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The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

Why do we present the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in a website dedicated to Limousin? It is not enough to say that it is because the subject is trendy and because we must talk about any section concerning the Middle Age…


The interest of presenting a historic lecture of this pilgrimage is to present what is a pilgrimage and what it includes. The Limousin had known all along the Middle Age the development of renowned sanctuaries where the local and foreigners pilgrims went. These sanctuaries rivaled of nerve and inventions in order to make a good promotion of their saints and get as much benefice as possible. Indeed the reputation of the Saint provided an economic growth for the church which managed it and also all the city which surrounded the sanctuary. Many actual cities still thank with the ostentions their protective saints who permitted the urban development and the commercial attraction.

The sanctuary is a matter of power. But beyond that, the recognized practice of the pilgrimage of Compostela raised a lot of questions about the real misreading of the historic reality. A strong romantic vision emerged in the 19th century and a wrong interpretation of the conserved manuscripts has been made.

Having another reading of the medieval Limousin via the Hispanic peninsula enables to show how strong the relations between the two were and how real the links between the big sanctuaries of Saint-Martial of Limoges and the cathedral of Compostela were.

The wrong perception, I think, about the pilgrimage of Compostela resides in the romantic version we still conserve today and which is still promoted by many media and touristic institutions.

Who can have a walk in France; visit an abbey without seeing some signs relating the justification of pilgrims’ passages on the road to Compostela? Show today how big a sanctuary in France was in the Middle Age seems to be only with a « compostelan » label.

The Limousin has for example inherited of the only monument classified by the UNESCO in the title of the cultural track of the Santiago de Compostela which is the collegial church of Saint-Léonard de Noblat. The justification is given by an eventual affiliation to a specific way for pilgrims going to Compostela.

The importance of the sanctuary of Saint-Léonard in the Middle Age didn’t need the pilgrims of Compostela for its reputation. And we will see that these pseudo roads had been published with a wrong appreciation of a medieval text and that the modern Europe, attempting to give a communal history to those modern countries used these symbolic roads to facilitate its promotion.

All the big sanctuaries in the Middle Age except Jerusalem and globally the Holly Land and Rome were in competition to promote the holly relics. The sanctuaries such as Saint-Martial de Limoges and Rocamadour knew vicissitudes during their history, following the « fashion trends » like the apostolicity of Martial which seemed to reactive the devotions. In the 12th century the sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin like Rocamadour and le Puy en Velay generated many interest. In each province, the politic powers influenced the development of the sanctuaries. Like the example of the development of Saint-Léonard’s cult in the powerful abbey of Limoges. This abbey claimed the apostolicity of its saint after the invention (the discovery) of the relics of Saint-Jean Baptiste in Saint-Jean of Angély which could have brought a shadow.

The historic approach of the historians in the 19th century about the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela is nowadays seen again. Despite this, many articles and comments take again the romantic clichés dated back to this 19th century and convey wrong information.


The historic context of the Limousin is the occasion to bring light about the « realities » of this pilgrimage practice. With examples, we will illustrate shortly the compostelan fact.

Map of the saint James reliquaries in the medieval period

(Source : Denise Péricard-Méa)



When we look for the pilgrim passages’ testimonies on the road to the Galician sanctuary, we have for a long time taken as a reference a text of the 12th century inappropriately titled “the pilgrim guide” while none title was attributed. The few diffusion that could know this text and the context in which it was written shows that it had a different function than the one of leading the pilgrims at the good port, but to do the promotion of the Compostela sanctuary, using the reputation of others trendy sanctuaries at the same time. This text could also have been a command of Alphonse VII who wanted to reclaim a bigger kingdom and for that using the reputation of the sanctuary in order to federate the most important lords of the bordered kingdoms including the Aquitaine.


As a first reading, in the 20th century, the historians took that text as a true illustration and pilgrims’ testimonies, forgetting all the symbolic value, like we can often find in the texts of that time.


Concerning the redaction of a true guide, we saw them published only at the beginning of the printing…


The pilgrims went so to Compostela, not through specific paths but across the big common axes for business, travelers. They beneficiated in that the commodities of these busy roads layout in term of accommodation and safety. Obviously, it is important to also understand that these travelers in a Middle Age were moving, travelling, so far away of the cliché of closed kingdoms on themselves we have(except of course during the military conflicts and epidemics). The many pages of this site show how much the people had to travel even on longue distances in the artistic, architectural or intellectual domains.


