Harvey Hames

title.none: Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Hames)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.007 99.08.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Harvey Hames, Ben Gurion University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 313. $45.00 HB 0-520-21751-9. ISBN: $17.95 PB 0-520-21084-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.07

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 313. $45.00 HB 0-520-21751-9. ISBN: $17.95 PB 0-520-21084-0.

Reviewed by:

Harvey Hames
Ben Gurion University

This book is an anthropological study about people who travel the Camino de Santiago, and is, more than anything else, one of experiences. As a result, those who will appreciate this book most will be readers who have undergone some of the things described by the author. In addition, if we were to set aside the multitude of local details about the Way of St. James, this book could be read as an anthropological-psychological depiction of long and arduous paths anywhere in the world, with analysis of the motives for setting out, the physical difficulties, spiritual insights, and lasting effects on those who journey along them. This is not to diminish what is an interesting and worthwhile book: it is an enjoyable read, and evoked (for this reader) many memories of walks done, enhancing the wish to go out on the road again in the near future. Almost every page conjures up sounds, smells, tastes and memories, and one finishes the book with the desire to start from the beginning in order to recapture all those things over again. It is a book for those wishing to capture some of the essence of pilgrimage, or to get out on the road themselves, but are unable to find the time and space being constrained by the demands of quotidian life at the close of the twentieth- century.

Frey provides an enormous amount of detail about the geography of the Camino, and describes with broad strokes (and a number of photographs) the people one might encounter along the way - those passing through, and those who live along the Camino many of whom feel that they are an essential part of the road. These descriptions, along with the personal revelations of those embarked on this tough physical, and, for many, spiritual journey, will allow the discerning reader to imagine what it might have been like during the Middle Ages: the inns, the food, the churches, monasteries and monuments, the bridges, the natural surroundings, local customs, festivals and liturgy. The passage of time may have mitigated many of the medieval perils of the route--wild dogs, less than scrupulous innkeepers, robbers, non-drinkable water, and a high mortality rate--but it has not totally eradicated them. In addition, the spiritual growth, attributed, by those who shared their experiences with the author, to long periods of solitude and reflection while walking in varied landscape, to feeling close to nature, and to the feeling of community along the way, though a result of twentieth-century preoccupations, give some indication as to what the medieval pilgrim may have felt and thought.

This book, however, also reflects the differences between the medieval and modern experience. For example, while in the Middle Ages, the whole concept of pilgrimage revolved around the Church, and its religious content and purpose was strictly defined and adhered to, today, anyone can embark on the pilgrimage and on a private inner journey without fear of being labeled a heretic. Frey reveals that the Church has somewhat relaxed its strict control over the spiritual content and the religious orientation of the pilgrimage. Although, in order to get the Compostella--the credential affirming completion of the pilgrimage--the pilgrim is expected to be Christian, one only has to affirm that the pilgrimage was done out of religious motivation. The latter is defined broadly as either spiritual, religious or religious-cultural, which leaves much room for manoeuvre, and Frey brings some interesting examples (see pp. 160-62) of what can be included in this definition.

Interestingly, Frey does not end her analysis with the pilgrim arriving in Santiago de Compostella, the physical end of the Camino, but she follows up to discover how the pilgrim deals with returning to his or her former environment, and questions the whole notion of beginnings and endings. The existence of societies in many European countries for people who have made the pilgrimage, allows for continual reliving of the experience, sharing it with others, and in addition, many return as volunteers to work at hospitaleros-- guesthouses for pilgrims--along the Camino. Many people come back to do the Camino again and again, and try to incorporate the spirit of the pilgrimage in their daily lives. Hence, what is considered the physical end of the pilgrimage is often the beginning or continuation of something which need not be connected with the particular time and space of the Way. For many medievalists seeking to get away from notions of exact periodisation and straightjacket definitions, this approach to the idea of pilgrimage will have a welcome feel.

Perhaps my main criticism of the book is the almost exclusive use of the terms pilgrim and pilgrimage to describe the Camino. Frey has a propensity for referring only to the Camino as a pilgrimage and to those walking or cycling it as pilgrims. Reference is made in a number of places to other treks, but, according to her, they are not pilgrimages. In a technical sense, Frey is correct to refer to the Camino as a pilgrimage: it has been recognised as such since the Middle Ages, and those who made it to Santiago received papal dispensations and indulgences. Even today, many aspects of the Camino are still in the hands of the Church and many of those who travel the route do so because of orthodox Christian motivations and belief. However, when using the term pilgrim to describe those on the Way of St. James, Frey includes many whose motivation is not necessarily Christian or orthodox, and may have more to do with a personal search for truth, a spiritual crisis, or the wish to get away from everything. Including the latter (in my opinion correctly) under the umbrella of being a pilgrim and pilgrimage, should have made Frey aware that in this day and age, the Camino is not unique, and that these terms can and should be applied in other circumstances and for many other places. The original meaning of the word (peregrinus) implies being a stranger roaming about, without necessarily having a particular destination, and the seventh-century Irish and Anglo-Saxon ideal of peregrinatio, self-imposed exile for the sake of God, exemplifies this. If pilgrimage is associated with liminality and a goal to be reached, there are many who carry these feelings with them everyday of their lives, and do not associate it with one particular time, space or way. Many of us, at different stages of our lives, set out on pilgrimages, sometimes with and sometimes without a particular destination in mind, and choosing not to walk the Camino does not make us any less a pilgrim. The author has clearly developed a deep and personal connection with the Camino and what it represents, but this has led her to ignore the broader ramifications of her illuminating insights into what motivates people at the turn of the twentieth-century to leave everything behind and search for a different reality. Serious questions and criticisms about the values and priorities of contemporary society surface here, which seem to be able to find an outlet in the pilgrim's progress, and it would be interesting to consider why this is.

There are some mysterious moments in the book, as for example on p. 113 in a discussion on blisters, tendonitis and other sorts of physical afflictions which give the pilgrim trouble, one comes across the following enigmatic sentence: 'Feet are authentic'. Luckily there is a reference to an endnote, which refers us to Douglas 1973. Expecting an article or book on the subject of the authenticity of feet, the reference is, in fact, to Mary Douglas' book Natural Symbols. My recollection of this book does not include a discussion about the authenticity of feet and lacking a reference to a specific page, I was unable to discover to what Frey was referring. Another problem is a large amount of repetition which could have been avoided with a little more editorial care. A little more disturbing is the strong identification of the author with her subject. What starts as a purely academic enterprise becomes an inner journey with immediate consequences for her own life (see p. 195), and one sometimes gets the impression that the author is disappointed when the experiences of others do not fit into the same mould. However, despite these quibbles, this is a very interesting book, and although it does not deal with the Middle Ages per se, there is much here that will be useful for shedding light on the ideal of pilgrimage. The use of anthropology in historical research is still in its infancy, and there are methodological difficulties which might prove to be insurmountable, such as the inability to do fieldwork based on direct observation. Yet, in the case of pilgrimage in general, and particularly in the case of a pilgrimage which dates back to the Middle Ages and where many of the pilgrims identify themselves as walking in the footsteps of their predecessors, contemporary observation can surely be of assistance for illuminating aspects of the medieval phenomena.

Please do not waste your time trying to contact me during August; a dream I have had for a long time, the reading of this book and fortuitous circumstances have dictated that I will be somewhere on the Camino de Santiago.