Thursday, 18 October 2012
Why Santiago de Compostela? A saint who wasn’t there along a route that led nowhere - Medieval Europe had thousands of pilgrimage destinations; why did Santiago de Compostela become the most popular? It might be expected after a millennium of investigation there would be agreement on how a boggy field, populated in the eighth century by assorted, extravagantly bearded clergy and sheep, became within 300 years Western Christendom’s most celebrated shrine. There isn’t: pilgrims started travelling to the tomb of the Apostle St. James around the year 900 and 1100 years later fundamental questions about Compostela’s rise remain unanswered. The truth of St. James’s translatio from the Holy Land where he died to north-western Spain in a stone boat, in seven days, before being discovered by a shepherd in the ninth century, is known only to God and St James. Medieval, ecclesiastical promoters of Compostela, the PR geniuses of their age, called it a “miraculous divine mystery”. Regardless of its origins the process by which a network of hundreds of churches, monasteries and hospitals were built and promoted along the Camino de Santiago – the pilgrim routes across France and Northern Spain – was no accident. Why and how did this happen? In early medieval Europe saints’ cults did not simply happen: they were made. The growth of pilgrimage to Compostela, and the cult of St. James on which this depended, coincided with a pan-European upsurge in popular, penitential piety which found expression in various ways, of which mass pilgrimage was one. Across the continent people began to travel vast distances to visit holy places which they believed gave spiritual benefit above and beyond that which could be offered by local shrines. There were many reasons for this new religious fervour one of which was millennial angst around the year 1000. Unlike the Y2K ‘Millennium Bug’ Medieval millennialism had long terms effects. The growth of popular piety was matched by increased Church control in areas that had previously been allowed to have a much vaguer, more local, definition of Christianity. The origins of most of the shrines that attracted pilgrims pre-dated the arrival of Christian missionaries. This growth of active religiosity was a massive change that gave birth to the early, idealistic Crusades when it was believed that Jerusalem could be delivered and held through prayer and penitence alone . Bishop Theodemir of Galicia “discovered” the tomb of St. James in the early ninth century after having had it revealed to him in a dream. Theodemir might have been an ecclesiastical opportunist trying to make his name despite an unpromising geographical location but whatever motivated him he set in motion a train of events which was to lead to Galicia being changed forever. Theodemir did not invent the relationship between Galicia and St. James; he was reviving and giving credibility and official support to a local cult that already existed. Excavations underneath the Cathedral of Compostela have revealed remains of a fifth century man who had nothing to do with St. James or the Roman Church. It was clearly a holy place in pre-Christian times, but a very basic question remains: where did the earlier cult come from for Theodemir to rediscover and how did the site of a local, pagan deity or holy man become venerated as the final resting place of St. James? No one knows. It is impossible to estimate how great a risk Theodemir was taking; if it was widely accepted in the region that St. James was buried in Galicia then his role was merely that of a publicist. However, there must have been a danger that his discovery would be questioned. Apart from his divine vision there was no basis to the story: there is only one surviving source that even refers to St. James preaching in Spain. It made no mention of James’s body returning to Spain after he was martyred. Theodemir, and those around him, off the back of an extremely unconvincing yarn that relied on a stone boat crossing the Mediterranean in a week, claimed that Galicia, far from where St. James would have gone even if he had travelled to Spain, which he had not, was the proud possessor of the Apostle’s entire body even though this required that the body moved inland 40 odd miles from the beach where the stone boat washed up. While Theodemir was astute to make his discovery at a time when people venerated first and asked questions later, it was a bold move nonetheless. Western shrines generally claimed bits of prominent Biblical characters they bought from the ancestors of the people who now sell carpets and ‘precious stones’ to tourists in the Middle East. Nowhere in the West dared or tried to claim a whole Apostle: not Paris, not London, only Rome but she had ruled the world and Peter had actually died there. Instead it was Galicia: a region of impassable mountains, valleys and bogs; backwards, isolated, practically uninhabitable and impossible to travel across for much of the year, a disjointed collection of unconnected fishing villages with seasonal, subsidence farmers. But they got away with it. They chose well because St. James was the only Apostle whose remains were unclaimed and there was more than one St James leading to confusion over where the one that wasn’t in the Holy Land actually was. When Jesus told his disciples to spread his Word “even unto the ends of the earth”, it was James who was sent west giving Christian Spain a tenuous link to the Holy Land as the western edge of the world. The expansion of the cult from a local shrine not unlike many thousand others in Europe to one that spanned Christendom really kicked off during the reign of King Alfonso III of Asturias in the late 9th Century. Alfonso’s Kingdom was the only surviving remnant of the Visigoths, Christians who had ruled following the departure of the Romans. The arrival of a small group of Muslims in 711 demonstrated what had long been suspected: the Visigoths were only in charge because no one better was around. As the Muslims swept north through Spain to France they conquered all the bits they considered worth having. This included pretty much everything except for Galicia. It was too difficult to subdue the mountain folk, they were too poor and it was too cold and wet for the Muslims to feel it was worth the effort. Alfonso III enjoyed a string of successes in campaigns against the Muslims, and began to expand. He was ambitious and following Theodemir’s discovery, and the local enthusiasm it provoked, Alfonso saw that the tomb of St. James could be useful. He rebuilt the church at Compostela and looked to spread the news abroad that St. James was buried in his Kingdom. Promoting St. James also promoted Alfonso. He didn’t have much going for him: surrounded by Muslims, ruling a mountainous kingdom which generated little revenue: St. James was the best thing he had. In a letter of 906 to the clergy of Tours Alfonso asked for a copy of a book of miracles performed posthumously by St. Martin. He also informs them of the miracles St. James had performed at Compostela. This was important because a shrine proved itself to be genuine only by miracles taking place there. To this day you cannot become a Saint unless there is “evidence” that you have performed a miracle. “A man who was still a beginner in this business of shrine-promotion…was eager to learn from experts”. Over the course of the tenth century St. James turned out to have accomplished some very similar miracles to those of St. Martin. From the very beginning those managing the cult of St. James were receptive to foreign influences and ideas that could be adapted to strengthen, and spread the fame of, their shrine. The problem with explaining things through political circumstances is that developments can always be explained by what happens after them. It was inevitable that Spain would experience popular pilgrimage at a time when it was taking place all over Europe, and that an ambitious Christian Kingdom would make use of this but it does not explain what St. James and Compostela had that other saints and shrines did not. Many shrines across Western Europe came from nowhere in this period to become hugely important and rich. It was a growing market and Compostela was just one in a thousand new shrines, but one that had the gall to dare to rival Rome, which was in decline. Others tried to capitalise on Roman weakness but only Compostela succeeded. How did this happen? It’s a Miracle The promoters’ of Compostela were brilliant. The key to their success was that they managed to persuade potential pilgrims that they would receive greater spiritual