Today, even if the words must be measured, it is important to have a look again on the historian copies of the 19th and 20th centuries and even some today. The pilgrims didn’t gather in proper places to take the road. The sanctuaries of le Puy en Velay, Vézelay were not the unique points of departure to Santiago de Compostela; they were first of all big sanctuaries renowned for themselves. In that subject also, the big four roads in France, recognized and chosen by Europe in 1987 as European Cultural Itineraries have a bit deformed a well different historic reality. These roads hadn’t known more pilgrims than other roads. The example of the Limousin in that shows the contrary. The pilgrims who crossed the Limousin used the commercial and the north/south way, the famous Limoges-Toulouse traveler’s axes.


Moreover the name of the pseudo-guide of the pilgrim’ roads have not been found in any medieval texts. The only testimony of a well-known road named Via Lemovicana, cited in the cartulary of Aureil which use had been attested in the 12th century, crossed the priories of Saint-Martial de Chervix, Pompadour, Yssandon, linking so Limoges to Brive.

Statue of saint James in the La Souterraine Abbey


When we talk about the roads of Saint-Jacques, we often forget the complexity of those itineraries which haven’t been practiced only by the pilgrims of Saint-Jacques. The road was also used by the merchants obviously, the militaries on the road to reclaim the Christian kingdoms on the Moresque ones, but it facilitated also the population movement to the free lands and the new cities created and which facilitated the implantation of the donations of rights. To finish, the roads enabled the circulations of liturgical reforms (opposed to the Visigoth customs in Spain), the musical and poetic influences and the architectural and sculptural trends.


*  The road of Spain: military road of the Reconquista

From the 13th century the figure of Saint-Jacques had been linked to the military movement of recapture organized by the Christian kingdoms of the northern Spain. They federated the important lords of the West to recapture the lands belonging to the Mussulmen. Saint-Jacques was communally called Matamoros and was represented on a horse killing Moresque people. In the knight ideal of the 15th century, this image was amplified and knew many representations.


The count of Poitiers, Guillaume IX, should have covered himself with glory during the campaign, in the battles of Cutanda on the 18th may 1120 where he took more than ten thousand prisoners, many of his Almoravid Moresque slaves were brought back by him in Aquitaine. It is attested that the abbey of Saint-Martial has received, at that time, twenty captives. Many lords of Limousin were engaged in those military operations, like the chart CCXX attests, citing four knights of the Comborn Castle “milites Combornenses, Ademarus, Doitrannus, Arbertus and Wido de Charreiras” going to Spain around the year 1111 to fight the Moresque.


The route of Spain and the liturgical reform

If the Cluny order didn’t seem to orchestrate the pilgrimage in Compostela, like some historians let us think, it stays the fact that Cluny linked a lot of religious politic relations with the chapter of the cathedral of Compostela. It has been proved finally that it is mainly in the purpose to reform the liturgy, that the Order was invested and Cluny was about to apply for itself. For a long time, the Mozarabic liturgy with a Visigoth origin and its rituals continued. The reform tried to establish the roman ritual. The historian Adeline Rucquoi advanced that this reform of the Hispanic liturgy and its ritual was rather pushed by Rome via its legate of the pope, Richard, cardinal and abbot of Saint-Victor de Marseille in conflict with Cluny.


* Route of Spain: route of a religious development

The implantation of French religious in the north of Spain corresponds to a territorial expansion voluntary, looking for an economic growth and a constant research of reputation. At the first chef, Cluny’s order had many monasteries and Christian kings paid every year to Cluny a percentage of their spoils taken during the recapture that enabled the order to realize their projects of construction. The religious of Limousin, like in Grandmont, the abbeys of Tulle and Saint-Martial of Limoges seemed also to have directly or indirectly beneficiate of the recapture with donations or new implantations. And so the abbots of Tulle beneficiated by their sanctuary of Rocamadour, rights of the markets and the mills of the city of Estella, granted in 1201 by Sanche VII, king of Navarre.



* A route of artistic exchanges

A particular attention is given also on the continuous exchanges between the Hispanic peninsula and the Aquitaine. The diffusion of the enamels of Limousin said as Limoges works for example, give us many cases of liturgical objects sold to Spanish churches and that reveals a true influence of the limousines shops of the goldsmiths in the Spanish kingdoms. Even today, if we know the true influences between the shops of Limoges and those of the royal monastery of Santo Domigo de Silos south of Burgos, the historians didn’t define how there were organized. All the hypotheses are still possible, with the enamels masters’ movement to Burgos, the fabrication on the site of enamels plaques or the importation of those ones in the Limoges shops.


