Madrid to Roncesvalles
Early February I boarded the plane from Frankfurt to Madrid, found my way through the Metro network to the railway station and bought a train ticket to Pamplona.
Passing through the security checkpoint at the rail concourse was a challenge. Obviously I had a knife in my backpack, essential for any pilgrim, and it took the authorities considerable time to record my details – just in case I decided to run amok on the train. Finally I was given the green light, found my allotted seat in the coach and had a relaxing three-hour trip due north to Pamplona.
The wintry afternoon sky was most unusual and interesting. Above and all the way to the western horizon a film of thin, cotton-wool-like clouds spanned the sky. The light of the weak afternoon sun created a translucent haze with rays occasionally penetrating the filter. Overlaying this film were streaks of pitch-black clouds, feathering at the edges. These stark and mottled black patches on the illuminated greyness formed an impressive and interesting dome. The atmosphere was rather foreboding and mystical – and daylight was already dimming at around four in the afternoon! It made the well-lit interior of the train coach cosy and secure.
The landscape we passed through was somewhat undulating and appeared stark and hollowed beneath the alabaster dome, rather like a black-and-white three-dimensional photo displaying dusk in a hostile but fascinating way. The substantial and distant mountain ranges in the western and northern directions were white and their contours were sharply defined against the sky. Observing the snow on these peaks made me realize that I should not attempt to cross the mountains from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side and that the starting point of my winter walk should rather be Roncesvalles.
On arrival in Pamplona at 6 pm I intended to find a bus or taxi to reach the albergue in Roncesvalles (valley of thorns). Fortunately, as we disembarked, a young pilgrim, identifiable by his backpack and attached pilgrim’s shell, approached me with the suggestion that we share a taxi. This suited me well, and less than two hours later we arrived at a monastery dating back to the 11th century. The section housing our albergue had been rebuilt in the 17th century after the roof, following exceptionally heavy snowfalls, had collapsed. Although the landscape was white, there was no danger of the roof collapsing in the night to come.
The surroundings of the monastery were, except for a few lamp posts, sparsely illuminating the pathway alongside the western façade and the elaborate bishop’s residence, unlit. After registering at my first albergue, I found the way through a large archway to the relatively small dormitory and prepared my bed.
It was time for the pilgrims’ mass, specially conducted for us in the Collegiate church de Santa Maria, which forms part of the inner cloister. Seven pilgrims attended the mass. Our group consisted of the pilgrim from Costa Rica, with whom I had shared the taxi, a couple from Argentina, a young law student, Dominique, from Slovakia, Eric from Quebec in Canada, Noelia, a young Spanish woman from Segovia in central Spain, and myself from South Africa.
The mass was overseen by four priests in full regalia and, being strong singers, they had no need for an organ. From what I gathered, the priests prayed for our protection and I could make out our names and countries of origin, interwoven into the sermon. This was a wonderful send-off and the same sermon sending pilgrims on their way and into the unknown, has probably been held for many centuries. In the end one of the priests approached each pilgrim and addressed us in our own language. I thought we had a good farewell to our winter walk and we left this Iglesia with pleasant memories.
There are a great many monasteries along the Camino, all with their individual histories. The Christian tradition of these institutions goes back to around AD 300 when Anthony of Egypt was the first known hermit to formulate monastic practices with regulated prayer and work sessions and the habit he wore had become the model for the typical monk’s garb. A little later Basil the Great of Caesarea Galilee, now Israel, established the first monastic instructions in the early 4th century. These inspired Saint Benedict of Nursia (Italy) in the 6th century to compile his own rules. They are divided into two major sections: the first deals with spiritual subjects and the second with administrative matters dictating how a monastery should be run efficiently, by whom the monastery should be managed, how to be obedient and humble and what to do when a member of the community did not comply. The ‘Rules of St. Benedict’ are, after 1400 years, still the most widely used guidelines for monasteries today.
In AD 529 he also established the first major Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, a hilltop where at that time pagans were still worshipping their deities. Over time, the movement of St Benedict unified the many ‘European’ tribes under the banner of Christianity and in this way western society as we know it today consolidated. Charity, caring for the sick and poor, fostering agricultural pursuits and other positive aspects of life were the rules for Benedictine monks.
Over time they progressively occupied themselves with more clerical functions – transcribing the Bible, recording historic events and compiling treaties and other documents for kings, nobles and those involved in governance and commerce. Literacy amongst the population was rare in those days and monasteries throughout Europe developed into centres of the written word. This made clergy indispensable and for centuries the Catholic Church protected its status quo and the income this generated. Monasteries amassed great riches and substantial property holdings for services rendered. Tithes from peasants, endowments and donations from nobles and from pilgrims passing by, also filled their coffers.
