In May 2016, Pope Francis said of the European Union, “The founding fathers were heralds of peace and prophets of the future. Today more than ever, their vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down walls.”[1] Six weeks later the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in a referendum battle dominated by neo-populist propaganda, backed by the big-money interests of vulture capitalism, billionaire tax-exiles, and a considerable hostile campaign by foreign data manipulators.

Brexit both divided the UK and weakened an economic and political bloc that served the strategic interests of the West. Few people would now deny its dire negative economic consequences for Britain. So, why do I need to mention it in the context of Catholic pilgrimage, when introducing the third in this series of Postcards from the Camino?

Today’s Postcard comes from the village of Ostabat in France, a short walk from the nodal point where the main Compostela routes of Europe join, and pilgrims from many nations walk together from here towards the shrine of the Apostle. It was once a larger medieval settlement and – as a travel hub – might be compared to a major international airport in our time. Today its stone-cobbled streets look insignificant, but Ostabat gives us an introduction to Catholic Europe and I began with Brexit because this village also tells a story of European unity.

The header picture shows a view of Ostabat from the north, seen by pilgrims walking towards it from the junction of three main Compostela routes. Stand and regard the village as if you were a 15th-century pilgrim arriving at this point after walking across England and then through France. After the pilgrim blessing in your hometown, you had walked for a week to the English Channel and sailed to northern France. The captain told the passengers the ship had been one of the transports used to take the English troops to the battle of Agincourt, won by Henry V only a few years earlier. From Cherbourg, your point of disembarkation, you walked south through lands devastated by the Hundred Years War and the plague. People in some towns were hostile but after you passed through Bordeaux, under English rule, you felt as if you were on home territory.

As a modestly well-off merchant, you have been able to pay for a comfortable stay at inns and abbeys. Your pilgrimage of penance and privation still recognizes a need for your personal safety; so, as you walked through Normandy, Bretagne, and Poitou you walked with others by day for safety on the road. Now, after the long challenging walk across the flat country of the Landes, with its dangers of wolves and robbers, you have arrived at the main European junction on the Way of Saint James. Your mixed group of English, Flemish and Alamannic pilgrims has now met up with others arriving from north and east: Swiss, Lombards, some from as far away as Prague and Budapest. You hear a dozen languages spoken by the throng now heading into Ostabat, and the educated ones all share the added advantage of Latin, Europe’s lingua franca.

The landscape now before us would have looked pretty much the same in the 15th century as in this picture, but today’s small village of Ostabat would have been three times the size, with a large hospital to accommodate hundreds of pilgrims, many inns and shops selling food and clothing, workshops repairing footwear and attending to horses or wagon wheels. There were friars and priests, merchants and itinerant craftsmen and builders, on horse or walking with pack donkeys, mercenary soldiers, adventurers, and vagabonds. All shared the main roads across Europe with pilgrims. Here at Ostabat travelers had to pay a toll for every animal, and even the pilgrims who carried a letter of safe passage had sometimes to pay in gold coin, depending on the whim of the official on duty that day. Ostabat was the largest town in this part of the kingdom of Navarre.

“With a series of streets neatly laid out up the terraces of the valley side, and numerous hospitals, inns and chapels, this was a bustling crossroads town, recommended by many as an ideal place to stay. Ostabat could accommodate an almost infinitely variable number of people… and the fertile fields of the valley floor provided abundant apples, pears, cider, milk and grain for travelers rich and poor”[2].

This place then provides us with a vision of Catholic Europe on the move. When we look at the map and see Ostabat’s place in this network of pilgrim trails, it is like a communications hub in a European web: a village with a fast connection to the medieval ‘internet.’

From our imagined glimpse of Ostabat in the 15th century, we return to the present and modern pilgrims who still stop to eat in the village restaurants or stay in hostels. They have made their way here on the way-marked historic routes known by their Latin names: the Via Turonensis from Paris and the north; and from the northeast through Vezelay the Via Lemovicensis; finally, the Via Podiensis, through Le Puy from the northeast. Here at Ostabat, the routes still converge to join one road into Spain, as they have done for a thousand years.

The map shows the main routes across Europe in red, with the variants in blue, converging on Ostabat. The modern logo of the Camino de Santiago is a stylized yellow scallop shell of Saint James, also symbolizing the joining together of the routes.

So as pilgrims, we have arrived in Ostabat and found a table for lunch. As the waiter brings a jug of vin rouge and some bread, the air is steamy with discarded wet waterproofs and muddy boots, and the tables are filled with chatter. Quite often in such places, the pilgrim conversation turns to history.

We might start by considering the new world order… No! Not the wild conspiracy stuff spouted by dissident archbishops today and parroted by rad-trad websites. I refer to the new world order after the collapse of imperial Rome. Let’s give the date a nice round menu figure, as this is a lunch conversation, not a history lesson, and say AD 500. There have been many versions of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (e.g. Gibbon’s classic text). We are fascinated by the dissolution of a world literally set in stone. In a small, accessible book by Bryan Ward-Perkins[3] he supports the view that the collapse of Rome was due to economic causes: the failure of the tax base to sustain the imperial army. As simple as that.