Of course, the artistic influences were made in both ways, like the example of coins from Moresque treasures which knew adding of enamels masters and goldsmiths of Limousin who could be inspired directly by the motifs. Also, the dalmatic of Ambazac, the treasure of Grandmont, is another example of a Burgos provenance.

Another artistic domain seems to have known the interest of the chapter itself of the cathedral of Compostela: it is the school of Saint-Martial de Limoges. Indeed, the reputation of the musical creation of the abbey of Limoges influenced manifestly Compostela for the valorization of the Saint-Jacques sanctuary’s liturgy. During the 11th and 13th centuries, the music was in the heart of everything and made the impressiveness of a sanctuary. Well before the school of Notre-Dame de Paris, Compostela put itself as the heir of the abbey of Limoges inventions pushing its own researches. The trips of the bishop Gelmirez stopping by the abbey of Limoges in the year 1104 let think about the copies of manuscript that could have been done.

The example of the artistic influence between Spain and the Limousin is also perceivable in the hypotheses made about the origin of troubadours. According to Marguerite-Marie IPPOLITO in “Bernard de Ventadour”, “it is not forbidden to think about the influence of the Mussulmen culture and the Hispanic-Moresque poetry in the aristocratic middle of Aquitaine and also in Limousin, not only by the intermediary of Guillaume IX anymore, but with the direct contribution of Moresque slaves. Also, can we imagine for example that the castle of Ventadour has sheltered not only the Spanish troubadour Guiraut de Cabrera, but also lettered Mussulmen? The very wealthy and refined Arabic civilization came into our lands, raised by the Azahal songs, took in Cordoue by Ibn-Quzman in his book le Diwan. On the lute’s sound, this typically Moresque instrument that we discovered at that time, in rhythm with these monadic melodies so closed to versus of Saint-Martial, lords and ladies, after Guillaume IX and Ebles II were impressed by those poems telling the real loves and secret lovers of Banou’Oudrah tribute where we thought that dying of love is a sweet and noble thing…”

To the contrary, it is certain that the troubadours of Limousin went to the Spanish territories where they brought and saw their art in the different courts of the Spanish realms, like the troubadour Gaucelm Faidit we found in Aragon and Navarre.

The Spanish road is also in the heart of exchanges between the big religious centers. We saw that with the diffusion of the polyphonic music of Saint-Martial, enamels or liturgical clothes, but we can also complete this illustration with the transfer and the copy of manuscripts. Perhaps in relation with a visit of Diego Gelmirez, bishop of Compostela, in Saint-Martial of Limoges in 1103, the translation story said as Gembloux’s story was redacted in a form of a Saint-Martial liturgy. It will be taken again in the compilations put in the pope Calixte patronage.










Musiciens on the portal of the Compostela cathedral

The poetry of the Limousins trobadors in Spain

The classification of the pilgrimage churches architecture


For a long time the historians tried to justify the pilgrims passage on the road to the Galician sanctuary with the presence of the patronage of Saint-Jacques in a church, a bridge, a hospital… it was well unknown the Middle Age. What is amazing is the fact that this methodology wasn’t only applied to Saint-Jacques!? According to the diffusion of the cult of Saint-Martial de Limoges in Spain for example in Pamplona, Burgos and Léon, we could have deductive the passage of pilgrims up to Limoges? Moreover, the patronage of the famed Saint Martin of Tours, so common in Spain, doesn’t prove at all an eventual passage of pilgrims. To finish, the recognition of the Notre Dame of Rocamadour’s cult, sanctuary promoted by the abbey of Tulle that we also find in Estella, Sanguesa, Burgos, Astorga, Melide… up to Portugal. So it was present in almost all the north kingdoms and that doesn’t show at all eventual tracks used by the Spanish pilgrims up to the Rocamadour sanctuary.

Il est évident que les historiens se sont laissés bercer par une approche quelque peu romanesque et essentiellement pour l'épopée compostellane.


Moreover, the patronage of Saint-Jacques looks quite complex. The historian Denise PERICARD-MEA all along her researches well showed that in the Middle Age the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela could confuse with the many relics of the saint. It seems that some pilgrims could go on the pilgrimage of Saint-Jacques without going to the Galician sanctuary.

Moreover, in the medieval time, the Saint-Jacques epistle, text attributed to Saint-Jacques le Majeur, brought all the ritual of the extreme unction, giving the image of a saint « ferryman of souls ». Saint-Jacques was so renowned and invocated to lead the dead beyond the life. Attribute the patronage of Saint-Jacques to a hospital seems in that moment clearer.

