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Rise and rise of the Santiago pilgrim

News story

Modern accounts of a millennium-old pilgrimage that spawned Europe’s first travel guide offer an important critique of modern tourism, according to a Curtin University literature analyst.

The pilgrim’s progress across time: medievalism and modernity on the road to Santiago, an article penned by Paul Genoni, explores recent works about the great Christian pilgrimage to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The pilgrimage, built around the interred remains of Saint James, who was one of Christ’s disciples, has been observed for more than 1100 years.

“Pilgrims who choose to write about the Santiago pilgrimage are engaging with a long-established literary tradition,” Associate Professor Genoni of the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts told Curtin News.

“The earliest and most renowned text about the pilgrimage is the five-volume ‘Life of St James’, the Liber Sancti Jacobi, commonly referred to as the Codex Calixtinus, which dates from about 1140.

“The fifth book of the Codex describes the pilgrimage in some detail and has been referred to as the earliest European travel guide.”

Associate Professor Genoni says that over the past 25 years no other single journey has inspired such an extensive bibliography of popular travel writing.

“There have been about 120 personal accounts published in English alone in this period,” he said.

“A notable feature of contemporary Santiago narratives is their frequently expressed nostalgic and romantic attachment to an earlier time, closely coupled with a distrust of modernity.”

An element of ‘time bending’ – where the pilgrim is transported to a past time that they imaginatively share with their medieval forebears – pervades many of the modern works.

“What these various manifestations of the pilgrims’ experience of time have in common is that they are underpinned by a contention that the pilgrim encounters time in a way that is more fulfilling than is normal in modern, industrialised society, and in a manner that is personally healing,” Associate Professor Genoni said.

Another important element of the modern pilgrim narratives was to make distinctions between ‘authentic’ pilgrims and ‘garden variety’ tourists.

“The pilgrim-author’s claim to authenticity rests on the extent to which their pilgrimage resembles that of the medieval times,” Associate Professor Genoni said.

“They often express contempt for others who adopt the comforts and conveniences of modernity for transport, accommodation or support.”

The modern writings frequently regard ‘genuine’ pilgrims as having joined a community of past pilgrims with whom they have more in common than their contemporaries who are seen to revel in the ‘doubtful’ benefits of modernity.

“It is easy to be sceptical about Santiago narratives and their claims to have undergone some sort of medieval experience,” Associate Professor Genoni said.

“With most pilgrims happy to carry mobile phones and credit cards and take advantage of modern light-weight clothing and footwear, the claim to having escaped modernity can seem spurious.

“Indeed what might be said of these narratives is that they are absolutely of their own time, in their longing for a romantic age of pilgrimage, expressed as a desire to embrace an authentic past by imaginatively crossing time.”

Associate Professor Genoni said that in their exaggerated concern with authenticity and community, the texts collectively provided a critique of both non-pilgrim tourism and the failed sociality offered by modernity.

“In this way, and in common with the best travel writing, Santiago narratives offer a profound reflection, not only on the land, places and people encountered, but on the process of modern travel,” he said.

Photography: Sam Proctor

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