Secret history of France: Chemin du Puy

Pilgrims’ progress in search of salvation: in her series on the cultural history of France, art historian Julia Faiers explores the Chemin du Puy, a medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela

Published Last updated

Today, the pilgrim routes of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques pound with the feet of thousands of walkers on a path to self-discovery.

Yet the first pilgrims set off for the shrine of St James in Santiago, Spain, more than a millennium ago.

What started as a trickle in the ninth century swelled to a constant flow of pilgrims by the 12th, all clamouring to honour the burial place of Jesus’s apostle, James.

Back then, pilgrims from Britain or continental Europe wishing to reach the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia had to pass through France.

Towns along the route to Santiago provided everything a weary traveller required – somewhere to sleep, something to eat and drink, and miracle-giving shrines to nourish the soul.

Each pilgrim route through France had its own stellar stop-off sites.

Of the four ‘ways’ through France, the Chemin du Puy, or via podiensis, which travels from Le Puy-en-Velay via Conques and Moissac, offered some of the most impressive.

In order to understand what drove medieval pilgrims across continents to visit the tomb of St James, we must revisit the pilgrimage’s origins in the early days of Christianity.

St James was beheaded in Jerusalem in about 44 AD, so how did the martyr’s body come to be buried in Spain more than 800 years later?

Early medieval sources say seven of James’ disciples, formerly pagans, took his body from Jerusalem and set off in a rudderless boat (what else?) to find a suitable burial place.

Providence set them down in Galicia, where they fought off a dragon and wild bulls which, of course, they tamed.

These bulls pulled the body on a wagon up a mountain, where it was laid to rest.

Fast-forward 800 years, when a celestial light guided a bishop to the long-forgotten tomb hidden under thick brambles.

And so the cult of St James was born.

By the second half of the 12th century, men and women of all ages, nationalities and social classes were embarking on pilgrimage to the shrine where his tomb was rediscovered.

The first French bishop to visit Santiago as a pilgrim was Godescalc of Le Puy in 950.

His experience inspired him to make Le Puy a pilgrimage centre, by building a chapel to archangel Michael on the Aiguilhe Rock.

Over the centuries Le Puy drew increasing numbers of pilgrims, attracted by spiritual highlights such as the Dominican church of Saint-Laurent, whose chancel holds the entrails of Hundred Years War hero Bertrand du Guesclin, and the Black Virgin of Le Puy in Notre-Dame cathedral.

Pilgrims leaving Le Puy crossed the Aubrac mountains, where bells would toll to guide lost souls back to the path, and continued to Conques, the name a nod to its conch-shell topography.

Conques became a pilgrim magnet after the relics of a martyred young girl, Sainte Foy, were brought to the abbey in 866.

The ninth-century golden reliquary statue of Sainte Foy has dazzled pilgrims for centuries with what has been described as its primitive and frightening splendour.

Modern visitors to the Abbatiale Sainte-Foy must view the bejewelled statue through glass. Medieval pilgrims, however, were allowed up close to place flowers in the little tubes she holds in her fingers.

From Conques, pilgrims journeyed to the abbey of Saint-Pierre at Moissac, one of the main spiritual sites en route to Santiago.

Moissac’s abbey, founded in the seventh century, was virtually destroyed in a succession of raids by Saracens, Norsemen and Huns.

It was saved from ruin when bishop Odilon joined it to the powerful Cluniac Order in 1047. The abbey was rebuilt, and its reputation as a pilgrim destination reached glorious new heights.

A bustling scriptorium created illustrated manuscripts for its library, while master sculptors laboured over their stories in stone, for the tympanum above the southern door and the magnificent capitals in the cloister.

Monks and pilgrims alike must have marvelled at these ‘stone bibles,’ which represent some of the most remarkable art made in the Romanesque period.

The Chemin du Puy then snakes through Gascony, converging with the via turonensis to reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

While breathtaking to modern eyes, what must a medieval traveller have felt when contemplating holy treasures of the Chemin du Puy like the reliquary statue of Sainte Foy?

And how different were expectations of pilgrims then and now?

The medieval pilgrim’s goal was religious salvation. Nowadays it’s more about self-discovery.

Whatever the era, all pilgrims suffer practical challenges like blisters and fatigue, and share a spiritual yearning to understand their place in the world.

Want to know more?

Read this:

The Way of St James - GR65 Chemin de St Jacques. Le Puy to the Pyrenees by Alison Raju (Cicerone, 3rd edition, 2018)

Watch this:

The Way (DVD, 2010) starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, about a man who comes to France to collect the remains of his adult son killed in the Pyrenees while walking the Chemin de Saint-Jacques.