The Codex Calixtinus of the Compostela cathedral



The pseudo-guide of the pilgrim composes the fifth book of a more important manuscript called the Codex Calixtinus. The historic studies permitted to understand the reason of the redaction of this “guide”: it is nothing less than a written guide for all the lords of Aquitaine (among them Guillaume of Montpellier) invited in 1135 for the crowning of Alphonse VII as emperor. He wanted to be the heir of Charlemagne and attracted in his vassalage all the lords of the big Aquitaine. At this date, Eleanor, heir of Guillaume X duck of Aquitaine, was not married yet and the Castillo could hope a matrimonial alliance that permitted a control on that big principality. In 1137 its hopes were still permitted: Guillaume X, duck of Aquitaine, went to Compostela where he was sure of being welcome (he had serious troubles with some of his vassals). Unfortunately, he died there, the holly Friday 9th April, at 38 years old. Alphonse VII’s hopes were destroyed like the chroniclers of that time, Geoffrey of Vigeois, Suger, Orderic Vital said that the duck gave before to leave his daughter Eleanor to the king of France, Louis VI, also agonizing who gave her immediately to his son.


Vers 1157, au moment de la minorité menacée du jeune Alphonse VIII, laChronique d’Alphonse VII se fait l’écho de ces espoirs et de ces projets nés aux alentours de 1135  et rappelle la légitimité du jeune héritier. Elle donne une liste de lieux et de personnes ayant assisté au couronnement de 1135 qui avait fait de lui « le chef de l’Empire de tous… semblable à Charlemagne dont il a suivi les faits. Ils furent égaux par la race, identiques par la force des armes ».


Around 1157 when the minority of the young Alphonse VII was threatened, the Chronicle of Alphonse VII made the echo of his hopes and projects born around 1135 and reminded the legitimacy of the young heir. It gave a list of places and persons who assisted to the crowning of 1135 that made him as the “chef of the empire of everyone” alike the Charlemagne’s one he followed the facts. They were equal by race, identic by the arms strength”.


Around 1157 when the minority of the young Alphonse VII was threatened, the Chronicle of Alphonse VII made the echo of his hopes and projects born around 1135 and reminded the legitimacy of the young heir. It gave a list of places and persons who assisted to the crowning of 1135 that made him as the “chef of the empire of everyone” alike the Charlemagne’s one he followed the facts. They were equal by race, identic by the arms strength”.


« All the lords of all the Gascony and all the regions spreading over until the Rhône, also Guillaume de Montpellier came together to find the king, received from him silver and gold, many gifts, precious and diverse, many horses, recognized themselves as his subjects et promised to obey him in any point. And many of counts ‘sons, ducks and lords of France, also people of Poitou in a big number came to him and received arms and also other gifts in a big quantity. And so the borders of Alphonse’s kingdom, king of Léon, spread then from the ocean rives, that means from the rock of Saint-Jacques up to the Rhône”.

This cartography coincides with the one of the last book of the manuscript which gives the list of favorite sanctuaries of the lords of Aquitaine, giving nonetheless, in the border, Orleans, in homage to the “ducks and lords of France”. How can we not see that this schema superposes exactly with the indications of the guide redacted also around those years 1132-1135 ?

Suppositions of the Limousin pilgrims way

So which road did the limousine people take?

None testimonies take again the hypothesis of our historians militating for a Lemovencis way. But almost all testimonies of pilgrims who went in Spain in general or for the Compostela’s sanctuary traced an itinerary not really surprising: Limoges-Toulouse. For the Limousin, this axe was well known and passed by the cities of Uzerche and Brive to then get Cahors. This north/south axe was the more direct one and corresponded also to a big commercial way named later the itinerary of Bourges. This itinerary is more validated especially since it corresponded to other testimonies linked to Spanish nobles who went in Limousin. Obviously, we find some texts supposing that the track going to Bordeaux was not neglected.


Also, it seems that the maritime way could have been an alternative to go in Compostela. In general, this maritime way was often under estimated but it replied to time imperatives, like a text of the collegial church of Eymoutiers says and gives only one month to get the sanctuary of Galicia. We conserve these pilgrims’ testimonies crossing the Limousin and taking the ship in La Rochelle.


In order to complete this geographic perception, we should not forget to mention that the pilgrims who crossed the Limousin could came from other cities such as Tours, Poitiers, Orléans, Clermont, Paris… in that way, in any case, the pilgrims didn’t focus in only one itinerary, or at least they followed the big axes, known and “equipped”.

