not, however, detract from his ability to share snippets of the walking experience in glorious form and he also intriguingly reveals how stone sculptures, pictures, symbols and designs in churches to be found along the way are not merely articles of artistic merit. They are sermons; sermons that were easily recognised by the common pilgrims in the Middle Ages, who were, after all, mostly illiterate.
The Pilgrimage to Santiago is still going strong and over 270,000 pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela to receive their “Compostela” (aka, certificate) in the Holy Year of St. James in 2010 – a Holy Year being when the 25th July, the Saints Day of St. James, falls on a Sunday. Mullins states that “even on the Day of St James, the City attracts fewer visitors than do most of the great cities of Europe”. This does rather date his account of his pilgrimage in view of the aforementioned figures, however his observation is entirely reasonable, as at the time of writing, in the early 1970’s, the average number of pilgrims claiming a Compostela were fewer than 100 a year! The “Golden Age” of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was the 12th Century but it is clearly enjoying a staggering resurrection of late and perhaps this is best explained in Mullins own words, “walking a long distance can lift you out of the cares of the modern world and put you in touch with an older, quieter way of life.”
What inspired Mullins, a non-believer, to dedicate so much time and effort into researching a Christian pilgrimage is not clear and by his own admission, he only captured a whiff scent of the joy that may be felt by a true pilgrim. Nevertheless and to his admirable credit, he does not fail to recognise in his tale, “The Pilgrimage to Santiago”, that treading the path of an extraordinary past, along “the long road to heaven”, is a deeply moving experience.
Review by Phil Robinson In their early 30′s Phil Robinson and his wife toured Spain in a Motor caravan. For 15 months they toured the country, repeatedly coming into contact with the Pilgrimage to Santiago. The Pilgrimage “seed” had been planted, although another 15 years passed before the opportunity arose for Phil to walk the entire North Route from Hendaya, France to Santiago de Compostela in 40 days and 40 nights.