The new world order meant Europe was now composed of individual kingdoms. Ostabat was in the Visigothic Kingdom, and northeast of here were the Frankish and Burgundian kingdoms. Rome was under the rule of the Ostrogoths. Catholic Europe had not yet been formed nor the Compostela pilgrimage begun, so in AD 500 there wouldn’t yet be pilgrims sitting here in this restaurant, where the main course now arrives: a steaming Basque lamb stew, ideal for the damp weather; and a grateful hungry pilgrim at the table says, “This is all very civilized!”

That is a very good use of the word. What we mean by ‘civilization’ is a complex society with a sophisticated economic network of production and a superstructure of beliefs and culture. Food arrives and we pay for it. We search out our God to give thanks for it. ‘Civilization’ was not something that simply disappeared in AD 500 with the collapse of Roman power and superiority and we should distance ourselves from that idea. That is a version of the past that has given license to dictators and still informs the thinking of our would-be ‘strongmen’ and neo-populists today, like those doom-laden Catholic cardinals who talk of a “Great Reset” and appeal to the moral superiority of a narrow version of Western civilization, which they claim is threatened by pluralism and change.

History shows civilization to involve more complex and often less dramatic processes. While we are easily seduced by epic Hollywood scenes of soldiers in polished armor marching on paved straight Roman roads, those roads were much more important for commerce: the economic base without which there would have been no army. The success of Roman society was not due to its centurions, but the everyday availability of affordable quality consumer goods: “Almost all archaeologists, and most historians, now believe that the Roman economy was characterized, not only by an impressive luxury market, but also by a very substantial middle and lower market for high-quality functional products.”[4]

In the new European order after imperial rule, commerce continued largely as before. Roman methods of mass production and distribution had been spread throughout the empire, and local manufacturers did not cease production simply because there were no longer any centurions marching on the road outside! Why would they? The collapse of Roman administration was the start of the transition to a different and more devolved Europe. The roads continued to serve commerce, but also in the new age of faith, the roads helped to communicate a shared Catholic culture.

“To the secular historian the early Middle Ages must inevitably still appear as the Dark Ages, as ages of barbarism, without secular culture or literature, given up to unintelligible disputes or incomprehensible dogmas… But to the Catholic they are not dark as much as ages of dawn, for they witnessed the conversion of the West, the foundation of Christian civilization, and the creation of Christian art and Catholic liturgy. Above all, they were the age of the Monks…”[5]

Like the vision of Pope Francis regarding Europe, for many of us Catholicism is inseparable from our historical sense of the formation of Europe. After the Brexit vote, some of us still fought hard and tried to reverse the decision. Neo-populist politicians and their willing helpers began turning the guns of Catholic media on those of us resisting Brexit. That was the point when I finally glimpsed the political puppet-masters pulling the strings. When this propaganda was re-blogged by those running a site I once wrote for, it was my road-to-Damascus moment. It was blindingly obvious that the site had morphed into a hard-right political echo chamber and ‘Catholicism Pure and Simple’ had nothing to do with it.[6] [6] I ceased to identify as a traditionalist from that moment and made my sense of betrayal clear to all concerned. But, hey-ho: the pilgrim reflects on the past, lives in the present, and journeys in faith into the future.

After sharing lunch in Ostabat and heading south to the Pyrenees, pilgrims can reflect on the way they arrived by various centuries-old commercial routes upon which the economic and spiritual vision of Europe was communicated. Now they leave on the one road towards Compostela, a common destination. Today’s European pilgrims benefit from freedom of movement over open borders, built upon ideas of shared community owing much to Catholic history and education. The Franciscan and Dominican friars walked the roads of Catholic Europe between Paris and Oxford and Cologne, disseminating philosophy and science from one university to another.

We must make clear to those who call themselves ‘traditionalists’ but have neither knowledge of this history nor respect for genuine Catholic tradition, that it brings progress for humanity. It is not on the side of rupture and rivalry. As Pope Francis said, the European vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down the walls that divide us, not burn bridges and retreat into selfish fortresses of fear.


[1] Pope Francis addressing the European Parliament, 6 May 2016. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2016/may/documents/papa-francesco_20160506_premio-carlo-magno.html

[2] Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim (SPCK, 2003). An imagined journey from Worcester to Compostela in 1423 by the pilgrim who was unearthed in Worcester cathedral during building work in recent times, wearing his pilgrim boots and with his walking staff buried beside him.

[3] Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2005.)

[4] Op. cit. (p.88).

[5] Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (London, 1932).

[6] Beverley Stevens, “Why Brexit matters to Catholics” (USA, January 2019.) The Editor of Regina magazine, describes herself as a ‘professor of finance.’ This piece of pure political propaganda was re-blogged on this UK rad-trad site during the unsuccessful anti-Brexit campaign for a second referendum: https://catholicismpure.wordpress.com/2019/02/02/why-brexit-matters-to-catholics/

Images: Header photo of Ostabat by the author; map copyright jacobsweg-europa.de where a more detailed interactive version can be seen; the two early 20th century postcards of Ostabat show the market place and the road leaving the village to the south towards the Pyrenees.

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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).

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