Reconquista periods

Santo Domingo of Silos enamels

* The route of Spain: a pilgrim route

We often restrained the road on the direction to Spain to the Compostela tracks. On one hand, it is after all a historic commercial road, like the roman road between Bordeaux and Astorga. On the other hand, we cannot restrain the Frankish pilgrims taking that road to Spain to the only Compostela pilgrims. Indeed, when the historians looked the “sauf-conduits” requests for example, they pointed out destinations of multiple pilgrimages, as Spanish as in the departure of Jerusalem: Saint Isodore, Notre Dame de Montserrat, Sainte Eulalie de Barcelone…


These roads in direction of Spanish sanctuaries were also taken, in the contrary by Spanish pilgrims in the road of the sanctuaries of Aquitaine and Limousin.


Because, if we know few limousine pilgrims on the road to the Galician sanctuary, except in the 11th century with the viscount of Limoges Aymard II, we have plenty of testimonies of Spanish pilgrims going in devotion to limousine sanctuaries. If it is important to underline that these pilgrimages seemed to be always with a politic interest, they showed nonetheless the renown of those sanctuaries of limousines Saints.


 In 1172 Eleanor of Aquitaine received sumptuously in the Limoges abbey, for the Saint-Martial day, the kings Alphonse II of Aragon and Sanche VI of Navarre who came as pilgrims.


The bishop of Compostela himself, Diego Gelmirez going to Rome in the year 1104, passing by Auch (where it seems that the cathedral of Compostela had some implantations), then Toulouse, where the Saint-Sernin basilica was dedicated ten years before, then Cahors where his coming had been announced, to then reach the monastery of Saint-Pierre d’Uzerche. Arrived in Limoges, city of Saint-Martial “the welcome overpassed everything he had known so far, even in Saint-Léonard”. Left to Cluny, he had a meeting with Saint-Hughes and arrived in Rome on the 30th October 1104 where he received from the pope Pascall II’s hands the Pallium dignity and his nomination as “sous deacon”. This passage in Limoges is manifestly revelator of a historic reality of the links created between the big sanctuaries. The Saint-Martial de Limoges abbey shone, at that time, with the renown of its saint and its musical inventions, its famous library and its architecture. It is an unmissable place and the bishop of Compostela cannot avoid to go there. It is important to point out that the “pilgrim guide” will not mention the Saint-Martial sanctuary…


* The route of Spain: a repopulation route

We also assist to a migration of the population of Limousin and Aquitaine up to a repopulation favored by the lands freed step by step with the recapture. This migration, as it is testified in some census and fueros of Spanish cities in their Frankish districts give us an idea of exchanges that could have been instituted between those moving population and their original region. We determine easily the origin of those new populations, because in the Middle-Age, the first name is often associated with the city of origin. So in the cities of Jaca, Logrono, Estella, Burgos, Huesca, Saragosse, we notice many Jean, Guilhem, Pierre, Elie, Bernard de Limoges all along the 12th century. The repopulation probably played a role in the diffusion of the Saints cults of their original region that took place in these new districts. Like we saw Saint-Martial of Limoges was communally honored in the cities of Burgos, Léon, and Pamplona. Beyond these bonds, the implantation of some limousine religious in Spain added to this diffusion cults of limousine Saints. We will find the implantation of the Grandmont order in Estalla and monks of the Tulle abbey closed to Burgos (with a donation to their sanctuary of Rocamadour).



* The route of Spain: the builders’ route

In this domain also the interpretation and conclusions of the historians in the 19th century have been seen again. We thought for a longtime that the pilgrimage of Compostela developed an architecture and specific sculpted decoration in order to glorify the Galician sanctuary. Some historians went to the point to support that the construction of buildings in France, with similar characteristics as the Compostela cathedral were commanded by the bishop of Compostela himself. Today, we know that these French buildings, like Saint-Martin of Tours, Saint-Sernin of Toulouse and Saint-Martial of Limoges were huge independent sanctuaries, and their constructions were made well before the Romanesque cathedral of Compostela. The architecture of those huge buildings replied after all to the liturgy that officiated for important pilgrimages.

About the sculpted decoration, the historians of art determine easily a lot of similitudes in the south west of France and Spain. It is obvious that the builders, big travelers, fed themselves of closed work places and trends. The unstoppable exchanges in many artistic domains increased those similitudes on each side of the Pyrenean border, but can we consider that they are the origin of the Compostela pilgrimage ? Is it not simply the largest fact of the unstoppable exchanges between the different kingdoms ?




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