benefit from making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James than they would by going anywhere else. To do this in an age lacking mass communications required an approach both subtle and audacious. It is however, difficult to evaluate. Essentially it needed a mixture of the oral (to spread stories of St. James’s greatness) and the visual (in order to inspire belief in the claims of the shrine). Troupadours, travellers, storytellers, returning pilgrims and those who had once met someone who had once met a pilgrim spread stories of St. James across Europe. For maximum effect the experience needed to be so awe-inspiring and impressive that pilgrims would refuse to settle for anything else – like British children and Disney World, the equivalent of EuroDisney wouldn’t cut it. Pilgrim stories often focussed on St. James’s miraculous powers. Miracle stories were to twelfth century pilgrims what the colour supplement in Sunday newspaper travel sections are to those of the twenty first. They promote exactly the image that Compostela wanted to present. Medieval Europe was superstitious. Christianity in many areas remained bound up in older religious practices. For most people anywhere that wasn’t your village was scary and dangerous. Normal folk didn’t travel, there were far fewer people about and much of Western Europe was still covered in forest and largely lawless. A belief in miracles makes sense in a world where everything seemed to be trying to kill you. Miracles, like faith, could explain the inexplicable. This was a world where science was not trusted and left to oddball alchemists. It is no coincidence that of the books from the twelfth century written about the pilgrimage to Compostela the ‘Liber Miraculorum’ – book of miracles – was by far the best known. The first known extract taken in 1173 from the ‘Liber Sancti Jacobi’, the greatest of the medieval books about the Camino, by a French monk Armand du Mont only transcribed the section on miracles. Pilgrims went to shrines to have their prayers answered, and see miracles. To be viewed as a pilgrimage destination on a par with Rome and Jerusalem, which was what Compostela wanted, it wasn’t enough to have recorded miracles. It needed to look and act like the sort of place where dreams came true. With the construction of a spectacular new cathedral Compostela began to look the part. Along with Durham it is the most complete, homogenous and beautiful surviving example of twelfth century Romanesque architecture in the world. The destination had to live up to the expectations of pilgrims’ miracle stories and the fact that so much was written about the Cathedral in the twelfth century (far more was written about its construction than was about pilgrims or the Camino) suggests that it was felt to be very important. Modern pilgrims generally find the journey better than the destination. We are accustomed to impressive buildings and ultimately Compostela is just a cathedral like any other. One of the most disappointing things about walking for a month to reach Santiago is realising that everyone around you got the bus and you are just as much a tourist as they are, you just smell worse and they’ve booked all the hotel rooms. We are accustomed to arriving at destinations. Not dying en route has ceased to be a major cause for celebration. Much as we may be satisfied with having reached a goal which at times looked improbable in Santiago reality bites and the prospect of getting on the bus, going back to work, leaving the Camino bubble and dealing with real life is rarely appealing. Would Compostela have been as disappointing for pilgrims who were only halfway home? I met a lady who was walking back, she said she was thinking of giving up because she was fed up of people telling her she was going the wrong way. For people who lived in huts these enormous structures must have appeared to be the work of God. There might be cathedrals at Leon, Burgos and Pamplona but it was Compostela that would answer prayers and grant redemption. Making Compostela look important was the work of many men over generations. Changing the way it acted owed far more to one man: Diego Gelmirez, a Galician and Compostela’s first Archbishop. He was instrumental in elevating the city from a mere Bishopric, following diplomatic manouvering by King Alfonso VI, and making it the head of the Spanish Church. He boosted Compostela’s image and profile on an administrative, local and international level. Through believing that he and his clergy were the guardians of the West’s greatest pilgrimage, others believed him and it became true. By calling his priests Cardinals and wearing a Papal tiara they acted like Cardinals, and he like the Pope, and contributed to, along with the cathedral and churches, the pilgrim’s belief that they were visiting Christendom’s greatest shrine. This ecclesiastical exaggeration was matched by the King’s desire to become more important. Alfonso VI called himself ‘Emperor’ using St. James as his justification for this title. Following Alfonso III’s lead he recognised his international prestige was linked to the fate and profile of Compostela. Replacing Rome was not confined to ecclesiastical appearance or titles. The first book of the ‘Jacobus’ is a collection of sermons, liturgical texts and hymns many of which include ideas which in Rome might well have been viewed as heretical. A sermon for the Vespers for the Feast of St. James suggests that Christ “offered the first place among the apostles to his…blessed James because he triumphed first as a martyr”. Conventional teaching was that Peter, Rome’s first Bishop, was Jesus’s number one Apostle, “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church”. Questioning Peter’s primacy over James challenged Rome’s over Compostela. The flamboyant grandeur of Gelmirez and his clergy, the spate of triumphant building (and the wealth this necessitated) and unorthodox sermons suggested insubordination that understandably worried the Pope greatly. He sent an envoy to find out if Gelmírez was trying to overthrow Papal authority. Gelmírez wasn’t: Compostela never aimed to topple Rome’s ecclesiastical dominance, but she did want to separate this authority from the right to claim to be the greatest of pilgrimage destinations. Gelmirez, the King and everyone else involved in Compostela’s Golden Age understood that people believe what they are shown. Appearance mattered more than substance and it was therefore more important to look like Christendom’s greatest shrine then to have the historical basis for this claim. The enormous Botafumeiro, a 20 foot high incense burner that monks chuck around the nave over the heads of pilgrims with the help of long ropes, although a later invention, is an example of this. Originally intended for use only on Holy Days it creates a sense of spectacle rarely seen in cathedrals. When I was in Compostela I asked the woman in the Cathedral gift shop why the great Botofumeiro had been unleashed, “an American tour group paid 300 Euros”, she replied. The People’s Apostle Miracle stories provided examples of St. James’ powers and allowed him to be presented in a variety of personas. Judging by the evidence along the Camino Frances the most popular of these was as the patron saint of pilgrims. Across northern Spain there are statues and wall paintings of St. James dressed as a pilgrim. Famous examples such as the portal of the old cathedral at Bayonne, Estella, Mimizan and in Compostela itself are more impressive but less arresting than the empty, round churches with no windows guarded by chickens in the middle of nowhere. It is in these forgotten, dark chapels that a 21st century Gore-Tex clad hiker can get closest to feeling and seeing what a pilgrim 800 years ago would have done. St James was most commonly depicted in the outfit of a medieval pilgrim with a scallop shell, hat, gourd and staff. Visually they could identify with him and physically they could take a souvenir scallop shell home from the beaches of Galicia. Pilgrims wore these shells, as they still do today, to be identified with the pilgrimage and St. James and gained respect from other for their achievement as a result of wearing this souvenir. Modern pilgrims pride themselves on the shells, and other signs that mark them out from tourists and day-trippers whilst on pilgrimage but on returning home, where the shell is no longer such a trendy accessory, the mighty scallop shell is confined to a dusty window ledge and used as an accidental ashtray. Medieval pilgrims would proudly wear, and be buried with, the shells they had carried home. This