Skip to main content

Codex Calixtinus

The Bay of Biscao: Basque Country. 
I have been reading the Codex Calixtinus, or at least a translation of it and commentary on it by William Melczer. The codex was written in the 12th Century and is the first substantial record of the Camino Santiago. It consists of 5 short books which have independent origins but have been combined by an unknown editor/author, who has appended a pseudepigraphic introduction to each in the name of Pope Callixtus II. They are all to do with the development of the cult of St. James in the early middle ages.

Book 1 is a collection of liturgical bits and pieces and Book 2 a collection of miracles attributed to the saint. Book 3 records the miraculous transfer of the saint's body from Palestine to Galicia and Book 4 is an account of the military expedition undertaken by Charlemagne and Roland who attempted to drive the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. Book 5, the one which I am really interested in, is a pilgrim's guide to the Camino: the first one ever written. It is in fact the first tourist guide book ever written.

The Codex is written by a Frenchman, and it is marked by a chauvinism which makes Donald Trump look positively open minded, tolerant and accepting by comparison. Speaking of the Navarrese, for example, he says,

"Navarrese eating and drinking habits are disgusting. The entire family - servant, master, maid, mistress - feed with their hands from one pot in which all the food is mixed together, and swill from one cup, like pigs or dogs. And when they speak, their language sounds so raw, it's like hearing a dog bark...These are an undeveloped people, with different customs and characteristics than other races. They're malicious, dark, hostile-looking types, crooked, perverse, treacherous, corrupt and untrustworthy, obsessed with sex and booze, steeped in violence, wild, savage, condemned and rejected, sour, horrible, and squabbling. They are badness and nastiness personified, utterly lacking in any good qualities. They're as bad as the Getes and the Saracens, and they despise us French. If they could, a Basque or Navarrese would kill a Frenchman for a cent..." And he then goes on to describe their sexual habits in a most...surprising... fashion.

The book lists the best hostels to stay in, and all the must visit shrines. There are warnings about the unsafe rivers and the food and the locals, and an extensive description of the great cathedral of Santiago Compostela. For an ancient text the codex is a lot of fun - laugh our loud quaint at times - and I loved reading of places I have visited and seeing how much, and how little has changed in a millennium. But what was most interesting was tracing the development of the cult of St. James, as the product of a French attempt to extend political influence beyond the Pyrenees. This is very much a French, not a Spanish book. The perspective is French. The saints described are French as are most of the shrines associated with them. The peoples of Navarre, Cantabria, the Basque Country and Galicia are counted as evil or otherwise depending on how closely their culture and customs approximate those of France. As the needs of French influence required it, the pilgrimage and its mythical under girding was invented and developed. It is an object lesson in the development of cult; of religion. So the stories of James and his magical posthumous trip to Galicia are first recorded only in the 9th Century, and the various places associated with his cult were discovered just when the political needs of the time required them to be.

Now all this could be a little disillusioning if the experience of the Camino was somehow tied to the historicity of its associated mythology. But off course the skeleton in its silver box in the crypt of the great Cathedral isn't really that of St. James, but we all knew that already didn't we?

The Camino is a human invention, and knowing how it arose and developed  says nothing about the incarnate God who can be experienced and known in the observance of this ancient and very human artifact, the great pilgrim's route. Our God is incarnate, that is, our God takes form in the midst of our lived reality and invites us into relationship. The path of miracles is no less divine for the fact that it wasn't originated by a stone boat without oars or mast carrying a headless corpse miraculously to Spain, but rather was forged by thousands of people over several centuries acting out of  a vast range range of human motivations and interests. In fact, it is more divine for being so.


Popular posts from this blog

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared. Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they

Centering Prayer Retreat

    A 3 day taught retreat in the practice of Centering Prayer.   Saturday October 2 2021 - Monday October 4 2021 Centering Prayer is a form of Christian silent contemplative prayer. This retreat is suitable for beginners in silent prayer, or for more experienced practitioners wishing to refresh their practice.  The retreat will be held in the En Hakkore retreat centre in the hills above Waipiata in the Maniototo. There will be daily sessions of silent prayer, instruction and discussion. The venue is spacious and set in an expansive landscape. there will be some time for personal reflection.  The cost is $175 per person which includes 2 nights accommodation and all meals.   Since the beginning, following the example of Jesus, there has been a tradition of silent prayer in the Christian Church. Over the centuries this tradition faded from the popular view and became confined to monasteries. It was kept alive by a largely ignored, but never fading lineage of Christian contemplatives.  


This photo was taken by my daughter Catherine, when I was about 50. I think she did a pretty good job.  The number 70 has a kind of Biblical gravitas. It’s the number of elders appointed by Moses to lead the recalcitrant Israelites, and the number of people who went down to join Joseph, in Egypt. Jesus sent 70 disciples out to minister in his name, and the first Jewish Sanhedrin had 70 blokes in it. And, of course, there is Psalm 90:10:  “ The days of our life are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away ”. All this has some personal import because I turn 70 today, and can no longer fool myself that I am middle aged. I’m old. And before you feed me one of the lines of balderdash that pass for wisdom in our culture - “you’re only as old as you feel”; “70 is the new 50”; “age is just a number” or some other such nonsense, let me tell you that I am happy to be old. Deliriously