Saints and sinners, miracles and miscreants, and even Old Scratch himself … the literature associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela abounds in characters and tales as colorful, instructive and entertaining as anything in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In the Middle Ages, a pilgrim’s life was difficult and entailed considerable suffering. For centuries — until the advent of motorized transport in the nineteenth century helped transform it into something more closely resembling a religious package holiday — going on a pilgrimage was a sun-scorched, rain-and-wind-battered, blistery business. It was dangerous, too. Even if you reached your destination, there was no guarantee you would make the return trip safely.
You walked, stopped at shrine or two along the way to pay your respects to the local patron saint, rested, and then you walked some more. From time to time, just to break up the monotony, you would fend off an attacking wolf, get mauled by a bear in some forest, or hand over all your money to some brigand skulking in the desolate stretches along your route. When you finally made it to your halt for the night, you ate whatever simple fare the innkeeper or monks had to offer, heard Mass if you could, and collapsed onto whatever passed for a bed until you woke up the next morning and did it all again.
There was not much in the way of entertainment or relief from the rigors of the road.
But everybody likes a good yarn, and stories of heroic nobility, wicked treachery, and saintly interventions abounded along the Camino de Santiago.
Minstrels and bards carried the tales of the great French hero Roland’s mighty battle against the giant Muslim warrior Farragut and his ignominious defeat at the hands of Saracens in the pass at Roncesvalles up and down the pilgrim’s route.
Preachers kept pilgrims’ minds focused on more heavenly and eternal things with stories of the miracles of St. James and other holy characters, whose shrines they visited along the way.
Book II of the Liber Sancti Iacobi, or Codex Calixtinus, the 12th-century manuscript that is the principal source of our knowledge of the medieval pilgrimage and its traditions, contains twenty-two of these miracles, performed by St. James himself in aid of his devoted pilgrims.
What follows is a brief sample of a few of the most endearing ones.
A MISFORTUNATE PILGRIM, AN EVIL INNKEEPER, AND A HEAVENLY ASS
For the animal lovers, I begin with the sixth miracle of St. James from the Liber Sancti Jacobi:
In AD 1100, the French region of Poitou was suffering under the terrible scourge of the plague. In the city of Poitiers, entire households succumbed daily to the dreaded disease. Seeing this, a certain noble knight of that place prepared to set forth with his family on the long and difficult journey to the tomb of the Apostle, there to plead the intercession of the Apostle and the mercy of God for his afflicted city, little suspecting the tremendous suffering that lay ahead of him and how his hopeful pilgrimage would soon become a sorrowful Via Crucis.
Travelling on foot with his wife and two small children seated on a mare beside him, the knight and his family arrived in Pamplona, in the kingdom of Navarre. Here the good man’s wife died suddenly. Their impious and wicked innkeeper fleeced the sorrowing knight of his money, goods and even robbing him of the mare which had borne his wife and children, turning out the grieving knight and his now-motherless children to continue their journey on foot, pleading alms of those they met along the way.
They had not travelled far from the walls of the city when they encountered a graceful and elegantly-dressed gentleman mounted on a sturdy donkey, making his way to Santiago. The stranger listened with tender compassion to the knight’s woeful lament and, taking pity on him, responded, “Since I see your anguish is great indeed, I will give you this, my best donkey, so that you may bear your children to Compostela, of which blessed city I am a citizen, provided you there return it to me.”
The grateful knight thanked the gentleman and, mounting his children on the gentle beast, continued his journey. Having at last reached the tomb of the Apostle, the devout knight was spending the night in prayerful vigil in a secluded corner of the basilica, thanking the Apostle for the help he had received, when suddenly his eyes were overwhelmed by the most resplendent light and there before him stood St. James himself.
“Do you not know me, brother?” the Apostle asked him simply.
“Not at all, my lord.”
“I am the Apostle of Christ, who in the lands of Pamplona lent you my donkey in the midst of your distress. Now I give you the same donkey to bear your children hence, until you have returned to your native land. I also announce to you that the wicked innkeeper in Pamplona who robbed you of your possessions is about to fall headfirst from his seat and die from his serious fall. I also declare to you that all evil innkeepers dwelling on my road who unjustly take from their guests, whether living or dead, that which should be given to the Church and to the poor for the redemption of souls, will be condemned for all eternity.”