was nothing less than great branding and use of accessories to advertise. There was no reason why James rather than any other saint or apostle should dress like a medieval pilgrim, but he did. Not only did he have a hotline to Jesus through his saintly connections he was also in his simple, pilgrims’ clothes, the People’s Apostle. ‘Alter Christus’ Many of the miracle stories relate to pilgrims on their way to Compostela who are attacked, or robbed, or in one case imprisoned in a dungeon in Zaragoza, and are then saved having prayed to St. James. At a time when travel was hazardous and rare the protection of St. James was as much from perils in this world as the next. His protection was not even reliant on the pilgrim necessarily going to Compostela. For example a man named Frison was taking pilgrims to the Holy Land when his ship was attacked by a Saracen pirate. He fell in the water and cried for help to St. James. He was lifted above the waves and saved. Afterwards he went immediately on pilgrimage to Compostela to give thanks. The implication is obvious: if St. James helps you in return a visit must be paid to his tomb. Jerusalem may be where Christ walked the earth but it is James who saves pilgrims before they die, even en route to the Holy Sepulchre. Everything to do with the /miraculous shrine was deliberately kept uncertain. Whether this was part of the divine mystery it enabled the promoters of the shrine to claim unofficial credit for untruths they could not state overtly. For example they didn’t make clear which St. James they had in the crypt. In addition to the Apostle pilgrims were encouraged to believe that they were visiting the final resting place of St. James the Less, first bishop of Jerusalem and brother of Christ. In Maestro Matteo’s Portico de la Gloria, which presides above the west door of the Cathedral of Compostela and is one of the finest pieces of twelfth century sculpture in the world, James looks remarkably like Christ. Furthermore he is in the middle, where Jesus should be. The humanity, and realism of the carved figures, has more in common with the renaissance than with the big-headed, cartoony figures typical of the period. The huge sculpture of James sitting in glory, which covers his tomb, also looks like Jesus. The son of God Himself doesn’t get a look in. The way to God seems to be through James rather than Christ. Miracle stories reflected this. A Bishop pushed into the sea by a huge wave is rescued by St. James walking across the water to save him. An Italian who committed a crime so terrible that no priest dared absolve him, was sent as penance to Compostela and told to put a piece of paper recording the sin on St. James’s altar. The next day the paper was found to be blank. James could absolve the most terrible of sins, walk on water, heal the sick, resurrect the dead and drive out demons. If Saint James could do everything He could, what need was there to visit the sites of the life of Christ? “Yes, my Lord” Within medieval feudal society there was a clear chain of command within which everyone knew their place. One pledged allegiance to one’s Lord, and in return was granted such protection as he could offer, if his protection wasn’t much good it made sense to find a better one. In order to gain his intercession, as well as his favour, the liegeman had to travel to him to pay homage and honour. Translating this relationship into religion made sense: Saints were intermediaries between men and God, and also gave protection. St James was the pilgrim’s Lord. Catholics still ask Saints to intercede on their behalf. Compostela did not invent this personal relationship. Where they massively overstepped the mark was to present James as an equal to Christ, which they clearly did in the Cathedral at Compostela. Their skill lay in persuading pilgrims that St James was the best Saint to have as your patron. In surviving twelfth century sermons from the cathedral St. James is described as “patronus peregrinorum”, “meus advocatus piissimus” and “noster patronus Iacobus”. By mixing James ‘the humble pilgrim’ with James ‘first among the Apostles’ and James ‘the brother of Christ’ they created the greatest Saintly patron imaginable. Why journey to Jerusalem when you could visit the patron of pilgrims who performed Christ-like miracles in Spain? The Moor Slayer With the remarkable success of the First Crusade in 1097 – Jerusalem was taken by an assorted group of religious nutters, ambitious nobles and thrill-seeking adventurers who believed their victory proved God’s favour – enthusiasm for Crusading, the Holy Land and killing Muslims grew rapidly. St James, multi-talented chap that he was, put down his pilgrim’s staff and floppy hat, jumped on a white charger, acquired some armour and an enormous sword and became Santiago Matamoros – St James Slayer of the Moors. St James as the idealised Crusasder was a new idea but James protector of the Christians against Muslims was much older. In 997 Al Manzor, the last of Al Andalus’s great Muslim rulers, sacked Compostela, stole the cathedral’s bells and took them to his mosque in Cordoba. In keeping with common Islamic practice Al Manzor’s army believed Mohammed supported them not only spiritually but also helped physically in battle, their Holy War (Jihad). It is not difficult to see why this Muslim idea would appeal to Christians on the point of having their Kingdom destroyed. They had always prayed for fortune in battle but a physical link with St James could be seen as proof of divine favour. Having their own Mohammed on side, in the face of what must have been a terrifyingly devout enemy, would have helped boost self-belief. Fear of the Muslims and the need to boost morale is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the factually ridiculous story of St James being in Spain was so widely, and unquestioningly believed. The scattered Christians of northern Spain were a mess of different peoples with different cultures, languages and traditions. St. James was a unifying figure; he did not represent a particular group and would help Christians as Mohammed helped Muslims. Miracle stories were effective in promoting this new idea. One of the most famous tells of a hermit named Stephen who overheard pilgrims praying to “blessed James, good knight”. The hermit told the pilgrims that the Apostle was a fisherman, not a knight and called them “stupid, fat-headed country folk”. The next evening James appeared to Stephen dressed in full armour and holding two keys. He shouted at the hermit for criticising the pilgrims and said that the keys were from the Muslim city Coimbra which would fall to the Christians at nine the next morning. Stephen went straight to the local clergy with news of his vision and, sure enough, the next day word was received of victory in Coimbra at the very hour promised by St. James. While St James as the defender of Christians in Spain was an idea that had been around for a while the systematic, sustained, religiously motivated, slaughter of Muslims for no better reason than that they were not Christian was a development of the Crusades. St James did not cause this change, hat was done by shifting political-ecclesiastical fortunes and ideologies, but his religious authority helped justify it. The religious fervour evoked by taking Jerusalem and fighting Muslims in the Holy Land, radicalised Christendom and luckily occurred at a time when Islamic civilisation in Spain were beginning its terminal decline. Toledo, right in the middle of Spain, fell in 1085 and the opportunities this presented, together with the new religious climate, added urgency, and international interest, to the Reconquista which would not be complete until the fall of Grenada in 1492. Although it was the Pope, in 1123, who officially declared the struggle in Spain a Crusade ‘Santiago Matamoros’ had a large part in popularising it. Prior to the twelfth century St. James was a Spanish hero, the creation of Matamoros was part of the process whereby Crusading in Spain, rather than the Holy Land, became a popular alternative for Knights looking to gain valour, renown, profit and spiritual benefit. James the Moor Slayer attracted and popularised Spain and Compostela to foreign Crusaders in much the same way as his presentation as the idealised pilgrim did for foreign pilgrims. Wherever there were pious Knight pledging to risk their lives for God the promise of financial rewards were usually not far away. The conquest of Toledo had liberated vast swathes of land in northern and central Spain. It soon became clear that if steps were not taken to secure these areas they would be retaken by the Moors. At a time of rapid demographic growth in France where land was increasingly difficult to find, northern Spain in the twelfth century was a land of opportunity where good service against the Moors could lead to great financial rewards. There were estates to be run and Muslims to plunder. The conquest of Zaragoza in 1118 was famous for the huge amount of booty it delivered to its ‘liberators’. