This is the 13th installment in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.


As we draw close to the Feast of Saint James in this series, on the 25th of July, it is a good moment to recall the very first recorded pilgrimage to Compostela. It was a diocesan pilgrimage in the 10th century from Le Puy-en-Velay in France, across the Pyrenees and along the road to the Apostle’s shrine. The pilgrim road is still known in Spain as the Camino Francés, the French Road, after those pilgrims who mapped the route that we still take today. We can also learn something of the interchange between Christian and Islamic culture that took place in that period, in the contested lands of southwest Europe.

The pilgrimage from Le Puy to Compostela and back took place over several months in the years 950 or 951 and the historical route which it took shows us the frontier context in which the Santiago pilgrimage tradition was founded. The pilgrims walked through Christian territory only recovered from the Muslims a few years earlier in the same century, and it was like the newly opened road to the west for settlers in the USA. If we examine that 10th-century pilgrimage we can see it was a journey involving considerable cultural and religious exchange. Many of the clergy and laypeople in southern France were Visigoths, the Christians who had fled north from the Saracens in the 8th and 9th centuries. They maintained regular contact with Spain. The diocesan pilgrimage from Le Puy was, therefore, a return to their Visigothic ‘home territory’ in the Hispanic peninsula in a real sense for these participants.[1]

The pilgrimage was led by the bishop himself, Godescalc (Gotescalco in Spanish). It is supposed that the reason he had a special devotion to the Apostle was because he was born on the feast day of Saint James, 25th July. He also chose to be ordained bishop on that feast day. In his Episcopal see of Le Puy, we see church buildings that blend Islamic influence with the Romanesque style, including the cathedral and the famous chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe on top of a volcanic rock pinnacle. See for example the horseshoe arches and contrasting dark and light stone in imitation of the Islamic style, also the cathedral cloister, reminiscent of the style of the Cordoba mosque. This mixture of styles owes as much to cross-border cultural exchanges and the importation of engineering techniques from the Muslim south as it does to wider Romanesque and Byzantine influence.

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, Le Puy, with its horseshoe arches and contrasting dark and light stone in imitation of the Islamic style.

When we follow the Camino Francés to Compostela we are retracing the steps of Bishop Godescalc and the large party of pilgrims from his diocese who mapped the route. That first recorded Compostela pilgrimage in the 10th century was a journey involving considerable cultural and religious exchange. The borderline between Christian and Islamic influence was not as black & white as the actual military battle lines, and the ebb and flow of invasions and counter-attacks in the peninsula and southern France had resulted in a rich tapestry of entwined traditions, Visigothic Christian and Arab merchants, craftsmen, builders, and engineers inhabiting territories either side of the battle lines. (Even into the 15th century after the Reconquest the historic city of Toledo, see of the Cardinal Primate of Spain, was rich in Islamic and Jewish learning, and until 1492 the three faiths existed alongside each other in harmony, until the expulsion of the Jews.)

Le Puy cathedral of Notre Dame

Early Islamic architecture had borrowed from Christian church design in places like Syria; then, using a superior knowledge of mathematics Islamic architecture and engineering flourished. They had the advantage of classical Greek texts in Arabic that were not translated into Latin until the high medieval period. So Islamic architectural techniques and styles, in turn, influenced early medieval Christian architecture. Such an interplay—heavily influenced by Arab learning—is not a new idea, though we tend to forget it every few decades until a new art historian like Diana Darke comes along to remind us, with a book such as her widely-acclaimed Stealing from the Saracens, written not to reveal any new theory, but to simply re-state something that has long been understood by art historians and but regarded as inconvenient knowledge by western hegemony.[2] Long before Darke’s work, 19th-century writers such as John Ruskin, Viollet le Duc, and Emile Mâle—the great Gothic revivalists—all referred to the Arab origins of the main features of this architectural style. If you want to understand Notre Dame cathedral, look first at the ancient architecture of Syria.

Cloister of Le Puy cathedral, reminiscent of Cordoba mosque with contrasting colored stonework.

We do not know how many pilgrims traveled with Bishop Godescalc, for the sources are unspecific, but Gomesano, monk of Albeda refers to, ‘un gran cortejo’ (a great procession) and we can presume this was a substantial pilgrimage that required much preparation and logistical support. We know there was correspondence in advance with at least one monastery regarding accommodation on the outward and return legs of the journey. This concerns a pre-planned deviation from the direct route—which sometimes followed ancient Roman routes—when Godescalc led his party on a long detour when they reached Logroño, the capital city of the modern wine-growing region of Rioja. The Le Puy pilgrim party deviated some distance off to the south to spend time at the monastery of San Martin at Albelda, both on the outward journey to Compostela and on the return journey.