Overwhelmed with emotion, the good knight prostrated himself and stretched forth his arms to embrace the Apostle’s feet, but St. James disappeared.
Passing once more through Pamplona, the knight learned his evil host had indeed been killed, having fallen from his chair and fractured his neck, exactly as foretold by St. James. But there was yet one more miracle in store for the little family: no sooner had they arrived home and his children dismounted than the humble beast that had so patiently borne them in their travels was engulfed in a brilliant light and disappeared from before their astonished eyes.
The tale of these extraordinary events spread rapidly among the citizens of that place. All who heard it marvelled greatly, wondering if it had indeed been a donkey or an angel in the figure of one, sent by the Lord through the intercession of the Apostle to rescue the knight and his children in their need.
OF COCKS AND COCK-UPS: A SAINTLY INTERVENTION SAVES AN INNOCENT PILGRIM
“Santo Domingo de la Calzada, donde cantó la gallina después de asada.” (Saint Dominic of the Road: where the roasted hen crowed.)
The most popular of all the miracles recounted along the Pilgrim’s Way is undoubtedly that of the cock and hen that famously sprang to life after having been roasted, crowing the innocence of a young pilgrim unjustly hanged for theft.
In the Liber Sancti Jacobi, the miracle is attributed to St. James’ intercession and takes place in Toulouse, on the southernmost pilgrim’s road in France. So popular did this tale become with pilgrims, that there are also versions placing the events in cities on several of the other routes to Compostela, such as Barcelos, Portugal, and Utrecht in the Netherlands.
The version here is perhaps the best known.
It takes place on the Camino Francés, the French Way, which is historically the route across the north of Spain most transited by pilgrims. Here it is Domingo (Dominic) of Viloria, a local saint with the home field advantage, who intercedes and preserves the life of an innocent pilgrim unjustly condemned for theft. St. Dominic—not to be confused with the founder of the Dominican Order—lived in the 11th century and devoted his life to caring for pilgrims travelling to the tomb of St. James. The events took place in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the town named in memory of the saint that lies of the pilgrim’s route in Spain’s Rioja region.
It seems that a certain lad, a young German pilgrim named Hugonell, was making his way to Compostela in the company of his parents when the family decided to halt for the night at an inn in Santo Domingo. It was there that the handsome young man caught the eye of the innkeeper’s daughter who, despite bringing to bear all her charms in an attempt to seduce him, found herself spurned by the pious young lad. Furious, she vowed to have her revenge; she decided to hide a silver cup in his sack and so to accuse him of theft to the authorities. This she did the following morning. The authorities, who ran the family down a short way out of town, arrested them and, finding the silver in the young man’s pack, promptly hung him for theft outside the walls of the town.
His sorrowing parents prepared to continue their journey to Compostela.
Passing by the gibbet where their son’s body still hung on their way out of town, they were astonished when the boy called out to them, cheerfully explaining that Santo Domingo had kept him alive by holding him up and supporting his weight as a testimony to his innocence.
His parents wasted no time in hurrying to find the judge who, having finished the morning’s grisly work, was just sitting down to tuck into a plate of roasted fowl for lunch. He pronounced them fools, and declared dismissively that their son was no more alive than the birds on his platter. To the astonishment of everyone present, at that very moment the rooster and the hen sprang to life, clucking and crowing loudly.
The boy was promptly cut down from the gibbet and pardoned of his crime—no word of what became of the innkeeper’s wicked daughter who had conspired to accuse him falsely—and to this very day part of the gibbet upon which the boy was hanged is displayed in high in the transept over the tomb of Santo Domingo. More entertaining still, a live cock and hen are kept in a coop above the door of the west transept of the church in commemoration of the miracle. Legend has it that they are descended from the original, miraculous pair.
A footnote: The Italian pilgrim Domenico Laffi, who left an account of his own pilgrimage to Compostela in 1670, wrote that the holy roosters will eat no food other than bread given to them by pilgrims, which must be bread that has been given to the pilgrim as alms for love of God, not purchased. If the birds accept the offering, the pilgrim may take it as a sign that they will arrive to Compostela safely. The crowing of the rooster before taking your leave of him and continuing your journey was similarly regarded a good portent.