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries French knights mounted thirty-four expeditions in the name of the Reconquista. St. James had inspirational and motivational powers for pilgrims but there was also a lot of money to be made in Northern Spain and that helped Compostela. The Reconquista and Matamoros also affected ordinary pilgrims too. It was another reason to go to Compostela: no other shrine in Western Europe could boast that it took pilgrims to the edge of the Christian world, where there was a real possibility of coming face to face with an Infidel. Only Jerusalem could compare and Compostela was closer, cheaper and safer to visit. Islam was in decline in Spain whereas the Holy Land was mostly populated and completely surrounded by Muslims. In a world where travel of any type was risky and rare Compostela’s comparative safety helped make it more attractive. The protection of crusading Orders of Knights helped provide some of this security. At Ponferada, a strategically important staging post along the Camino, the King gave the Knights Templar permission to build a castle. It’s still there, looming like a set from a King Arthur film: the largest surviving reminder of the scattered network of fortifications that protected pilgrims and trade in the Middle Ages. The coming of crusading orders, the Order of Santiago was founded in 1170, was another facet of Compostela’s virtuous circle of growth: its religious importance attracted people who simply by travelling to the Apostle’s tomb attracted more people. This helped boost the economy along the Camino but the creative money-spinners in Compostela recognised the need for the Basilica at the centre of the cult to not miss out on this new wealth. Miraculously it was remembered in the twelfth century that St. James had appeared at the battle of Clavijo in 844 and killed 60,000 Muslims single-handedly. This led directly to the ‘Votos de Santiago’, a sort of Saint Tax, whereby all parts of Christian Spain had to offer up a tribute to Compostela in return for the protection that ‘Santiago Matamoros’ gave them. Over the next 400 years St. James continued to pop up on battlefields, slaughter enemies and save Christians. Giving thanks to Santiago Matamoros was important but did not butter many parsnips. Services rendered had to be paid for and the relevent authorities made sure that across Iberia the ‘Votos de Santiago’ were paid. Even as the appeal of pilgrimage waned the symbolic importance endured. Following the fall of Granada in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who sent Colombus off to India in that same eventful year, went to Compostela to give thanks to St James for their victory. By this time the Medieval Golden Age of pilgrimage was long gone. The Camino had fallen into disrepair and political power had shifted south, but James remained important in helping to define what being Spanish meant. As Spain’s horizons expanded so did James’s sphere of influence. He was able to help anyone who was an enemy of Spain, whether in the New World or Old. Spaniards in America used him as a rallying cry against indigenous tribes. Nor did he just help Spaniards. As it was James who gave victory and thus brought Christianity to a new audience he was also the defender of indigenous converts. This popularity spread as far as Japan. In 1615 the Shogun decided Jesuits had been too successful in converting his people and so decided to expell all Christians. In the subsequent civil war the ramparts of Osaka Castle, defended by Japanese Catholics, were bedecked with banners of St James. General Franco, keen to present himself as the defender of Catholicism from the menace of Godless Communists, followed in Ferdinand and Isabella’s footsteps by taking his army to Compostela to give thanks for his great Catholic victory in the Civil War. Sadly for the General a large part of his army was made up of Spanish Moroccans and so sculptures of ‘Matamoros’ slaughtering Muslims had to be covered in sheets. The irony of a partly Muslim army celebrating a Christian victory in one of Christendom’s holiest shrines appears to have been lost on Franco, but then he was a very strange man: he kept the finger of Spain’s other patron saint, St Theresa of Avila, on his bedside table. The finger can now be seen in Avila in a nice glass box. The Spanish army’s link with St James was only severed in 2003 when the cross of Santiago was removed from combat uniforms. It was realised that Spanish soldiers serving in Iraq would not be helped in their quest to win hearts and minds in this ill-fated war of liberation by wearing the emblem of someone whose epiphet was “killer of Muslims”. Santiago Matamoros’s malleable image: able to change from idealised Crusader to Oriental explorer to general enemy of non-Christians, helps explain his enduring popularity. Miracles, imagery, iconography and a virtuous circle of wealth creation helped inspire pilgrims to travel to Compostela rather than anywhere else. However, the prominence of money in this phenomenon should not deminish its spiritual dimention. During the Golden Age of the twelfth century the Camino de Santiago witnessed an explosion of architectural and artistic achievements. There were undoubtedly crooked clerics and unscrupulous folk who were attracted to the Camino and Compostela by its financial possibilities but for the vast majority, whether directly because of ‘Santiago Matamoros’ or not, the motivation was to glorify God. The creativity and passion which created the monuments from that era still astonish and inspire pilgrims today. Nonetheless a total absence of evidence was not allowed to get in the way of linking St James with something, or someone, that would benefit the Camino or his shrine in Compostela which was how he came to be associated with Charlemagne. Charlemagne As Compostela became increasingly important she became better able to make spurious claims about her origins. After all great cities had to have great histories. The association of the greatest of Medieval Kings with Compostela was part of the cult of St. James’s brilliant promotional campaign: Charlemagne was a well-known hero across Europe who added value to the Jamesian brand. More than anyone else in the medieval world he epitomised the virtues of Western Christendom combining the fame and name recognition of David Beckham, with the moral authority and hero status of Nelson Mandela, mixed with the respect for military leadership of Winston Churchill. The man Charlemagne was less amazing than his twelfth century reputation but still remarkable. Crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, in Rome, in 800 the King of the Franks combined military success in bringing under his control much of modern day France, Belgium and Western Germany with religious authority gained from the Pope as the Western defender of Christianity. During a period we think of as the Dark Ages Charlemagne developed a highly sophisticated court, built staggering cathedrals such as Aachen and brought temporary economic and social respite from the upheavals that had followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Descended from the Barbarians who had destroyed Rome’s political power he gained authority from the religious power that had survived. After his death Charlemagne’s Empire quickly fell apart as his descendents squabbled. This made the magnitude of his achievement even greater. As the centuries passed Kings and Emperors claimed legitimacy by associating with him. Like their Roman forebearers Kings deified this ancestor to reinforce the impression that they were closer to God than anyone else. Charlemagne’s cathedral in his old capital of Aachen became a shrine to him, attracting pilgrims of its own. As pilgrimage to Compostela increasingly came to be dominated by French influences it is not surprising that stories about Charlemagne going to the tomb of St. James gained popularity, despite the fact that he only went to Spain once and didn’t make it to Galicia. This is not surprising, as the shrine had not been discovered at the time of his death. The visit to Spain was sufficient for his campaign there to be transformed into the story of an