- Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago
When I was invited to write this review, I was gently advised that Being a Pilgrim looked like a coffee-table book, and it does. The Lund Humphries division of Ashgate, a respected name in medieval studies, embraces handsomely illustrated art books as well as more studious, probably less coffee-table friendly works, such as Contemporary Issues Shaping China's Civil Aviation Policy. Kathleen Ashley and Marilyn Deegan, the authors of Being a Pilgrim, enjoy established reputations in their individual domains of medieval studies (Ashley and Patricia Sheingorn, Interpreting Cultural Symbols and Writing Faith; Deegan and Simon Tanner, Digital Futures) with the added advantage that Marilyn Deegan is an able photographer, demonstrated in the vast majority of more than 250 images in this book. Additional photos were contributed by medievalists Theresa Coletti of the University of Maryland, who has written perceptively on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and Hazel Gardiner, a noted collaborator on the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, who apparently pointed the way toward the fine Jacobean images from the windows of Bourges and Rabastens. Some four thousand photos were sorted for this volume's selection, many of which are more evocative than documentary in nature, although even veteran scholars of pilgrimage will find fresh images from France rarely seen.
Popular as well as scholarly interest in the Camino de Santiago has burgeoned in the last thirty years, and publications about this ancient trek have found a ready market among the quarter of a million modern travelers who currently set out on its paths every year. Medievalists have helped meet the demand partly because many of us have become enthusiastic participants in this mode of cultural tourism and scholarly self-improvement. Many other modern travelers seek what they hope will be an authentic medieval experience, so we willingly set forth to teach and guide. More than our counterparts in the study of stained glass, cathedrals or illuminated manuscripts —all sacred arts to be sure—specialists in pilgrimage studies feel respect for the active spirituality of many of the travelers attempting to understand their own engagement with a medieval and thoroughly modern phenomenon.
Ashley and Deegan inhabit these worlds. Ashley's reflections are sober and well informed but always conscious of the needs of her modern readers who have made the trip to Santiago or who dream of making it one day. Together, they gathered their mostly art-historical and architectural data as pilgrims as well as scholars, and to some extent the illustrations and their captions become a visual travelogue [End Page 250] enhanced by authentication from primary sources. The authority of Ashley's essays is somewhat undercut by the book's design: the font is too small to invite any but the most determined reader, and the photos too prominent: the lavish format, glossy paper and over-bright ink colors are what suggest relegating the book to coffee-table display. Many of the photos seem intent on depicting the modern pilgrims' experience of the places they visit, such as the tourists' coins tossed into the cupped stone pier in Padrón (fig. 4), the stadium-sized lighting fixtures adorning the Roman amphitheater at Arles (fig. 41), the ordinary pedestrians on the streets of La Puy (fig. 49), and the Santiago mime working the crowd for spare change (fig. 249). This sense of authenticity is even more true of the carefully chosen landscapes of Les Landes and the Spanish meseta (figs. 24-26) and of some of the medieval bridges (figs. 22, 95-97, 100-101, 126), whose physical settings are relatively unchanged since the Middle Ages. The general deforestation of Europe since medieval times, however, has provided modern pilgrims with vistas that would have been unknown to their medieval predecessors except for those surviving woodland tracks of Les Landes in southwest France between Bordeaux and Dax (the forbidding swamps created by Iberian plate tectonics are...