by David Sheffler
edieval pilgrims sought bodily contact with the divine: to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, and even to taste the numinous presence of the saints. The body of the saint, in the memorable words of Peter Brown, served as a “joining of heaven and earth.” (Brown, 1) The saint resided in heaven among the blessed, but was simultaneously present on earth. Not surprisingly, pilgrim narratives and miracle stories frequently highlight the sensory apprehension of the saint’s presence.
The author of the Liber Sancti Jacobi — according to tradition, Pope Calixtus II — described the miraculous appearance of St. James to a captured soldier awaiting execution. “As the next morning was dawning as the soldier was calling on Saint James between his sobs. Lo and behold, the apostle himself was standing before him, saying, “Behold, I whom you have called am here.” Then the whole house was filled with a most serene light and with such a fragrance that all the soldiers and all the others who were there thought that they had been transported to the delights of paradise.” (Melczer, 94)
For the ideal pilgrim, pilgrimage transported the earthly body to the delights of paradise — delights experienced through the physical senses. The sermon, Veneranda Dies, also traditionally ascribed to Calixtus, describes the “choruses of pilgrims” processing to the threshold of St. James, some singing “with lutes, some with lyres, some with drums, some with flutes, some with pipes, some with trumpets, some with harps, some with violas, some with British or Gallic wheels, some with psalteries.” The body of St. James himself was “divinely lit by paradisaical carbuncles, incessantly honored with immaculate and soft perfumes, decorated with dazzling celestial candles, and diligently worshipped by attentive angels.” (Melczer, 127)
The fifteenth-century pilgrim to Santiago, William Wey, described the visual pomp of Vespers where he saw “six rectors choral in scarlet capes holding in their hands long staffs covered with silver.” Pilgrims also flocked to touch the stone — “this Most Holy Boat” — on which St. James’s body was laid after its arrival in Spain. “Pilgrims approach it and touch it physically in summer when the water level is low and the river dry.” On the north side of the cathedral, pilgrims slaked their thirst in a “marvelous fountain,” whose waters were “sweet, nourishing, healthy, clear, excellent, warm in winter and fresh in summer.” (Davey, 211)
Of course, pilgrims indulged other appetites as well. Medieval preachers warned of the dangers of prostitutes who lurked in the forests along the path to Santiago. (Coffey, 36) The over-zealous scold, Margery Kempe, earned the enmity of her fellow travelers when she refused to eat meat and drink wine, speaking incessantly of the “love and goodness of our Lord, as well at the table as in other places.” (Staley, 45) Her presence became such a drag on her companions they cursed her and drove her out of their company.
Margery’s companions were not alone in their concern for good food and drink. The author of the twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago characterized regions primarily by the quality of the food. The Landes of the Bordelais “were deprived of all good: there is no bread, wine, meat, fish, water or springs.” (Melczer, 90) The Basque Country is “wooded, mountainous and devoid of bread.” (Melczer, 91) Castilla on the other hand “abounds in fodder and in vigorous horses, and it has plenty of bread, wine, meat, fish, milk, and honey.” And Galicia “is provided with excellent rivers, meadows and orchards, and with plenty of good fruits and clear springs.” (Melczer, 96)
Contemporary pilgrims continue to revel in the sights, sounds and tastes of the journey. Diana, a native of Cambridge and a minister of the Church of England, described one of her most cherished experiences on the Camino in our 2017 interview. “The evenings tended to be quite memorable. Large quantities of wine get drunk. There was one particular night when we had ten nations around the table … they pushed tables together and overwhelmed the kitchen and drank a lot of wine, and sang songs, and recited poetry, and put the world to right. It was wonderful. It was a very good night.”
Discourses surrounding “authentic” pilgrimage also frequently hinge on the senses. Many peregrinos (pilgrims) complain bitterly about the commercialization of pilgrimage, especially the turigrinos (tourist pilgrims) and the industries that cater to them. For “authentic” pilgrims, it is the weight of the pack, the heat of emerging blisters, and the damp snoring of fellow pilgrims that ensoul the journey. Anything else is simply tourism. Pilgrims who walk from St. Jean Pied de Port often scoff at those who embark from Sarria. They did not struggle in the cold fog of the Pyrenees, bake in the heat of the Meseta, or endure its vast emptiness. Bicyclists, the peregrinos descafeinados (decaffeinated pilgrims) race through the landscape without appropriately experiencing it. A pilgrim in Frómista complained, “that doesn’t count. The pilgrim goes on foot. The pilgrim who goes by bike is a tourist.” (Frey, 129)
This work seeks to capture the intense sensory experiences of the Camino and the meanings travelers ascribe to them — the color of a Galician village at dawn, the softness of marble worn smooth by the elbows of countless thirsty pilgrims, and the taste of dust and silage under the afternoon sun.
Continue reading about the five senses …