idealised Crusade which survives in the story of the Song of Roland and the ‘Historia Turpini’. While this heroic version of Charlemagne’s time in Spain is undoubtedly a fabrication it made for a good story. The ‘Historia Turpini’ claimed to be written by Turpin, Bishop of Reims, a member of Charlemagne’s army, and therefore an eyewitness to this courageous, swash-buckling tale. In reality it was based on the ‘Song of Roland’ a written version of a popular oral song and story. The ‘Song of Roland’ records, in true chivalric style, the slaughter of Roland and the rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army by an enormous and unscrupulous Muslim band of brigands on the Spanish side of the Pyranees. The truth of Charlemagne’s expedition was less glorious but it was the chivalric version rather than the real one that gained currency. It was very popular and was soon translated into a number of languages, including Norwegian and Welsh. While this heroic version of Charlemagne’s time in Spain is undoubtedly a fabrication it made for a good yarn. In the Historia Turpini Charlemagne is visited in a dream by a man who says, “I am James the Apostle… My body is in Galicia, but no man knows where, and the Saracens oppress the land. Therefore God sends me to recapture the road that leads to my tomb and the land wherein I rest…The starry way that you saw in the sky signifies that you shall go into Galicia at the head of a mighty host; and after you all peoples shall come in pilgrimage even to the end of time. I will be you helper, and as a reward for your journeying I will get from God a heavenly crown for you, and your name shall remain in the memory of mankind until the day of judgement”. James is thus the reason for the start of the ‘Reconquista’, and Charlemagne by recapturing the road to his tomb, is the first pilgrim. Charlemagne’s association with Compostela gave the shrine a level of prestige far beyond that of any other in Western Europe. The linking of him with St. James enhanced them both: Charlemagne became a sort of enlightened prophet and James was seen as the most important saint by the greatest man of the period. The end of James’s speech seems to credit the Apostle with Charlemagne’s crowning as Emperor of Rome in 800 and also his enduring fame in the Middle Ages. This is historical opportunism at its worst but it is unlikely to have harmed Compostela. Confusing history with chivarlic myth often has a greater impact than either would do on their own as both can contain elements of truth. The idea of a celestial guide leading pilgrims by the stars is as true today as it was then. I walked the Camino Frances in August 2003, during a heat wave. Each day was about 45 Degrees, and it remained in the mid-thirties till midnight. In order to be able to walk comfortably I’d start walking at 5 in the morning. Spotting the elusive yellow arrows which mark the route was practically impossible in the dark, without a torch (poor planning – take a torch). On clear mornings in the hours before sunrise the milky way, with its great sweep of stars spilling out westwards, provided an overhead arrow of roughly the right direction. Walking on my own through woods in the dark it was a great relief to come to a clearing and see that the stars were pointing me in the right direction (a compass, or GPS, might also have been sensible). How much medieval pilgrims were affected by the natural magic and beauty of the Camino is hard to know. Probably not so much as “getting away from it all” was not difficult then, nor light pollution a problem. The number of pilgrims robbed or attacked by wolves probably affected their enjoyment too. If they were less affected by the romance of the natural world, they were certainly more impressed by the thought of following the example of Charlemagne. Many modern pilgrims may never have heard of him but no one who has walked the Camino can fail to realise that they are following in the footsteps of many others down the ages. Feeling part of a phenomenon bigger, and older, than anyone is powerful whether you’ve heard of Charlemagne or not. The transformation of Charlemagne into a secular saint revised the view of the men who fought and died for him, “paladins” like Roland, became uncanonised saints with shrines and relics of their own on the Camino Francés. Roland’s horn, Charlemagne’s chessboard and even Archbishop Turpin’s slippers became relics held in high honour by churches along the route. Roncesvalles, the purported site of the battle between the Christians and the Infidels, became a “geographical relic”. Roland himself is referred to as a saint with a basilica at Blaye. The fact that this was an area of France with a severe paucity of saints and relics would presumably have been considered pure coincidence. The skill of the French authors lay not in inventing the legend, that was done by the jongleurs and travellers along the route, but in adapting the legend to suit their own purposes. The subsequent popularity of the legend was also beyond their control but steps were taken to boost its profile. From Bordeaux to Charing Cross a network of monasteries and convents were established which were dedicated to promoting the veneration of the heroes of Roncesvalles. Everything possible was done by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to adapt a popular oral legend into the traditional canon of the Church while boosting Compostela’s political power. In Chapter 19 Charlemagne ordains that all ecclesiastical and civil powers in Spain are subject to the See of Compostela. The economic benefits of this would be substantial. He also says that Compostela should be thought of as equal in status with Rome as James was as important an Apostle as Peter – another challenge to Roman pre-eminence. The popular, oral, versions of the story wouldn’t include these details but they show how Compostela increased its own power and influence. The linking of Compostela with a French King was matched by the growing impact of French culture and people on towns and villages along the route. Sahagún, for example, became Northern Spain’s most important monastery in the twelfth century. Its expansion was as much economic, on the strength of a growing leather and textile industries, which required French workmen, as it was ecclesiastical. Alfonso VI certainly encouraged immigration from France. This may have been because the Franks were, “a more dynamic and entrepreneurial group than the indigenous population”, but for whatever reason Sahagún was an expanding town locked into an upward spiral of prosperity where the increased popularity of the pilgrimage led to the growth of the economy which in turn encouraged more immigrants to the ‘villa de francos’ and made it a more popular place for pilgrims to rest. The growth of Sahagun is recorded in the ‘Crónica Anónima de Sahagún’, a twelfth century list of activities that took place in the town. Astonishing for its diversity, it is interesting, but possibly irrelevant, that the place with the best surviving document regarding economic activity in twelfth century Spain also had a growing association with Charlemagne. If Sahagun was going to be really important it needed some good relics. Following the legendary, and totally untrue, battle between the forces of Charlemagne and those of the Infidel giant Aigolando the spears of the fallen Christians allegedly bloomed into flower. The miracle of the blooming lances, described in chapter eight of the ‘Historia Turpini’, became associated with Sahagún, as did the remains of “the Blessed Martyrs Facundo and Primitivo” who, unsurprisingly, had little known history and therefore no reason not to have ended up in Sahagún. The fact that Facundo and Primitivo were unimportant did not matter because of their association with Charlemagne, by whom their “basilica was erected”. The town later claimed to have been founded by Charlemagne. Thus the importance politically, ecclesiastically and economically, of Sahagún was matched, as it grew, by closer historical links with Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain. It seems fitting somehow that the major ecclesiastical centre on a pilgrim’s route founded on a fraudulent claim, was itself a fraud based on a king who had never been even been there. Little remains of Sahagun’s glory days, just the ruins of an impressive medieval basilica in a dust bowl of a village, smack in the middle of the Mesteza – the flat plain that covers the middle third of the Camino through northern Spain. Charlemagne and French power helped Compostela become well known across Europe. The popularity