Clerical activities made monks’ lives far more pleasant, less physical and strenuous – and visions of well-fed monks, holding mugs of ale, probably stem from these times. This agreeable lifestyle might also have been the reason why so many laymen joined their order and probably, in this way, prevented subscription into military armies as wars and skirmishes were most common in those days.
When monastic life became too relaxed, monks from the monastery of Molesme in southern France established a new order in 1098. The ‘Order of Cistercian of the Strict Observance’ returned monks once again to manual work and self-sufficiency and reverted obedience to the original Benedictine principles. Their order spread rapidly and over time the Cistercians became the experts of agriculture and irrigation practices in Europe. Pilgrims on the Camino nowadays frequently find refuge in monasteries and those with a penchant for history are able to absorb the deep-rooted vibes of the ancient and sacred buildings and traditions of monastic orders.
Since Pope Francis occupied the papal throne in 2013, his namesake, Francis of Assisi, gained prominence. He was born in Italy in 1181 into a rich family in Assisi. He grew up in luxury and was promiscuous until a serious illness, coupled with a spiritual experience, changed his outlook on life. A vision in which Jesus Christ told him “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins” converted him and from then on he preached the word of Christ, supported the poor and nursed the sick, including lepers. Pope Innocent III granted him permission to form the Franciscan order and he and his 11 closest disciples were tonsured. This partial shaving of the head was a visible sign of having the blessing from papal authority to preach the word of God and Jesus.
Francis was very fond of nature and two legends from the historic book Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis) illustrate religious mysticism in the 12th century. The first story reads as follows:
‘One day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they came upon a place where birds filled the trees on either side of the path. Francis told his companions to ‘wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters – the birds’. The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.
Another legend tells us how a ‘terrifying and ferocious wolf’ in the town of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was ‘devouring men as well as domestic animals.’ Francis had compassion with the townsfolk and went to the hills to find the wolf. When he found him, he made the sign of the cross and commanded him to come forward and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis who explained to him:
‘Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil. All these people accuse you and curse you……but, brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.’
Francis then led the wolf into town and, surrounded by startled citizens, made a pact between them and the wolf. He declared that, because the wolf had committed evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner the village of Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs that they would refrain from bothering the wolf. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf. Can we take this simplistic metaphor as a lesson for our aggressive and gun-obsessed society? Legend also has it that on his deathbed, St. Francis thanked his donkey for carrying and helping him throughout his life, and his donkey wept.
Noteworthy comments in relation to other monastic orders might be of interest: Between the 11th and 13th centuries dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church spread. The Cathars, as was recorded, promoted an alternate Christian message to the Catholic Church and, to counteract their popularity, Saint Dominic from Toulouse, a stronghold of the Cathars at the time, made it his duty to re-establish the traditional Catholic Christian community and to combat heresy. For this Pope Honorius III granted him permission to found the Dominican Monastic Order.
We could describe the Cathars’ fundamental approach to Christianity to have similarities with Protestant views in later years. For instance, they just as much lamented that the Bible was only written in Latin and the Catholic liturgy was performed likewise. Dominic, living amongst Cathars in Toulouse and probably being familiar with many, made a point of approaching them on their terms and modernized traditional practices for their benefit, one being that he preached in their vernacular rather than in Latin and he was the first to do so. In this way, he brought the Catholic church closer to the people.
Nevertheless, it was only after the Protestant Reformation in 1517 that the bible was translated into many languages and was mass-printed on the new Gutenberg press for all Lutherans and others to read. Until then, the spoken and written word of Christianity was in Latin and was the domain of monks and priests. This made following the church and its religious services a practice which probably was solemn, awe-inspiring, colourful and mystical, but to the general population the message was not comprehensible. Religion, it appears, was solely a matter of instructions and faith. Incidentally, the custom of performing mass largely in Latin continued right up to 1969, when this rule was finally amended.
The tension and insecurity caused by the crusades to the Middle East in the 13th century led to the establishment of the Carmelite Order, with their first monastery built on Mount Carmel near Haifa in Israel. When Islamic forces eventually gained the upper hand in the crusading conflict, the Order fled to Cyprus and Sicily and shortly afterwards established itself in England and France.
The order’s prayer practices and that of most other monastic institutions were extremely strict and their daily routine was made up as follows: Vespers were held at sunset
At this time monks meditated on ‘Christ as the Light’
The next service, at bedtime in the evening
consisted of meditating on
death until falling asleep
At midnight the last prayer of the day was performed
The first prayer of the following day was called Matins,
God was praised before the sun appeared
At seven in the morning
the prayers consisted of meditation on God’s creation
At nine, meditation prayers on the
Holy Spirit at Pentecost took place
At noon prayers were devoted to
meditation on Christ’s crucifixion.