And what of those times when there are no portent-seeking pilgrims passing through? Laffi writes that they are fed by a local woman, who goes through town disguised as a pilgrim and begging for alms to feed them.
THE DEVIL YOU SAY!
IN WHICH ST. JAMES WHOOPS UP ON A BAND OF DEMONS TO PROTECT A DYING PILGRIM
Somewhat less entertaining are the accounts of the manifestations of the demonic along the pilgrim’s road collected in Book II of the Liber Sancti Iacobi and other sources. Two in particular—ascribed to the hand of St. Anselm of Canterbury—describe in very vivid and terrifying terms two incidents in which St. James intervened to save pilgrims from death and eternal condemnation at the hands of demons. Both are detailed and rather long; I offer only one in somewhat abbreviated form here.
There were three soldiers from Donzy, a town in the Lyon region of France, who once set out together on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James. Along the way they encountered a small woman travelling on foot, bearing all of her provisions for the journey in a sack upon her back. She asked the men to have mercy on her and, for love of St. James, to carry her small bag so that she might make her journey more easily. One of them agreed, carrying the bag on his horse for the woman, who followed along on foot. Each morning, the poor woman would take what she needed for the day and give the sack back to the horseman, who graciously carried it for her all the way to Compostela.
Twelve days before their arrival, the little group encountered another poor pilgrim who had fallen ill along the way and was unable to walk any further. The man begged the same soldier who had taken the woman’s bag to carry him to St. James on his horse; otherwise he would die on the road. Placing the beggar on his horse, the soldier took the man’s staff in hand, shouldered the woman’s sack, and resumed his journey to the tomb of the Apostle on foot beside his horse, which now bore the unfortunate beggar.
But the soldier, suffering from the heat of the sun and the difficulties of the journey, soon became ill himself. Taking into account the weight of his own sins and remembering how often he had offended God, he resolved to endure these sufferings patiently and continued his journey on foot all the way to the threshold of the cathedral. After praying there to St. James, he found lodging and took to his bed, his illness growing progressively worse. The other soldiers who had accompanied him, seeing this, urged him to prepare for his approaching death by confessing his sins and receiving his final viaticum.
But the soldier turned away from his companions, unable to respond to them. For three days he lay suffering, unable to utter a single word or respond to their pleas. His friends, in great distress because they feared he would die without the last rites, remained at his side throughout. Finally, when it seemed his hour had at last come, the man sighed suddenly and said, “I give thanks to God and to St. James, my lord, because I have been freed.”
The solider explained to his companions that as soon as he had felt his illness growing worse, he had resolved to call for a priest, that he might confess his sins, be anointed, and receive the Body of the Lord. No sooner had this thought occurred to him, however, than he found himself beset by a band of demons, who “flocked together, some plucking at my tongue, others darkening my eyes, while others turned my head this way and that at their will,” making him unable to speak or respond to his friends’ pleas, though he heard clearly everything they said to him.
He then told his friends that he was delivered from these torments only moments before, when St. James appeared suddenly, holding in his right hand the beggar’s staff which the soldier had carried while allowing the beggar to ride his horse, and in the other the little sack that he had carried to relieve the woman of her burdens on her journey. “He approached me in an indignant fury, striking at the demons with the staff. They fled in terror before him immediately, liberating me from their torments, and he followed them, forcing them to leave this place through that corner… Send quickly for a priest who can give me the Viaticum of Holy Communion, for I do not have permission to remain in this life any longer.”
The man then turned to one of his companions, warning him not to continue in the service of his lord, a man named Girinus the Bald, who was soon to die an evil death and be damned for his wickedness. Then, having confessed his sins and received the consolation of his final Communion, he died in peace and was buried.
Returning home, his companions told the lord Girinus — the subject of the dying soldier’s prophecy — of all that had happened, but he considered their warning a fantastic tale, neither believing them nor repenting of his wickedness. His death came swiftly; only a few days later he was run through with a lance while killing a soldier in an armed attack.
Curtis Williams is a longtime resident of Spain and veteran leader of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, who is writing a monthly series of articles taking readers on a jaunt to the crossroads of history, legend, and devotion during the Jubilee Year of St James, underway in 2021.
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