of the Camino was due to word of mouth. However, the growth of the mechanics of pilgrimage, facilitated by concurrent economic growth in northern Spain, contributed, helped by the spread of the story of Charlemagne. The French Connection The cult of St. James was unique in that the journey there was as important as the destination. It didn’t matter how you got to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, only that you got there. Compostela was different with a network of shrines starting from four major starting points in France: the ‘via turonense’ from Paris, the ‘via lemovicense’ from Vézelay, the ‘via podense’ from Le Puy and the ‘via tolosana’ from Arles. The idea of linking each shrine to the next as part of a greater, joined-up pilgrimage was a new development in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and one that encouraged mass pilgrimage. How did this network come into being? France was the coming power in the Golden Era of Compostela. With increased power came increased opportunities to project this power. In a period where the Church and ecclesiastical orders wielded, in many cases, more influence than kings and nobles – in large part because they often owned more land and were thus richer – the Abbey of Cluny was the most important. These were not monks cut off from the world living a simple life of prayer and abstinence (although some of them might have done). Those who ran the Abbey of Cluny were forward-thinking and ambitious. Cluny was the first international order to devise a social, political and cultural plan order organised within the Church. It was autonomous and responsible for radical ecclesiastical reforms as well as having great influence on the papacy: both Pope Gregory VII and Pope Urban II, the man who declared the First Crusade which was to have such a dramatic effect on the Middle Ages, were Cluniacs. Urban II called Cluny, not Jerusalem, “the light of the world”. Calixtus II, the twelfth century pope most closely associated with Compostela, was crowned at Cluny. By this time the story of St. James had become the mechanism by which Cluny spread her ideas. Cluny was not the only religious Order to be involved in the growth of Compostela, many others helped maintain the Camino. Because of its dominance and its successful self-promotion others have been forgotten, even though they were much used by twelfth century pilgrims. The Augustinians, for example, maintained hospitals and chapels for pilgrims. Visigothic monasteries that pre-dated those of Cluny continued to support pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. There were also a great many hermits who lived in caves away from the ‘Camino Francés’ but who maintained bridges and roads for pilgrims. It is difficult for a hermit to get the recognition he is due, particularly if he has taken a vow of silence. However, none of the other Orders were involved to the same degree as Cluny. The success of the relationship between the cult of St. James and Cluny lay in the fact that it was mutually beneficial. Cluny linked separate, regional shrines into the greater Jamesian network and “provided the spiritual ferment that kept enthusiasm for pilgrimage high”. In return for spreading the fame of St. James, the cockleshell, symbol of St. James, was put on their coat of arms. In return for spreading the fame of St. James across Europe Cluny was handsomely rewarded. Spain during the ‘Reconquista’ was an expanding frontier for Christianity as the Muslims were gradually pushed south and this was an opportunity that the monks of Cluny seized. Furthermore by spreading the fame of the pilgrimage east, everyone travelling from central Europe would have to cross France which would profit Cluniac monasteries both in their homeland and Spain. Cluny could control the pilgrimage to Compostela in a way they could never dream to do with regard to Rome, the only other shrine which boasted an Apostle and therefore equivelent prestige. Compostela, through its popularity, lessened the power of Rome which had long been a priority of French Bishops and ecclesiastical Orders, while at the same time providing financial and political benefit to France. The first steps towards French involvement in the pilgrimage came from King Sancho El Mayor of Navarre who, not content with unifying the Christian kingdoms of Spain in the early eleventh century, also began to repair the pilgrim route and developed what has been known ever since as the ‘classical’ Camino Frances. Bridges and roads were rebuilt. This was vital, as many rivers in Northern Spain were impossible to cross for much of the year. Most had been constructed by the Romans and fallen into disrepair. While this made pilgrimage possible it also facilitated trade and enabled Sancho to move troops around his kingdom and better collect taxes. Sancho became a ‘socius, familiaris’ of Cluny. Spanish monks were sent to train in Cluny and Cluniacs arrived in Spain where they were given important positions. Sancho’s son Fernando I granted Cluny an annual ‘census’ of 1,000 gold pieces which his son Alfonso VI doubled. As the Christians expanded southwards, and got richer, donations to Cluny increased, “the Cluniacs were expert at prayer for the souls of sin-laden kings, and Sancho’s dynasty was to become very rich”. Essentially Alfonso paid protection money – historically Toledo was the head of the Spanish Church, and should have become so again after the Muslims were defeated in 1085. Alfonso was worried that if Toledo was regained its former position it might pose a threat to him, he wanted Compostela, which he controlled, to remain in charge. In 1086 a Cluniac was appointed Archbishop of Toledo and Alfonso got his way. He also linked Compostela to France through dynastic marriage – his daughter Urraca married Raymond of Burgundy who he made Count of Galicia. Raymond’s brother became Pope Calixtus II. This was therefore not a takeover of the pilgrimage by Cluny or anyone else but a deliberate move by the Spanish royal family. However, as Sancho’s dynasty weakened these other powers were able to increase their influence. Cluny was successful because it adapted to changing circumstances. The Church prior to the eleventh century was an elite. Monks stayed in their monasteries and were scared and contemptuous of the peasants. With the growth of popular penitential piety, as shown by the development of parishes and mass pilgrimage, Christianity became a religion of the people for the first time. This troubled many orders of monks, but Cluny managed to harness the enthusiasm for popular pilgrimage into a model within which their monasteries and hospices became indispensable. They did not cause the growth of pilgrimage, but they helped make it happen on a mass popular scale. The Medieval EU Working out how much power Cluny had over the pilgrimage is very difficult, and it is no easier to get to the bottom of what form this power took. There are hardly any surviving sources, their buildings provide a tantalising glimpse of past glory and it is hard to evaluate a religious Order’s total influence. This is because in the Middle Ages any attempt to untangle religion from economic, political or military concerns is impossible: authority for these areas was controlled by the same people who were both extremely pious and often extremely violent. What else but pious fervour would explain regularly setting out for the Holy Land in a sailing dingy to recapture Jerusalem? How else does one explain thousands of pilgrims risking their lives to walk across Europe, for years, when most people never left their parish? It is all most perplexing, much like the European Union. Both have power, but no one knows quite how much. Nor is anyone sure where this power resides, or who wields it and for what reasons. Both have excited fear and anger in some quarters for being rapacious, expansionist threats while others maintain that they bring progress, harmony and improved social values. Both are influenced by the French to an unknown degree and although both claim to want to spread their benefits across their spheres of influence there is a feeling that this might once have been a good idea but isn’t any more. Both the EU and the Abbey of Cluny claim the transformation of Spain as one of their greatest success stories. Cluny helped set Spain on the road to expansionist success by bringing the fledgling Christian Kingdoms into greater contact with the rest of Christendom. Through its network of monasteries, hostals and hospitals it created the infrastructure that allowed northern Spain to develop and facilitated immigration