On the Road to Compostela

Nancy Marie Brown
May 01, 1999

"At a place called Lorca, in the eastern part [of Spain], runs a river called the Salty Brook. Be careful not to let it touch your lips or allow your horse to drink there, for this river is deadly," warns the 12th-century author of The Pilgrimís Guide to Santiago de Compostela. "On its bank, while we were going to Santiago, we met two men of Navarre sitting sharpening their knives; they are in the habit of skinning the mounts of pilgrims who drink that water and die. When questioned by us, these liars said that it was safe to drink. We therefore watered our horses, and immediately two of them died, which these people skinned on the spot."

In the Middle Ages, hundreds of medieval pilgrims traveled to the holy shrine of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, to give homage to the martyred apostle, to pay penance for their sins, or to seek a cure for cataracts or cancer or a crippling war wound. Those coming from France would have found the Pilgrimís Guide indispensable, for it details every step of the way from St Michel. How far is it? Thirteen daysí journey (on a very good horse). What saints can you worship along the way? Among others, the blessed Giles, William, Faith, Mary Magdalene, Leonard of the Limousin, and the head of John the Baptist. Where is the best wine to be found? In the town of Estella. The people of Bordeaux, though their speech is "rustic," also have "excellent wine and abundant fish." Galicia, on the other hand, is short of wheat bread; youíll have to make do with rye bread and cider.

spanish statue

Sadly, such good advice may not have helped a single traveler. Like a Baedeckerís that never was published, the Pilgrimís Guide did not see the wide distribution its sponsors apparently intended—and that scholars had assumed it received. "While there can be no doubt that Santiago de Compostela was one of the major goals of medieval pilgrims," say the four authors of a recent critical edition of the manuscripts, "it is equally certain that the Guide was not their pocket reading on the trip."

Jeanne Krochalis, an associate professor of English at Penn Stateís New Kensington campus and an expert in paleography, or manuscript study, was one of the four medievalists who worked on the critical edition. "In the Middle Ages, there was Rome, there was Jerusalem, and there was Compostela. It was one of the three great holy shrines," she explains. It was reputedly the final resting place of James son of Zebedee, one of Jesusís apostles, who according to the Bible (Acts 12:2) was killed by King Herod in 44 A.D. "What it doesnít say in the Acts," says Krochalis, "is what happened to his body after he died."

Two of his disciples sailed a stone boat to Spain, where they raised a shrine over his body. Centuries later, during the viking raids, the saintís remains were hidden to protect them—and lost for several hundred years, until a local bishop has a dream.

"Three times he dreams of finding St. Jamesí body. Finally, he goes and discovers, not one, but three bodies. Which one is James?" Krochalis laughs. "Yes, you guessed it: Bring out your halt, your blind, your lame. The one that brought miracles was deemed to be St. James."

Pilgrims started coming to the new shrine of Santiago, built inland at nearby Compostela, where it would be safe from raiders, in the mid 900s. The cathedral was rebuilt in the early 12th century by Bishop Diego GelmÌrez, whom Krochalis and her coauthors call "the main proponent of Santiagoís glory (and his own)." GelmÌrez got Compostela named the primary seat of the Church in Spain—and himself an archbishop—by Pope Calixtus II in 1120. The Pilgrimís Guide to Santiago de Compostela, dated by Krochalis and her colleagues to 1138, was part of a larger manuscript compiled in the abbey under his rule and known as the Codex Calixtinus.

"The compiler gathered together everything he could about the cult of St. James," Krochalis explains. "Charlemagneís vision of the Saint in the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle, the legendary account of his campaigns in Spain. Every sermon that mentioned St. James. The 22 authentic miracles. The translation of James into Heaven. And the Pilgrimís Guide. It was all Compostela propaganda, a statement that this was an important place. We assume that the design was to make lots and lots of copies of the Codex and disseminate them all over Europe. And that didnít happen."

Parts of it were popular. Charlemagneís vision appears in some 200 known manuscripts in several languages, and earlier scholars had assumed that the practical Pilgrimís Guide also had a wide distribution, possibly in the form of cheap little copies that could be worn strapped to a belt or carried in a pocket—books that, like modern paperbacks, are easily lost or destroyed. "There are lots of cheap surviving medieval guides to Rome," Krochalis notes. But when Krochalis and her colleagues studied the 12 manuscripts that remain, they learned this wasnít the case.

The survivors date from the 12th (three copies), 14th, late-15th, early 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Each was hand-copied from an earlier manuscript, in a tedious process guaranteed to produce errors. A modern typist asked to make a copy can keep his eyes on the original text, and let his fingers blindly pick out the right keys on the keyboard.

A medieval scribe, however, was forced to read a few lines in his original, then move his eyes over to the blank manuscript page and write out what he remembered, then shift his gaze back to the original and read the next line or phrase—if he could find his place. Common scribal errors are missing a line or a word, transposing letters (some scribes didnít actually read the words, they just looked at the shapes of the letters), or misunderstanding the previous scribeís abbreviations. For instance, where one manuscript of the Pilgrimís Guide has the Latin word "quattuor," or four, another manuscript says "viri," or men. How does "four" become "men"? Perhaps the "original," in this case hadnít said "quattuor," but the Roman numeral "iiii," which, in the script of those days (in which the downstrokes of a letter were heavy and the sidestrokes were thin) could have looked like "viri" to a tired scribe.

By tracing the pattern of errors, a paleographer can order a series of manuscripts into a stema, a kind of family tree, and tell where branches—such as the manuscript that reads "iiii" instead of "quattuor"—are missing.

For the Pilgrimís Guide, the missing links are very few. Most of the manuscripts were copied directly from the original at Santiago, which means that, instead of being the forerunner to Frommerís, the Pilgrimís Guide was a curiosity read only by the clerics, historians, and antiquarians who had access to the monastery library.

Why didnít this travel guide catch on in the 12th century? One problem was that not many people could read; fewer still were so rich they could own something as valuable as a book. Yet Krochalis thinks the Guideís failure was less a matter of practicality than one of vision. When Diego GelmÌrez died in 1140, says Krochalis, "a lot of fundraising projects died with him."

Only one copy of the Pilgrimís Guide was made during GelmÌrezís lifetime; it was sent, along with a bone from St. Jamesís jaw, to Bishop Atto in the North Italian city of Pistoia, a fact which, in the 19th century, solved a mystery: Workers restoring the altar at Compostela found three skeletons buried beneath it. Which one was St. James? Rather than invoking a test of miracles, as their medieval predecessors had, they checked to see which body was missing a jaw bone. "That," says Krochalis, "is ëThe Virgin and the Dynamo,í the difference between the Middle Ages and the Modern Era."

Jeanne Krochalis, Ph.D., is associate professor of English, Penn State New Kensington, New Kensington, PA 15068; 724-334-6756; jek4@psu.edu. The Pilgrimís Guide to Santiago de Compostela by Alison Stones, Jeanne Krochalis, Paula Gerson, and Annie Shaver-Crandell was published in 1998 by Harvey Miller Publishers. The work was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsburgh, the City University of New York, Penn State University, the Cockayne Fund, and Spainís Ministry of Culture.

Last Updated May 01, 1999