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19.08.07 Farina, Saint James the Greater in History, Art, and Culture

19.08.07 Farina, Saint James the Greater in History, Art, and Culture

As a professor of medieval Iberian cultural history, I was excited to see the 2018 appearance of a book on Saint James the Greater that I hoped would both lead to a greater understanding of the origins and development of the Camino de Santiago in the Middle Ages as well as provide possible source material for class readings and discussions. At both Yale University and the Pontifical College Josephinum I have taught numerous courses on the pilgrimage to Compostela, and I am typically very happy to come across newly published research on the topic. William Farina's book, however, disappointed me. In fact, I struggled to finish it. It is little more than a 246-page Wikipedia-style essay riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes, inaccurate generalizations, and blatant historical errors that the publisher should not have printed.

Saint James the Greater in History, Art, and Culture consists of an introduction, twenty-one chapters, a concluding summary, a timeline, end notes, a bibliography, and an index. The author has divided the book into two parts: the first covers the period from the Apostolic Age to 1492; the years from Christopher Columbus's voyages up through 2017 comprise the second. Except for the first chapter, which spans 19 pages, chapters average nine pages in length, each covering anywhere from around forty years to three centuries. Chapters are organized such that the author offers basic summaries of some of the most important historical events of the period, in the style of a condensed Western Civilization textbook, with the attempted goal of revealing the ways in which the cult to Saint James has influenced the development of Western cultures since ancient times. He ends each chapter with brief commentary on works of visual art related to the topics of the chapter.

The multitude of topics covered in this book ranges from Julian of Toledo, Isidore of Seville, Al-Mansur, Saladin, Francisco Pizarro, Sir Francis Drake, Miguel de Cervantes, John Adams, Napoleon, Oscar Romero, Eva Perón, Francisco Franco, Osama bin Laden and a cast of many others, to the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Invincible Armada, the two World Wars, the Bay of Pigs, 9/11, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the book progresses, especially in the second part, mention of Saint James diminishes noticeably. In fact, on several occasions I felt as if the author mentioned the Apostle only to point out the limited connection between him and the topics covered in the chapter. In chapter 19, for example, Farina explains that Fidel Castro did not invoke Saint James during the Cuban Revolution despite making his victory speech in Santiago de Cuba. Why would Castro, an atheist, have done so? The author seems to miss the point here. In the same chapter, he discusses the Falkland Islands, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union without making any connection whatsoever to Saint James. In some cases, it became obvious to me that Mr. Farina wished to force a connection that likely did not exist. For example, in chapter 14 he takes great pains to explain John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress as the narration of a spiritual pilgrimage that exemplifies Protestant loathing for anything Catholic, yet he speculates that Bunyan must have thought of the Camino de Santiago as he wrote this work. He offers no evidence to back up the claim; Bunyan might have thought of the pilgrimage to Canterbury or to any other shrine, if indeed he was thinking of one at all. In chapter 17 Farina attempts to compare the battles of the 1870s between white settlers and American Indians with those of Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages in a rather obscure, even naïve, way that betrays a general lack of historical understanding of the people he attempts to portray. In chapter 19 he discusses Che Guevara as "a kind of Santiago Matamoros for the irreligious among the proletariat class" (179), though, again, his comments neither follow a logical line of reasoning nor offer any kind of imaginative explanation that would allow the reader to make the link between the two. From cover to cover, Mr. Farina's book presents one forced argument after another, demonstrating a lack of scholarly rigor and what seems to be a sense of hurried impatience to jump from one topic to the next with little or no true intellectual sophistication. That lack of scholarly rigor is evinced further in the fact that the book's bibliography is barely two-thirds of a page in length. Farina depends far too much on Edward Gibbon (whom he mentions often yet leaves out of the bibliography) and William Starkie, as well as a smattering of other random works of varying scholarly value (some truly excellent, some not so much). In general, it seems, Farina has simply taken a few ideas from those now-aged tomes--including the interchangeable use of "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages"--and used them to form speculative opinions rather than conclusions based on data and evidence.