“El Obispo Gotescalco, animado de una manifiesta devoción, ha dejado su país de Aquitania, acompañado de un gran cortejo, dirigiéndose hacia la extremidad de Galicia para tocar a la misericordia divina, implorando humildemente la protección del Apóstol Santiago.”

“Bishop Godescalc, animated by manifest devotion, has left his country of Aquitaine, accompanied by a great procession, heading towards the extremity of Galicia to seek divine mercy, humbly imploring the protection of the Apostle Santiago.”

– Gomesano, monk of San Martin, Albeda (950 or 951)

This monastery—as suggested by its dedication to Saint Martin, the French monastic founder—had been recently established in lands newly liberated from Muslim control. It was a large monastery inhabited by monks drawn from the local cave hermitages, of which there were many, and which had continued as Christian hermitages during the Islamic occupation. These were augmented by French monks transferred from the north. We can deduce that the foundation of this monastery at Albeda was a project well known to bishop Godescalc and he probably supported it financially, as well as sending monks from his diocese.

The reason for the Diocese of Le Puy’s wealth was its own early medieval pilgrim trade. It had been the most popular Marian shrine from as early as the 5th century. A thousand years before the visitation of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, Le Puy in the time of Bishop Godescalc was the main shrine attracting thousands of pilgrims to venerate its Black Madonna and visit the healing springs of this geological curiosity where chapels were built on the tops of vertical volcanic pinnacles. Thanks to thorough study of 10th-century monastic manuscripts it has been well established that Godescalc led his diocesan pilgrimage on the deviation south of the route to Compostela so they could stay at the monastery of San Martin at Albeda to have a specially commissioned manuscript made in the scriptorium. This was a compilation of valuable texts—including copies of rare Marian writings—that would help him to continue developing the shrine of Our Lady at Le Puy as a pilgrimage center.[3] As he traveled with his considerable party of pilgrims, no doubt Godescalc also learned valuable economic lessons about the way the pilgrim trade enriches the shrines and settlements on pilgrim routes.

When Bishop Godescalc—of fine Visigothic Christian ancestry and tradition—led his diocese on the first recorded pilgrimage to Compostela, he demonstrated that he and his diocese were outward-looking Catholics who were prepared to enter into the newly-won Christian territory still precariously defended by the kings and warriors of the Catholic faith, and bring back to Le Puy the fruits of their experience. Godescalc was a bishop-pilgrim and evangelist who took his whole diocese onto the road with him to receive the experience and walk proudly through newly conquered Christian territories.

As well as being one of the historic Marian pilgrimage centers of Catholic Europe and a starting point for pilgrims to Compostela, Le Puy-en-Velay is a UNESCO World Heritage site set in an extraordinary volcanic landscape. It is the start of the Via Podiensis—the Way of Saint James route from Le Puy, the long-distance walking route now designated the GR65—which eventually meets up with the other main routes of the Way of Saint James at Ostabat.[4]

Finally, I’ll share the recurring thought I had while writing this piece. While wondering what kind of man was Bishop Godescalc, who inspired a great crowd of the faithful to walk with him all that way, I could not think of any bishop I have known, with whom I would want to walk hundreds of miles over several months on a return journey to Compostela! Once when I was in Taizé leading a youth group, next to our tents was a Catholic contingent from East Anglia with their bishop in his own tent, pitched right in the middle of the encamped youth from his diocese. That was a high standard of evangelism to beat! So, which bishop would you find inspiring enough to spend months on the road with, teaching and solving practical challenges on the route?

Thoughtful suggestions are invited in the comments for a summer holiday competition: My best bishop to lead a Holy Year Compostela pilgrimage. Stating why, of course! I imagine Bishop Barron might be a high contender, if only because he’d bring a guitar. (Remember please, this is not about ‘my worst bishop,’ so let’s avoid going down that road!)

Notes:

[1] The Visigoths were northern Europeans originally contracted as allies to reimpose Roman authority on earlier Germanic invaders, but Rome lost its authority over the Visigoths and they expanded into southern France and eventually into Hispania where they became the founders of Christian Spain and then fought with Islamic forces for the control of these territories.

[2] Diana Darke, Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe (Hurst, 2020). The title is ironic, as ‘saracen’ is Arabic for ‘thief,’ but Christian Europe drew heavily on Islamic architecture, out of which eventually came the Gothic style.

[3] Roger E. Reynolds, “A Precious Ancient Souvenir Given to the First Pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela.” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, 4, 3 (2014). https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol4/iss3/1

[4] Ostabat: see Postcard #3: Ostabat, Catholic Europe’s international travel hub


Images: Header banner and in-text photo of Le Puy cathedral façade, Dr. Simon Cotton; other photos by the author.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

Postcard #13: Le Puy – The first Santiago pilgrimage
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