from France which brought in foreign money and men to seize control of newly reconquered lands. This strengthened the Reconquista which led directly on to the voyages of Columbus. Since joining the EU in 1985 Spain has gone from one of the poorest countries in Europe to its fastest growing. EU money has paid for much of the modern network of communications and infrastructure that has made Spain so successful. It has also enabled large numbers of Europeans to retire to southern Spain. Like Cluny the EU has also invested in the pilgrimage to Compostela and many of the public hostels in Galicia have big signs saying “funded by the EU”. In the twelfth century it seemed as if Cluny’s influence would last forever and yet looking back from the twenty-first the Abbey’s achievements don’t matter much. All that remains as a reminder of its power is the odd tower in forgotten villages in the middle of nowhere, like Sahagun. It wouldn’t hurt some of our more self-important European Commissioners to take an afternoon off from strutting like peacocks around the shiny (ivory) towers of Brussels and go down to Sahagun and take a look at what happens when you become irrelevant. The folly of the Euro might well have parallels with the excessive granting of indulgences which killed off pilgrimage in the late middle ages and led in part to the Reformation. Conclusion Each era has beliefs that it is enjoyable to believe in and which are not widely questioned, in the twenty-first century such a belief might be democracy. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries there seems to have been a culture of willingness to believe in relics and shrines. This development was certainly linked to and affected by political, financial and ecclesiastical factors, but ultimately these shrines grew because people believed that a pilgrimage to Compostela was important and valuable in their lives. Explaining their beliefs is impossible; there would have been a broad spectrum of motivations then as there are now. The multiplier effect initiated by Spanish kings, and given impetus and international prestige by religious Orders from France, put Compostela at the heart of the greatest single period of pilgrimage that Europe has ever knew. Compostela became so special because it epitomised what penitential pilgrimage was all about. It grew from nowhere, as did mass pilgrimage, and through skilful promotion came to be identified with all that pilgrimage meant. The twelfth century was Compostela’s Golden Age, but it was also the Golden Age of popular pilgrimage, a time before pilgrims became tainted with indulgences obsession. Within this Golden Age the shrine of St. James was unique and had an aura of novelty. The Apostle, of whom so little was known, had a completely malleable image. The mysterious, and dubious, origins of the cult, which should have been a weakness, became a great strength. St James was a wandering pilgrim far from home, had forsaken his simple life as a fisherman for his love of God, while at the same time being the brother of Christ in glory, a crusading knight who epitomised Christian Spain and the inspiration to Charlemagne – the great heroic icon of the age. All of this was untrue in a Biblical and historical sense, but it was powerfully portrayed all along the Camino and through word of mouth across Western Christendom. It did not matter that it was untrue: it was believed. Those who travelled home having seen the seat of the Apostle were convinced he was all of the above and more. Pilgrims embark on a physical and mental experience which feels unlike anything they come into contact with on a daily basis. The interior journey is reflected and amplified by the Camino itself. Much of the scenery is beautiful and untouched. In a world of superstores, industrial estates and urban sprawl (examples of which are all too present around major towns) many parts of the Camino achieve a balance between human influence and nature that is as harmonious as it is rare. Walking through Galicia I felt I had been transported into ‘Cider with Rosie’ – Laurie Lee’s magical depiction of a childhood in Gloucestershire just before the arrival of the motor car ruined everything: a world where people are still physically and spiritually in touch with the place they live. Those responsible for the cult’s medieval popularity created a world that makes pilgrims feel special. After nearly a thousand years and long periods of obscurity the Camino remains more than just a beautiful walk. That is why the idea that the rediscovery in the last 15 years of the Camino is only because of a surge interest in the outdoors seems to me to be a gross over-simplification. Recreational pilgrimage might be motivated by a love of a good view but I haven’t met a single pilgrim who viewed their experience purely in those terms. There are plenty of empty spots of natural beauty across Europe, some of which are pilgrimages but the Camino was never intended to be one of them. The standard moan of old Camino hands (and old people generally who are bitter that they aren’t young anymore but can’t face admitting it) that “it was much better twenty years ago” is illogical. Their rose-tinted view that there are too many people now doesn’t make sense in the context of a major pilgrimage. If you want to get away from people don’t walk along Europe’s best established pilgrimage route, there are other places to go and routes to take. The explosion of interest in the Camino is a renaissance of what it was meant to be like: people squashed into hostels, walking together in their thousands, uplifted by being part of something that is bigger than themselves: more like Glastonbury than ‘7 Years in Tibet’. Making the Camino and St. James attractive and relevant to different people for different reasons was important in the growth of the shrine and still is. Christianity was at the heart of the pilgrimage although many would have been motivated by other reasons. This remains true: the Camino is as religious or spiritual as the pilgrim wants it to be. This diversity of experience is permitted by the ambiguity of the Camino which has always been at its heart and is the cause of its consistent relevance over the last 900 years. Unlike Mecca, Varanasi or Jerusalem Santiago de Compostela was not defined by how it was established. St James acquired new persona in order to boost the popularity of his factually dubious shrine. The place itself was not important and so its promoters had to create something that people wanted. This is why it has been easier to co-opt ideas of New Age spiritualism into the myth of Compostela than it would be in other major centres of pilgrimage. In the last Holy Year, 1999, 154,613 pilgrims received the ‘Compostellae’, a document that has been issued by the Cathedral as proof of achievement since the thirteenth century. It declares, notum facit: (pilgrim’s name) hoc sacratissimum Templum pietatis causa devote visitasse. This is the same analysis of pilgrims’ motivations that the Cathedral has given for the last 800 years. In 2004 more than 200,000 pilgrims journeyed to Compostela. At a time when church congregations are plummeting across Europe, this is little short of miraculous. The intellectual and spiritual motivations for these pilgrims are very different to the ones that impelled their twelfth century ancestors to step onto the ‘Camino Francés’. How many of them will truly be motivated by the “pietatis causa” that is the stated purpose on their ‘Compostellae’? It is impossible to guess. However, on a very basic level the reason for the journey is the same. It is a pilgrimage where all the support and aid one could hope for is present, word of mouth reports assure potential pilgrims of its restorative and rewarding properties, and it has a high profile across the known world. Nowadays that means advertising Galicia’s natural beauty and good seafood in the Travel sections of Sunday newspapers. Eight hundred years ago they spread miracle stories. Pilgrims went to Compostela because it provided a range of experience that nowhere else could compete with a location, within a network, that was unique. Compostela lived for, and because of, pilgrims. Without them the city did not exist. By defining herself through her pilgrims Compostela became the pilgrim’s true home. "God wished to honour Spain highly, When he sent the Holy Apostle there, He gave Spain preference over England and France For you must know that no Apostle is buried in all those lands. “The honest beginning to any enquiry about the origins of the cult of Santiago is to admit that we know nothing about it at all”.
