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10.02.08, Ashley and Deegan , Being a Pilgrim

The Medieval Review

10.02.08, Ashley and Deegan , Being a Pilgrim

The authors of this volume are to be commended for having produced something rare and valuable: a book aimed at nonspecialist readers which documents a facet of medieval culture, and does so without lapsing into inaccuracy or painful oversimplification. Being a Pilgrim instead provides an excellent and accessible introduction to the vibrant tradition of the medieval Compostela pilgrimage. Ashley and Deegan set out to capture "the experience of early pilgrims" (7) in both photography and in text. The result is a series of well-conceived essays describing various aspects of the Compostela pilgrimage from roughly the tenth through the sixteenth centuries, which are informed by hundreds of original color photographs of the art and architecture along the pilgrims' route.

The essays in this volume assume the reader has no foreknowledge of the topic, and give a balanced and clear introduction to medieval religious culture and to the experiences of Compostela pilgrims in particular. Organizing introductions to cultural-studies topics can be challenging; it is tempting to fall back on chronology, or in the case of pilgrimage, on geography, as a central organizing scheme, even though such linear approaches tend to create too simplistic or static an understanding of the phenomenon at hand. Here, the authors have instead laid out material in a topical fashion, building up layers in their model of a complex and dynamic medieval ritual. Beginning with a discussion of the origins and history of the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela, the authors move on to discuss several intersecting issues surrounding the pilgrimage, from geography and infrastructure (chapters 2 and 4) to the social and religious experiences of pilgrims who moved along the route (as in chapter 3, on "Preparing for Pilgrimage," and chapter 5, "Visiting the Saints.") The results are illuminating without being confusing or repetitive.

The prose in these essays is clear, concise, and yet lively, and is made more engaging by the authors' judicious use of excerpts from the travelogues of medieval pilgrims such as Arnold von Harff, Leo von Rozmital, and Domenico Laffi. And although the text covers many of the topics one might expect, the authors also take on some lesser-known issues. Chapter 7, entitled "Legends, Folklore, and Miracles," offers an especially deft account of the ways in which the art and architecture of the Compostela route absorbed and developed the imagery associated with the legends of Charlemagne and of his nephew, Roland, who supposedly died fighting a Moorish force at Roncevalles. Similarly, Chapter 8, "The Musical Journey," offers an overview of the use of music by pilgrims as it appears in pilgrim accounts, and also in the representation of music and musical instruments in the art and architecture along the Compostela routes. By the conclusion of the chapter, the authors have made clear that music was not just an adornment of pilgrimage or an occasional distraction for pilgrims, but instead was "one of the most powerful practices of pilgrimage" (216).

The photographs which share the pages with these essays drive home the way in which visual arts, much like music, were a more central touchstone for medieval pilgrims than was text. The photography, by itself, constitutes a valuable present-day travelogue; it captures everything from larger vistas to the smallest of architectural and sculptural details. Art historians will find the documentation and comparison of decorative motifs used along the pilgrim route, which constitute the majority of the images, especially valuable. But the book also contains photographs of some mundane, humorous, and unexpected details. Some of these, especially those illustrating Chapter 4, "The Social and Architectural Infrastructure of Pilgrimage," will be valuable to the social historian of the Middle Ages; this chapter offers photographs of such utilitarian structures as city gates, bridges, and even a thirteenth-century latrine. In other places the authors have included images that give something of the flavor of the pilgrimage as it is practiced today, including a photograph of page from a modern credencial, or pilgrim- passport (65), and one of the present-day sign at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which invites visitors to "Hug the Apostle and Visit the Tomb" (234). Throughout, the photographs are closely matched with the text and give great depth to their descriptions. The interplay between text and image is especially resonant in those moments when the authors invite readers to compare a medieval travelogue's description of a place with a photograph of that place as it exists in the present day.

Although this book is aimed at a nonspecialist readership, its scholarly underpinnings are accessible throughout. The essays are end-noted, the book has been indexed, and the authors provide an extensive "Further Reading" bibliography. As such, Being A Pilgrim is not only a lovely introduction for the casual reader, it will also be a valuable tool for use in pedagogy, and even a good starting point for undergraduate research. It should also be required reading for anyone interested in undertaking any portion of the Compostela pilgrimage, which, as the authors note, has experienced a significant revival in the last two decades (242).

There are a few additions that would have made the book a slightly more complete overview of the medieval Compostela pilgrimage. The most glaring oversight is the simplicity of the maps included in the volume; they mark the three branches of the route through France and note the major towns, but offer nothing further. Given the detail included in the rest of the book, a set of more detailed maps would be welcome. In particular, maps which display major rivers and other geographic features, maps which mark more of the medieval communities, large and small, along the route, and perhaps a map showing medieval political or linguistic boundaries would be extremely valuable to readers. This last issue of the crossing of political and language boundaries also perhaps deserves more attention than it has received in the body of the text; the authors' focus on ritual, artistic, and social continuities along the routes, while convincing and effective, has also somewhat downplayed the encounter between pilgrims and one or more "foreign" cultures. The authors have, in the same vein, conveyed a sense of unity and continuity among pilgrims themselves; they rely on Turner and Turner's (1978) concept of communitas, the close bonds which arise among pilgrims because of their shared liminal state. This rosy image of pilgrim communities has been made significantly more complex by many scholars since Tuner and Turner's original publication, but the notion of tension among pilgrims is somewhat underplayed here. However, these are very minor quibbles about what is, overall, a revealing and beautiful volume.