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15.10.21, González-Paz, ed., Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia

The Medieval Review

15.10.21, González-Paz, ed., Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia

The history of medieval pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela have occupied a primary place of scholarly investigation for several decades now, forming part of the broader interest in border studies, travel history, and interfaith relations. Although modern scholars have studied the Camino de Santiago from a variety of angles and the Spanish government has even sponsored numerous research and architectural projects related to the origins and development of the pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, one topic that has received relatively little attention to date is the role that women played in the social makeup of the pilgrimage road. That said, I had high hopes for the book entitled Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia--hopes that were dashed after having read less than half of the book.

The volume opens with a brief introduction by the editor, Carlos Andrés González-Paz, explaining the book's purpose--to investigate the role that women played in medieval pilgrimage either to Santiago de Compostela or from Galicia to other popular pilgrimage sites. Footnote 10 lists some of the most important studies in English and Spanish related to the topic. Following the introduction, María Isabel Pérez de Tudela Velasco's "Women and the Christian Middle Ages: The Theoretical Horizon" offers a generalized overview of medieval Christian theologians' teachings regarding women. As protectors of the home and the family's honor, women in the Middle Ages were often viewed in one of two ways: either as the bearer of evil and, thus, a living representation of the Whore of Babylon, or as a representation of the Divine Truth through whom God allowed Himself to be born. The author then reviews the belief in Mary as the perfect woman chosen by God to right the wrong brought into the world by the sinful Eve at the beginning of Genesis. Pérez de Tudela tells us nothing here that has not already been explained dozens of times in other studies of women's history, but the essay does help to set a framework within which readers could interpret the essays found in the remainder of the book.

In chapter 2, "Women and Pilgrimage in Medieval Galicia," Marta González Vázquez explains some of the reasons for which women appear so infrequently in medieval pilgrimage accounts. In general, we know of the women who went on pilgrimage because of wills that they wrote before setting out or because other pilgrims mentioned them in their own personal accounts, and gifts to the archbishop or to the cathedral recorded in official documentation testify to the few high-ranking women such as countesses or queens who went to Compostela. With the advent of the Crusades, the number of women who undertook pilgrimages rose. Some accompanied their husbands to Rome and Jerusalem, while others travelled to Compostela to pray for the Christian reconquest of Iberia. Likely contrary to historical reality, just over thirty percent of fictional and poetic works written about the pilgrimage present female protagonists. Could this high number have reflected a reality in which women desired to go on pilgrimage despite not actually going? We do know that a large number of wealthy women paid males to undertake the pilgrimage for them. González Vázquez summarizes well some of the most important aspects of female pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, though at times she gets off track and falls into the error of overgeneralization and summary. On one occasion she places the shrine to Saint James "in the far corner of north-western Europe at Finisterre" (48)--a blatant error--and on another she states that "[w]omen have spoken little of themselves throughout history; men have spoken of them even less" (50). Before the modern period women indeed wrote very little about themselves, but there has been quite a large number of works written about them by men, from antiquity to today. Many depict women in a very negative light, as chapter 1 of this book points out, but it is an error to say that men have spoken of--or written about--women less than women have themselves.

The title of chapter 3, "Guncina González volens ire Iherusalem" (Carlos Andrés González-Paz), is somewhat misleading, as the person named appears in the essay only briefly. The author begins with a short review of the word peregrinatio, followed by a discussion of Pope Paschal II's anger at Iberians embarking on pilgrimages to Rome during the Crusades, leaving their homelands free for Muslim attack. Guncina González is introduced as a Galician noblewoman who twice attempted to make the pilgrimage, though little documentary evidence exists indicating whether she actually succeeded. We know that she wanted to go, as the essay's title indicates, but we know little more about her. The author lists other members of her family who evidently did make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem--all males. González Paz seems to want to focus on female pilgrims to Jerusalem, but his lack of argument and historical evidence force him to focus more on men than on women. As a result, his essay is, more than anything, a list of ideas related to medieval Galicians' attempts to reach Jerusalem, a rough draft that could at some future point become a longer, and better, study.

Chapter 4, in contrast, Esther Corral Díaz's essay "Maria Balteira, a Woman Crusader to Outremer," is a very well written study of the figure of the soldadeira in medieval Iberian literature. The most famous of these women paid to dance and perform while living an itinerant life was Maria Balteira, also known as María Pérez and La Balteira. Unlike most soldadeiras, Maria Balteira had the financial means to live a comfortable life, but her adventurous nature led her to desire and possibly to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem--singing and dancing along the way. She appears in many literary texts, Galician-Portuguese cantigas in the majority, and Corral Díaz has chosen to focus on two by the poets Pero da Ponte and Pedr'Amigo de Sevilha. Sarcastically attacking those who promise to go on pilgrimage but never do, the two works likely served as court entertainment. My only complaint about this essay is its brevity, for it has left me wanting more. How do the two works that Corral Díaz chose compare to other works in which Maria Balteira appears, and how do they compare to other works in which the generic figure of a soldadeira appears? This is a very nice essay that deserves to be carried forward into a more detailed study.