Despite, or possibly due to, the fact that Farina seemingly wished to produce a near-exhaustive account of the image of Saint James in Western history from the beginnings of Christianity to today, the book not only suffers from precision of argument, but it also presents a plethora of historical errors. Among the first is the question of the etymology of the place name Compostella, which he--like many before him--suggests derived from Campus Stellae. As most modern historians of Santiago de Compostela, as well as historical linguists, explain, that evolution is highly unlikely: the name of the region, and later of the town, most likely evolved from composita tella (graveyard or burial grounds). Farina makes no mention of this fact, thus furthering the miraculous legend of the discovery of Saint James's tomb. In chapters 3 and 4 he expends much time commenting on Beatus of Liébana--whom he has canonized--and the Beatus Comentaria in Apocalypsin manuscript tradition. He singles out the Silos Beatus as unique since we know the names of its scribes and the date at which it was finished. The author obviously did not familiarize himself well with the Beatus manuscripts since we know the same for the Morgan, San Miguel de Escalada, Tábara, Girona, Valcavado, Facundo, and Burgo de Osma manuscripts--all completed before the Silos Beatus. He later claims, "one could easily write an entire volume on the prodigious wealth of illuminated art found within the Beatus Commentary manuscripts" (35). Yes, one could; it has been done. The works of Peter Klein, Mireille Mentré, Wilhelm Neuss, John Williams, Joaquín Yarza Luaces, among others, is proof enough. He also makes the mistake of generalizing the Beatus commentaries as proof that the Christians of medieval Spain counted "each day of life given as a blessing" since the "millennial Doomsday was fast approaching" (36). Generalizing emotions and beliefs is one mistake that a historian should never make since it tends to reflect more the thought processes of the historian him/herself than that of the people studied. Connected to this, in the chronology that he offers at the end of the book, for the year 776 Farina claims that "St. Beatus of Liébana advocates Spanish nationalism in his Commentary on the Apocalypse," a claim that I would strongly argue against and which forces me to question whether Farina has actually read the two vast theological works written by Beatus.

Further on in his discussions of the Middle Ages, Farina speculates that the Romanesque building projects of Northern Iberia must have been influenced by the French (chapter 6). Though he later mentions the arrival of Cluniac monks to Iberia, he seems to ignore their influence as well as that of the various royal marriages among the Castilian and Frankish nobility. Farina's speculation is right, and any good textbook on Iberian architectural history will make it clear, but Mr. Farina seems to ignore that fact. Even more puzzling is the fact that he turns the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela into a Gothic structure (72); although additions were made to the church at the time that such Gothic cathedrals as Burgos and León were being built, the cathedral at Compostela is Romanesque.

There are many other smaller details that the author should not have overlooked in the correction of his manuscript. I will list only a few here. At one point, the half-brother of Princess Isabella of Castile, Henry (Enrique), is changed into her uncle (98). Though one would be tempted to accept a half-sibling/uncle/niece relationship without question among the later Spanish Hapsburgs, this is not the case with the Trastámaras. Note 10 of chapter 11 has Ferdinand and Isabella's son, Juan, dying in 1597 at the age of nineteen, ninety-three years after his mother's death. Speaking of crop production and new types of trade introduced into Europe and the Americas following 1492, note 21 of chapter 12 claims that Old World crops such as tobacco thrived in the New World. Should that not be the opposite way around? In chapter 15 he claims that the French Revolution began in 1780, not 1789.