Tuesday, 16 October 2012
When it doesn't rain, you have a car, nice house and iron constitution Addis Ababa is a good place to live: you are extremely unlikely to get murdered and can walk around at night. And yet much as I tried I didn't like it and after 4 months was desperate to leave. A short-term contract made it hard to settle, a long-distance relationship with poor telecoms was always going to be difficult and the rainy season, which I experienced in full, (and when most expats go home for summer holidays) is depressing. Waiting to go through customs at the airport it struck me that I would have done whatever it took to be allowed go home.
Saturday, 1 September 2012
Waving goodbye to the Government official carrying the baby I felt relieved. If God would keep her alive after I'd found her abandoned in a gutter I promised to always look out for her. The doctors said she was going to be fine. They told me to call in a week to make an appointment to see her. Random foreigners are not allowed to visit orphanages but they would make an exception. For a month I heard nothing. Sometimes the number didn’t work. Other times the right person wasn’t there. They said to not just turn up as I would not be allowed in. I kept trying, frustrated but unsurprised by bureaucratic slowness. And then one day I got a call saying she’d died. Despite seeming alright on arrival at the orphanage, after a few days she’d developed a fever, been readmitted to hospital with pneumonia and water on her lungs, and died two weeks later. The Government official was very upset, “It was difficult to discover what happened as she didn’t have a name. It has taken me till now to confirm the unknown baby was the one you found. I’m sorry; they did all they could but she was too small and in the cold night for too long”. He didn’t know what had happened to her body. I felt numb; maybe if I’d taken her to a private orphanage or agreed to adopt her and taken her to a better hospital she might be alive. My mum had pneumonia when she had my sister and they were OK. People introduced me here as the guy who had saved an abandoned baby on his first night in town but all I’d done was give her a few weeks of painful life. Friends from home have asked what happened to her. No one here has. In poor countries painful defeats are regularly snatched from the jaws of apparent victory. It’s difficult to help people in places where even good intentions combined with good actions often fail: if 3 things are wrong fixing one isn’t enough. Her mother was probably ill during pregnancy and even the best medical treatment might not have saved her. We come here wanting to make a difference and have exciting adventures that make us feel alive and good about ourselves but it’s often hard to cope, which is why we withdraw, mentally and emotionally. It’s not because we don’t care or aren’t affected by the poverty and harshness of life but because if we don’t it’s hard to keep going. I felt numb when I found out she had died because part of me never allowed myself to accept the awfulness of her reality. Holding her en route to the hospital I didn’t look at her face too much or stroke her cheek; I didn’t want to get too emotionally attached in case she died. When you work in poor countries you have to find a level: what makes it worth giving up home? What’s too much? I find refugee camps too sad. I respect those who live in desert compounds eating food full of sand but find the reality of life for refugees overwhelming. They walked for weeks, lost children and their possessions to drought and war and are now unable to go home or substantially improve their lives, stuck in limbo, probably for years. So instead I write briefing notes, strategies, case studies and stories to remind important people to listen to poor people when doing things that affect them; making suggestions based on what those who know have found to work. Pavements here have beggars who follow you, often with horrible deformities, never with shoes. When the women try to show me their babies as I walk past I have to look away.
Friday, 29 June 2012
girl drowning on an abandoned beach in Ghana – you do the right thing not because you want to but because you know you can’t not. Trying not to think or look at it too closely I scooped the baby up and walked towards the lights. The baby stopped crying. One thing I'd learnt from getting my sister repatriated from Guatemala without travel insurance following a boat accident in the jungle was the value of reliable local knowledge. I walked past the 24 hour massage parlour with the outdoor mattresses and went back into the bar I'd left 5 minutes earlier. A waitress explained to the stoned taxi driver who spoke no English how to get to the St Gabriel Clinic. We roared along empty streets in his clapped out 1960s Lada. The only signs of life were prostitutes, wild dogs and neon-lit bars. Cradling the cold baby I prayed and tried to channel my body's warmth towards it and not worry about its silence and stillness. Arriving at the clinic they confirmed she was a healthy, newborn baby girl - the tied off umbilical cord proof she was only a few hours old. The elderly male doctor gave me a towel to wrap her in and told me to go to the police station. The younger female doctor said, "She has hypothermia. Take her to the neo-natal unit at the central hospital and get her into an incubator". The stoned taxi driver looked disappointed at this news and set off at top Lada speed. Knowing she wouldn’t die in my arms I relaxed a bit as we spluttered up hills and took a closer look at her tiny, cold hands and feet as she attempted to suckle my moob. I thought of my thirty-something friends living on the edge of Zone 2 with their cherished Oscars, Freyas and Ferguses. This baby had no one so I would be her friend, even though her dissatisfaction with my chest confirmed my feeling I couldn’t look after her. The hospital was full of sleeping bodies covered by thin blankets – how many were relatives of the unwell or sick people with nowhere to go I couldn’t tell. Driving in we nearly hit a man who was wailing and stumbling around the car park. It took a while for the taxi driver to wake a nurse, find the right ward and alert a doctor who could admit the baby. No one spoke English so the baby and I sat in the semi-darkness for about an hour. I didn’t mind the broken tiles, general sadness or lack of discernable activity. It was the smell that got me – sickly sweet, mixing sweat, illness and over-crowding. NHS hospitals smell much the same. £1.50 and a couple of blood tests later she was safely in an incubator warming up. In exchange for my driving license and a copy of my passport I was allowed to leave. “Come back at 8am to collect her” the nurse ordered. “Then what?” I asked. “We find the solution. Do you want to keep her?” The next day was spent waiting around for police, orphanage staff and doctors. Three to five babies a week are abandoned; if you ever find a baby in Africa take it straight to the police station. My failure to do so made things more complicated. Poverty or rape are the most common explanations given for abandoning newborns. Most are left outside offices in rush hour. No one knows how many more are not found. I've felt guilty that I'm only working here for four months. If I've learnt anything about working in Africa it's that you need time to build trust and make things happen. Four months is too short to do much good but I'm relieved that by the end of day one I'd already justified the trip to myself. She had been lying there for a while. Much longer she'd have either frozen to death or been eaten. Domesticated and wild dogs bark all night long here in a way I’ve never encountered anywhere else. This is because the hyenas make them crazy. Hyenas are to this part of the world what foxes are to London or raccoons are to the US – urban pests scavenging rubbish for carrion.