José Augusto de Sottomayor-Pizarro presents the life of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal in chapter 5, "Isabel, Princess of Aragon (1270-1336): Queen of Portugal, Pilgrim and Saint." His goal is simply to summarize "the main aspects of her public and private life, with special emphasis on those that show her as a woman of devotion, charity and pilgrimage" (82). The cult to St. Elizabeth had its beginnings very shortly after her death, when various miracle stories began to spread throughout Iberia. As a child Elizabeth often spoke of pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Mary of Roncesvalles, and as an adult she founded monasteries and even went on pilgrimage to Compostela, donating most of her jewels to the cathedral. As a widow she lived a pious life of seclusion. Oddly, in his brief description of the 1625 canonization process, Sottomayor-Pizarro states that St. Elizabeth's pilgrimage staff was found to be intact when her tomb was opened, but he does not mention until the end of the essay--and then only in passing--that her body was in an uncorrupted state. The saint's intact body is a vital piece of evidence for sainthood, and it should have been included in the author's discussion of the canonization process. Also, at several moments while reading the essay I questioned the author's objectivity as an historian, a feeling confirmed when I reached the last sentence, referring to the monastery of Santa Clara: "...Queen Isabel left us a building of rare beauty, worthy of her royalty and holiness, which well deserves to be a site of devoted pilgrimage" (92). In general, this essay is a good summary of St. Elizabeth's life, but there is little about her pilgrimage to Compostela and nothing besides connecting her to Galicia.

Chapter 6, Denise Péricard-Méa's "French Noblewomen on Pilgrimage to Compostela in the Middle Ages," should not have been published in its present form. She begins her essay with a few brief comments about the origins of the pilgrimage to Compostela, correctly stating that it did not become a well-known journey until after the appearance of the Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin in the mid-twelfth century. Following, she divides her essay into numerous relatively short sections that turn out to be little more than lists of real or fictional female pilgrims, in some cases with only a couple of sentences dedicated to them. Those mentioned include Bridget of Sweden, Marie d'Anjou, Elizabeth of Portugal, Constance of Castile, and Mahaut d'Artois. However, three of the five were not French, as the essay's title would suggest. She also briefly touches on the topics of proxy pilgrims and gifts left in wills to pilgrims who would pray for the souls of the deceased. In a section titled "Sermons," the texts referenced are not sermons at all, but rather fictional satirical pieces, a couple of which were written by husbands for their wives.

In chapter 7 Päivi Salmesvuori offers a concise, well-written essay entitled "Birgitta of Sweden and Her Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela." In it she explains the pious relationship that St. Bridget maintained with her husband Ulf, as well as their desire to go on pilgrimage to Compostela and to dedicate their lives to God in their later years. Falling ill on the journey home, Ulf recovered only after Bridget had experienced a miraculous dream. Remaining true to her family's custom, Bridget not only travelled to Compostela but also to Rome--as her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done--as well as to Jerusalem before her death in 1373.

Chapter 8, "Women, Pilgrimage and Art on the Road to Santiago," by Marta Cendón Fernández, promises to focus on the two "types of women arguably most often represented along the Road to Santiago: the Virgin and the female sinner" (123). It begins with a somewhat lengthy discussion of Our Lady of Rocamadour on the French Way and its related artwork, followed by shorter mentions of Our Lady of the Road and Our Lady of the Victories. She dedicates the remainder of the essay to the medieval evil Eve-holy Mary beliefs already mentioned in chapter 1. Although the author gives examples of visual images related to the two women found along the pilgrimage path to Santiago, she does not explain whether these images are particular to that path. They are not. So how do they differ from the same types of images found elsewhere, if they do, and how do those images affect the pilgrimage experience? Cendón Fernández's article is interesting, but it lacks the depth that a truly good study would present.

In the penultimate essay, "Life, Pilgrimage and Women in Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa María," María Victoria Chico Picaza takes up the subject of women in this most known of the thirteenth-century Learned King's Galician-Portuguese poetic works. She shows well how the songs and their accompanying miniatures depict women engaged in all aspects of life, from childbirth and household activities to pilgrimage, both as protagonists and as secondary characters. Women even appear in the miniatures where the song itself makes no mention of them. As with chapter 4, this essay is, in my opinion, too short. The author has chosen a topic of great interest--the depiction of women, especially female pilgrims, in a well-known work of poetic and visual art--and has given a good outline of what could become a more detailed and truly exciting study. As it is, however, it does not go much further than being a list.

The last chapter, "Women and Feigned Pilgrimages" by Isabel de Riquer, is one of the best of the book. In clearly written prose the author explains the sociolinguistic links between the words romería (a pilgrimage to a local shrine, typically more festive in nature than a longer pilgrimage to a far-off location) and ramera (a whore) that gave rise to such sayings as "She went on romería and returned a ramera." Literary texts such as the Cantigas de Santa María, the Milagros de Nuestra Señora, and the romanceros of the late medieval period give us a good idea as to why women sometimes chose to go on local pilgrimages. Often, the "saint" awaiting their arrival is a secret lover. In some cases the two lovers agree to meet, the man does not show up, and the woman curses the saint whose shrine they have chosen. Though we cannot accept these texts as historical, they do give us insight into a possible reality for some women or into the types of humor or literary tropes that readers and listeners of the time accepted or expected regarding women and secret lovers.

As I indicated at the beginning of this review, I found the book disappointing. It has some very positive aspects--a few of the articles present very good ideas that could be elaborated further in future studies. However, other articles should not have been accepted for publication. Many of the authors make sweeping generalizations with no historical evidence and present their ideas in an often chaotic way. One major weakness is the awkward, ungrammatical, and even incomprehensible English of a few of the essays. Investigating further, I found that Carlos Andrés González-Paz has also edited a volume entitled Mujeres y peregrinación en la Galicia medieval (Santiago de Compostela: Instituto de Estudios Gallegos Padre Sarmiento, 2010) and that some of those essays were indeed translated into English for the present volume. There are, however, articles in the Spanish volume that do not appear in English, and others in the English volume that do not appear in the Spanish one. Since I know not whether the editor or the individual authors translated their essays, I can only say that the editors at Ashgate should have done a better job of overseeing the project. Ashgate has produced some outstanding books, but this is not among them. With only a short index, no end bibliography, and only a few black-and-white images included in one essay, at over $100 this book is not worth the money.