At three in the afternoon
prayers concentrated on the death of Christ.
This rigorous schedule is probably not suitable for lazy characters and I now have doubts about my earlier claim that monks might have sought to skip military service by entering monasteries and leading the good life (with ale in hand).
The monastery in Roncesvalles, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, had a particularly significant history. It controlled the mountain pass fromFrance to Spain and was known for its generosity. The monks assisted pilgrims, nobles, merchants and others who sought to cross here. Roncesvalles monastery was once the wealthiest on the Camino and was famous for the excellent treatment which pilgrims and everyone else received here. A Latin Hymn from the 12th century sings the praises of its legendary hospitality:
The door lies open to all, to sick and strong,
Not only to Catholics but to pagans
To Jews, heretics, idles and vagabonds,
In short to good and bad, sacred and profane.
The verse wouldn’t have been composed in English and rhyming must have got lost in translation.
The mountain pass at Roncesvalles was also used by the armies of Charlemagne in 778 when they fought the Moors, albeit with limited success. Even the armies of Napoleon, who sought to expand his empire to the south, crossed here in 1808.
The same pass was also used when the Spanish Aragonite armies under King Peter II crossed here to France in 1213. Peter sympathized with the Cathars and for a while actively supported them in their struggle against the French crusading armies which, instigated by the Pope, were ordered to deal with the ‘heretics’. Unfortunately King Peter was killed quite early in battle and his army retreated over the Pyrenees. The loss of their protector had far-reaching consequences for the Cathars.
If fate had favoured Peter, the outcome of the crusade against the Cathars might have been different and south of France with Languedoc might still be a separate state, maybe with its own religion, language and culture.
Prior to King Peter’s times, the Moorish armies had crossed the Pyrenees on their quest to invade Gaul and no doubt they had the intention to continue their drive through Europe. Initially they were successful. They invaded Languedoc and Roussillon and took possession of the cities Avignon, Narbonne and others. When the Moors besieged Toulouse in 721, Odo the Great, Duke of Aquitaine, eventually defeated them. The Moorish armies, however, were replenished and in 732 they overpowered Odo, conquered Bordeaux and many more towns.
Eventually Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, came to the rescue and in October 732 his forces surprised the Moorish army close to Tours by their courage, strength and tenacity. During the previous years Martel had foreseen the danger from the East and the threat to Christianity. He had enlarged, trained and invigorated his fighting force in a professional way and was now ready and able to face any further Muslim advancements. Historians believe that a lost battle would have meant the surrender of Europe to Islam. If the Moors had succeeded, we would probably now be visiting mosques and study the Quran.
The remainder of the Muslim armies returned to Spain after the defeat in October 732 and never again crossed the Pyrenees with hostile intentions.
Referring again to the transfer of knowledge from the Middle East in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church with its monopoly of the written word also had great scholarly clerics in their midst, but their focus was of religious nature. Nevertheless, monks and monasteries were not oblivious of the new developments and some participated in intellectual pursuits and translations of ancient texts into Latin. Monasteries were repositories of Christian writings and it was only natural that in time they also gathered Classical and Eastern documents and, apart from being powerful in religious matters and in the affairs of Europe, the clergy also became increasingly involved in academic subjects.Their tendency to secrecy and protection of knowledge in their seclusion, however, hindered progress in emerging secular societies and it is probably fair to say that the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church restricted the intellectual development of Europe for centuries.This changed around the12th century, when scholarship in secular society finally blossomed and academic life spread. Social, political and economic transformation was spurred on during the first ‘Renaissance’ in the later Middle Ages. Translating Greek and Arabic works and further augmenting the ancient knowledge that had reached Europe’s shores became more important in circles other than the Roman Catholic Church. Latin Classics and Roman law were revived and Greek science and philosophy with its Arabic component were taught in the first European universities. This was also the period in which austere Romanesque architecture was replaced by elegant and more airy Gothic buildings, which have similarities to Arabic building styles.
In the 14th century the Italian Renaissance witnessed an explosion of events. The revival of the classical Roman spirit and the spread of secular enlightenment in arts and science flourished and, with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the cost-effective ‘mass’ distribution of the written word with its vast contents enabled a wider spread of information, which finally and irrevocably changed Europe. During this change the Catholic Church lost supremacy and its importance as the bearer of knowledge and protector of intellect sharply declined.
During the turbulent eras of the Reformation at the outset of the 16th century and the French revolution at the end of the 18th century monasteries were plundered and many were destroyed. In the process their material riches were exposed and so was their possession of academic treasures and valuable documents. Many priceless and irreplaceable holdings were lost in these violent times.
Enough of history, it is time for me to be on my way and commence my new Camino venture.