Lastly, with reference to my previous comment regarding Mr. Farina's hurried impatience, I must point out both the author's and the editor's lack of proofreading. On nearly every page of every chapter there are both grammatical and orthographic mistakes--not just one, but several. Some of the most egregious are misspellings of proper names: Alfonso XI el "Lusteçero" instead of "Justiciero" or the older "Justeçero" (85), which I found on a badly edited website from which Mr. Farina must have taken the name; Grenada instead of Granada (93), thus confusing the Caribbean island with the region of Southern Spain; Málagra instead of Málaga (100) and Vélez-Málagra in place of Vélez-Málaga (215); Abagail Adams instead of Abigail (145); and theCantiges of Santa María instead of the Cantigas (214). The author also used the mixed-language Isabella la Católica (101), which is never accepted in Spanish; he should have used Isabella the Catholic or Isabel la Católica, but not a combination of the two. On page 81 he gives two different spellings of the Italian town of the province of Ancona, Loreto and Loredo. Comically, Farina refers to the "annuls of western civilization" (96) and to the "neckless" that Queen Isabella wears in two different paintings of the 19th century (102-103). Other mistakes include a general lack of articles in some places--occurring at least once on many pages--and, at times, the use of an article where it should not be used: "the Holy Roman Empire of the Charlemagne" (37) and "a question that had vexed the Compostela for centuries" (161) are typical examples. Finally, the author does not seem to understand the difference between the noun and the adjective forms of centuries (third century versus third-century, for example).

A laudable aspect of Mr. Farina's book is his attempt to connect visual images of Saint James with the times and places that he discusses in each chapter, thereby showing the influence of historical events on art and art on later historical events. For example, at the end of chapter 1, which focuses on the historical Saint James, he offers commentary on Zurbarán's painting of the execution of the Apostle. In chapter 4, where he discusses the legendary arrival of the saint's body to Iberia, he offers some very nice commentary on Italian frescoes depicting the legends as well as a painting by Martin Bernat. He shows the connection between images of Saint James the Moorslayer of medieval iconography and propaganda created by the Franco regime to promote the Spanish Civil War as a modern crusade (chapter 18). Other artists mentioned include Pere Serra, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Lorenzo Lotto, El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Gustave Doré, Rembrandt, Frederic Remington, Salvador Dalí, the Lakota ledger artists, among many others. Farina's brief explanations of works of visual art are far superior to his attempts at historical interpretation, likely because he limits himself to barely more than a superficial description of what the spectator sees in that art. Unfortunately, the book lacks images, which means that anyone wishing to analyze the works of art that he presents must search for them online or in reference books.

William Farina has committed two mistakes that a scholar of history should not commit: he has attempted to write on a topic far too broad for the limits of his abilities and proposed book length, and he has generated theories and drawn far too many conclusions with little-to-no basis in historical fact. This should come as no surprise to the reader, however, given that Farina is not a historian but rather a real estate consultant. Nor should his hurried impatience come as a surprise given that Saint James the Greater is his ninth book in twelve years (all published by McFarland), and that he already has another under contract. What does come as a surprise, precisely because of his undergraduate degree in English and post-graduate degree in law, is the quality of the writing. Another reader has suggested that Farina possibly used a voice-to-text writing program, which could account for the mistaken lack or presence of articles or for the use of "neckless" instead of "necklace"; these programs are not foolproof and often do not "hear" exactly what has been said. Of course, there is no way to know. Regardless, the text should have been proofread by both the author and the editor before publication. According to Mr. Farina's personal website (, "his books are about topics that could hardly be more different, yet familiar to most readers. All explore subject matter normally approached by specialized academia, but from an enthusiastic layman's point of view." As much as I support enthusiastic laypeople taking up the study of specialized topics, they have the responsibility to ensure to the best of their abilities that what they write is historically accurate and that they are not propounding false information. Academic publishers have the responsibility to ensure that their books have been vetted properly. Mr. Farina's book is little more than a highly condensed Western Civilization textbook loosely centered on the figure of Saint James. As such, it is one that should be approached with a great deal of caution by everyone, that professors of historical methodology and research could use as a teaching tool, and that writers of popular history should consider as an example of what not to do.